#Restoretheblock: Twitter Changes Their Block Function, And Then Backpedals Almost Immediately When Everyone Is Outraged

What you don't know CAN hurt you; this was, as many Twitter users said yesterday, like telling someone who's asking for a restraining order to just wear a blindfold.
Publish date:
December 13, 2013
twitter, privacy, social media

In case you missed it, Twitter briefly experimented with a new and improved block function! It was a fantastic way to help users avoid seeing Tweets from people they didn't like! All they had to do was click “block,” and the users annoying/harassing/threatening them simply vanished into an abyss, never to be seen again. Their disappearance might have been followed by brief crunching sounds as they were eaten by dragons.

No, really, Twitter changed the way their block function operates, and the internets were pissed. So pissed, in fact, that Twitter went back on the decision within a day. The chaos that ensued when Twitter rolled out these changes, and subsequent backpaddling, illustrates some important lessons for social media companies.

See, historically, when you blocked a Twitter user, that user would be blocked from following you, adding you to lists, and having @mentions and @replies show up in your feed (users could always see your profile or search for your name to view your updates, unless you had a private account, but they had to manually navigate to your public profile, which added a barrier to access). Basically, you could block someone who was harassing you and it meant that not only would you not see that harassment, but that it would be harder for that person to keep harassing you.

Yes, a blocked user could go right on manually retweeting you and @replying you, but you wouldn’t see it. That user could also see what you were up to, since Twitter couldn’t prevent random members of the public from accessing your feed. But people you’d blocked couldn’t follow you, which made it much harder to stalk, harass, and abuse people on Twitter.

The new block function acted more like a mute function: it erased all mentions of a given user from your world, but did nothing in terms of limiting their access to you. You wouldn't see that person’s Tweets retweeted into your feed (this was a gaping hole in the old block function), but that person was free to follow you, look at your profile while logged in, retweet you to followers, and more.

This might not sound like a major distinction, but as many privacy activists pointed out, it was kind of a big deal. Twitter reps said the new policy was simply reminding people that Twitter is a public platform and anyone can see you -- unless, of course, you choose to go private, which Twitter recommends if you really want to be secure. But in fact, privacy advocates argued that the new blocking system was more sinister.

Lots of people use Twitter for activism now, and many of those activists rely heavily on the ability to block. Not just because they don’t want to see certain people, but because they’re actively trying to avoid abusive behaviors (they also report abuse, but Twitter rarely acts on it). If blocking only prevents you from seeing abuse, it doesn’t prevent that abuse from happening: Twitter was basically telling users to ignore it and it will go away.

Furthermore, it’s not uncommon for groups of Twitter users to form packs. They distribute information that way and use it to harass, bully, and intimidate other users, something which is hard to do with an effective blocking policy; Person A, for example, couldn’t easily access Person X’s feed, and therefore couldn’t retweet from it and order followers to go attack Person X. Person A also couldn’t stalk Person X, because the old blocking system used to make it impossible to follow people who had blocked you.

In a really absurd comment, a Twitter spokesperson said that now, people wouldn't know when they’ve been blocked, and this was a “longstanding request from users of block.” Because apparently when people get blocked and whine about it, this is more of a concern than why they’ve been blocked in the first place. Twitter even tried to defend the new system on the grounds that people had expressed concerns that they were worried about retaliation from abusers post-blocking, and that’s why they instituted the new blocking policy. They were protecting us!

Heaven forbid we upset people by letting them know we blocked them! Do these people not read Miss Manners? Are they not familiar with the timeless value of a well-aimed cut, devastatingly delivered to make sure someone is clearly alerted to undesirable behavior? Part of the whole point of blocking is in fact to send a clear signal to the other user, akin to swanning off and fanning yourself.

For those of us who HAVE been concerned about retaliation, a mute function is most welcome, but not at the cost of a working block function. One of the reasons I use Twitter clients (like Janetter, my current client of choice) is for their robust muting and filtering features, which provide the functionality I need to sort my feed in addition to being able to block users. While I’m glad Twitter recognized the need for muting, they apparently refused to recognize that muting and blocking are two different things.

What you don't know CAN hurt you; this was, as many Twitter users said yesterday, like telling someone who's asking for a restraining order to just wear a blindfold.

This being Twitter, there was, of course, a hashtag: #Restoretheblock. And there was a Change petition. Naturally. Users pointed out that this was a particularly serious problem for members of marginalized communities on the service, who counted on blocking to make it a little bit safer, though by no means utterly secure, because speaking out is always dangerous, and always will be; however, the onus to create safety is not on the speaker, but rather on society.

Tech companies are big fans of changing their terms of service, often in ways that put users in an uproar -- Google is a notable example -- and they keep doing it because they’re convinced they won’t lose that many users over it. With a recent IPO, Twitter is obviously eager to make changes that will help it monetize, and there was undoubtedly a bottom line behind shifting the application of the blocking function.

To my surprise, Twitter reversed its decision within hours, obviously taking user criticism to heart. Now, when you block a user, the same functionality you enjoyed before is present: that user can't follow you or add you to lists, while mentions and replies from that user won't show up in your feed. (I can't tell if retweets of blocked users show up in your feed -- if one of you has hard evidence one way or the other, let me know.) One thing blocking won't do, and never did, is prevent people from viewing your feed if it's public.

Twitter hopefully learned here that it needed to restore the block, but it needs to do more than that. The service has grown large enough that fine-grained user controls for safety and security are clearly critically necessary at this point: Twitter needs block and mute functions offering varying levels of control. A robust blocking function should prevent blocked users from viewing your profile (while logged in, obviously it is technically impossible to block logged-out users from seeing your public profile -- unless Twitter wants to pursue another grain of control a la OKCupid and hide your profile from the public while still making it public to other Twitter users), following you, retweeting you, and mentioning or replying to you. And a good muting function should do precisely what the “block” function briefly did yesterday: erase all presence of a given user from your Twitter, akin to a killfile.

Twitter definitely listened to its angry users and it acted fast, which sets it aside from many other social media companies. One frequent and overwhelming issue in the tech industry, especially with social media, is for companies to think like white, middle class, male engineers, people who have a very different set of privacy needs than the user population, and this is something that needs to change, yet another strong argument for more women, people of color, disabled people, and other members of marginalized communities in high-ranking positions in the tech industry.

We could have told Twitter this was a bad idea before they rolled it out, if anyone had bothered to ask us.