Life as an Extreme Sport

Dear @Twitter: I don’t want your head, but can I borrow your ear?

As just about everyone who uses Twitter is likely aware, on Thursday the company attempted to roll out changes to the “block” feature. Instead of the previous policy, which didn’t allow blocked users to follow you or interact with your Tweets, “block” was going to function more like “mute”: blocked users would still be able to follow you and interact with (RT, MT, favourite, etc) your Tweets, you’d just never see it happening. What ended up happening was a Twitterstorm of the likes Twitter itself has never faced (itself a bit of a remarkable thing, all considered).

In the face of considerable backlash, Twitter quickly rolled back the policy to their previous one, which they say is:

Blocked users cannot:

  • Add your Twitter account to their lists.
  • Have their @replies or mentions show in your mentions tab (although these Tweets may still appear in search).
  • Follow you.
  • See your profile picture on their profile page or in their timeline.

Privacy note: If your Tweets are public (i.e., not protected), they will still be visible on your public profile page to anyone, regardless of whether they have a Twitter account or not.

We do not send notification to a user when you block them, but because they will no longer be able to follow you, they may notice that they’ve been blocked.

Now, what you’ll notice here is that there’s nothing about being able to see blocked Tweets. Previously, when a user was blocked, your content was no longer available to them unless they signed out of their browser (in other words, when Twitter didn’t know they should block the content). At some point, it seems that this has changed, although when no one actually knows. But everyone who has had to figure out how block works has been adamant that in the past, Twitter did hide content from blocked users, which is in the TechCrunch article covering the fiasco:

Twitter has introduced a new blocking policy that is materially different from the one that they’ve had in the past. Blocked users can now see your tweets while logged in and continue to follow you on the service, allowing potential harassers or abusers to continue to track your updates on the network, even though you’ve explicitly blocked them. [Emphasis mine.]

Twitter has been consistent in stating that the reason they made their changes to the block function is that some users have complained that by alerting a harasser that they have been blocked, the harassment can actually escalate. This actually isn’t inaccurate, in theory; one of the major challenges when dealing with stalking is figuring out how to de-escalate involvement without making it clear that you are doing so, because realizing that their target it out of reach can make stalkers more aggressive and violent.

Head-in-sandSo, assuming you believe Twitter’s motivations here (and to be clear, many do not and feel that this was a move to appease advertisers), they had the right idea that the current (rather than newly implemented and as rapidly de-implemented) block functionality is not ideal. The problem with their solution is that it amounted to telling people “if someone is harassing you, just don’t look at them!” rather than actually dealing with the harassment of one of their users.

This isn’t the first time that Twitter has gotten in hot water for not policing user behaviour more stridently. In August, Twitter’s senior director of trust and safety, Del Harvey, and U.K. General Manager Tony Wang co-wrote a blog post saying

Twitter has updated its rules “to clarify that we do not tolerate abusive behavior,” adding that they “want people to feel safe on Twitter, and we want the Twitter Rules to send a clear message to anyone who thought that such behavior was, or could ever be, acceptable.”

This was in response to Caroline Criado-Perez receiving multiple threats on Twitter after leading a successful campaign in the UK to put a woman on a bank note.

Harvey and Wang say they will “keep working” to make Twitter a safe place for users and say they are adding additional staff to “the teams that handle abuse reports and are exploring new ways of using technology to improve everyone’s experience on Twitter.”

One can only assume that Harvey and Wang were not consulted when the new Twitter block policy was implemented yesterday, since it actively undermines the work they did in August to reassure users that Twitter actually does take claims of harassment seriously.

With that overview in place, I would actually like to bend Twitter’s ears for a minute.

So, to Twitter: I actually can appreciate the concerns you raise over notifying people that they’ve been blocked. You’re right, that can cause behaviour to escalate. But the solution isn’t to put blinders on the people being harassed, who feel that they need to utilize the block function to protect themselves. The solution is to help figure out how to keep things from escalating. And in this, you could learn from Facebook. (Yes, words I’m just as surprised to type as you are to read.)

Facebook allows you to create a list of restricted users who can only see your public posts. Previous content is still there, and for all intents and purposes, you (person doing the blocking) simply appear to stop updating or using Facebook to the person who is blocked. Would this work once the harassing user was logged out? No, but in most situations, the idea isn’t about a perfect anti-harassment format, but about making things more difficult.

Now, the caveat here is that Facebook has many more settings than simply “protected/private” and “public,” which is why it can provide such nuance to posts. But Twitter, your framework is clearly able to handle deciding if someone should or should not interact with a tweet, and as such, should be able to simply stop showing certain users tweets.

I know, Twitter, that you want to point out that if a user account isn’t protected, then the tweets and information is still public, and while this is true, having to sign out of an account to view someone’s Twitter stream, copy and paste, and do other extra steps to facilitate harassment is, in and of itself, enough to stop many people from abuse. Will it stop everyone? No – but making it easier isn’t the solution, which is what your initial change did.

Your new policy essentially said “we’ll make it so you don’t have to see someone’s bad behaviour” rather than implementing any particular punishment for bad behaviour. This opens up many people, men and women alike, to being harassed, stalked, and abused, and left trying to figure out if it’s worth seeing harassment on their timeline every day, going “protected” and losing the networking-with-new-people point of Twitter, or trusting that other people will alert them if someone who is functionally muted moves from creepy harassment to actually threatening behaviour.

I’m glad that you realized that the Twitterstorm of concern raised reasons you overlooked, and that you rolled the block change back for safety reasons, Twitter. However, people who are signed in and blocked can still see content—this should be changed (and yes, I’m partial to the “stop all content after date/time blocked,” but open to other solutions). But mostly, Twitter, in whatever you do, you need to keep the concerns of the harassed, threatened, and stalked at the forefront. You screwed up once by putting that aside, and then you screwed up again when your CEO, Dick Costolo, said that the point of the change was cutting down on the antagonistic behaviour of people who were blocked.

Guys—and I do mean guys, because this is one of those on-going indications of a lack of female involvement in Twitter—the solution to cutting down on antagonistic behaviour of people being antagonistic, block-worthy jerks is not to appease the block-worthy jerks, it’s to move from block to ban.

And it really is that simple.


  1. This is just about a perfect blog post. Logical, well-written, and assertive.
    Twitter is still learning its own ropes and reinventing itself as it goes. Feedback from us users is going to crucial.
    Thanks, Kelly!

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