Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Press the Magic Button

My “one strike” rule for Twitter/Flickr and why you shouldn’t be offended when someone blocks you.

I was walking down Haight Street the other day when it happened again. Some guy stepped out of a doorway and started talking to me. At me, really.

I wish I’d recorded the stream of verbal weirdness that came out of his mouth, because it was some real Grade-A crazy. I remember he had a strong concern about his soul being stolen. There was also some mention of aliens. It was hard to follow.

When I smiled and tried to step around him, he blocked my path and kept talking, louder.

Anyone who’s ever lived in a city of a certain size has had this experience. (If you haven’t, I suggest you move to a bigger city – just look at the fun you’re missing!) The causes are too complicated and sad to get into here, and not the point of this story.

The point of this story is that if I had a magic button that I could press right then that would have made him, or myself, disappear, I certainly would have pressed it.

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Life on the net can be hard. It’s human nature to want to be liked, and to feel bad when someone says something negative to you. And if it’s one thing we all know about the internet, it’s that at any moment, someone, somewhere, is saying something negative.

An easy solution would be to withdraw, to not participate at all. But the world is getting more digital, not less. Eventually we won’t have a choice: if we want any kind of social life, we’ll have to participate in the social web.

Another solution would be to develop a thicker skin. And while I’ve certainly done that over the years, I never want to become so callous that I just don’t care about anything. I want to be able to be myself in the world.

So the solution I’ve come to is this: I care a lot about a very small group of people. I maintain a hierarchy of who I need to be okay with. It starts with my wife Heather, my parents and my sister, and includes my clients and a very short list of friends. You know who’s not on that list? Anonymous internet commenters. For them and everyone else not on the list, I just try to remember a saying I heard once: “Your opinion of me is none of my business.”

If you’re reading this, chances are, you’re not on that list, and I’m sorry if that hurts your feelings. But the truth is, I’m probably not on your list, either. It’s okay if our hearts are not yet big enough to include everyone they deserve.

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I do a lot of public speaking. Gathered together in a room, most people understand the roles. I’m the guy onstage, trying to make them think. Or, at least, keep them entertained. And they’re the people who watch and wait their turn before talking.

But every once in a while there’s That Guy. The one who responds to everything I say. Or barks out a question when I’m talking about something else. He’s participating, he’s engaged. He’s just somehow opted-out of the social norms of the group.

There have been times when I’ve had to tell someone in the audience to shut up. I don’t say it like that, of course. I encourage them to hold their questions until the end. I have had to interrupt people, sometimes aggressively, because their question became a monologue. And every time it happens I feel terrible about it.

If there was a magic button I could press to just mute the guy so I can get back to my talk, would I press it? You betcha.

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If you use Twitter, you pay attention to your mentions – the tweets that include @yourusername – because that’s how you have conversations. And therein lies the problem, because anyone can tweet at you that way. Some of those people are batshit crazy like the Haight Street Guy, while others are just merely rude like the Conference Talker Guy.

The difference is, on Haight Street, you have to walk briskly away and hope you’re not followed. And at the conference, you have to de-escalate the conversation politely, in front of a crowd. But on Twitter, there is a magic button, and in one click, poof, the crazy is gone.

It’s a wonderful thing. A thing so lovely I often find myself wishing it existed in real life. So why is blocking such a taboo?

I think the Block function on sites like Twitter and Flickr is unfortunately named. There’s something about the word – Block! – that comes across as a personal insult. And that’s too bad, because it’s basically the only tool we have to effectively manage our social experience in those communities.

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.

Imagine for a moment if the function was called: “It’s not you, it’s me.” Or: “I just need a little space.” Or simply: “Engage cloaking device.” I doubt it would feel so personally insulting.

In my ideal world, choosing to sever a connection to another user in a virtual community would effectively make it so those two users simply never crossed paths again. They both should become invisible to the other. For each, it would be as if the other just left town without a word. No announcements, no blog posts, no “This user is blocking you and you should feel bad about it” server messages.

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I have a “one strike” rule when it comes to Twitter. Here’s how it works.

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.

If you @reply to me on Twitter and it’s a stupid joke, or a dumb retort, or something you could have just asked Google, there’s an extremely good chance that you’ll do it again. And why sign up for a service that annoys me every time I look at it? And if my choice is between knocking you down in front of everyone (like Conference Guy), or simply removing myself from your attention, I think it’s more polite to simply disappear from view. And the only way to do that, is to block you.

Note that in all these cases, the thing that annoyed me was probably posted with the best of intentions. It may not have bothered a man with more self-confidence and patience. But the intent doesn’t matter, and I am who I am. So I unfollow, and I block. A lot.

This is not about passing judgement on others. It’s about using the tools I’m given, in the social web we have, to find a way to participate that makes me mostly happy, most of the time. Or, at least, keeps me from wanting to jump off a cliff.

And every once in a while I go back and remove old blocks, or follow people I once unfollowed, just to give it another shot. We’re all somewhere on our path to 2,500 hours. Sometimes people just need a few more hours to not suck at it.

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After reading this or anything else I’ve written, if you’re feeling annoyed, I strongly encourage you to take my advice and unfollow or block me. I promise I won’t be offended. In fact, I’ll take it as a compliment.

And I place this open call to the designers of these social spaces we’re building: Block is a necessary tool, but it’s like setting the dinner table with only chainsaws. Communities need more nuanced tools to enable members to really manage their attention streams. What else can we build to help people manage these weird virtual connections we make in humanistic ways?

And if I could finally get that magic button for Haight Street, that’d be just great. Thanks.

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What do you think? Just keep the one strike rule in mind and … Tweet me!


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Hi, I’m Derek. I make awesome community-centric web stuff. I sometimes post things to Flickr and Twitter. I’m mostly harmless. More.





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