Why the Block Button Encourages Fear and Threatens Community

[2021 UPDATE: I have since recanted this position. But I leave this essay up for any dubious historical value it may hold.]

On Monday night, I discovered quite by accident that a midlist author had blocked me on Twitter. Not unfollowed, but blocked. This had come after nearly a year and a half of mutual help and steady correspondence. In recent months, this author confided to me about his problems. I made several gestures to meet up with the author on his next trip into the city so that we could talk about this in person. I believed in his talent. I knew a few people who could help him out.

After I had interviewed the author before an audience, we pledged a get together. He didn’t respond for weeks. He had secured what he needed. Now I could be dropped. It was probably impetuous of me to conclude this, much less assume that the author was capable of responding to email or even following up on his many pledges while on the road. On the evening that the author next rode into town, the two of us exchanged hostile words through that woefully unsubtle and impulsive form of communication known as email banged out on smartphone keyboards. Neither of us came across very well. Shortly after this, the author’s wife, who had a much wiser head about the way men emote than the two foolhardy men here in question, sent a diplomatic email trying to find out what happened. I thanked her for her email and explained my frustrations, apologizing for my part in the exchange, and pledged a cooling off period. Weeks later, I discovered that the author had blocked me on Twitter. He had also blocked my longtime partner, who had no role in the dispute whatsoever.

I know that I behaved badly and the reasonable email from the author’s wife helped me arrive at that conclusion. I also recognize that nobody is under any obligation to follow anybody. But isn’t blocking over the top? Pushing the online world’s answer to the big red button is something one reserves for a cyberstalker, a full-bore troll, a spammer, or a truly dangerous individual, not a former acquaintance that you had a vitriolic spat with.

Yet the power to block people on social media over pedantic offenses has encouraged many otherwise sharp blades to push down their capacity for tolerance and ratchet up the fear. It’s a remarkably contemptuous response to the paradoxical nature of existence. For who among us hasn’t uttered rash words or muttered moronic quips? The block button is free speech’s answer to the gun-toting libertarian who holes up in his bunker, claiming that he doesn’t need government services to put out the fires or stop crime or service the highways or take out the trash or maintain the sewers. It is an ideal that sounds noble in theory, but is precipitous in practice. As Jacob Silverman argued in Slate back in August, offense or disagreement doesn’t have to be toxic.

In writing this essay, I don’t wish to make the same mistakes that New York‘s Nathan Heller did two weeks ago, approaching this complicated subject from a privileged and blinkered position. Back in May, Richard Cooper pointed out how Twitter media bigshots shut down their critics. This was followed in October by a lengthy post from Neil Bomb’d about how comedians employed their fans to bully detractors in numbers. This week, Chris Brown and his followers attacked Jenny Johnson on Twitter with deeply misogynist remarks. There are also Laurie Penny’s ongoing reports about the sexual bullying of women and girls online, the IDF’s recent aggressive use of Twitter to foment ideological conflict, and sites which pilfer pictures from social media in the name of scummy extortion.

The block button is the very instrument which has permitted these many unpleasant online conflagrations to flourish. It is a poor and inefficient mechanism that has deigned to place judgment in the hands of the users, but that has mostly encouraged our worst instincts and clearly not learned from history. It was the hideous phrase “blocked for stupidity” which attracted Cooper’s notice. Bomb’d reports that a user named MissSpidey tried to report abusive users to seek understandable redress. She became suspended from Twitter for “aggressive blocking.” Not only does the block button incite users to feel anger and retaliate when on the receiving end, but it can’t even be properly used in its native mode.

I believe that getting beyond all this will involve either extirpating the block button from our social media interfaces or resorting to more enduring human qualities that don’t require any particular software platform. As I noted back in August, it isn’t an epidemic of niceness that’s the problem, but a paucity of kindness and respect. If we can stop erecting massive edifices that get in the way of conversations and we learn from the free flow that has permitted a thousand cat videos and a million animated GIFs to bloom, there’s a chance of improving how we communicate.

* * *

Before the block button granted every individual the power to stub out any vaguely offensive viewpoint from a timeline, there were comment moderators. The comment moderator had the thankless yet invaluable duty of sifting through tens of thousands of comments each month in an online forum, flagging highly offensive or disruptive remarks that went over the line. Not only did this system create a third party that arbitrated disputes and explicated motivations in a respectful and relatively neutral tone, but it permitted users and moderators alike to strike an acceptable compromise between preserving distinct voices and perpetuating a healthy community.

