Another Six Weeks: Muting vs. Blocking and the Wolf Whistles of the Internet

Engaging users who are directly impacted by harassment must be central to any platform’s efforts at combating abuse.

“With each contact, you buy another six weeks [of stalking]. […] the same concepts apply with romantic pursuers who don’t let go, ex-boyfriends who don’t let go, fired employees who don’t let go, and all the other incarnations of don’t-let-go.”

– Gavin de Becker, “The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence”

Online harassment varies dramatically in form and intensity, but there is a huge swath of it which is low-grade, opportunistic, and not terribly persistent. These are the online equivalent of a “hey baby” from a street harasser, or an inappropriate leer from a coworker. Their target is never sure which one will escalate to a serious threat, and even the ones which don’t escalate can add up to some serious harm when walking past them on a daily basis or having to interact with them at work.

London Anti Street Harassment Campaign. London Anti Street Harassment Campaign, photo by Alex Castro, Creative Commons License. Filtered and cropped from original.

When Twitter changed the scope of its blocking functionality on December 12th, 2013, they made it easier for low-grade harassers to pursue their targets. The change allowed blocked users to continue to “follow” their targets, and to interact with their target’s content by retweeting and favoriting it. Previously, these types of interactions were not permitted by blocked users. In attempting to solve the problem of users being retaliated against for blocking, Twitter missed other ways that harassers operate on their service. Retweeting, in particular, is often used by harassers to expose the target’s content to the friends of the harasser – potentially subjecting the target to a new wave of harassment. With the blocking functionality changed to work as “mute”, targets lost the ability to stop their harassers from retweeting them.

When the unannounced change was noticed, users and commentators argued that a determined harasser could have always copied-and-pasted a target’s tweets, set up new accounts, or otherwise worked around the existing blocking functionality, and that the original blocking functionality represented a false sense of security. These arguments ignored the value of that functionality for dealing with unmotivated, low-grade and opportunistic harassers.

Twitter responded quickly to the massive wave of criticism which emerged in large part from marginalized communities, who are disproportionately affected by online abuse. My contribution to the discussion alone saw nearly 9,000 pageviews. In a blog post explaining that they had reverted to the original functionality, Twitter VP of Product Michael Sippey explained that the change had been an effort to protect users who experienced retaliation from users they had blocked. The mistake that Twitter made was in thinking that this retaliation was because of the blocking functionality itself, rather than an all-too-typical response when people - particularly women - attempt to enforce boundaries. Unfortunately, more motivated harassers would not likely step down their campaigns given either implementation.

The literature on stalking and harassment talks a lot about the idea of refusing contact. Those experiencing harassment online are often admonished to “not feed the trolls.” In addition to blaming the victims of online harassment, what this misses is that for many opportunistic harassers, their target’s ongoing presence in the harasser’s Twitter stream significantly lowers the barrier to further engagement and harassment.

With the dramatically reduced scope in block functionality, the only alternative Twitter presented to users facing harassment was to change their account to a private feed, radically altering the experience of using the service. Their posts no longer appear in the public search feed, and they must actively manage access to their Twitter feed, rather than being able to react as needed to inappropriate users. In removing the “unfollow” functionality of blocking, Twitter made it that much harder for their users to choose who to allow into their online lives.

It is significant that rather than adding a distinct mute option, Twitter chose to water down the existing blocking functionality. Adding a “mute” option would have benefited those users who experienced the post-block retaliation mentioned, while retaining the existing block for those for whom it works. Removing functionality likely took less engineering effort, but also acted in the direction of decreasing Twitter’s engagement in mediating (in this case, technologically) disputes. Sippey’s blog post stated that “We’ve built Twitter to help you create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers. That vision must coexist with keeping users safe on the platform.“ While I do not know what consultation Twitter did in deciding how this feature change would impact their users, the magnitude of the response suggests that it wasn’t enough. Engaging users who are directly impacted by harassment must be central to any platform’s efforts at combating abuse.

I think back to Google Buzz, where so little thought went into the implications of security boundaries that even opting out of it exposed users to abuse - and led to both a class-action lawsuit and an FTC settlement. In contrast, there are positive examples to be found of companies which make safety and privacy central to the user experience. Some of my favorites are the sadly defunct game Glitch, whose designers set out to build “the community to be the kind of community we wanted it to be,” and the blogging community Dreamwidth, a fork of Livejournal.

As soon as I saw Twitter’s post about this change, I thought back to Gavin de Becker’s six weeks. I’d recently experienced a situation where blocking had worked as intended – an acquaintance sent a stream of inappropriate private messages on Twitter, followed by emails calling me rude for having blocked him. Contact ceased when I didn’t reply to any of his email. I expect that my off-Twitter harassment would not have stopped where it did, had I only been able to mute the acquaintance. My tweets would have continued to appear in his stream every time he looked at Twitter. I could have gotten another six weeks of his harassment per tweet – a high price to pay for existing in public online.

With special thanks to hashoctothorpe for her wise words and for putting up with me blocking her a bunch of times For Science.