Well, I See Everyone Is Awake

If you’re following Ophelia (and if not, why not?), you know that The Block Bot has gone and gotten itself famous as an example of a strategy Twitter could adopt if it wanted to give users tools to control how much misogyny they are subjected to online. Here’s the relevant clip from BBC’s NewsNight.

You may also know that this segment is causing quite a buzz. Like hornets. Angry, angry hornets. Why? Let’s take a look.

Quinn Norton’s portion of the piece is available as text in the accompanying article. I both agree and disagree with her. No, you can’t keep people from creating new accounts if they’re terribly determined. However, Twitter’s standards as a company also feed the general standards of what is acceptable on Twitter and more generally. Imperfect solutions still validate the problem as a problem.

The section of the program on The Block Bot was added later, so below is a transcript with relevant screen captures in the part that people are buzzing about.

Paul Mason: But there are tech solutions. Blogger Rebecca Watson had a bad experience at a conference two years ago.

[shows Rebecca’s video playing onscreen]

Rebecca Watson: 4am I said, “You know, I’ve had enough guys, I’m exhausted. Going to bed.” So I walked to the elevator and a man got on the elevator with me and said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I find you very interesting and I would like to talk more. Would you like to come to my hotel room for coffee?” Um, just a word to the wise here, guys, don’t do that.

PM: For saying this, she was deluged with abuse on Twitter.

Screen capture of title of main Block Bot page.

PM: In response, her supporters set up a program that monitors…

Screen shot of Block Bot sign-up page, showing a description of Level 1 blocking.

PM: …and blocks a shared list of abusers…

Screen shot of Block Bot sign-up page showing only Level 1 is considered abusive. Level 2 is "assholes, anti-feminist, and attention seekers". Level 3 is "mostly just annoying".

PM: …and the man who wrote it talked me through the installation.

[scene shift showing Paul Mason and James Billingham (ool0n) at a computer]

PM: I’ll just block the Super Slimy [the name given to Level 1 in the prior screen shot].

JB: The worst.

PM: Yep. The worst. Let’s do it.

[scene shift showing blurred Twitter handles on Block Bot site]

PM: The Block Bot works by blocking a list of offenders that is constantly updated by a community. It uses Twitter’s own technology, and that prompts another question.

[scene shift to Billingham being interviewed with Mason off screen]

PM: Why won’t Twitter just implement what you’ve done as part of Twitter?

JB: A good question. They certainly could do quite easily. They’ve got shared lists for following people. They could quite easily have the ability that people could create shared lists for blocking people as well. That would be quite possible.

PM: Why don’t they?

JB: Um, I’ll say they’re quite slow changing their platform, and as an IT person, I understand why, you know, in terms of keeping stability and the cost of doing that. They’ve got to be very careful that they maintain the service.

[scene shift showing patch cables]

PM: Those who’ve been around a long time can remember when the whole internet was predominantly male, and there are some social media sites now openly struggling to be representative.

[scene shift to Billingham being interviewed with Mason off screen]

JB: Well, I mean if you look at other online communities, like Reddit, it’s almost predominantly white, male–young, white males, and that’s it. There’s no marginalized groups there that one will know. There’s a considerable lack of women, lack of people of color.

PM: Why?

JB: These voices don’t get heard. I’d guess, and I’ll probably get completely flamed for this, but there’s a whole load of abuse there. There’s racist abuse there. There’s homophobic abuse there. There’s misogynistic abuse there. Why, if you’re a woman, would you want to go somewhere were you get demeaned and put down because you’re a woman?

[scene shift to Mason sitting in a building lobby]

PM: For Twitter, which has seemed slow to act in this crisis, there’s an existential question, and it’s got nothing to do with this or that blocking mechanism. It is, quite simply, are they prepared to see their part of cyberspace become essentially white and male.

[scene shift to Mason scrolling through Twitter filmed through a transparent screen]

PM: For a company set to take a billion dollars next year, driven by advertising, that is quite a question.

I have to think that people who are threatening to sue ool0n or demanding apologies from NewsNight for giving a false impression that they’re abusive haven’t actually watched the piece. Or they like threatening to sue people. Whichever.

I’ll collect some of those reactions in another post.


  1. says

    Twitter supporting a shared block list is a really, really good idea. It would be excellent for a con to maintain a block list for their event, for instance, allowing attendees to follow the conference stream while blocking people the con officially determines are abusers. When you’ve got obsessed kooks who inject themselves into online discussions solely in order to interfere with the discussion, we need tools like that.

  2. says

    It would be excellent for a con to maintain a block list for their event, for instance, allowing attendees to follow the conference stream while blocking people the con officially determines are abusers. When you’ve got obsessed kooks who inject themselves into online discussions solely in order to interfere with the discussion, we need tools like that.

    Ahem, the @hashspamkiller +1/2/3/4/5 would be one such implementation that uses the block list. Also explains why a lot of people made the “annoying” level. Retweeting ElevatorGATE and uberfeminist is no crime, except to reason, but it pisses me off when I’m trying to keep their crap off the spam killer. So apologies if you are on the L3 list due to that… Well I’m not that sorry actually as it only says you are “mostly just annoying” :-) Sue me!