Lessons from 11 years of community (my SXSW 2011 talk) from Matt Haughey on Vimeo.

In a video adapted from his 2011 SXSW talk, Metafilter founder Matt Haughey smartly outlines some vital maxims he learned during eleven successful years of community moderation. He suggests that community moderators refrain from being overprotective. “I mean, we’ve come to the conclusion,” says Haughey at the 4:15 mark, “you know, putting up barriers when necessary, only after they’ve been permissive for years and years. And I like to think of this as a concert. You know, you don’t want your security at the front, between the band and the crowd, pushing the crowd back. That’s not really what you want moderators to be. You want them to be kind of part of it. Participants in it.” Haughey also mentions in the video that the burnout emerging from constant complaints from users causes moderators to turn into bad cops, losing sight of the initial reasons why they organized the community in the first place. Haughey also says it’s helpful to give users a forum to vent and offer feedback.

But as comment moderating power has shifted from third party mediators to individual users, the distinctions that retired community moderator Elliot Guest observed between someone who deviates from the accepted norm, someone who hasn’t read the full context and who enjoys tossing out acronyms like “tl:dr,” and someone who sets out to instigate chaos for chaos’s sake have become mangled. As individual users block with their emotions, anyone even remotely belligerent becomes a troll. Negative feelings perpetuate additional negative feelings. And instead of a thriving democracy, online community deteriorates into little more than a collection of volatile city-states perpetually at war with each other.

It didn’t help when many of the Web’s rosy pioneers encouraged the block button as it became a more prominent part of online existence. In 2010, Derek Powazek wrote:

I propose that blocking people on sites like Twitter or Flickr should not be interpreted as an insult. I propose that it’s simply taking yourself out of someone else’s attention stream.

If I block you on Twitter, my tweets no longer show up in your timeline. If I block you on Flickr, my photos no longer show up on your contacts page. In these settings, this is the only way for me to remove myself from your attention.

Not an insult? With all due respect, what could be more egomaniacal than Powazek’s “one strike” policy?

If you post a tweet that bothers me for any reason, no matter how small or petty, it’s extremely likely that you’ll do it again. It’s so likely, in fact, that I’m going to save myself the annoyance and just unfollow you now. After all, you’re not on My List of People I Must Be Okay With, and I’m not on yours. I’m just choosing to have one less brief annoyance in my day.

I’m bothered by all of this, but it would never occur to me to put Powazek on the same level as George Lincoln Rockwell. That’s as preposterous as forcing some drunken lout in a bar to vanish into thin air using a Samsung Galaxy and a pair of chopsticks. It’s simply beyond the laws of real world physics, yet faith in online simulacra has us thinking we can bend the rules. Well, it didn’t work for gamification advocates like Jane McGonigal and it won’t work for social media. The human spirit is too muscular and manifold to be packed into a digital valise.

Moreover, the willingness to write off some figure who tells us something we don’t want to hear, and to do this over a mere 140 character message, is nothing less than an irrational and unhealthy fear which fails to account for the distinct possibility that there may be some positive quality contained within the petty annoyances. It is a declaration against outside-the-box thinking, representing a growing incapacity to reckon with vital human realities or topics we may need to think about.

Nobody wants to be told, for example, that the global temperature could rise by 4 degrees Celsius as early as 2060, but it’s a very real consideration that even a neoliberal organization like The World Bank has warned against. Suppose that something like this or, for those who still think climate change is a hoax, the indisputable scientific fact that the carbon atom has six electrons is a petty annoyance for someone like Powazek.

At this point, the common fantasy expressed on Facebook and Formspring of being able to block people in real life takes on a more sinister and anti-intellectual quality. It becomes no different from a creationist attempting to block Darwin from being taught in the classrooms or an NYPD sketch artist resorting to racist stereotypes because he has blocked out the possibility that a suspect who killed three Brooklyn shopkeepers is some guy with a moustache. Perhaps most perniciously, it has the result of reducing thoughtful adults to oversensitive sixth graders plugging fingers in their ears and barking “La! La! La! I can’t hear you!” at every opportunity.

