A few big things happened on Twitter last night. Scandal aired its midseason finale, shocking and delighting its diehard fans as they tweeted along; Beyonce released a brand new album on iTunes with virtually no warning or hype, bringing an early Christmas surprise to her listeners. But for about five or six hours in the evening of December 12th, users everywhere were up in arms over a change to Twitter’s blocking policy, which had been quietly announced that afternoon. People didn’t really take notice of the change until an article on Forbes.com outlined the new rules; but as word spread, it became clear that Twitter had made a very, very big mistake.
Twitter has always struggled with the privacy and online safety of its users. If you blocked an account, that person would no longer be able to follow you or see your tweets or profile photo, and any @replies they made would not show up in your mentions tab. A blocked person could log out of their account and still view your public profile and tweets, but taking away the ability to interact went a long way towards preventing harassment and abuse.
Under the new rules, blocking someone on Twitter effectively just muted them. They could still follow your account, reply to you, and retweet your posts to their followers; you just wouldn’t see any of it. A company spokesman told Forbes that the change was meant to placate the angry responses from blocked users; “We saw antagonistic behavior where people would see they were blocked and be mad,” said Jim Prosser. The paper-thin excuse, literally chalked up to people’s feelings getting hurt, was supplanted by a more cynical theory that Twitter was trying to prevent users from blocking promoted advertisements now that the company had gone public.
Anyone who knows how stalking works online can see the problem with this immediately; it put the blinders on the victims, instead of punishing the perpetrators. Millions of people use the block function to prevent death and rape threats, online harassment, and other abuse; now someone could still maliciously threaten them, and they just wouldn’t see it. Furthermore, the inability to force an unfollow meant that if a spambot followed you, you were stuck with them forever; you wouldn’t see them, but they’d still be able to see your tweets and use them to hawk whatever they sell. From an SEO standpoint, it was disastrous; we’ve spent months or years telling clients that the numbers of followers do not matter, but rather the quality of who you interact with on Twitter; with the new blocking rules, there was nothing to stop #Teamfollowback members from keeping an account in their virus-like circle of self-indulgence, even if you couldn’t see it.
What really horrified me, though, was remembering that I wrote about Twitter way back in August—and how they announced that they were going to begin work on a ‘Report Abuse’ function in the wake of the death and rape threats to the British woman who did nothing but get Jane Austen’s face on the £10 note. Four months later, we got a step in the entirely opposite direction—being invisible to your target is a stalker’s dream. The solution was not to “just make your account private”; part of Twitter’s appeal is its use as a networking and communications tool, and telling victims of abuse to make their accounts private is putting the onus on them instead of on the perpetrators. Twitter users all over the globe felt the same way as I did; political analyst Zerlina Maxwell, herself a victim of vicious abuse on Twitter, quickly created a change.org petition calling for the reinstatement of the block button, which got over 2,000 signatures. The #RestoreTheBlock hashtag erupted into a rallying cry, even as it suspiciously disappeared from the Top 10 trends list.
Luckily, Twitter reversed their decision, and reinstated the original block features shortly before 8pm. It’s refreshing to see a company acknowledge that they’ve made a mistake and move to correct it; it’s one of the reasons why Twitter has maintained a better policy record than Facebook when it comes to changes in user experience. I’m glad that none of us had to see the long-term ramifications of the mute-block function; it spelled disaster not only for those facing harassment, but also for companies wishing to establish an authoritative, trustworthy profile on one of the most popular social media sites on Earth. Twitter has promised to continue refining the safety features of their service, and I hope that this lesson is a reminder of what they actually need to do to make their website a safer, more effective communication tool.