Should we rethink the politics of ‘blocking’?

Years ago, I wrote a piece criticizing a cover story by a well-known writer and political commentator that I’d met a few times, with whom I’d occasionally sparred on Twitter. The piece wasn’t merely a representation of my own views, but pulled in snarky tweets from other journalists disparaging her work too. It was a pile-on, and not my proudest moment.

The writer wasn’t exactly thin-skinned; in fact, quite the contrary: She was a brash, sometimes obnoxious feminist with strong opinions, unafraid to speak her mind. I often agreed with her, even when I found her delivery abrasive. Still, after a couple of years with me as a thorn in her side, she decided she’d had enough — and so she did something that many readers will find familiar: She blocked me on Twitter.

The block button is an important tool that allows women and other vulnerable people to have some semblance of the same Twitter experience that the average white man might, free from constant harassment. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve used it over the years to drown out nasty ad hominems, sea lions and, of course, sexual harassment — and worse. 

Twitter wasn’t always the “hell site” we know it as today. Many early users like me found professional advancement and lasting friendship in 140-character missives. But as the site grew, so did its potential for misuse. By 2014 — two years shy of its tenth anniversary — Twitter had become central to the GamerGate controversy, ostensibly a dispute about issues of sexism and progressivism in gaming but on Twitter, a free-for-all of harassment and doxing of any woman even tangentially involved in the discussion. The harassment was so severe that it drove some women off the site permanently.

Out of GamerGate emerged better tools for blocking, tools like BlockTogether that allow individual users to share a list of people they’ve blocked. The idea behind these tools is that harassers are likely to have multiple targets, so why not make it easier for potential targets of harassment to block numerous would-be harassers all at once?

But BlockTogether and similar tools are not without flaws. Once you’re on a blocklist, it can be hard to get your name removed, and if you end up, for whatever reason, on one created by a prominent or well-respected user, you may find yourself blocked by people you don’t know and would’ve enjoyed following. Some might call this reasonable collateral damage.

Numerous journalists and others have complained of finding themselves on a blocklist after a disagreement with an individual who uses them. I’m unfortunately on one used by a number of journalists. Why, you might ask, was I blocked in the first place? I remember quite clearly: It was for disagreeing with someone about the life sentence handed to Ross Ulbricht, the creator of the Silk Road website. For my opinion, I’ve lost the ability to follow or interact with dozens of journalists whose work I read.

Despite that, I don’t blame women or other minorities who’ve experienced harassment for using the block button liberally. Blocking someone isn’t a matter of free speech (unless of course the blocker in question is an elected official), as some of my harassers have claimed — rather, it’s often a matter of preserving one’s sanity. The block button, along with blocklists, are useful tools for curating space — not a safe space per se, but one free from random harassers, spammers and the like. Think of it more as a large invite-only event, as opposed to a New York City street.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder if our liberal use of the block button prevents us from experiencing the kind of reconciliation that can happen in our offline communities. We often remove someone from our life, only for them to apologize their way back in later on. Even the Amish, who practice shunning as a matter of faith, allow for the repented to return.

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Twitter’s architecture has changed over time, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Presently, its algorithm sometimes surfaces replies — from people you do follow, to tweets from individuals you don’t — based on some assumption that you might find them interesting. Occasionally, it will surface a reply from a friend to someone with a locked account or, in rare cases, to someone who blocks you, as it did for me the other day. Someone I follow had replied with an interesting comment to a tweet from The Writer — a tweet that, of course, I couldn’t see without logging out and going directly to her profile. And so I did.

What I found was someone who, with that same fierce energy, seemed a lot more thoughtful, with views more similar to mine than I remembered. I felt a momentary pang of sadness for the camaraderie that might have been. I realized the obvious: That we’ve both grown, alongside the backdrop of the horrific political environment that’s accompanied us through the past half-decade. “Have you thought about reaching out to her?” a friend asked.

Therein lies the rub: In the case of The Writer, I could reach out to her; we’ve met in person a few times, and we retain mutual friends. She might respond favorably, or with a “thanks but no thanks,” but either way, it’s unlikely she would deem my approach to be harassment. But there’s this other journalist I’ve never interacted with, who no doubt signed up to a blocklist that I happened to be on. I discovered that she blocked me when I went to read a tweet someone had DM’d me, and was disappointed — but reaching out to her through some other channel would seem weird, invasive. It isn’t worth it.

I recently reviewed my own list of blocked accounts (you can do so through your settings), a list that numbers well into the hundreds. Most aren’t worth revisiting — there ares sexual harassers and transphobes, Bahraini bots and Roseanne Barr, some Trumpites and a few high-profile right-wing accounts. But among them, close to the bottom of the list (coinciding with the early days of the block button), I spotted a few outliers, and decided to give them a second chance.

Technology is constantly changing and progressing and yet, the block button — and blocklists — remain in rudimentary form. They’re simply not priorities for companies whose focus is on profit. But were we to redesign them, perhaps we could find a way to make blocks time-limited, or at least provide users with more nuanced options. One such existing feature is Facebook’s “snooze” button, which allows users to “mute” another person for 30 days, with a reminder when that time period is up; I found that one particularly handy last summer while a friend was going heavy on self-promotion. I use Twitter’s “mute” function to rid my feed of people with whom I have to interact professionally and thus can’t block.

And then there’s the “soft block” — a feature or bug, it isn’t clear — wherein one can block and unblock someone quickly on Twitter so that the user no longer follows them…at least until they wise up (this feature/bug is made easier by the fact that Twitter seems to be perpetually plagued by an “unfollow bug”). These tools are helpful, but with all the riches these companies have, they could design something — with input from those most affected by harassment — that is less blunt, more elegant, more thoughtful.

Ultimately, the block button is an imperfect solution to a pervasive problem, and therefore remains as necessary as ever. I know that I’ll continue to use it as long as I’m on social media. But don’t we deserve something better?