Elon Musk’s Idea to Actually Make Twitter a HellsiteReading Time: 6 minutes
Users cherish the block button. Of course Musk says he’s ditching it., Elon Musk wants the block button gone from X. Here’s why.
Once again, Elon Musk is poised to make a major change to the social network he bought last year, and so far only he appears to know why.
Elon Musk said on Friday that he plans to do away with the block feature on X, the website that most people still call Twitter. Musk’s publicly stated case is a vague one: that blocking ‘makes no sense.’ But it’s reasonable to think his motivations are more specific. Musk seems to have become aware by the week of this year’s Super Bowl that he’s one of the most commonly blocked users of his own website. Platformer reported that it deeply bothered Musk when Joe Biden, who is the president of the United States, got more impressions for a banal football tweet than Musk did for his own. Musk reportedly determined that one of the reasons for this grievous lack of reach was that Twitter’s recommendation algorithm was penalizing him unfairly over the number of users who had blocked his account, thereby shielding themselves from seeing Musk’s posts and preventing him from seeing theirs or tweeting in their direction. Soon after, Musk made sure Twitter changed how the algorithm treated blocks in a way that wouldn’t suppress the impact of huge accounts. Musk does not like the block button, and I think that’s because so many people use it to disapprove of him.
There could be other factors at play too. Musk has been in a flirty relationship with the online right for the past few years—they’re now going steady—and many of the accounts with which he has warm interactions belong to people who probably also get blocked a lot when others don’t want to hear from them anymore. Musk believes that people should be able to pay him for the right to have their voices travel farther on his platform, and the block button could infringe on that mission. He might also be sensitive to an advertising issue: Some people block accounts when they see their ads in their feeds, and limiting the reach of paying advertisers is awkward. The issue could get more acute as mainstream marketers stay away and unknown, often seedy-looking ones make up a (surely teeny) part of the difference. It seems like Musk could order his software engineers to program around that problem, but maybe he’d rather avoid the issue altogether.
It’s true, in other words, that having a block feature on X really doesn’t make any sense—but only for Elon Musk. He’s the richest man in the world, with the most committed army of internet warriors this side of Mar-a-Lago. With 153 million followers, a good number of which are real humans, the block button cannot lessen the chaos Musk sees whenever he scrolls through the replies to the posts he makes on his own app. It might be a business inconvenience for him. And he is also, critically, a well-connected white guy, which would make him the least endangered creature on the internet even if he did not buy the website that he calls a digital town square.
Unfortunately, if he does go ahead with getting rid of the block feature, Musk will have blown it, as he has time and again, in what is somehow not quite a year of owning Twitter-turned-X. He made Twitter’s flagship status symbol toxic to celebrities, tanked its presumptive valuation, and shredded further billions in brand value by changing its name. For people in different stations than Musk, the block button can be the difference between their social media experience being positive or negative. It’s a critical feature for preserving some measure of peace in an unpeaceful environment, and it’s also the single most cost-effective way for the company to engage in content moderation. Musk, assuming he goes through with what looks strikingly like a violation of the app rules of both Apple and Google, will score the latest in a series of own goals.
X has a mute function, which someone can tap to avoid seeing anything that a given account posts. It differs from the more expansive block, where the account in question can’t see the blocker’s posts at all or post at them. Muting might be enough for the most zen among us, but it has severe limitations as a catch-all. ‘When you have a large following and you are a woman you are going to have violent people threatening you in the comments,’ sportswriter Molly Knight wrote on Friday. ‘Blocking them is the only way, or else all your followers will see their vile comments to you. Plus now they can pay to be at the top of your replies,’ as a result of Musk’s pay-to-be-louder policy.
The same could be true at any given second for anyone who’s in any other demographic that the meanest and least busy people in our society feel like coming after that day. The mute button does nothing to prevent people from throwing the equivalent of digital trash on someone’s sidewalk every time they step outside. It’s ugly, and it makes the target’s experience on the platform less worthwhile if it continues unchecked. Users have had the ability for a few years to limit who can reply underneath a post, but that’s often the reverse of a harassment deterrent for someone getting a lot of shit online. Any decently organized troll or harassment campaign will simply take the party to the quote-tweets, now just called the ‘quotes,’ where they can broadcast their anger more directly to their own followers.
The block button closes off that line of attack. Just like any other feature on a platform with user-generated content, people can block for good or evil. The powerful and well-connected, or just the incorrect, can use it to keep people from checking their worst takes on politics, sports, or whatever. (The venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, one of the investors who helped Musk buy Twitter, is a notoriously avid blocker. For example!) But that is a price worth paying so that people can use the service without fires blazing around them at all times.
A more specific critique of blocking than Musk’s came Friday from one of his developers, who wrote, ‘Preventing an account from seeing your posts does not work in practice. Anyone with any intent can find out what you post by simply creating another account or logging out.’ That’s true and not the point. Anyone can find a way to see almost anything on the site. The block’s great utility isn’t to keep posts hidden, but to make it harder for bad-faith actors (or even just people who can’t get along) to use other people’s posts to spread harassment, anger, or annoyance. The genius of the block button is that it allows someone to walk far away from someone else, whether the stakes are life-or-death or just happy-or-annoyed. It affirms your right to pick your own company in your own corner of the internet.
In that sense, the block button isn’t just a godsend for Musk’s ability to retain users. It’s also the single most effective form of content moderation available to someone who has been obsessed with slashing the company’s costs and has laid off content moderation staff. The block button costs the company nearly nothing at this point. If a user doesn’t want someone else to be a part of their life on X, they click a button, and it’s over. That decision requires little or no new effort from Twitter. On the other hand, if someone can’t block someone who’s harassing them or even just annoying them, conflicts can escalate. Musk’s company might need staff to review an incident report, decide on a punishment, or engage in any number of bureaucratic tasks on company time. The block button isn’t a silver bullet. People can make multiple accounts and find creative ways to be cruel to others. But it’s an excellent tool for keeping X usable, and unlike most of such tools, it doesn’t require Musk or his team to do anything.
Musk’s agenda, however, isn’t always about what makes for good business. Buying the company at all was an act of financial self-harm in ways that were exceedingly clear from the second he made the deal, and Musk has been scrambling to mitigate the damage he did to his own wallet. But he pursued Twitter in the first place because he liked tweeting and wanted one of his favorite places on the internet to bend to his will. The most public way he did that was by embracing a right-tinted version of what he called free speech, but he also wanted other things. Musk said he wanted to defeat spam bots, which had always existed on Twitter but weren’t a major factor in the day-to-day experience of most users. Yet they are a big thing in Musk’s experience, because he has more than 100 million followers, and every single thing he posts on the platform results in a mob scene in both the replies and quotes of his posts. So Musk has taken up a number of initiatives that he says are aimed at combating bots, including the launch of his paid verification system. (You may ignore the reality that porn bots have run freshly rampant for many users since Musk’s acquisition.)
In the same vein, Musk gets blocked a lot, and he has determined blocking is bad. Musk will never have a bad day on the internet because he couldn’t prevent people from calling him a slur, but he might have a terrible day on the internet if he gets the idea that he’s not able to reach as many people as he wants to with whatever he says. So his platform, advertising concerns or not, might drop one of its best features. The move, by the way, would also make it impossible to block bots. Maybe he wasn’t so serious about defeating those pesky guys after all.
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