    Very interesting you show the close up of the three levels, I forgot they had that shot. Given the basis for suing is apparently that they are all lumped in as Level1 which the BBC said were abusers. (Note the BBC didn’t even say they are all abusers on L1 as that would be inaccurate and contrary to the description shown. Let alone lump in Level2 and Level3 which in the cut out bit I explained clearly and concisely and with the panache of George Clooney. Why did they cut me!)

    I predict they will be forwarded to Arkell v Pressdram as a response from the BBC.

  3. says

    ‘haven’t actually watched the piece. Or they like threatening to sue people’

    There is a third possibility, they really are abusers and hate being caled out on it.

  4. says

    Except that @hashspamkiller seems to choke when traffic levels rise too high…as they do at a popular con. It’s also narrowly specific — it works for the cons we attend, but what if you’re at a completely different event and a different set of trolls move in?

    I’d rather there were an official Twitter analog. Either that, or a client side solution like TweetDeck has (which unfortunately does not work on iOS).

  5. says

    Here’s another option: get rid of Twitter altogether. There’s plenty of other means of communicating on the Internet, and none of them are as easily gummed up by unwanted malicious lowlifes as Twitter.

    Seriously, when it comes to Internet communications, Twitter manages to combine all of the worst features while making little or no good use of the best. It’s like a blog, but you can’t express complex ideas with it and the conversation threads aren’t all visible to the same people. It’s like instant-messaging, but you can’t control who can read or respond to your messages. It’s like email with none of the privacy. It’s like a telephone, but with even less privacy than the NSA gives you, and everyone else can still hear the other guy talking after you’ve hung up. The sooner most of society just gives up and leaves Twitter to the riffraff, the happier we’ll all be. Not all high-tech innovations are good.

  6. says

    Nope. Twitter is rather wonderful, and I’m getting tired of people who don’t know what they’d use it for telling people who do find it useful that they shouldn’t.

  7. says

    @PZ, you are out of date, the hashspamkiller has 5 friends so keeps up now. Was changed after your criticism of the individual account choking. But you do have to follow 6 accounts in total … Twitter are crap with their tweet limits :-(

    I agree Twitter should implement it ->

    1. Shared blocklists like follow lists and @the_block_bot currently implements (To a degree)
    2. Blocks are applied to hash searches and conversation threads

    Problem solved! Just need to get rid of centuries of entrenched misogynistic attitude and we are all good.

  8. says

    Hey, oolon, I don’t suppose you’d have some time to look into making the Greasemonkey script work for Safari, would you? An iPad is much easier to deal with than a laptop at a con, but it has this funny default browser.

  9. says

    Block bot and hashspamkiller confuse me. They make me think the trolls have all left and given up. When instead they’re still there but I just can’t see them anymore. I’m still figuring out what’s worse.

  10. Anthony K says

    Not all high-tech innovations are good.

    Oh, c’mon. Why, I just sat in a roomful of people for an hour, staring at a tiny screen with several people in several locations, some hundreds of kilometres away, while they were unable to sync their laptops, upload their presentations, or work their mute buttons.

    Why, a hundred years ago, I would have had to use that hour for work.

  11. says

    @Stephanie, Aratina Cage is the GreaseMonkey expert and wrote the Zapper! But a bit of Googling and you can apparently run in Safari -> http://www.simplehelp.net/2007/11/14/how-to-run-greasemonkey-scripts-in-safari/

    .. and on iPad -> http://userscripts.org/topics/70361

    Although that looks a little technical and I don’t know if complicated scripts would run without knowledge of how he wrote it. Depends if Aratina has an iPad … I’m an Android peep myself.

  12. says

    Twitter is rather wonderful, and I’m getting tired of people who don’t know what they’d use it for telling people who do find it useful that they shouldn’t.

    QFT. I find it to be the best way to amplify a diversity of voices; because I follow diverse people, who link to articles written from diverse POVs, which I can then retweet at my followers, who can then retweet them at theirs, etc.

  13. says

    I think block-lists are probably a better solution than an abuse button. Toxic assholes aren’t going to listen to criticisms anyway so for them to block their critics (e.g. TERFs blocking trans people) will not change much, but the criticism will at least still be available to people on the edges and to people who want to listen. The abuse button on the other hand might erase voices from twitter altogether, or at least make it impossible to offer criticisms in the almost-real-time way that twitter works.

  14. great1american1satan says

    Jadehawk – That’s good thinking. I wonder what it would take to make that happen?

  15. cuervodecuero says

    Anthony K @10

    I’m starting to wonder if we work for the same company. That scenario sounds all too familiar.

  16. Rieux says

    Quick question about a portion of the clip that hasn’t been discussed here. At 0:15, Norton says:

    It is easy enough with a fairly basic understanding of programming to auto-generate TONS of [Twitter] accounts, endlessly, and there isn’t really a good way of stopping that. There are so many tools for getting around all the ways you can stop that….

    I don’t have a Twitter account (and I’m considerably less knowledgeable on tech topics than many commenters here, not to mention Norton), but couldn’t Twitter reasonably easily set up, as part of their new-account registration, a CAPTCHA system that would block auto-generated accounts fairly effectively? Or at least block accounts that are auto-generated by people who only have “a fairly basic understanding of programming” effectively?

    Are CAPTCHAs already pointless?


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