I’d like to think that most people, including the author I described at the beginning and me, are better than this. Online culture is disastrous in accepting people’s faults. It encourages a scorched earth mentality with a single click. What would happen if the people we disliked were allowed in our timelines? Perhaps if other people we trusted were retweeting and referencing these debauched or hopeless souls, we might reconsider our opinion. We might come to know them better, or at least as well as online communication will allow. We might see, as we often do when hanging out with somebody in real life, that one’s time on this earth is too short to roll out the howitzer over something small or petty. Kurt Vonnegut once suggested that the most daring thing for young people to do “is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” I can’t think of a more deliberate cancer to court than blocking somebody over a stupid tweet. But until someone comes up with a better idea to manage the trolls, the button remains irresistible.

what is this

I’m not sure what this place is or what I’m doing here. I got an email with a login URL, a username, and a password. I forgot about it for half a day then emailed back asking what I should be doing with this. Then I remembered a few days earlier, someone asked me if I wanted to guest blog somewhere. But I didn’t know when. Now I realize that when is now. The reason Ed didn’t return my email is because he’s away; that’s why he needs guest bloggers.

I’m a stranger here, I think.

Here’s an interview with me that was posted on Michelle Lin’s blog today.

In the interview I talk about my book and about how my dog attacked me when I was five. We put the dog “to sleep.” That’s a phrase I like.

Here’s my book, which is called Fires.

Another novel you might like is The Magus by John Fowles. It’s very good.

I’m tired. I ate many oysters tonight, as well as some mango sorbet.

Here’s the beginning of a new novel, which I may never finish:

passing through

Strangelets pass through the planet at 900,000 miles per hour. Space is a great river, the earth is a porous cloth, and in the water are strangelets. (Or you might say they’re a part of it, actually.) Other things in, or of, the water: neutrinos on their way from the sun in the trillions of trillions, muons careening out of deep space, and perhaps even the ghostly and sluggish Weakly Interacting Massive Particle, which no one is sure exists. Those things are all passing through the planet—easily, in numbers beyond comprehension. They are passing through your face now—your eyes and teeth and hair.

Here’s a post on my blog about accidentally going to a gay pool party this weekend.


Or Perhaps Some Folks Need a Surrogate Baby Blanket To Cling To

Cato Institute (PDF): “In the end, it is not clear how one can deal with the public’s often irrational — or at least erratic — fears about remote dangers. Some people say they prefer comparatively dangerous forms of transportation like the private passenger automobile (the cause of over 3 million deaths during the 20th century) to safe ones like commercial airlines because they feel they have more ‘control.’ But they seem to feel no fear on buses and trains — which actually are more dangerous than airliners — even without having that sense of control and even though derailing a speeding train or crashing a speeding bus is likely to be much easier for a terrorist than downing an airliner. And people tend to be more alarmed by dramatic fatalities — which the September 11 crashes certainly provided — than by ones that cumulate statistically. Thus, the 3,000 deaths of September 11 inspire far more grief and fear than the 100,000 deaths from auto accidents that have taken place since then. In some respects, fear of terror may be something like playing the lottery except in reverse: the chances of winning the lottery or dying from terrorism may be microscopic, but for monumental events that are, or seem, random, one can irrelevantly conclude that one’s chances are just as good, or bad, as those of anyone else.” (via Boing Boing)

The Kookysolo Manifesto

Sasha Cagen’s book, Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics, is now ranked 436 at Amazon. But I must take umbrage with Ms. Cagen’s success. I fear that Ms. Cagen has plagiarized me. Back in April 1997, I wrote a piece for Motherfuckin’ Angry Motherfucker, a zine assembled by a staff of one at Kinko’s with a modest circulation of 42. I’ve contacted my attorney about this and he’s informed me that a little bit of public exposure may help my case. I’ve also obtained permission from the editors of Motherfuckin’ Angry Motherfucker to reprint my piece, “The Kookysolo Manifesto,” in full on this website. There are, of course, certain similarities between the two catchphrases “quirkyalone” and “kookysolo.” However, I wish to assure my readers that this was simply an essay whipped up in the course of a drunken evening. If I had known that “kookysolo” had appeal, I would have cashed in the same way that Ms. Cagen has. Of course, there are also subtle differences between our respective philosophies. But I leave the readers to judge the results (and Ms. Cagen’s possible theft) for themselves.

