Twitter for Dummies

I’ve written on the topic of misunderstanding Twitter before, but that post focused only on those pesky legal issues that were causing so much confusion. Things like how Twitter only stated in plain English on their ToS (in highlighted text) that tweets were public, rather than, say, beating new users over the head with a placard bearing the rules.

The problem is, that post fell on three kinds of ears, deaf, understanding, and angry.

The angry ears seemed to be of the sentiment that, just because someone is acting entirely within the only rules set out, doesn’t mean what they’re doing is right. This soon morphed into just because these are the rules, doesn’t mean the rules are right.

Those of a perpetually victimised nature have recently started calling for Twitter to implement a “Full Block”. The significance of this is that, rather than trying to bludgeon people into believing that the world is the way the victims claim it is (it’s harassment to retweet people!!!!111), they have shifted their focus to bludgeoning the world into being the way they claim it is.

Warning: From this point on, we’re going to be looking at the technical side of things, which will probably bore most of you. Unfortunately, our victimised friends are making demands without the slightest clue about what they are asking for, and they need educating. I don’t doubt there will be people who see this who are more “techy” than I, but I’m damned sure I know more than the idiots asking for a “Full Block” function.

The Basic Basics

There are ways of tracking a person on the Internet that don’t require them to be logged in to a service. You can use cookies (little files that websites store on your computer). You can log their IP address (an identification assigned to any devices that connects to a network, such as the Internet). It has even been shown that you can construct a kind of “fingerprint” using the available information from a connected user (things like operating system, browser, fonts installed, etc).

The problem with all these methods, though, is that you can get around them. You can clear your cookies with the click of a button. You can use freely available proxy servers that mask your true IP address, and in the case of dynamically assigned addresses, you can disconnect your Internet connected device and reconnect to be assigned a new IP address. And, of course, you can get around all of these measures by using a different device to connect to the Internet.

The only way to truly control what a user gets up to on your web service is to lock everything down and require users to sign up with your service, and even then you run into the problem of preventing someone from setting up multiple accounts.

Here’s the hard truth I’m getting at; when it comes to the Internet, black lists (a list of people banned from the service) do not work. The only way to achieve that kind of control is with a white list (lock out everybody, and have a list of people who are allowed in).

The Basics

Twitter is a public messaging platform. At it’s core is a service which you can sign up for and post short messages that can then be viewed by anyone. You don’t need to be logged in to Twitter to view these messages, which, as you should be able to tell from the above section, means that there is no way of preventing those messages from being seen. Now, Twitter have added features to that core service, but it remains not just the way Twitter works, but the fundamental building blocks on which it is built.

The two additional features that Twitter added that are relevant to this post are Protected Accounts and the Block function. Protecting your account on Twitter is very much the aforementioned white list. It locks down your account so that it is not visible to the unwashed masses. The only people who can view your protected tweets are those accounts which you approve.

The Block function, however, is not a blacklist perse, because there is no real way to block a person from seeing an un-protected tweet. What the block function does do is remove all instances of a blocked account from your Twitter experience. If you block someone, their tweets, favourites, retweets, or other notifications will not show up automatically. You can still see their tweets, you just have to go looking for them.

The “Full Block”

The default state of the block function has mostly been that a blocked user cannot follow, retweet, or favourite someone who has blocked them. That is, they couldn’t use the built-in Twitter functions to do those things. They could browse over to that person’s timeline (manual follow), link to a tweet (manual retweet), bookmark a tweet (manual favourite).

Twitter recently changed (and quickly unchanged) this so that all of Twitter’s functions worked, even if you were blocked, relegating the Block function to… well, the same as it’s always been. This sparked major outrage from a small section of Twitter who were completely clueless regarding how Twitter works, which was quickly picked up by a large section of Twitter who assumed that the shouty, angry small section knew what they were talking about.

The outrage was enough for Twitter to reverse the changes, declaring so in an understandably surly blog post, but there must have been enough of an education for those outraged by the changes to result in further outrage over the fact that Twitter hadn’t really changed much at all; it had always worked that way.

So now they’re calling for a Full Block. Basically, they want the block function remove them from Twitter as far as the blocked are concerned.

Hopefully, you’ve read everything so far and understand why this can’t work. But I’ll spell it out anyway.

Twitter can apply the block both ways, but the blocked person can use another account. You can block accounts until the cows come home but, ultimately, that person can simply log out of Twitter and look at your tweets that way. And, as detailed above, there is literally no surefire way of preventing a person from looking at your website if it is public.

A “Full Block” is not possible without changing the fundamental way Twitter works, essentially making it a different service all together.

Why?

Twitter claimed that the above changes to the block function were to prevent retaliation. The way Twitter presently is, a user can tell if they’ve been blocked (rather than just being ignored), and Twitter felt that this was a problem because some of the more abusive users would take offense at being blocked and make it their personal mission to harass the blocker.

The morally outraged claimed that the blocked would do this regardless, and that the changes made it easier for their harassers to “stalk” their [public] tweets. So they’ve called for a full block, meaning there are three solutions to choose from at the moment.

  1. Twitter’s Solution – Make it impossible for a user to tell if they’ve been blocked, making it [very slightly] easier for that user to see what the blocker is saying, but also reducing the likelihood of a blockee seeking vengeance for being blocked, including setting up sock accounts.
  2. The Present Situation – Blocked people can do all the things they could in the above solution, they just don’t have an automated button to do it with. Additionally, they know if they’ve been blocked and may set up sock accounts as a result, meaning more time spent blocking.
  3. The Ignorant Solution – Twitter makes itself private, only allowing registered users to look at tweets. This allows Twitter to implement a two-way block so that a user can be sure that an account they have blocked will not see their tweets. Of course, that doesn’t prevent someone making another account, and the only way to prevent that is to protect your account… which you can do now. Tweets are no longer public, just visible to users of Twitter.

Caroline Criado-Perez, who is fast making a name for herself as a publicity feminist, tweeted;

“The more important reason for #fullblock on @twitter is the right to be hidden from stalkers, without sacrificing right to public engagement”

It shouldn’t take all the above knowledge to know that this statement in and of itself is idiotic. You can take a restraining order out against someone in real life, but you can’t stop them watching your public activity (from the agreed distance), especially if your public activity includes broadcasting messages.

There is a ready made solution for the Criado-Perez’s of the world, and that is Facebook, or another social media platform that is not built upon public messages over the Internet. Failing that, protect your account. Yes, it will prevent unapproved people from seeing your tweets who may very well be the kind of people you want to see your tweets, but, as this post has explained…

…you literally can’t have it both ways.

9 thoughts on “Twitter for Dummies

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