The most confusing and necessary feature: the state of blocking in 2018

What does it mean to block, or be blocked by someone on social media these days?

As social platforms begin to enter their teens, blocking remains one of the most misunderstood, unpleasant, yet necessary experiences of the lives we lead online.

It certainly must feel that way for the sitting US President: last week, a New York judge ruled that it is unconstitutional for Trump to block his critics from his @realDonaldTrump account, because it violates the 1st Amendment.

But the Donald is not the only one to stumble on conventions around blocking. Even if common and ubiquitous, blocking remains confusing for many users, because of four interrelated reasons:

  • Blocking remains a highly inconsistent experience on different social platforms. While many design choices across social networks may be converging, blocking and being blocked are still very distinct experiences on each platform (see chart below);

  • Platforms don’t LOVE talking about their blocking functionalities, since blocking and the related behaviors interfere with a narrative of “time well spent” on their site. Also, most of the explanations they give are written with the blocker in mind, rather than the blocked person;
  • As a design choice, most platforms decide to remain ambiguous vis-à-vis the blocked person. There is often no way to fully ascertain what has happened: while this choice is often made explicitly to protect the blocker’s privacy, it has the downside of endlessly stoking the blocked person’s curiosity;
  • Blocking, like most features, ends up being used very differently by different people. While most blocking happens simply because of a ceased willingness to interact with an account, blocking is often part of a broader system of controlling your communications: blocking your ex after a break-up is the most obvious example, but you may also be blocking your mom, or deciding to hide your private channels from your colleagues. This often blurs the line between other behaviors designed to ‘purge’ your channels of disliked – but not harmful – content, like muting, unfriending, or unfollowing. Many platforms have built in these less aggressive platforms as the conventions around this sort of behavior emerge.

As a result, users are often confused, and spend a lot of time speculating what it might mean. Searches for “have I been blocked on…” remain a staple query around the web.

Google search blocking

Part of the confusing nature of blocking is that, besides blocking unwanted calls and numbers on your smartphone, there is no physical or social equivalent to mimic. Blocking has created entirely new sets of conventions that are native to online social life, with motives and intentions growing around the functionality.

Just like public spaces, social platform are bound to bring out hateful or unpleasant behaviors out of some of its users, and every social network has built in a blocking functionality, and experimented with different strategies, to stop people from experiencing abuse and generally having a horrible time on their site.

Twitter blocking is certainly the most visible and talked about blocking feature out there. Part of the reason why is that Twitter offers a very obvious indicator that blocking has taken place, by telling you the person has blocked you.

This indication is one some users have come to view as a source of pride: If you are engaging in a debate and end up being blocked, some perceive a sign of giving up from the blocker, or even a badge of honor, especially if the person is well known.

But people with large followings tend to be much more liberal in their blocking: blocking can be a way to avoid people from hijacking your conversations, or a way to decrease the amount of toxicity that will come your way when well-known in some circles.

And it’s not just individuals. Besides Trump, many other US politicians and federal agencies resort to blocking critics on Twitter and Facebook, although many call into question the legality of such decisions.

So in order to begin to collectively make sense of blocking, it helps to become aware of what being silenced looks like on each platform.

Here’s a handy list:

Twitter

The most explicit. If you were blocked and visit the blocker’s profile, Twitter will spell out “@username has blocked you”

Twitter says: “Blocked accounts do not receive a notification alerting them that their account has been blocked. However, if a blocked account visits the profile of an account that has blocked them, they will see they have been blocked.”

Whatsapp

Intentionally ambiguous. When you’re blocked, it looks like you’re still connected, but messages stay at a single ‘delivered’ tick, and calls ring out.

There is no direct confirmation of blocking. Whatsapp makes it clear “we have made this intentionally ambiguous in order to protect your privacy when you block someone.”

Facebook

Subtle, but not too subtle.

A block seems to look the same as if you were unfriended, but the key difference is you can’t directly interact with them. From the FAQ.

Tumblr

You will know if you want to.

According to Tumblr, “We don’t tell people when you block them, so they will not automatically know. But they might figure it out on their own if they visit your website, try to reblog one of your posts, say, and are prevented from doing so.”

Snapchat

Ambiguous, but less than Whatsapp.

Messages can be sent, but won’t ever appear read, the person disappears from search and your recent contacts list. Snapchat don’t mess about with their explanation of how it works: “If you block a friend, they won’t be able to view your Story or send you Snaps and Chats.”

Instagram

They disappear.

You can’t see the profile, posts or story of the account that blocked you. You may still @mention them – if they haven’t changed their username – but they won’t be notified about it.

Where next?

Platforms

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Behavior

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