Matt Gemmell

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tech 7 min read

Yesterday, Twitter changed its “block” functionality (and then later restored the prior behaviour, in the face of strong negative feedback).

Beforehand, blocking someone not only removed their tweets from your timeline, but also prevented them from following you or interacting with your tweets, for example by favouriting or retweeting. If the person was following you before you blocked them, they would no longer be following you afterwards. If they tried to follow you again, they wouldn’t be able to.

After Twitter’s modification, however, blocked users would still be hidden in your timeline, but they could now follow you or interact with your tweets if they wished. That was a poorly-thought-out change.

Twitter essentially changed the “block” function into something more like “mute”, which is certainly a useful feature in its own right. But it’s not blocking. I’m in favour of Twitter offering a native “mute” function (many third-party apps do, but it’s specific to those apps), and I hope they do - but in addition to the existing block option.

The meaning of blocking something or someone is clear: you’re putting an obstacle in the way, or preventing something. It’s an active thing, and it’s a tacit admonishment for whomever you blocked. Blocking does two things, conceptually:

  1. Gives you some control over what you’re exposed to.

  2. Reduces your visibility to people you don’t want to interact with.

Muting only does the first one. There are a lot of reasons to block someone, ranging from the merest difference of opinion, right up to stalking and abuse. The internet is a real cesspit for harassment. You can read a new story about it every few days, where the harassers are invariably men, and the victims are invariably women. My gender has serious problems, and I think we all know that.

There are abusive people out there, and particularly so online, because the internet is a coward’s paradise. Correspondingly, there are also victims - people who may care a great deal about the distinction between muting and blocking.

I’m a man, so I generally feel safe. If I’m out walking around on my own, it doesn’t really matter what time of day or night it is. I don’t know what the statistics say regarding my chances of being a victim of violent crime or sexual assault or whatever, but the important fact is that it really doesn’t enter my consciousness. I go out, put in my earphones, and go wherever I’m going, largely oblivious to whether or not there’s someone behind me, or how dark it is. And it’s always OK, because I’m a man.

This isn’t the world we all inhabit, though. Half of us are in a different place. Half of us do worry. Maybe not every minute, but a lot more often than I do. My gender grows up being taught that women are creatures to lust after. Women grow up being taught that men are creatures to fear - and every second or third news story reinforces it. We know it’s not skewed reporting, either.

Being online changes the situation in a couple of ways. It removes the potential for physical assault because you’re not actually in proximity to anyone. But, the relative anonymity and separation from social values (and the moderating effect of face-to-face interaction) brings out the worst in people. They get brave, and vitriolic. They say and do things that, if done in person, would likely result in a fist fight.

As I said, I’m a man. Nobody, to my knowledge or recollection, has ever called me a whore or suggested that whatever success I’ve had was due to anything but talent and effort. I’ve never been in an abusive relationship. I’ve never been a victim of domestic assault or sexual violence. I’ve been in a few fights, but I’ve never been what I would call attacked or assaulted.

Online, it’s different. I’ve had stalkers, emailing me for years on end. I’ve had overzealous fans who favourite every tweet, be overbearing, then when blocked send email after email begging to be unblocked - cycling between self-reproach and fury. I’ve had unkind parody accounts created. I’ve had thousands of insulting tweets, and hundreds of insulting emails. I’ve had mockery and damnation, and threats against myself and those close to me. It’s just a numbers game: I have enough of an audience that inevitably some of my writing or tweets will be seen by unpleasant people, and those people will be annoyed, and they’ll want to upset me too in some way. That’s our species.

Occasionally, it gets me down. Not too often, but sometimes. I can manage my exposure to those things by using email filters (or ignoring emails after the first paragraph, if they seem to be the crazy type), or by blocking accounts on Twitter, and so forth. Mostly, I just manage it by letting it slide, because I can’t do much else. I also readily acknowledge that it’s not a big deal - for me. For some people, though, it is a big deal.

There are women out there who left their abusive boyfriends or husbands (check the statistics before you accuse me of sexism in that particular gender-typing), and then the guy finds them on Twitter. The woman then blocks the guy, maybe changes her username to something more generic, and lays low for a while. Often, she gets rid of her profile photo. That’s not hypothetical; I know several people in that exact situation.

