On a whiteboard, it must have seemed like a good idea: rejigger Twitter’s blocking system so that a blocked user could still view and respond to the Tweets of whomever blocked them, even if the blocker never saw any of that activity.
“When you block a user, they cannot tell that you’ve blocked them,” Twitter CEO Dick Costolo explained in a Dec. 12 Tweet. “It was a longstanding request from users of block…”
But when Twitter rolled out those changes late on Dec. 12, Twitter users promptly went DEFCON-1: virtually nobody, it seemed, wanted to lock down their entire accounts as “private” in order to keep stalkers from peering into their lives. After hours of online protests (which included the trending hashtag #restoretheblock), Twitter executives hastily switched back to the old policy.
“In reverting this change to the block function, users will once again be able to tell that they’ve been blocked,” read a note posted to Twitter’s official blog late on Dec. 13. “We believe this is not ideal, largely due to the retaliation against blocking users by blocked users (and sometimes their friends) that often occurs.” Some users, it added, “worry just as much about post-blocking retaliation as they do about pre-blocking abuse.”
The debacle highlighted the tension at the center of Twitter’s existence. In order to grow and stay relevant, the social network must facilitate connections between its users, and allow them to share information instantly; but at the same time—if only to avoid lawsuits—it must do everything in its power to keep users protected while on the platform.
Other social networks confront the same sort of issues on a regular basis, which is why most roll out new features with some degree of caution. Facebook, for example, often tests changes and upgrades on a small subset of users before introducing them to the broader population. That sort of gradual rollout is perhaps impossible to do with something like blocking, considering the need for privacy policies that apply uniformly to all users—but given the angry reactions, it stands to reason that Twitter should have done a bit more research before making its aborted move.