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It took a lawsuit by Tony La Russa, the manager of an American professional baseball team, to convince Twitter that something had to be done about celebrity impersonators.
The obvious solution: verified accounts.
In a post on the Twitter blog, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone revealed that Twitter is going to be rolling out a Verified Accounts program:
We do recognize an opportunity to improve Twitter user experience and clear up confusion beyond simply removing impersonation accounts once alerted. We'll be experimenting with a beta preview of what we're calling Verified Accounts this summer.
The experiment will begin with public officials, public agencies, famous artists, athletes, and other well known individuals at risk of impersonation. We hope to verify more accounts in the future but due to the resources required, verification will begin only with a small set.
This is a much-needed move. While celebrity impersonators were an amusing phenomenon on Twitter at first, they're a dime a dozen now and as Twitter's mainstream popularity grows, it needs to clamp down. Not only do impostors (potentially) diminish the value of the service, as La Russa's suit shows, they create a legal headaches.
Stone did write that La Russa's suit was "bordering on frivolous" and that Twitter has no intention of paying La Russa to settle. He made it clear that Twitter's terms of service forbid impostor accounts and that the company removes them when it learns of them. While that may be technically true, there are plenty of impostor accounts that haven't been shut down.
Verified Accounts are a step in the right direction, but I'm not so sure Twitter should be looking at them as an "experiment". Stone's disclaimer ("Please note that this doesn't mean accounts without a verification seal are fake—the vast majority of Twitter accounts are not impersonators") highlights the problem with the approach Twitter is taking: unless Verified Accounts are used widely and consistently, they will be of very limited use. The goal of a Verified Accounts program should be to make it clear to users which celebrity accounts are real and which ones aren't. If the program is limited to a small number of celebrities, the goal cannot be achieved.
To a certain extent I think this gets back to the issue of Web 2.0 and customer service. When dealing with popular consumer internet startups that have no revenue and a small, engineering-heavy staff, it's hard to execute programs like this properly. Hopefully Twitter can pull it off.
Photo credit: sndrv via Flickr.