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You're not using Twitter's best feature enough: block people

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Until Twitter adds tools and policy to better prevent harassment, we're left with the block button

Social media is best experienced when maintained like a bonsai tree. You must know which branches to let grow in your digital life, and which to cut.

Over the past three months, I've become a master of Twitter's most bonsai feature, the block button. The function of the block button isn't as simple or blunt as blocking someone from your digital life. According to the social media company, when you block an account on Twitter it can no longer:

  • Add your Twitter account to [its] lists
  • Have [its] @replies or mentions show in your mentions tab (although these Tweets may still appear in search)
  • Follow you
  • See your profile picture on [its] profile page or in their timeline
  • Tag you in a photo

Twitter uses the pronoun "their" in its policy, but I changed the pronoun to "its" because you aren't blocking a person, you're blocking a social media account. A person may still find you and harass you with new accounts, and you may block those accounts also. But you cannot block a person from your life. That's why existing on social media sometimes feels like a game of whack-a-mole where the moles spew a string of slurs before being banished into the dank hole they came from.

Blocking is an act of self-preservation

Blocking isn't a one-time trim. It's an ongoing grooming process in which you move closer and closer to perfection without ever fully achieving it. Try as you might, you cannot exist online without being harassed at some point.

For those who don't block already, the process may at first feel rude. Do not feel bad as you click the block button. You're being proactive. Consider the power Twitter awards people who seek to inflict mental harm on complete strangers. The social media soapbox allows anyone to say practically anything, so long as it isn't a direct and credible threat on someone's life. Impassioned harassers have taken advantage of the relaxed policy, aggressively unloading their opinion on those who haven't solicited it. They toe the boundaries of Twitter's terms of service and common decency.

The block button is Twitter's great equalizer. Though frankly, the option to block an account is hardly equal to the degree of harassment people face on the service every day.

This isn't a call for social media censorship, and to assume as much would be to fundamentally misunderstand censorship. Censorship is to suppress someone's ability to speak. When I block someone on Twitter, they are still allowed to tweet. Or post on Facebook. Or write on Medium. Or publish hatefilled screeds on a cornucopia of online publishing platforms. I simply won't see their attack on Twitter. Harassers have the right to speak. You have the right to ignore them.

And that - ignoring someone - is the power of the block. When harassed, the instinct is to respond, to react, or to try and persuade someone to think otherwise. But people who harass strangers on the internet do not want change or self-improvement. They want attention. Blocking prevents them from following you, but more importantly it prevents you from seeing statements that will convince you with each and every insult to respond. But you mustn't. You must block.

Harassers have the right to speak. You have the right to ignore them

Blocking is an act of self-preservation. It's getting a flu shot in flu season. It's inoculating yourself from a mental infection.

Just be mindful of who you block. Earlier this year, a service that allowed users to share block lists with one another circulated on, what else, Twitter. I mistakenly borrowed one of these block lists, only to block people who didn't warrant the action. I lost an afternoon unblocking people who had never wronged me.

And I would hate to lose different opinion in my Twitter stream. I follow people I don't agree with, but who present counterpoints in smart, creative, and even provocative ways, so that my opinions don't spoil and fester.

To preserve a well-rounded timeline and to avoid blocking those who don't deserve it, I've abandoned any hope of a pre-cog solution. I admit it's tempting to preemptively block thousands of people before they commit the crime, but I stick with the model of innocent until proven guilty.

But if someone tweets a threat on my life, or sends me 20 consecutive tweets, or ignores my responses, or uses a tweet out of context: snip. My social media bonsai tree gets a little cleaner, a little closer to perfect.