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Why the Block Button Encourages Fear and Threatens Community

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.

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12 Comments

  1. Edward –

    This outlines much of my uneasiness about the interpersonal dynamics of the social media I’ve come to rely upon so much. You’ve provided excellent background on the block button and a useful framework for considering what we might all do to improve our own dispositions. Thank you.

    Mark

  2. I must be missing something, because it seems like you’re conflating an offense against society, such as blocking Darwin from being taught in schools, with an individual decision not to listen to another individual.

    This is ridiculous. It implies that you should have the right to decide what I want to see, which puts you on the same side as the government keeping Alex’s eyes open in “Clockwork Orange.”

  3. Bill: To clarify, you’ll note that I frame the comparison from the vantage point of a creationist — that is, an individual who wishes to inflict moral or religious views when educational or philosophical proof is to the contrary — onto an institutional canvas, not the other way around. Community is typically a scenario which involves people having to learn to get along with each other, with Thanksgiving as a prime example of this. If ignoring something in the real world works (that is, tolerating an annoying person but finding SOME part of the experience to be of value), then ignoring in the online world also works. Indeed, it has worked. Because humans are resilient and, even if you don’t abide by Will Rogers’s notion of liking everybody, patience eventually rewards.

  4. I’m wondering if you made it to the end of my essay? I really tried to make it clear that I was one guy trying to figure out how to live my life online, without losing my mind, using the tools at hand. I was not advocating my method for everyone. It’s up to you to decide how to use the social web we have.

    And if you think my one-strike policy means I never see things I disagree with, you have vastly over-estimated my desire to block (which I thought was pretty vast to begin with), as well as my intent.

    You’ve been on the internet a long time, Ed. Do you really think it’d be possible to filter out every dissenting opinion? (Again, NOT what I was advocating. I like dissent. I don’t like being annoyed. There’s a difference.) Do you think I would ever advocate such a thing?

    I get that you needed a scapegoat to hang all this on. You just picked the wrong one. You could clutch your pearls with Eli Pariser and Robert Putnam, for example.

    But not me. You took my simple personal essay and turned it into some sort of anti-intellectual, censorship blahblahblah, which it clearly was not.

    In the end, you’re allowed to feel however you want when someone blocks you. But, personally, I think you’re wasting your time. If you’re writing anything worth reading, you’re bound to annoy someone, somewhere. And when you do, they may decide not to read you anymore. Their loss.

    Where’s the block button for this blog, anyway?

  5. Derek: You’ve been on the Internet a long time too. In fact, we’ve gotten into it before. But we’ve patched things up for one very simple reason: there wasn’t a block button.

    As it so happens, I did read your essay to the very end. And I’m afraid I can’t find it in my heart to block or unfollow you. I’ve yet to find evidence of you stalking my family or participating in race riots. And I’m afriad that I’m just too interested in learning about other viewpoints and practicing critical thinking to write somebody off over an asinine reason. But thanks for stopping by and elaborating on your perspective. Sincerely, I hope all is well!

  6. Yes, Ed. I remember you, too. I wish that history would have helped you understand my essay better. I’ll try to sum it up.

    My point was: We each get to decide how to use the social media tools we have.

    And the point of your comment seems to be: I decide how to use the social media tools I have.

    So where do we disagree exactly? Perhaps it’s that you get to tell everyone else how to use their community management tools, but I don’t. But I’m the egotistical one, naturally.

    Since you got my attention by mischaracterizing my essay so badly, I get to give you my two cents:

    Cent 1: You are giving WAY too much esteem to a single tool on a single network. The internet is bigger than that (and so are people). Counter to what you say, blocking is one of many tools required to form healthy communities online. That’s because communities online takes different shapes than it does offline, and the tools we use are still evolving. As I said in my essay, they need to get better.

