Why Blocking Matters

Blocking on Twitter is an easy way to craft your dream stream, but it's also an important tool for many--especially women--in the fight against online abuse.

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Elon Green

Veronica de Souza, Digg’s social media editor, had a troll problem. The man would reply to all her tweets, and send her a stream of direct messages in which he’d ask for a job. He even tried adding de Souza to his social networks. Over the course of five months, his transmissions got more aggressive. Finally, a little over a year ago, she decided that months of daily tweets and direct messages were enough. After a particularly bad day, de Douza blocked him. “It felt,” she said, “so good.”

I like blocking people on Twitter. I do it often. According to blockedby.me, over several years I have wielded the banhammer  on 319 people. The reasons are, frankly, arbitrary: the non-ironic use of hashtags in a bio—one guy bragged he was on “#TeamJesus—while another had an egg for an avatar. I don’t tolerate excessive exclamation points or any use, ironic or otherwise, of ‘entrepreneur,’ ‘social media’ or ‘thought leader.’ I bid adieu to obvious spammers. I blocked the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Chevron because they are vile. In short, I’m the architect of my filter bubble; it’s the only way to be sure that the choir to whom I’m preaching is real, and reasonably intelligent.

Blocking, as anyone who spends a moderate amount of time on Twitter will attest, is not a panacea for trolls or abusers. It’s easy enough for a motivated reader to get around it. But it’s a useful and necessary option, as Twitter found out a couple of months ago when they tried to redefine the feature out of existence—allowing the ”blocked” user to continue following and interacting with the tweeter—only to buckle under the immediate, intense backlash. Twitter is an open system, and the ability to say “Scram!” gives at least the illusion of being able to close it, if only a little bit.

This control of one’s online ecosystem is particularly important for people subject to abuse online, who are—as Amanda Hess points out in her recent essay in Pacific Standard—overwhelmingly women.

Twitter users approach the idea of blocking armed with differing philosophies. For popular accounts, the blocking option keeps the user experience manageable. But it’s also valuable for that swath of accounts that don’t have the reach of @JustinBieber (48 million followers), but do have an audience of thousands.

The New Yorker’s David Grann (@DavidGrann), for example, has more than 26,000 followers, so his interactions feed is a firehose of replies. And yet, he said, he’s only nuked a single follower, “a self-admitted troll” who would comment on every tweet: “I finally found it so grating I blocked him.”

Choire Sicha (@Choire, 20,500 followers), founder and editor of The Awl, and credited with identifying and popularizing the “hate-fave,” is more enthusiastic about the practice. “I love blocking people so much!” he said. “Not even for them annoying me directly, necessarily, although that works, but just for them existing.” In the latter camp he places Ari Fleischer and Bill Clinton, as well as Giovanni Ribisi (whose existence I’d actually forgotten).

Sicha noted that Twitter is, by its very nature, “the user’s space,” so he blocks anyone who, for whatever reason, bothers him: “There’s nothing at all wrong or mean about blocking! It’s just like: I don’t want your face in my phone when I wake up.”

Tracy Clayton (@brokeymcpoverty, 15,100 followers), a staff writer at Buzzfeed, blocks people, too, but not often. Her primary targets are spam bots or obnoxious self-promoters, a strategy employed by Blocking Purists. “Believe it or not, most of the people I block are obvious sex bots and—overwhelmingly—people who send me unsolicited links to their musical projects,” she said.

One award-winning writer, who declined to be identified, considers blocking to be a retributive measure—only done if he’s been unfollowed by someone he follows. The revenge block, if you will.

“When two people follow each other, it’s a tacit acknowledgement that you value each other,” he told me. “It’s kind of a commitment, you know? So when someone bails on that commitment, I don’t just unfollow them, I block them. The privilege of following me won’t be extended again. You get that just once. My rule on this is: Unfollow me once, shame on you. Unfollow me twice? Not a chance!”

Of course, where the blocking option really matters is when it functions as a partition, protecting one’s self from online abuse. This is particularly true for women, who experience the vast majority of online harassment. According to Working to Halt Online Abuse, a volunteer organization, the gender breakdown of cyberstalking victims [pdf] is 80% women, 20% men. (Transgender people are not mentioned in the statistics.)

In addition to patrolling the sexbots and spammers, Clayton blocks people, and reports them as spam, if they abuse her friends or followers. She’ll hit block on anyone who makes rape jokes or “advocates physically attacking women or gays.” She once spent 30 minutes reporting Twitter accounts that were “proven to be tweeting child porn.”

Generally, though, she’s admirably laissez-faire. “I actually enjoy not blocking people who are quite obviously trying to rile me up to the point of blocking them,” she said. “I just hit them with a “cool story, bro” tweet and go on with my business and I smile, imagining them welling up with tears of frustration at my cool.”

De Souza (@HeyVeronica, 5,600 followers) has only blocked two people. She is, she told me, subject to some hateful stuff—“mostly from men”—but generally considers blocking to be counterproductive: “I think that when someone wants to be an asshole on the internet, hitting the block button only fuels the fire. I just let people scream it out until they’re over it.”

But for those who experience unrelenting abuse, blocking is an important self-protective measure. In the wake of Amanda Hess’s story, Hess has been the recipient of ”a flood of positive and negative attention to me on Twitter at a volume that I had not previously dealt with.”

Most of the responses have been positive, she told me, but then there’s the correspondent who informed her, “You would probably enjoy rape anyways. Stupid feminist, you are sick and perverted. I am glad that people abuse you.”

Hess has tweaked her blocking policy, out of necessity. She wants to ensure that interactions that matter to her—“legitimate criticism of my work, press requests, Kim Gordon RTs, etc.”—aren’t lost in a sea of abuse. Is she worried that blocking will cause her antagonizers to redouble their efforts? “I have no idea if blocking someone inspires more retribution, but I don’t have much experience with it at this point.”

The option to block, Hess said, poses a paradox. Even if she blocks a user and it’s utterly effective—meaning she’s shielded from the abusive language or Twitter suspends the account outright—it’s not as if the threat itself disappears. “If the target doesn’t read the rape threat,” she asked, “does it stop being threatening? I don’t buy it.” So long as her stalker—about whom she writes in her essay—maintains his obsession, he “constitutes a threat to me, whether I block his harassing messages or not.” So Hess doesn’t block serious threats; she’d prefer to know what, and who, she’s dealing with. A catalogue of the abuse will be helpful, should the police get involved, but it also provides peace of mind.

In this way, especially for women, blocking extends beyond swatting away the most annoying members of the peanut gallery. While for men, blocking is a method for swatting away irritants, for women in the public eye, it’s a layer of protection against cyberstalking.

“When it comes down to it,” said Hess, “blocking a user or obsessively monitoring them are the only powers I have in this situation.”

Elon Green is a Brooklyn-based writer who contributes to The Awl and Nieman Storyboard. You can follow him–or block him–at @elongreen.