Thursday, Twitter announced it was reducing the power of the block button ever so slightly, making it more like a “mute” than a block. Within hours, the company had restored the block function back to its original state, after users, including many women, objected to the change. It was yet another demonstration of why it’s critical to get more women into decision-making roles in the social media industry: Women are sadly more likely to have firsthand experience with dealing with a social media stalker and are more likely to understand how dogged these guys can be.
Under the current system, if you block someone, they can see that they’re blocked because they can’t follow you or retweet your tweets. The problem that Twitter was, by their own measure, trying to fix is that by blocking someone, you are inadvertently acknowledging that user. He knows he got your attention long enough to be blocked, and a troll can eat out on that realization for a week. What the new system would have done was made it so that you couldn’t see him but he could see you, so he would spend his days and nights sending you harassing tweets, having no idea that you weren’t hearing any of it. It’s quite a pleasing image—especially if you’re a public figure, and 99.9 percent of the harassment you get online is from strangers anyway—so it’s easy to see why Twitter thought it would fix the problem.
But while muting trolls is smarter than blocking them for exactly this reason, for people who are dealing with actual stalkers online, this change presents its own problems. If the blocked person can still see, retweet, and favorite the object of his obsession, then, even if he can’t get to her as easily, he has a constant stream of material to feed his obsession. Plus, the temporary change underestimated the amount of creativity that a stalker puts into trying to find ways to get to his target. If your stalker ex-boyfriend retweets everything you write to let you know he’s watching you, simply not seeing it is not particularly soothing. Anyway, someone else in your common social circles will likely see his behavior and report it back to you.
It’s true that, under the current system, Twitter’s security leaves much to be desired, and there’s not an easy fix for a lot of it. If you block someone, all he has to do to see your account is log out and look at your public tweets. (Which is why, if you’re not a public figure and you have a stalker, setting your tweets to “private” may be the best solution.) If someone wants to continue to harass you, he can just start up another account.
There’s no one perfect solution to all this, which is why the smart thing for Twitter to do is give the user flexibility. Why not have both a “block” and a “mute” button? That way, you can weigh the pros and cons and decide if the best solution for your current harasser is to let him wail at you incessantly without any knowledge that you can’t seehim, or if cutting him off from the sweet honey of knowing what you’re tweeting is the better plan. We customize our follow lists, our user profile, and even the backdrop of our Twitter page. Why not let us customize our security options?