Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

On Blocking

Today I got to participate in a conversation about Blocking in social spaces with a bunch of smart people including Sydette Harry and Georgia Bullen, organized by Dan Hon for his Hallway Track series. As usual for me in these things, I had way more thoughts than I had time to bring up, so I’m writing a few of them down here.

What is Blocking?

In an online social space, blocking is when one user wants to boot another from their experience. So if I block, say, David Brooks (a worthy block recipient if there ever was one), I should never hear from him again, and he should never see me, either.

But I think it’s a mistake to think of a block as a kind of relationship between two users. That’s impossible because the users don’t have a relationship after the block. Instead, blocking should be considered an agreement between a community member and the site itself. (I’m going to say “site” here but it could also be an app or the community leader or moderation team, etc.)

By blocking David Brooks, I’m telling the site that I don’t want to hear from or see that silly man ever again, and I also want to deny him from hearing from or seeing me. That’s the agreement. It’s between me and the site.

This distinction is important because it answers a lot of followup questions. Should blocked users be omitted from search results? Yes! The site promised. Should a blocked user be able to access my content in some other context on the site? No! Should a blocked user’s content ever be recommended to me? No! These answers are obvious when seen in this light, so it’s amazing how many social sites get this wrong.

What ISN’T blocking?

User-to-user blocking is not an excuse to abdicate your responsibility, as the site creator/leader/manager, to continue to manage your community. Far too many sites implement blocking and then take their hands off the wheel, leaving it to the users to fight among themselves. But that’s bad and wrong. It’s also missing a great opportunity, which I’ll get to in a bit.

So how should blocking work?

When a user is blocking someone, it should be as if they just moved away with no forwarding address. The site should never tell another user that they’ve been blocked (this is also a frequent mistake). When you tell your users that they’re blocking each other, it’s just an invitation to take the abuse to another network.

Abusers take getting blocked as a badge of success. How many times have you seen someone post a screenshot of a “You’re blocked” message posted as some kind of trophy? This is damaging to community health because other people see it and emulate it. It becomes an antisocial goal. Never give the abusers a goal.

One thing that came up in today’s conversation was that there are times when having the negative feedback loop can be important. You might want to tell someone you’ve blocked them. Which is true, sometimes. I’d just add that maybe that feedback should come from a moderator, or in another context. Certainly, there’s nothing stopping anyone from telling someone they’re about to get blocked if they persist in their abuse.

When is a block tool needed?

As much of a proponent of blocking as I am, I think it’s important to remember that blocking isn’t always required for every community system. Small communities with strong barriers to entry don’t always need a block tool. Slack doesn’t have a block tool, for example, because Slacks are closed (not public) and have active administrators. The administrator can block someone by booting them out, but users cannot.

Blocking is required in large, public venues with low barriers to entry. Basically, the easier it is to get in and annoy someone, the more tools your users will need to manage each other.

The big missed opportunity.

The idea of gamifying blocking came up (because anything that involves groups of humans can become a game) and I was adamant that, of course, you should not gamify blocking for the users. But you, as the site admin, should absolutely gamify blocking for yourself and your moderators.

Here’s what I mean: when a user blocks another user, that’s an important signal. If you watch to see who the most-blocked users are, that’s a goldmine of insight into how your users are behaving, and you should absolutely monitor who is getting blocked a lot today. It just shouldn’t be visible to users.

This doesn’t mean that you must act on every highly-blocked user. But it does mean something’s going on with them. Maybe they’re having a bad day, or maybe they’re getting dogpiled. Maybe they need a timeout, or maybe they need a moderator to reach out and see if they’re okay. This is where good old fashioned human community management comes in.

But either way, you have to watch who is getting blocked and take action when needed. I’m amazed that more sites don’t do this.

But isn’t blocking kind of brute force?

Yes, and this is where the real work is. In many cases, block is the only tool offered to users to manage their experience, and that sucks, because blocking is a baseball bat, and community management needs a more nuanced toolset.

So how should things change?

First, we barely teach new users how to use the tools they have. Most onboarding experiences don’t even mention block, what it does, or when you might need it, because we don’t want to scare users on their first day, but we have to teach them sometime, ideally before they’re receiving harassment.

Next, we never give users the ability to tell each other what kind of interactions they want. Some users may not want replies at all! Some might be there just to talk to the people they already know. Some might just be there to shitpost and they welcome all interactions. All of these users appear exactly the same. We could head off a lot of problems by just giving users a way to say “here’s what I’m here for, here’s what I do and don’t want.” Most people would respect it! And the ones that don’t, well, that’s what block is for.

Users should have tools to remove content from their view without blocking. Sometimes blocking is the only way to get an algorithm to stop recommending someone’s content to you. I’ve personally blocked people on TikTok not because they’re bad in any way, just because the algorithm overwhelmed me with their content, and a block was the only way to tell TikTok to stop. This is bad! There should be ways to say “little less of this, please” without having to block someone, but we don’t have tools for that.

Blocks are usually expected to be permanent, which is also kind of a bummer. We need ways to say “that’s enough from you today” without severing the connection forever. If we had more ways to limit our input, we could create more pro-social experiences.

And finally, getting blocked by a stranger is one thing, but getting blocked by a friend really stings. How can we create tools that understand and respect existing relationships?

There’s so much work to be done here. The more we congregate online, the more we need to demand humanistic, pro-social tools.

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.