Jack Butcher is Rewiring the Social Media Hive Mind
The Checks creator on the shifting matrix of networked credibility.
No one is incentivized to tell the truth on Twitter because no one has a stake in the platform. Without democratic ownership and the potential for collective upside, the only metric for user success is the accumulation of clicks and follows that one can accrue through ceaseless content creation, minus any serious regard for evidence or nuance. This is as true for the restless content creators who clearly fit this description as it is for the journalists, politicians, business leaders, and other venerated experts on Twitter whose professional reputations have been inextricably linked to their presence on the platform. Even though they don’t necessarily face the same pressure to post all the time, these experts are still compelled to place bias and clickbait above objectivity in order to keep their followers locked within informational echo chambers.
What once set the expert class apart from the rest of the Twittersphere were the blue check marks permitted by higher-ups to go next to their usernames. This past November, that official symbol of credibility lost all meaning in an instant, when Elon Musk made it possible for any user to buy their own verification for a monthly fee of eight dollars. Illustrator Jack Butcher, best known as the mind behind the brand Visualize Value, used the incident as a jumping-off point for his new NFT collection, Checks VV. For a while, Butcher had been mulling over the arbitrary nature of how credibility was assigned on the internet; the now-purchasable check mark crystallized his thinking. In January, he dropped Checks VV, referring to the project on its accompanying website as “an infinite canvas for expression that is designed to challenge the concept of ownership and authorship in the age of the internet.”
Over a white or black background, each NFT displays check marks in different bright colors arranged in grids of varying dimensions. None of the pieces show any actual tweets or usernames, they’re just representations of credibility for the taking. Whether or not NFTs lack utility, and whether or not that’s even the point of NFTs, Butcher has turned that critique on its head to assert that top-down verification—and perhaps other features of the centralized net we take for granted—never had much utility to begin with. Through incorporating a symbol so ingrained in the social media hive mind, Butcher complicates interpretations and questions what credibility even means on the internet anymore.
ZINE contributing writer Eli Zeger spoke with the Checks VV creator about numerous topics related to the intent of his NFT collection—such as Twitter gamification, corporate entropy, and democratizing social media.
Eli Zeger: When did you first join Twitter? What did you expect to get out of the platform on a daily basis?
Jack Butcher: That’s a good question. I think I joined in 2010. I would’ve been 21, early twenties, something like that. Probably a friend of mine was on there, or something. I did not join it for anything other than tweeting directly at people I knew in person. You could count on two hands the number of tweets I sent in the first eight years of my Twitter membership. I basically registered the account and left it. I came back to Twitter in probably 2019 or 2020, as I was trying to start my own creative agency at the time and found it to be the most effective platform to connect with the types of people I wanted to work with. It’s far and away the most powerful platform that I use now.
EZ: Between now and 2019, how have your expectations of Twitter changed?
JB: The amazing thing that I experienced when I went back onto Twitter in 2019/2020 was the ability to put work in front of people who would be otherwise unreachable. I think that’s the thing that's different about Twitter as a platform: everybody who uses it actively is really involved, versus Instagram, where it’s a very different relationship with an audience. It’s like a closed network where you’re broadcasting something as opposed to Twitter, which is way more conversational and obviously an open network in many ways.
My expectations changed when I was able to start conversations with people who I admired or had ambitions of working with from a design perspective. I would post a lot of basically spec work—stuff that I would love to be paid to do—and Twitter has this amazing ability for you to just tag somebody and reach them directly. I noticed the network effect of that takeoff after having a couple of those things amplified by the people that I was trying to reach. That just really shifted my mentality towards open social networks as a much more effective way to reach the types of people that you want to connect with. Before, I was kind of just posting into the void on Instagram or Facebook, where the majority of people I connected with were friends, family, people I love spending time with. But when I was using those networks to post my design portfolio, I won’t say it was a pointless exercise—but it definitely didn’t generate the outcome that doing it with intention on a network that’s exponentially more open can do. The kind of asymmetric upside of working on a platform like Twitter is astronomical, compared to some of the other platforms out there.
EZ: During this time, were you thinking about credibility as it related to the blue check mark? Or did credibility mean something beyond Twitter to you at first?
JB: I think for sure at first it did. In growing a digital business, you do really consider what it means to have that mark of verification next to your name. I got into a lot of offline conversations with people who were either founders of digital businesses or people who just spent a lot of time on the internet, and found out about all these ways that people were getting verified and gaming the system: paying to have a couple articles placed, or finding a PR firm that would write a couple of nice things about you or pitch you to a publication that could then support your application for a blue check mark. That definitely doesn’t happen for everyone. It was always a consideration in the back of your mind, where that symbol just carries a ton of credibility regardless of the process it takes to get it. So I thought about getting verified. I probably applied for it a couple times, like early on in 2020/2021. Another thing that happens when you run a business entirely digitally is that people find a way to duplicate what you’re doing, pretend to be you, do whatever else that they do on the internet. So I saw value in it from that perspective then, and sort of gave up on that for a couple of years like, “Alright, this is not gonna happen. Whatever, it doesn't matter. Let's just let the network and the work speak for itself.”
