Don’t waste your time blocking in Twitter

Spam wall
Creative Commons License photo credit: freezelight

I saw a couple tweets this morning which brought back to the surface something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.  I won’t link the user but here is one line:

“I block most new followers”

Their next tweet was about Twitter’s “block” feature having trouble, and they had this long procedure for getting around the problem.  They put a lot of work into just blocking a couple people.  I felt bad for this person’s wasted energy.

Let’s go over what Twitter is and how it works, to understand what I’m talking about.  I apologize for simplifying things, but this is close enough:

Twitter is a microblogging platform. By default, everyone can see what everyone else writes. Twitter exports a global feed of all updates, as well as RSS feeds for each user.  Readers can search these with Twitter’s default search (which only goes back a limited number of days) or other search systems.

In addition, Twitter provides a filtered view of that feed based on a subscription (“follow”) method.  Wen you “follow” someone, Twitter notifies the microblogger of your interest in the content and puts all their data into your filtered view.  That view is the default way to “read” Twitter.

The notification is important: people look at the identity of followers in case their content is interesting enough to reciprocate the follow action.  This gives marketers, spammers, and malware distributors a new vector to your eye — by following you, they are getting you to read their message.  It’s much more effective than a blind email which will be deleted before the contents are seen.

The number of people who follow you, as well as their identities, is public information.  This count speaks roughly to your potential influence. And, since anybody can subscribe to your feed, having someone as a reader should never count against your reputation.

Of course, you can change these behaviors.  One way is by making your updates private, in which case Twitter does not include your updates in the global feed, nor does it export an individual RSS feed for you or publish them in searches.  The only way someone can read what you write is by asking for permission.

Twitter also has a feature called “Block.”  By blocking a user, you eliminate the publisher/subscriber relationship between your two Twitter accounts.  They do not see their updates in their filtered feed, and they do not contribute to your “follower” count.  Basically you undo the action of their following you, notifying them that you did this.  Your feed remains public, though.  Most people who engage in “Blocking” are doing it to the marketers, spammers, and malware distributors mentioned previously.

What does this accomplish?

  • In terms of privacy, it accomplishes nothing.  The person you blocked still has access to your tweets via the global feed, RSS, and search.  It is less convenient, of course.
  • In terms of your reputation, it has cosmetic impact.  Nobody sees that this person had ever followed you.
  • In terms of communication, it sends a message to the follower and to Twitter.  To the follower, it’s a one-way message.  You suck, go away, I’m blocking my ears now. Twitter gets the information and stores it somewhere, and it’s possible (as they claim here) they will notice an account who is blocked many times and investigate it.

The next question is, is there sufficient rational reason to take this action? I argue no, there is not.

  • The incremental privacy gain is actually illusory.
  • The reputation gain is debatable, and if it is present at all its impact decreases as your net reputation increases (if you have 500 followers, nobody can expect you to be responsible for the actions of all of them).
  • In terms of communication, the message is likely not even received.  Why not?

If you’re blocking a spammer or malware distributor, they aren’t monitoring the account. They created it expressly to deliver a message and a URL to their audience, and abandoned it afterward.

If you’re blocking a marketer, they are so busy trying to reach thousands of people that a couple blocked accounts is meaningless to them.  In fact, they probably don’t even read their blocked account notifications.

And while you’ve participated in telling Twitter about this person, they likely already know, because it’s easy to detect the activity profile used by these individuals even if nobody blocks them.

So, what does this leave?

The irrational remains.  You exercise some control when you press “Block.” Some people spend time arguing with telemarketers, others just hang up on them.  I find the two behaviors similar.

Another reason, I spotted almost immediately in asking about this behavior on Twitter.  The vast majority of people expressing concern over their follower lists were women.  One female Twitter user explained that women in general tend to be more concerned about feeling stalked, and so may take defensive measures.

Lastly, of course, the “it feels good” reaction shouldn’t be discounted just because I find it irrational.  We do “wasteful” things all the time because they make us feel better.  Who am I to tell you how to live your life?  Some people also like the feeling of sending a message to someone they disagree with, even if nobody reads it.

In any case, my advice would be to just try letting it ride for a few weeks.  Don’t block anybody. Don’t talk to telemarketers.  Don’t “report spam.”  Just hang up on them, ignore them, and move on.  It’ll free up some precious energy for dealing with problems you can actually solve.

1 comment so far ↓

#1 Paul Sullivan on 07.03.09 at 2:53 am

There is one scenario where it is useful to block people. I use to auto-follow and drop people who un-follow me.

Many of the spam accounts will follow long enough for auto-following to kick in, then they will un-follow looking for more people. They do this to avoid twitters follower ratio limits.

I’ve seen instances where obviously invalid/spam accounts will follow and un-follow and then follow again. This strikes me as excessively annoying, so the only good way to break the cycle is to block them.