Twitter quietly changes “block” policy. But what does it mean?

Twitter reversed itself late Thursday night, in response to a (in my opinion extremely hyperbolic) hashtag campaign: #restoretheblock.

The real news: “users will once again be able to tell that they’ve been blocked.”

However, media piled on, with predictably erroneous headlines (predictable, since headlines were erroneous before the rollback, too):

“I utilize the Block button almost every day,” Zerlina Maxwell told Mashable. Really? REALLY? Block instead of “report for spam”? Blocking people you don’t want to have to interact with, not people who are sending spam? With fewer than 30K followers? Color me skeptical as hell.

This is a good lesson in PR: Twitter had none.

They made a change in core functionality without warning or explanation. While I think there is a lot of merit in making the block feature act more explicitly like “mute” — since that’s all it really does, it’s not a “block” like unfriending someone on Facebook or breaking a connection on LinkedIn — at least most of the gnashing of teeth could have been prevented had Twitter simply talked to people.

The fact that they didn’t reflects my bias in including tweet number two below.

One of the potential perils of a non-reciprocal network like Twitter is being stalked or spammed. In other words, there isn’t a lot of protection available when you don’t get to approve the people who follow you.

Our only “protection” has been “the block.”

And today, it seems that Twitter quietly changed what “to block” means. Although there is no statement on the Twitter blog about the change, there is widespread angst on Twitter itself:

 

 

I’ve blocked Twitter accounts for harassment; usually young-ish males talking trash to me that I don’t want to hear, and probably after I’ve written about rape or harassment. I’ve not had anyone try to get around the block via another account.

And I’ve been blocked. Once, accidentally. Once on purpose because I strenuously disagreed with a position taken by a high profile Net male.

Way back in January 2009, Shea Bennett shared this explanation from Twitter on MediaBistro while complaining that the block did not go far enough:

Blocking someone means that you (and your pic) will not appear on the blocked party’s profile page, friends time line, badge, or anywhere else. The person will not be notified that they’ve been blocked, and they will be unable to follow you. If your account is public, the blocked party can still view your profile page, but can’t receive your updates in their timeline or on their phone.

In other words, Bennett wrote, someone who was blocked could still:

  • Read your timeline
  • Send you @replies, which are still visible to everybody else, and remain within Twitter search, and will be delivered to you if you have a search for your replies configured on Seesmic Desktop or TweetDeck
  • Re-tweet your messages, which can give the impression to others that you are ‘friends’

What was the blocking policy yesterday?

The Internet Archive has a copy of the policy from September 2013:

Twitter Blocking Policy Sept 2013

Twitter Blocking Policy Sept 2013

 

And the policy today?

Twitter Blocking Policy Dec 2013

Twitter Blocking Policy Dec 2013

 

What’s missing?

The re-written policy ignores what happens on the side of the blocked person.

  • Can they follow you? Probably, since they won’t know that they have been blocked. Is this significant? I dunno – blocked people have always been able to read your stuff if it’s public. Blocking just made it a little harder.
  • Can they add your account to a list? Maybe, maybe not.
  • Will their @ replies show up in your mentions? No change here.
  • Can they see your profile picture in their timeline? Probably, since they seem to be able to follow you.

Everything else in the rewritten statement seems to have been true yesterday, as it focuses on the person who has added the block.

Twitter’s muzzle is more effective on spam than it is on harassment:

Once you click the “report as spam” link, we’ll block the user from following you or from replying to you. Reporting an account for spam does not automatically result in suspension. (No change since September 2013.)

 

Twitter as arbiter

Rather than beef up the block, Twitter seems to want to serve as the arbiter of what constitutes harassment.

Twitter strives to protect its users from abuse and spam. User abuse and technical abuse are not tolerated on Twitter.com, and may result in permanent suspension. Any accounts engaging in the activities specified below may be subject to permanent suspension.

  • Serial Accounts: You may not create multiple accounts for disruptive or abusive purposes, or with overlapping use cases. Mass account creation may result in suspension of all related accounts. Please note that any violation of the Twitter Rules is cause for permanent suspension of all accounts.
  • Targeted Abuse: You may not engage in targeted abuse or harassment. Some of the factors that we take into account when determining what conduct is considered to be targeted abuse or harassment are:
    • if you are sending messages to a user from multiple accounts;
    • if the sole purpose of your account is to send abusive messages to others;
    • if the reported behavior is one-sided or includes threats (emphasis added)

That’s not a job I’d want to tackle.

And it doesn’t even sound like one that Twitter wants to handle, either given that this was the rationale someone (anonymous source) gave TechCrunch for the new policy:

The company said that they had seen situations where users, once they discovered that they had been blocked — because they could no longer view tweets or interact with tweets — would find other ways to attack or harass the blocker or even be spurred to greater abuse.

Twitter says that another reason for the change is to better communicate to users that ‘blocked’ does not mean ‘invisible’ and that your information is still public.

If the company truly had widespread behavior like that identified in the first graph, WHY IN THE WORLD WEREN’T THOSE PEOPLE SUSPENDED? Hard to conduct abuse when your account isn’t active.

What does this policy change really mean?

At BuzzFeed, John Herrman compares the new policy to  shadow banning or hellbanning. When I moderated a political forum, I did this to some people. It means that they can post and can see everyone else’s posts. But their posts are muted, invisible to everyone else … and they don’t know it.

Twitter blocks have always worked something like that: tweets from the blocked party don’t show up in your timeline. But a blocked person could eventually figure out that they were blocked because your tweets disappeared from their timeline. Or they went to your timeline and saw “follow” not “following.” With the change, they won’t know.

Herrman (a youngish white male) thinks this is a good policy direction: “Blocking provided a false sense of privacy.”

Me, I’m on the wait-and-see side of what is clearly a move towards passive-aggressive behavior; but I do not see this as a major change in policy.

 

:: Cross-posted from WiredPen : Follow me on Twitter

Auf Stumbleupon zeigen
Auf tumblr zeigen

  • http://wiredpen.com KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst

    that was fast:
    We’re reverting the changes to block functionality. https://t.co/LOvip2QmLX
    https://twitter.com/safety/status/411340779622133760

  • JSpencer

    I don’t have a twitter account and am inlikely to get one. I’m fairly old school (happily so) and there is a limit to how involved I want to to get with newer social technologies. That said, I appreciate your well reasoned commentary on the blocking issues twitter is wrestling with. Society has always had to deal with irrational, immature, and indecent people, but the computer age seems to have given them wings.

  • http://wiredpen.com KATHY GILL, Technology Policy Analyst

    Thanks, JSpencer!