The recent Twitter hashtag #BlockedByMallick brings to the fore a minor irritant that the Twitter “community” lives with — abuse of the blocking function.
In fairness, I’d immediately qualify that — “abuse” is far too strong a word. People do have the unfettered right to be cyber-recluses — as Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick now appears to be — or to associate with some but not with others. Very often a block will be imposed for perfectly legitimate reasons — why suffer the noxious effluvium of trolls, racists and so on? But there’s a book or two to be written on the management of personal Twitter timelines, nonetheless.
On Twitter, you find yourself in the midst of an almost infinitely diverse crush of humanity. You can’t speak with everyone, nor would you want to. You choose to interact with folks who have common interests, or those who are simply interesting — even people you might disagree with — and you exchange witty, but usually not-so-witty, 140-character observations. It’s your proverbial “25 words or less.” Doing that sort of thing well is an art, if a minor one. Once in a while starry heights are reached — the equivalent of “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances.” Most Tweeting is, however, ephemeral. Listen to those voices in a real crowd, and you get the idea. Shouts and murmurs. Lunch plans. Cats.
Twitter is at its best when news is breaking — something happens and literally a few seconds later you can be in the loop. Try following the folks who live-Tweeted Ferguson, for example — professional journos like Radley Balko and Wesley Lowery bumping elbows with gifted on-scene observers like Deray McKesson and anthropologist Sarah Kendzior. You get the benefit of their eyes and ears. “You Are There,” indeed.
But anyone who burrows into this online culture quickly discovers that all is not well in Twitter City. It has its own slums, its rough parts of town, its “no-go” zones, its thugs. The most appalling forms of verbal vileness are right there before you. Perhaps worse in its way, though, is the ceaseless babble, the very epitome of Heidegger’s Gerede. Hence people choose whom they wish to follow, and those followed get to choose whether they want to be followed — which allows participants to carve out enclaves of order from this fecund jungle of words.
Blocking is one of the timeline sculptor’s tools. Unlike the ambiguous unfollow, it sends a clear, unequivocal message of rejection. In the right hands, it can delicately shave away the uncivil and the dull. But from personal experience I can attest that blocking is sometimes done for reasons that are completely opaque to the blockee. Twitter is a blunt-spoken kind of place, and rudeness can get you disappeared in a trice — I can understand that. (I don’t block for over-brusqueness, myself, but I’m not exactly a meadow-flower.) Sometimes, however, simple disagreement will suffice. Bob Rae blocked me for differing with him on the expulsion of some Conservative Senators, for example. Charles Johnson and Adam Serwer cast me out for over-enthusiastically defending Glenn Greenwald.
But then there are odd misunderstandings, or so they appear: Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy threw me a block after she had complained about painful ears during an airplane descent. I suggested that she use the Valsava manoeuvre (works for me every time). She must have thought I was talking dirty. And Scott Gilmore, of Maclean’s — my only interaction with this gentleman was to agree with him about the Tamar Rice shooting, and in perfectly civil terms. I was immediately blocked. As they say on Twitter, *smh*.
It’s not much in the grand scheme, but this sort of thing can, despite one’s better judgement, set you a-wondering on occasion, just as when someone you’ve never met hairy-eyeballs you in a crowd. You find yourself reaching instinctively for a virtual breath mint and fussing with your hair. Was it something I said?
In case readers get the wrong impression, by the way, it’s been my good fortune to follow — and be followed by — a lot of wise, thoughtful and erudite folks. I don’t often block or get blocked. My experience of Twitter has been overwhelmingly positive, if one sets aside its addictive properties when there’s real work to be done. I’ve developed strong friendships with people I’ve never met. Twitter is also profoundly democratic — a true agora, where intellectual aristocrats and commoners frequently converse.
At the same time, though, Twitter is more than a bit like high school. There are mean boys and girls there, and endless gossip, much of it spiteful. Shunning and snubbing is commonplace. Games are played. Subtweets are rife.
Blocking can be, and is, a part of that. Some folks can’t bear disagreement, preferring the mental safety of an echo-chamber. Others can’t take criticism, even civilly expressed. Still others seem to block preemptively. But that’s the real world too, isn’t it? Twitter mimics flesh-and-blood society, with all of its complex and often inexplicable interactions. It’s a gold mine for social scientists, and they’re busy digging.
In any case, on Twitter as in real life we get to choose our friends but not always our enemies. Luckily — like most people, I suspect — I have many more of the former. And some of the latter I’ve come by honestly, it must be said. Others, however, present insoluble mini-mysteries, to perplex if not confound.
(Declaration of interest: I, too, am #BlockedByMallick.)