It was when I then discovered Ethereum and NFTs that that idea got back in my head, under a very different context. There was a piece I did in March 2021 that basically depicted the difference between a JPEG and an NFT with the blue check—trying to speak to that idea of verification in a different context. Like, if I’m cryptographically signing this thing, that could be considered verification. That piece just hit a nerve. I called it NFTs, explained, and it kind of went on both sides of the aisle. People into the technology thought it was great, and then other people thought it was nonsense. It got a bunch of attention for that reason, it rode the line between those two worlds.
With NFTs, I was able to transition from making art as a vehicle to bring attention to something else—which in my case was one-to-one design services, like a design studio—to the art itself being valuable and having the ability to buy, sell, and collect, art. That light bulb moment intersected with this idea of what verification is and what trust is on the internet. NFTs, explained was a purer execution of what the check mark means. That’s why I think it resonated, because it switches around the power dynamic from this top-down infrastructure where an institution says, “You are verified,” to something more bottom-up where the creator can say, “I signed this piece of work.” My signature is on the NFT, it is from me. And then the market, the collectors, the world decides on its notability over time. As opposed to having to satisfy some invisible criteria to become notable.
EZ: With your earlier NFT drops to fund COVID relief and assist refugees, there does seem to be a throughline with Checks VV—that is, an implicit distrust towards institutions. The first two drops were in reaction to the inability of institutions to help people, while Checks VV critiques top-down verification assigned by institutions. Could you speak to this throughline?
JB: In the first ten years of my professional career, I definitely was jaded with the work I was doing. I worked in advertising and it was brutal. We’re sitting in meetings all day, we’re talking in circles. Our incentives are completely at odds with the thing we’re trying to do. We're trying to bill as much time as possible to a client to solve a problem, and they want the problem solved. They struggle to articulate it, we’re talking in circles—I just got so tired of spending my days and putting energy and effort into things where 1% of the energy reaches the finish line of whatever it is we’re trying to do. There are incentives within a lot of these institutions to drag things out. There’s the risk tolerance. You know the quote, “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”?
I got obsessed with this idea that so much of the world is just wasting time. There’s all this corporate theater happening that is just a product of entropy. I’m not pointing my finger at anybody and saying, “You are a villain.” I‘m saying this thing cannot be helped. It’s a function of things getting old, slow, big, broken. And me personally, I do not enjoy working in environments like that. Then when you get out of it, you just see it everywhere. I started an agency and I was like, “I’m gonna go and work for the same brands and I’m just gonna do a better job.” Then I get those relationships, start those projects, and I realize I’m in the exact same situation: I can only go as fast as they can go. I completely blew up my business maybe four or five times, having these realizations where I was like, “I’m just doing this wrong.” I’m not built for this type of work, I don't want to rent real estate in Manhattan and employ 30 people to make these campaigns that have 1% of the creative potential that they could have if they didn’t go through the approval process of 90 people who all have conflicting incentives.
I just started to see that everywhere after that, and I completely scrapped working with anybody who wasn’t the decision-maker of whatever it is we were doing. I began working with founders to explain something that they’re building, working with protocols to explain how something works at a fundamental level—versus being caught up in all these corporate environments where you’re 20 steps away from the problem that actually needs to be solved. I didn’t ever have this realization. This is all my retroactive spiel about how I think I got to the ideas that started to resonate, and it turns out a lot of people feel that way. A lot of people have been in those situations, and putting all of those experiences through this filter of Visualize Value, and the ideas that helped me get out of that world and build things that made me less dependent on 10,000-person companies—all of that led me to understand the incredible power of internet networks, the ability to broadcast content from anywhere to anywhere.
EZ: What comes to your mind as one simple fix that platforms can do right now to decentralize a little power, democratize a little power, and make verification believable again?
JB: This is gonna be a crypto metaphor, but it’s the proof-of-work idea where you have the ability to look at a history of behaviors or interactions. I wouldn’t say it's an unsolvable problem, but it's more a matter of reconsidering the level of implied trust that a symbol like the blue check mark carries. Because that’s the overarching question that's being asked: how notable is notable? It’s a bit of an unraveling of the social fabric in many ways too, which is why Checks VV is resonating so much. Because the symbol means something different to everybody. A lot of people think the old system of verification was the best version—five people in a room at Twitter making the decision. You have to completely reconsider everything from the bottom up.