Feminism: Some Brief Thoughts on #RestoreTheBlock

[Content Note: Stalking, Harassment]

Ana's Note: I'm posting this from bed today, since my back is all messed up from my fall yesterday. This means I won't be able to embed links, because Android is really bad about exiting the Blogger app to go grab a link and come back with it. I'm sorry about that.

Last night, Twitter users spoke up loudly enough about the recent changes to the Twitter block button such that Twitter executives were forced to call an emergency meeting and revert the changes back to normal. The short version, for folks who weren't up and about when the storm happened is that (a) Twitter has a block button which lets you block another user, (b) the block button used to mean that the blocked user couldn't "follow" your tweets in his main aggregate feed, (c) Twitter changed the block functionality so that blocked people could still follow you and now all a block did was that you didn't see their tweets.

Twitter cited the reason for this change as being that harassers got even more upset when they were blocked, which they could see/know they were blocked because they lost your tweets in their aggregate feed. This was a really horrible change for a lot of reasons (many of which will, I think, be self-evident to readers here), but suffice to say that while I fully support Twitter implementing a Mute function in addition to the Block function, the way to do that isn't to neuter the Block function from the protection it previously provided.

I want to touch on a few thoughts that I couldn't flesh out more thoroughly last night.

There are too many people out there who don't know Harassment 101. I had a lot of people arguing with me about the simplest things, like they had all this insight into being harassed after having thought about it for ten seconds rather than having lived for months or years with online harassment. This tells me that we just don't talk about, or teach, or accurately portray harassment and that the only way to learn about it is to live it. That is massively insufficient.

I had people asking why a blocked person couldn't create a new account to follow us. (Answer: They can. Victims of harassment on twitter regularly preemptively block shady new follows that have no tweets, no followers, and no followings. *block!*) I had people asking why we would care about someone seeing our words if we can't see their responses, because they're muted. (Answer: Many harassers respond to what they see--they can be just as "out of sight, out of mind" as the rest of us. Being able to get our words in their aggregate feed forever is a way of whipping them up day after day to organize orchestrate campaigns against us.)

There are too many people who don't realize that trolls use twitter the way the rest of us do--as an aggregate service. Fundamentally, a lot of folks just don't know how twitter works for most users. A lot of people pointed out the well-known fact that blocked users could still view your profile directly, so they could still see your words if they wanted to.

That's true, but that also presumes the false mentality that harassers only harass one or two women online--that's patently false. The reason twitter exists and is useful is fundamentally because it is an aggregate service. If I had to open a tab to view the profile of every person I follow, and refresh each tab to see new activity, I wouldn't use twitter--it's unsustainable to watch 200+ tabs at all times. The value is in the aggregate feed.

That's true for most trolls as well. So while a dedicated harasser could keep my profile open in another tab, 99% of harassers on twitter won't bother to do so, because they'd have to have thousands of tabs open, one for each woman they harass. Assuming that the only people in all harassment events is the abuser and the one victim is naive in the extreme and suggest that most people view harassers as folks who take issue with women individually instead of haters who target huge swaths of women.

There are too many people who don't think harassment should be disincentivized. One of the reasons the block button needs to have the teeth to inconvenience the blocked is that it allows women on twitter to establish boundaries with more-privileged but "well-meaning" people. If someone enjoys following me, but wants to have an argument about, say, my right to access reproductive control, I can say, "look, this isn't something I want to argue with you, please drop me from this conversation."

When a block button means that user won't get my tweets in their feed anymore, and if that user enjoys receiving my tweets, they have incentive to not give me cause to block them. They have a reason, a self-interested reason, to respect my boundaries. But when that block becomes something that only affects me (e.g., I stop seeing their tweets) but doesn't affect them (e.g., they still see mine, same as before the block), then they have less reason to respect my boundaries. After all, if I stop answering their tweets, does it really matter if I stopped because I ignored them or because I muted them? It's the same difference to them, so they might as well keep pushing.

There are too many people who don't recognize that ignoring bullies doesn't work and can lead to escalation. I do think there should be a Mute option for people who want it, but telling women to ignore their harassers and they'll go away is fucked up on so many levels and elides the fact that some people, when ignored (instead of blocked, which some harassers actively seek as a validation that then lets them go do something else) become more violent and escalate because they want the validation of a response (including a block notice).

Harassment is a spectrum, not a binary. We are simultaneously being told that the old block didn't "work" because all it did was inconvenience the harasser rather than stop them outright--we are therefore being told that all harassers are determined abusers, willing to overcome any obstacle to harm us. All of them are Red Alert-level harassers, because otherwise (if some of them were not) the block button would have value for weeding out the low-level harassers from the high-level ones. (Spoiler: That is exactly the value the block button provides.)

At the same time, we are told that harassment isn't dangerous and that we should just ignore it. Mute it and not think about it. That the men who were so determined to harass us that a block button wouldn't inconvenience them are at the same time completely harmless and should just be ignored. Not a threat to us in real life. Just boys being boys on the internet. Basement dwellers, and other stereotypes intended to evoke 'impotency' of will and purpose. (And that's a terrible stereotype for a lot of reasons.)

No. This doesn't work. It cannot work. Harassment is a spectrum, not a binary. There are absolutely harassers who give up at the first sign of inconvenience. They're not all dedicated stalkers. And--and this is crucial--the fact that harassment is a spectrum is a fact women use to judge potential harm and self-care. A harasser who continues harassment over and over, through every possible block and inconvenience and trial, is someone that we may choose to take seriously. Someone we may try to alert law enforcement to, for example.

Taking the ability to gauge threat-level away from victims is dangerous. Demanding that women not be able to tell the difference between "that stalker who creates a new account every day to follow me" and "that one guy who gave up immediately after I blocked him" is dangerous. Those two extremes exist, and the block button allowed us to filter them apart, to drop all our harassers through a sieve and see who remained to harass us afterward.

And, fundamentally, I learned last night that there are still way too many dudebros and chillgirls online willing to argue with peoples' experience being harassed and stalked. That's a problem, too.


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