Or maybe it’s the creepy neighbour. Or the guy you used to go to school with. Maybe it’s an ex-boss, or someone who just doesn’t agree with your politics, or your spirituality (or lack thereof), or your sexual orientation. Maybe it’s an estranged family member. There are hundreds of relevant scenarios where muting just isn’t enough for you to feel like you’re taking back some control from someone who’s injecting themselves into your life.

I’ve heard a lot of people on Twitter yesterday and today who don’t understand what the fuss is about. Their arguments include:

A. Anything you say on Twitter (unless you have a protected account, where you must explicitly approve every follower) is public anyway, so anybody could always see your tweets on the web.

B. Blocked people who still wanted to follow you could just create a different account.

C. Blocked people can discover that they’re blocked (by trying to follow you again, and not being allowed to), and that can lead to retaliation. This argument was put forward by Twitter too.

D. You could always just set your account to “protected”, then approve or deny anyone who wanted to follow you.

As statements, they’re all true. As arguments as to why Twitter’s change from blocking to muting is no big deal, they have some problems.

Most of the issues relate to the assumption that harassment is an all-or-nothing prospect: that the person is either the kind of nightmare you hear about every couple of weeks in the news (creating multiple accounts, bombarding you with messages, turning up at your house), or isn’t worth bothering about. That’s just not true.

The vast majority of harassers are casual. They’ll get a bee in their bonnet about something, they’ll do whatever their damaged psychology feels is necessary to exact vengeance on you, then they’ll move on. People have short attention spans, and get bored easily. The vast majority of people are also lazy, and not very technical. I think that most of them wouldn’t even notice they were no longer seeing your tweets, or realise they were blocked, or even necessarily know how to go and check your timeline on the web.

Determined harassers won’t be deterred by either muting or blocking, but we already have ways to deal with them too: the police, for example. Talking to Twitter about it at the very least. The issue with the block change is more about the victim, and where they feel the control lies. Being able to do something is a lot more important than most people (who haven’t ever suffered harassment themselves) tend to think.

The affront of online harassment is the intrusion. The remarks themselves are bad, but the trauma comes from where it happens. On your blog’s comments thread, or in your Twitter timeline where you read things from the people that you want to keep up to date with. On your Facebook wall, or in your email inbox. That’s the issue.

Muting conceptually leaves the person there, but makes them invisible to you. Maybe they’re still around - probably they are - but you can’t see them. They’re still replying and quoting and mock-favouriting or retweeting. They’re still keeping tabs. Still in your life, in your space, and in the back of your mind.

One of my own blocked stalker-ish people did take advantage of the brief window of opportunity and followed me again yesterday. I felt frustrated, and exposed, and powerless. There’s a human cost.

It’s not the thing, it’s the fear of the thing. You’re walking down a road alone at night, then a man crosses the street up ahead, coming towards you. In practically every case, he just walks by and continues on his way. Has there been no cost, then? Nothing for us to feel collectively ashamed of?

But your pulse quickened. You thought about getting out your phone and making a call to say you’d be home in a minute, honey. You glanced up at the buildings for any lit windows and onlookers. You tried to watch for sudden movements but absolutely didn’t make eye-contact. Of course there was a cost.

We can argue the logic or essential effect of blocking versus muting, or we can realise that some actions feel empowering and some just feel like hiding. We can acknowledge that sometimes, an academic tweak for someone who feels safe can make a huge difference to someone who doesn’t.

We can think long and hard whether a technical change actually transfers the onus onto the victim, making them shut themselves away and furtively peer through the letterbox before inviting others in one-by-one, while the people we should be censuring are free to keep on doing as they please. And we can acknowledge the primal truth that aggressors tend to lose interest more quickly when their target isn’t so readily visible.

As I see it, those are the real issues. By all means give us a proper mute function - I’ll use it. But don’t take away one of the few affirmative things that victims of online harassment can actually do.

You can also read this article in Korean.

이 글은 한국어로도 읽을 수 있습니다.