Earlier today Twitter announced, via its Twitter Safety account, that it would no longer notify users when another user added them to a list. “We want you to get notifications that matter,” the company said. The implication was that list notifications don’t matter — and given that lists are an all-but-hidden feature of the Twitter app, for the majority of users they probably don’t.
But the fact that the change was announced from the safety account suggests the change had another purpose. Twitter’s endlessly inventive and malicious troll accounts had been using list notifications to harass users. If you tweeted something in support of Hillary Clinton, for example, I might add you to the list “stupid piece of trash,” and you would receive a notification that you were on my stupid piece of trash list. Twitter, as part of its recent effort to reduce abuse on the platform, appears to have killed list notifications for this reason.
And then, two hours later, it un-killed them. “We heard your feedback,” the safety account tweeted. “This was a misstep. We’re rolling back the change and we’ll keep listening.” The problem, according to dozens of users who responded to the initial tweet, is that list notifications were crucial in helping abuse targets identify their harassers.
The flap shows the challenge Twitter faces in finally getting a handle on harassment after years of neglect. On one hand, shielding users from hateful notifications gives trolls fewer reasons to spew vile. It’s the same logic the company used to introduce keyword muting for replies. On the other, as popular Twitter personality SwiftOnSecurity put it, killing list notifications “is blinding the vulnerable.”
The real question is why Twitter made the change in the first place. Had it not considered the possible consequences? Had it assumed there would be less of an outcry? How can a change that likely took weeks to conceive and implement be killed off after two hours a few dozen tweets? The company called it “a misstep.” But it’s also Twitter’s product strategy at its worst: weak-willed, ineffectual, and blind to consequences. You could say the same about its half-hearted support of Moments, or live video, or expanded tweets.
You could even make a list.