The Twitter Block Blunder

January 16th, 2014 by Andrea Bennett

What is an online community’s responsibility to members?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Recently, a one-day change in Twitter’s “block” policy underscored what people believe a network’s responsibility is, claims Derek Powazek of Wired. He wrote, “When you start a community, you make a promise: We will take care of you. Abdicate that responsibility, and your community will eventually falter.”

For those who don’t follow Twitter, here’s what pundits are calling the “block blunder”: Twitter’s “block” feature allows users who don’t want to interact with other users to bar their interaction. But recently, Twitter changed the feature so that people who were blocked by users could once again follow, favorite and retweet tweets, although they wouldn’t see updates from the blocked person. The change punished users, not harassers, Powazek said, and users rose up quickly against the change. NPR reported that feminist freelance writer Zerlina Maxwell started an online petition on Change.org that garnered more than 1,000 signatures within a couple of hours.

Jennifer Pozner, executive director of Women in Media & News, told NPR she found out about the change “sometime in the short window when Twitter lost their mind and temporarily regained it.” She claimed that some days she blocks as many as 200 users because of the threats she receives – “vicious names I’m not allowed to say on NPR’s air, many of which threaten rape, some of which threaten murder,” she said.

The same day Twitter changed its policy, it rescinded the change, once again making tweets invisible to blocked users. “We never want to introduce features at the cost of users feeling less safe,” Twitter’s VP of Product, Michael Sippey, wrote. Still, the original block feature isn’t ideal, he wrote, because users will be able to tell that they’ve been blocked, and sometimes retaliate. “Some users worry just as much about post-blocking retaliation as they do about pre-blocking abuse,” he said.

Powazek says that while online communities should understand their responsibility to users, the blunder also teaches that large communities need more tools – such as the ability to monitor negative feedback, allow users to issue timeouts (temporary blocking), and the ability to dismiss tweets to remove them from view – all “more humane, nuanced tools for people to manage their networks (and attention).”

What do you think the responsibility for an online community manager is? Weigh in.