People Like Us: The Kookysolos
by Edward Champion

I am, perhaps, what you may call a man who masturbates frequently. Relationships are like nectar from the gods. They happen, but perhaps only once in a blue moon. For years, I’ve wondered if I should check into a clinic or get a liposuction. But, of course, that would be a betrayal. Why would I desire to be one of those ironies that grace the magazine covers? The Meg Ryan type cast in repeated roles that involve a concept as believable as a government that never lies: the absolutely gorgeous young woman who can’t seem to find Mr. Right or so much as a date with a fine young stallion.

The morning after New Year’s Eve (another hangover in bed alone, another year minus a good afterglow) I was standing in the San Francisco air when I realized that I needed one of two things: a good lay or a cup of coffee. I settled for the coffee, since getting the good lay involved an endeavor more intricate and demanding than getting a Ph.D. At least if I wanted something immediate. I drank three double lattes, just to be sure that I was awake, and began rambling incohrently to the guy behind the counter, who was also suffering from a hangover. “I’ve got it!” I exclaimed. “Kookysolo.” Needless to say, I was 86ed from the cafe. My picture hangs on the wall.

But I knew that I had something with this kookysolo thing. It was clear to me that not only was this a term that could stick with the socially inert, but that it could be used as an excuse for those people who are afraid to introduce themselves or to give their fellow humans the benefit of the doubt. Gravitating towards the kookysolo label would allow people a justification for their own self-pity, those people who watch Love Connection or Blind Date in the dark.

We are the puzzle pieces who never actually throw themselves into the box. We inhabit singledom as our natural capitulating state. In a world where most people have no problem living up to John Donne’s idea that no man is an island, we are, by force of our convictions, our abrasive personalities, and our failure to remember first names, hopelessly antisocial.

Yet make no mistake: We are no less concerned with making an effort to ask someone out on a date, whether we be male or female. We do not have the courage to voice our interests in someone. Secretly, we are romantics, but romantics who are terrified of putting ourselves out there or giving a stranger a chance. We want a miracle. We want someone to somehow perceive our terrifying inability to interact and do the work for us. And in this quest, which is no different from plopping onto the couch with the remote control rather than getting out into the world, we are our own worst enemies.

For the kookysolo, the world is a terrifying place of axe-murderers and rapists behind every corner. We cannot conceive of the possibility of failure and when it does happen, as it does all too frequently, we remain convinced that the world is out to get us. Thus, we go home and watch television and drown ourselves in a bottle of wine rather than pick ourselves up and accept that, yes, one day, a nifty soulmate will be there, so long as we keep plugging away. We kookysolos have become so hopelessly placated by our 57 channels of cable and the number of beverages in a convenience store that we’re surprised that the same principles cannot be applied to relationships.

By the same token, being alone is understood as a way to reinforce these terrible impulses, to be considerably more hindered by our fears. Our weekends are full of intricate rituals. Lots of potato chips and television and vodka. Even if we do find the fortitude to go on a date, we’re terrified by the prospect of wrapping our arms around our date just to see how it feels. Because we go into the thing assuming the worst.

And so, a community of kookysolos is essential.

Since people like us eventually hit a point where we’re willing to throw in the towel, it becomes essential to get together with other kookysolos and have pity parties. Support groups are just the tip of the iceberg. We need manifestos. We need self-help books that are modeled exclusively on half-baked theories rather than science. We are a demographic that will always buy these books. Because, dammit, it’s something we can reach for in the hermetically sealed comfort of our own home. It’s something that confirms what’s destructive to us.

But if this is what it means to live, then you can count me out. Because probably the worst thing that can happen is when one kookysolo hooks up with another kookysolo, and the two of them kvetch endlessly about their own fears and limitations. Bonding based on crippling negativity is a recipe for chaos. If the relationship survives, it will be quilted in emotionally clingy fabric, which is healthy for neither party. But chances are more likely that it will end badly, and it will further terrify both kookysolos into avoiding relationships.

The earth will quake if anyone, en masse, actually believes that being kookysolo is a good idea.