Twitter announced a new block all replies feature at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Not long ago, Twitter introduced a feature that allows users to block specific replies, and now the site is testing a more extreme function: the power to completely block replies from certain users.
How the “Block All Replies” Function Works
As the name suggests, Twitter is giving users the ability to literally block all replies to their tweets. Beyond this, it gives users a range of options to decide who, if anyone, can respond. The new function, which is still in Beta, provides the following options for tweets:
- Global -Allows anyone to respond. This is business as usual; the way Twitter has been until recently.
- Group -Limits responses to followers or members of certain groups.
- Panel -Allows users to specify certain users who can respond.
- Statement -This is the button that literally means “block all replies.” No one can respond.
The Pressure on Social Media Sites
All social media sites, especially Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are under pressure from governments, educators, activists and various groups to manage problems such as bullying, trolling and fake news. This results in ongoing debates and policy changes over what is and isn’t allowed and how much power users have to manage conversations. Twitter is often the platform where these issues most frequently surface. It may be because it’s so simple for people to tweet short-form content, whether in the form of tweets or replies. Within a year, Twitter is moving from letting users hide replies to giving them the ability to block replies completely.
How this Feature Differs From Hiding Replies
The block all replies function is actually a step beyond another recent change. In November 2019, Twitter introduced a feature that allowed users to hide replies. Compared to the latest announcement, this was a fairly modest change. As of now, users can make certain replies invisible. They cannot, however, actually erase them. If you want to see hidden replies you only need to click on a button. The new function gives users a great deal more power, allowing them to control who can respond to their tweets. Let’s look at the pros and cons of this approach and how it may play out.
Benefits of Blocking Replies
The main potential benefit of blocking replies is that it allows users to post content without fear of being attacked. Social media sites, including Twitter, are constantly looking for ways to cut back on trolling and bullying. Twitter has proven to be an especially popular platform for harassing other users. It’s rather common to hear about celebrities that leave Twitter because of online bullying. Very recently, the popular singer Lizzo announced she was leaving Twitter because there are “too many trolls.”
Lizzo certainly isn’t the only celebrity who’s left the platform, either temporarily or permanently. It’s hard to even calculate the number of ordinary people who have deleted their accounts for similar reasons. It’s also likely that many people have cut back or stopped using accounts that they never bothered to delete. Twitter’s new function allows users to post “statements” with no fear of being attacked. Similarly, they can limit responses to followers or specific users whom they trust. This will potentially make Twitter less hostile and provide trolls and bullies with fewer targets. There are, however, some serious drawbacks to this approach.
The Downside of Blocking Replies
While blocking replies can give users more confidence and freedom when posting tweets, it may also frustrate others who want to reply. Arguably, allowing users to make unchallenged “statements” goes against the whole intention of social media. A statement that can’t be answered is more like a magazine article or blog post than a traditional social media post.
The Group and Panel options, meanwhile, transform threads into private conversations among friends or allies, locking out anyone who’s not part of the group. Once again, this is not in line with the idea of social media as a public forum. Another unintended consequence of this feature is that it could provide a platform for trolls and those who want to spread slander or fake news. When there’s an open forum, any statement may be challenged. When users can block replies, however, they are free to say whatever they want without fear of being contradicted.
While the intention is to protect well-intentioned users, this capability can also protect those with a less noble agenda. Someone could, for example, tweet something slanderous or insulting about another user or public figure and block all replies. Of course, if a tweet violates the platform’s TOS, it gets removed and the user possibly banned. However, a harmful tweet can still be seen by many people while it’s visible.
How Will Blocking Replies Change Twitter?
Aside from the direct effect on users who find that they can no longer reply to tweets, it’s worth contemplating how the new function will change the Twitter experience for everyone. One possibility is that it won’t make a huge difference. If the feature is mainly used by high-profile journalists and celebrities, for example, it won’t affect most threads and users will retain the ability to comment on most tweets.
There’s also the possibility of a backlash if people feel that their self-expression is unduly limited due to the new feature. The power to block replies gives users a great deal of power to make unopposed statements on Twitter. However, users who disagree still have a way to express their displeasure. They can simply unfollow accounts that block replies. Users who opt to make statements may find their audience shrinking and rethink this strategy.
Some users may use the feature sparingly, only for very personal or controversial tweets. If they still allow people to respond to the majority of their tweets, the backlash may be minimized. The biggest danger is that it will undermine the perception of Twitter as an open forum where everyone has equal freedom of expression. Many users on Twitter are already complaining about this feature even while it’s in Beta. The block replies function is still an experiment so there’s always the chance that Twitter will modify or remove it if it proves too unpopular.