    Cent 2: I’m sorry you got your feelings hurt by someone who blocked you after you were “hostile” with them in email. Maybe the lesson here has nothing to do with the block function on Twitter. Maybe it has more to do with maintaining your calm in general.

    In my experience, it’s only the people who tend to be “hostile” online that feel threatened by tools like block. To everyone else, they’re just another tool to help manage their attention. Nothing more.

    But if you were goading me into blocking you on Twitter, job well done!

  7. Derek: As I articulated in my previous comment, I haven’t mischaracterized your essay. The point here is that the block button is a useless over-the-top instrument — one that hasn’t improved on the more successful tool of community moderation — that turns otherwise rational people like you into fearful anti-intellectual types. I mean, you’re on record years ago as saying that a critical comment on a blog is an attack on a person. That’s absolutely bananapants — especially now, when the extreme nature of cyberbullying has shown the folly of your remark. (In fact, one of your arguments along those lines is why we got into it.)

    As I said, we’ve both argued with each other in the past. But we’ve both been human enough to listen to each other and work out where the other person was coming from. I’m sorry that you feel so needlessly threatened by mildly annoying or vaguely peevish viewpoints differing from your own and that you’re so lacking in confidence that you need to hit the nuclear option because you can’t deal with reality. That’s absolutely an egotistical position, even though I don’t believe you, Derek, on the whole to be a narcissist. I know your record. You’ve given back many times. Fray and beyond. But that block button turns you into an egomaniac. Which is just plain sad and unnecessary. In my experience, it’s the people who take few chances or who condemn those who do, or who feel threatened by anybody attempting to wrestle with implications, who are terrified of serious intellectual engagement.

  8. “That he didn’t take the time to see who he’s talking to, hear what I was saying, or even calm down enough to disagree without insult, makes me sad. Not just to lose a personal hero, but also because it shows how much work we all have yet to do before we can really fulfill the promise of the great networked world we’re building.”

    http://powazek.com/posts/2851

  9. “I can’t think of a more deliberate cancer to court than blocking somebody over a stupid tweet.”

    I think there are a number of factors at play here. First, if someone’s first tweet to someone is aggressive, hostile, or threatening, that’s not a great first impression — and I wouldn’t fault someone for blocking someone over that, especially if the person is hiding behind an anonymous account. First impressions seem to be even more important in the digital world because of a tool like the block button.

    The second issue is with people you have an established virtual relationship with, and the third issue I think is with people you know “in real life.” In these two scenarios, knowing when to “pull the trigger” is, from my experience, a long, drawn out process. A single tweet doesn’t trigger it; a pattern of behavior, over several months, might. I’m optimistic there are other ways to handle these types of situations, but haven’t found the answer yet. All I’ll say is the tools are imperfect, and so are people (myself included).

    I recently tried a more conciliatory approach with someone who was a virtual acquaintance, someone I’d exchanged emails with and interacted with on Twitter but had not met in real life. This person called me an “asshole,” and when I asked what I had done to prompt this, they blocked me. I tried to reach out via email and see if we couldn’t discuss things — I honestly had no idea what I’d done to slight them. But, alas, I was met with more flames.

  10. Your drunken lout cannot be magically removed from a bar therefore he should not be removed from an online fourum because an environment where all the observers of an event cannot take part in the event is unnatural and should not happen?
    By your logic, the sketch artists racist ideas about a murder having a mustache were the opinions of a another human being therefore is it necissary not to remove them from from the investigation.

    Is the huffington post a steaming pile of garbage because television tropes infest its authors to a point that they are so afraid to be associated with racism that they cannot properly reason a point in their own article?

    You stated that ‘blocking would turn adults into overly sensitive 6th graders’ I believe that in the real world “blocking overly sensitive 6th graders may eventually turn them into adults”.

    In this article, you have embodied everything which is petty, annoying, and unnessissary.

  11. [...] the Block Button: Edward Champion draws on human psychology and anti-Darwinist movements to make a case against social media’s “block” [...]

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