Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

What We Can Learn from the Twitter Block Fiasco

An edited version of this article first appeared in Wired.

Here’s what happened in plain English. Twitter has a feature called “Block.” If I block you on Twitter, you can no longer interact with me (follow, retweet, favorite, etc). Last week, Twitter changed block so that previously blocked people could once again interact with the people who had blocked them. And those people were pissed.

After an intense night of thrash, including a lively #RestoreTheBlock hashtag, Twitter reverted the change. Now, then. What have we learned? And what can other companies with large communities take away from this teachable moment?

1. You can’t change the rules in the middle of the game.

People were upset for good reason. They’d spent years adding jerks, haters, and abusers to a carefully crafted block list. The agreement these people had with Twitter was simple: “I don’t want these people to interact with me again.”

Twitter changed that without warning. Suddenly everyone in that blocked group could interact with you again – follow you, retweet your tweets, etc. This broke Twitter’s agreement with its users.

Worse, when those blocked people now interacted with you, Twitter would hide it from you. So if someone was harassing you, all your friends could see it, but you could not. They changed block from something you did to others, to something you did to yourself.

Had they added a new feature called “Mute” that operated the same way the new block did, alongside the current block, no one would have complained. But to change the way an existing community tool worked, especially one so central to the safety and sanity of users, is to court disaster.

2. You can’t make changes in secret.

The change itself was a bad idea. Compounding the badness was how the change was communicated to users: it wasn’t.

Implementing the change with no word or warning created the appearance of Twitter trying to sneak something past its users. I’m not saying that was their intent, but the way it rolled out was guaranteed to make it look sneaky.

Talking to TechCrunch and updating a FAQ is not communicating with your users. Twitter is a communication platform. They have absolutely no excuse for a lack of communication.

When you make a change to a core piece of community functionality, you have to tell your users about it directly, in advance, solicit their feedback, and then listen. You can’t make a change and hope nobody notices. They always notice.

3. Never punish the victims.

The most outrageous part of this whole story is that, despite Twitter’s claims to the contrary, they were fixing the problems of the harassers who got blocked, not the people who were doing the blocking.

I’ve managed many communities with tools like this, and worked with many more, and you’d be amazed how common it is for people who misbehave and get punished to come crying to the admins. But scratch the surface of their complaints and, nine times out of ten, they were the ones in the wrong. “Well, yeah, I did break the rules, but I still shouldn’t be punished!”

Twitter, when faced with years of complaints from the blocked, capitulated to them by restoring access to the users who had blocked them. Then they had the gall to claim that this change would be good for the people who did the blocking.

When making a core policy change like this, always ask yourself, who’s problems are we solving? And what additional problems might we create? Had Twitter spoken to any real users about this change, they would have heard loud and clear what a bad idea it was.

4. Large communities need more than one management tool.

Block is a necessary tool for communities to manage themselves, but it’s not the only tool you need in a community of millions. In the past I’ve likened it to “setting the dinner table with only chainsaws.” We need more humane, nuanced tools for people to manage their networks, and their attention.

What Twitter tried to do is change Block to Mute. A block tool severs the ties between two users. But a mute tool is a simple filter: “Don’t show me stuff from that guy, or stuff that contains these words.” The fact that many third-party Twitter clients have built their own mute tools is proof that it’s needed. Twitter should add it natively without taking away the existing block tool.

There are many more tools that could and should be added. Humans are weird and messy and we require weird and messy tools. Here are a few top-of-my-head examples.

  • People often block because there’s no other way to remove a tweet from view. If Twitter added a “Dismiss” tool for any tweet (just like the one that exists for ads), there’d be less need to block right away.
  • I’ve often wanted a “Timeout” tool that operates like block with a time limit – blocking another user for a day or a two and then unblocking. This would be a great way to short-circuit an argument without implementing a permanent block.
  • I also frequently use a technique I call a “Spike” – blocking someone, which forces them to unfollow me, and then unblocking them again so there’s no trace. This is a workaround – I’d rather just have the ability to remove myself from someone else’s follow list without notification. I see this like leaving a party without saying goodbye.
  • At the same time, Twitter should be monitoring accounts that get blocked or receive other negative feedback for sudden jumps in activity. If a user gets carried away, goes of the deep end, or misses their meds, Twitter could step in. “Hey, we’ve noticed you’re getting a lot of negative feedback today. Are you okay?” Sometimes just getting noticed is enough to calm someone down.
  • Block has always been half-finished on Twitter. Where is the page that shows all the people I’m blocking? There isn’t one. How can a user send a polite appeal to get unblocked? They can’t. Twitter should finish building the feature before changing its core functionality.

I acknowledge that none of this is easy. But neither is creating a realtime multi-platform messaging platform that is used by millions, and Twitter has accomplished that. I know they could do better if they wanted to, and I know that if they don’t, their users will let them know about it. In the meantime, it’s a teachable moment for the rest of us building community online today. One that I hope the rest of the industry is paying attention to.


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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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