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Updated: Twitter tries to improve its block feature, but critics say it has done the exact opposite

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This story was updated at 8 p.m. PT after Twitter reversed the changes to its blocking policy.

After an outpouring of criticism from those who have been harassed on the service, Twitter (s twtr) reversed changes that it made to its blocking policy on Thursday. The company posted an update on its blog saying: “We have decided to revert the change after receiving feedback from many users – we never want to introduce features at the cost of users feeling less safe.”

The service rolled out the new policy on Thursday, changing what happens when a user blocks another user. While the company argued that this was an improvement over the old approach, some of those who have been forced to use the block feature in the past protested that the new version of the policy would actually make things worse.

According to a Reuters story about the changes that was published late on Thursday, senior Twitter executives in San Francisco had “rushed into a meeting to discuss the uproar.”

Under the old policy, a user who was blocked couldn’t see or interact with the tweets of the person who blocked them, and they got a notification that they had been blocked. Now the blocked user won’t be notified, but they will still be able to see the blocker’s tweets and interact with them by retweeting or favoriting them (although there is a workaround). As Kashmir Hill of Forbes points out, the new feature is more like a “mute” button.

“Blocking someone on Twitter now actually means you’re just muting them. It’s the digital equivalent of plugging your ears; they can shout but you won’t hear them.”

One argument in favor of the new policy is that since so much of Twitter is public, users weren’t really blocked under the old process anyway (since they could just log out or create a new account). Users can still make their accounts private — which means that users have to request to follow them — and anyone who is blocked by such a user is automatically forced to unfollow them.

Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and Twitter spokesman Jim Prosser said one feature of the new process — the fact that a blocked user isn’t notified — should help to cut down on some of the anger and retaliatory activity that has been seen in the past by users who were blocked. According to Costolo, this feature had been requested by many users who have experienced abuse:

Others, however, said that the moves by Twitter seemed to be favoring the interests of blocked or abusive users rather than those of the abused, since blocked users will be able to retweet and comment on the updates of their targets without them knowing. Some argued that this seems at odds with the company’s stated intentions to improve its treatment of users who have been subject to harassment — such as a British freelance journalist, who complained after being subjected to hundreds of abusive comments.

Political analyst and writer Zerlina Maxwell has launched a petition on asking Twitter to reverse the new policy — which she called “a nightmare” — saying it makes things worse for those who have been harassed:

“This is a huge and very serious problem for people, like me, who have received repeated rape and death threats on Twitter on a fairly consistent basis… Twitter is no longer a safe space. As a public person who uses the medium for my work, I am very concerned because stalkers and abusers will now be able to keep tabs on their victims.”

Some observers wondered whether Twitter’s changes were implemented because the company — which just recently went public and now has a market value of $30 billion — is concerned about the potential impact of users who might choose to block advertisers or brands. Costolo, meanwhile, said in a follow-up tweet that the company is continuing to evolve its policies, including the “report” button that it recently added to allow users to report abuse.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Alexey Losevich

6 Responses to “Updated: Twitter tries to improve its block feature, but critics say it has done the exact opposite”

  1. Michael Howe

    This story illustrates why we – as parents trying to keep our kids safe in their social media activity – need third party apps such as True Care, Amber Child Safety or Keep Kids Safe. We can’t rely on the networks themselves to help us protect them.

  2. Kathy E Gill

    The advantage of mute over banning has been made obvious in bulletin boards and forums where topics are contentious. People have been complaining that Twitter’s block function didn’t go far enough since at least 2009. Probably further back but I didn’t bracket a Google search. I’m in the “it’s not that big a change/wait and see” camp.

    • Kathy E Gill

      NOTE: people who have been blocked have ALWAYS been able to see public tweets. Always. Always. Always. The big difference in this policy change is that the blocked person won’t immediately know he is blocked — unless you are a prolific tweeter and his only follow.

  3. David Gratton

    When David Usher and I developed DEQQ it had a mute function as requested by David and a number of other artists and sports teams on the system. Since then we’ve seen a number of online fan forums adopt a similar approach. The advantage of the mute feature over banning was it kept hostilities of crazy fans down. When a fan got banned they would create a new account and come back with even more venom or harassing behaviour. Being ignored eventually “calmed them down” and they would leave of their own accord.

    I think muting with Twitter is a mistake. I see Twitter as a different beast, followers cannot “post” on the artist’s feed and pollute it as they can on forums or other artist owned community systems. With Twitter the harasser’s power is in knowing what the artists is tweeting and the ability to interact with those tweets within the many-to-many community.

  4. Twitter seems to keep trying harder and harder to manufacture its very own “Charge per email” Prodigy moment. Perhaps the Prodigy founders (and lead investors) should be locked in an auditorium with all the folks in twitter’s (so-called) Revenue department. Why lock the room? To keep “brands” ( aka advertisers ) out!
    They’re sitting on the largest gold mine in the history of digital tech, and seem to have no good ideas whatsoever to do with it.