There’s been a fair amount of controversy recently over Twitter’s “block” function. In mid-December, Twitter made and announced a change to the way blocking worked. The ensuing uproar, which prompted Twitter to revert the change less than a day later, continues to this day. Critics accuse Twitter of failing to protect victims of bullying and harassment—but the reaction really reveals more about the way people misunderstand Twitter, and social networking in general.
It may help to understand how Twitter blocking presently works (which is how it’s worked since the beginning), and how the brief change altered things. This article does a good job of explaining the change, and Twitter’s statement explains why they changed it back.
The block function many users demand [which for the record has never existed] would prevent a blocked user from seeing any of the blockee’s tweets or pictures under any circumstances. There are good reasons to want this function—like most of the Internet, Twitter is plagued with terrible people who enjoy victimizing others, and people deserve protection from harassment and bullying. There are, however, good reasons the block feature cannot do this.
Twitter, unlike many other social networks including Instagram, Snapchat, and to some extent Facebook, is a truly public forum. A Twitter profile is by default visible to any visitor, whether or not they have logged in and created their own Twitter account. Where Facebook, for example, is analogous to posting something on a private bulletin board visited by your friends, Twitter is analogous to posting a billboard, or putting on a TV show. A tweet is a public announcement to anyone in the world who cares to listen. One simply can’t post a billboard or publish a newspaper and expect to prevent particular individuals from seeing it.
As a result, a blocked user can easily get around a block by logging out of Twitter completely—just the way a newspaper can refuse a particular customer a subscription , but that customer can easily walk to the nearest newsstand and buy a copy.
Twitter does allow users to make their feeds private, locking it from sight except to logged-in users approved by the user. This feature would protect a Twitter user from harassment, but there’s a problem: The reason most people tweet is to reach new readers, in essence to market themselves and the online identity they have cultivated. Most Twitter users want to build their list of followers, and going private makes this all-but impossible.
What about a feature that allows visibility only to logged-in users? This sounds good, except that the blocked user can easily create an alternate account with a fake identity. Twitter doesn’t require or allow users to approve all subscriptions (unless the account is private) so this is an easy work-around.
Ultimately, the only way Twitter can accommodate demands for a true block feature is to not be Twitter any more—which gets at a core problem behind much of social networking. Users need to understand that by Tweeting, they are making themselves public figures. Going back to my earlier analogy, one might look at a Twitter profile as a TV show. When it starts out, it might have very low ratings—in Twitter parlance, a low follower count. But one never knows when that audience might suddenly explode, exposing the user to new scrutiny and criticism.
Just before Christmas, when Justine Sacco’s racist tweet [which, in fairness, may have been an attempt at ironic humor] made the subject of a trending topic, #HasJustineLandedYet, many of her defenders decried the persecution of someone who was an everyday person, not a public figure. By its very nature, however, the act of tweeting is a decision to make oneself a public figure, and to accept all the risks and perils that go with that.
One of those perils, unfortunately, is the inability to hide from people who choose to bully, harass, or stalk.
Twitter is still a pretty new and revolutionary concept—as of today, still less than seven years old—as is the Internet and social networking in general. As a society, we’re still adapting to our new means of communicating and the consequences, intended and unintended. Ask Justine Sacco. For that matter, ask Hosni Mubarak. I don’t blame users for failing to realize, when they sign those terms of service, that they are exposing themselves to a level of public scrutiny they may not like.
But it’s not Twitter’s responsibility to be something it’s not. It’s up to the user to decide whether he or she wants to be on Twitter.