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A Brief Overview of Last Night’s Twitter Fiasco and Why Twitter Blocking is Important

For those of you who perhaps live under a rock, you might not have noticed that last night twitter changed their block function. The new version, rather than preventing blocked users from following or mentioning blocking users in their tweets, simply prevented blocking users from being alerted to those tweets. This was, needless to say, an unpopular move and, amid a rising current of angry users, Twitter executives called an emergency meeting and rolled back the changes.

For more details, if you don’t have them already, I suggest any or all of these posts:

TechCrunch’s very sympathetic summary
Leigh Honeywell on why this was so upsetting
Reuters’ summary

By Lip Kee from Singapore, Republic of Singapore (Blue Dacnis, Dacnis cayana) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Lip Kee from Singapore, Republic of Singapore (Blue Dacnis, Dacnis cayana) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I have mixed feelings about all that, and I don’t really think this is the proper outlet for them. But I did want to talk a little bit about why this is an issue, for Twitter in particular, as opposed to other social networks.

Twitter is asymmetrical, in that at base it detaches its two functionalities. Which is to say, the people who see my tweets are not necessarily (or possibly at all) the people whose tweets I see. Twitter isn’t just a network, and it isn’t just an aggregator. It’s a platform for creating, and a platform for consuming.

Make no mistake — Twitter is probably more egalitarian than the vast majority of platforms for creating and consuming. But in any such platform, there are going to be more consumers than there are creators. Otherwise the whole thing falls apart in a great cacophony of everyone shouting and no one listening (which is perhaps how you can tell that Twitter is more egalitarian than most platforms). But this means that two things are more fundamental to Twitter than they are to, say, Facebook. First, that there will be a few users who have a lot of people listening to them, and they might not want to listen to all of those people. Or even, really, hear all of those people. Second, that the very advantage of the asymmetry — that it allows a creator to more effectively share — means that Twitter is less effective if sharing something publicly means having no control over anything.

To make it simple: Twitter is a great tool for artists. Better than a lot of other social networks, because you can have followers who you don’t know. Because you share very, very publicly. And that makes issues of harassment more complex, and more difficult to deal with well.

But it’s not an excuse to get it wrong.

By Gabriel Barathieu ( [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I don’t really have any answers. I would love to see a more effective “report abuse” function on Twitter, and I think to a certain extent that is a better place for preventing harassment long-term than a simple block function. But without an effective way to prevent people from harassing other users other than the block function, detooling it is a bad move.

Elizabeth Finn

Elizabeth is a geneticist working for a shady government agency and therefore obliged to inform you that all of the views presented in her posts are her own, and not official statements in any capacity. In her free time, she is an aerialist, a dancer, a clothing designer, and an author. You can find her on tumblr at, on twitter at @lysine_rich, and also on facebook or google+.

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  1. Great post. Thank you for the overview. And I agree that Twitter needs more tools to deal with the growing issue of harassment, not less.

  2. Twitter has been around long enough that they should have understood the problems and addressed them by now. I mean, monetize, for crying out loud. I’ll buy the service and so will scads of others.

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