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23 August 2023

Losing Twitter’s block function would be a disaster

Elon Musk’s number-one goal is to make “X” the home of “free speech”, a concept he wrongly equates to harmful speech without repercussions.

By Sarah Manavis

Blocking someone on social media is a relief like no other. You can mute, you can log off, but there is no greater reassurance when being irritated, stalked or spammed online than knowing the person doing it has been completely cut off from your profile. Nowhere does this apply more than on Twitter – a platform that encourages direct and constant communication. This is the platform’s main selling point, but it also leaves users more open to harassment. If you have been tagged in an endless string of unsolicited posts, become someone’s online obsession or even found yourself the subject of a pile-on, the ability to block isn’t just nice, it’s a necessity.

However, in a tweet last Friday (18 August) Elon Musk announced that Twitter would be “deleting” the ability to block other users, limiting the feature to private messages only. In a follow-up tweet, he offered the illuminating explanation: “It makes no sense.” This was swiftly met with backlash. Some users also questioned whether Twitter would go through with it given it could mean being removed from the Google and Apple app stores, both of which have terms that require platforms with user-generated content to include a block function. Many said such a decision would finally push them off the site. In response, Musk posted the day after: “Pretty fun blocking people who complain that blocking is going away. How does the medicine taste?” followed by two cry-laughing emojis.

There’s little other information available about why this is being proposed, or when – if – it will be introduced. That said, most of Musk’s ideas do appear to have been implemented since he took over the site, and decreasing profitability hasn’t stopped him from making ill-informed decisions at any point in his ten-month ownership. A post from Twitter’s CEO, Linda Yaccarino, also makes the change seem likely: “Our users’ safety on X is our number one priority. And we’re building something better than the current state of block and mute. Please keep the feedback coming.”

The reasons why removing the block function would be disastrous feel almost too obvious to list. A block function exists on almost every platform because abusive content appears on all social media platforms, not just Twitter. The block function dulls the worst experiences of it. And blocking doesn’t just mitigate spam and harassment, but prevents personal information from reaching specific people (or at least makes it a lot more difficult to access). Across all platforms, blocking ex-partners, abusive or estranged family members and stalkers is an important safety tool, even when these people aren’t actively harassing their target. It is also worth noting that people online can be extremely annoying – someone replying to your every post, sending you constant DMs or just being a mild pest is fixed by removing their ability to interact with you.

Perhaps Musk truly doesn’t understand the potential ramifications. When a Twitter engineer posted to explain what this change might look like, suggesting it could mean strengthening the “mute” function (such as it preventing people from replying or quoting your posts) Musk replied, “Mayhem over nothing,” again with a cry-laughing emoji. It’s not just the current owner either: Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s founder and former CEO, replied to Musk’s tweet supporting the idea. Users, he wrote, should be able to “mute only”. However, it feels naive to think Musk isn’t aware of the problems that being able to block users solves. Removing the block function gets him closer to the platform he is apparently trying to create: one that allows him and those who think like him to say whatever they want, without consequence. The announcement comes just weeks after Musk threatened to sue the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, an organisation that has tracked trends in abuse and harassment on Twitter. Musk’s number-one goal is to make “X” the home of “free speech” – a concept he wrongly equates to harmful speech without repercussions.

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This reveals a deep misunderstanding of what social media (and especially Twitter) should be. Musk and many others seem to think that its entire purpose is to constantly expose us to anyone and everyone’s beliefs and feelings. This is what we’re told is the value of a “digital town hall” or the “marketplace of ideas”. But who would really want this? We don’t spend our physical lives being followed around by people screaming disagreement at us – nor do we voluntarily spend our time consuming reams of information we find boring, nonsensical or offensive. What makes social media enjoyable is, yes, being exposed to different ideas, but using them to connect – sharing, laughing and talking about them with acquaintances and friends. It’s not about being relentlessly forced to listen to the unhinged thoughts of anyone who’d like to have unfettered access to you.

It’s always hard to know what is coming next from Musk’s Twitter. It may well keep key elements of the block feature. But what we do know is that more is coming, diminishing Twitter to a shadow of what it once was. It risks becoming a platform defined not by ideas, not by communication, but primarily by noise.

[See also: Russia’s war on the future]

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