Noah J Nelson on Thursday, Dec. 12th
Twitter really stepped in it today. They changed the way the “block” function works on the social media service, and that has left many users upset.
More to the point: it has put those who suffered harassment at the hands of other users back in the crosshairs of their former tormentors.
Until today here’s how “block” worked: if you blocked another Twitter account that user was no longer able to see your posts on the service as long as they were logged in on the blocked account.
This meant, of course, that it would be possible to view the posts without logging in, provided that the account in question was a public account. It was not a perfect system, as a serious stalker would find ways to track their target, but it put up enough of a barrier for your basic internet troll for them to get the point.
The benefits of blocking also meant that you were no longer able to see that person’s tweets and they lost the ability to re-tweet your posts. You can’t repeat what you can’t see, after all.
Now “block” merely mutes the offending account. They are still able to see what you post publicly. They can even favorite and re-tweet those posts. This might seem innocuous on the surface, but think the case through even for a few seconds and it becomes clear how pernicious the ability to re-tweet someone can be if the intent is to do harm.
Now trolls and stalkers can comment on a user’s post, using the original tweet as fodder, and publicly make all kinds of statements that the intended victim cannot see. In other words: all block does now is give people the power to talk about someone behind that person’s back, but in public.
Which is actually way worse than the reason Twitter CEO Dick Costolo is on record as giving for the change:
@MatthewKnell now when you block a user, they cannot tell that you've blocked them. It was a longstanding request from users of block…
— dick costolo (@dickc) December 12, 2013
There’s no use denying that some stalkers become enraged when blocked on social media. In some cases it may even escalate the behavior, but the mistake that Twitter has made can pretty much be labeled Social Media Failure #1:
Never roll back a privacy-related feature.
“Block” as it stood before today may not have offered real security, but it at least provided some measure of comfort to those afflicted by stalkers and trolls. Which is something Twitter has proven to be very bad at providing.
Costolo and company could have achieved that goal by giving the option to “mute” users in the fashion that “block” currently works without rescinding the original “block” function.
With social media it is always better to add a feature than to change an existing one. Giving users choice in matters of their own privacy isn’t just the safe bet, it is the only smart bet.
If Twitter wants to make things right they should not delay in returning “block” to its original state. If they feel like they should stick to their guns, they better brace themselves for a wave of canceled accounts.