I’ve lately had reason to think about the use of software that allows people to block lots of people at once from their Twitter accounts, based on certain criteria. While I don’t make use of these tools myself, I’ve come to better understand the intended use-case for them. This has helped me conclude that, blunt as they may sometimes seem, Twitter autoblockers do fill a legitimate need.
The Good Game Autoblocker, a.k.a. the ggautoblocker, is one such tool created in late 2014 by Randi Harper. When deployed by a Twitter user, it swiftly and automatically uses Twitter’s own API to block various other accounts from that user’s perspective. Accounts so blocked can no longer directly interact with that user by way of Twitter, and tweets from those accounts will cease to appear in that user’s timeline.
The tool’s name contains a winking reference to Gamergate (itself often abbreviated as “GG”), an anti-feminist political movement with a strong Twitter presence that coalesced in the summer of 2014. The autoblocker generates its reckoning of accounts to block based on a very short list of the #Gamergate hashtag’s core contributors, then extends the block to include any Twitter account that follows two or more of these central accounts. The resulting block-list, as of July 2015, contains more than 10,000 accounts. The tool further tempers it through a separate whitelist that volunteers periodically update.
(I’m uncertain whether the seed-list on GitHub remains the one used by the ggautoblocker list available through blocktogether.org. The project’s homepage states that development of the GitHub-based ggautoblocker has ceased in favor a complete rewrite, and Twitter has long since suspended nearly half of the accounts on the original shortlist anyway.)
At the time of this writing, I do not use this or any other auto-blocking Twitter tool, and in fact have very few accounts blocked (not counting spam accounts). I have a handful of accounts muted, mostly those belonging to people or robots whom the folks I follow frequently retweet, but whose contributions I don’t wish to read. In any event, I remain a very strong believer that every person has the right to shape their social-media experience to their own best fit. This means, in part, recognizing that one has no obligation to read every single scrap of one’s timeline, nor to listen to every entity that might appear on it. Good social-media hygiene therefore includes the relatively passive actions of not following or quietly muting accounts whose tweets one doesn’t wish to read — and it also includes the more active response of blocking accounts that directly initiate unwelcome contact, or otherwise intrude where not invited. And when a lot of accounts act in this untoward manner, all from the same source and at the same time, using an autoblocker can become a defensible solution.
Let us not mince words: the primary intended use-case for the ggautoblocker occurs when someone can no longer use Twitter the way they want to due to brigading from Gamergate-related accounts. This can happen when Gamergate supporters flood a hashtag, as occurred last week with the O’Reilly Open Source Convention: the conference’s official #OSCON tag so filled with tweets from non-attendees upset at the presence of an overtly feminist speaker (Randi Harper herself, as it happens) that people actually at the conference had a hard time communicating via Twitter. The conference’s eponymous Tim O’Reilly compared it to a denial-of-service attack.
Earlier in 2015, this same phenomenon occurred at the Game Developers Conference (especially after Tim Schafer criticized Gamergate in a keynote address), and at the Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo (after it ejected a Gamergate-allied exhibitor who registered under false pretenses).
Worse — and sometimes as a follow-on consequence of hashtag flooding — individual Twitter users might find their own accounts the target of Gamergate’s attention, effectively rendering all of Twitter personally unusable due to a tidal wave of countless unsupportive, mocking, or outright hostile messages from complete strangers. (And this leaves to one side the more disturbing and dangerous aspects that have coincided with this personal level of attention from Gamergate, including serious, sexually-charged harassment or death threats.)
Last week, OSCON’s community manager suggested that attendees could use ggautoblocker to turn the heat down, which only incensed the Gamergate brigadiers further — and thus made using the tool seem an increasingly attractive option to beleaguered conference-goers trying to squint through a fog of non-sequitur hashtag-agitprop to make dinner plans with colleagues. In both that case and the others, when an attendee did choose to deploy ggautoblocker, they would immediately find: it works. All the accounts filling their timeline or community hashtags with repetitive, bad-faith text vanish, leaving Twitter once again usable. Given my stance about the right to control one’s own social-media window, I cannot find much fault with any sighs of relief uttered as a result (as depicted, for example, by the header image of the ggautoblocker’s own Twitter account).
The more-or-less official Gamergate stance about ggautoblocker regards it as, if not outright censorship, then certainly a blacklist: a grossly unfair device to squelch free speech. I find this a strange conclusion to come to. While I do see the formal similarity in the presence of a literal list of names, functionally the concepts strike me as tangential at best. A real blacklist exerts control from the top down, letting an entirely complicit industry or community know who to shun, usually from a place of secrecy. From that perspective, the ggautoblocker list is inside-out in every way. Entirely public and built from a single, clear rule — all Twitter users who follow two or more names from the seed-list — it does nothing by itself, and gives orders to no authoritative body. Instead, individuals can choose to apply the list to their own, personal Twitter accounts, knowing exactly what this entails.
But, oh my: we still speak of ten thousand accounts blocked at once, just like that, almost all of whom the block-list’s user has never met — and surely very few of whom have ever directed a single word towards that user, whether bad or good! Surely some injustice has been committed here, just from mere scale? Well… no, I don’t think so.
When you block me on Twitter, you do not somehow damage my reputation or infringe my right to free speech. You don’t even crimp my ability to communicate through a privately owned medium like Twitter. Blocking me limits my ability to reach nobody in the world except you, and that’s exactly how it should be. I no more have a right to be in your Twitter timeline than I have a right to accost you in the street and forcibly demand that you stop and listen to me as I hold forth about how Steven Universe really starts to pick up after the first few episodes, or whatever.
And if five hundred people block me, that’s five hundred times zero insofar as any significant negative effect on my ability to reach a receptive audience.
The very same math applies whether people block me by name, or block a list whose publicly defined creation-algorithm has included my account. In the latter case, the content of my own tweets does not matter. Those who choose to apply to list to their Twitter experience made an informed decision to exclude — from their own, personal timelines — accounts meeting certain criteria. They have every right to do that, and I have no right at all to insist that they read my tweets anyway.
I understand that Twitter itself recognizes its shortcomings in this arena, and continues its own quest to give its users first-party anti-harassment tools. As both a software engineer and a business owner, I sympathize with their inability to simply launch radical solutions overnight. I hope that, bit by bit, they’ll find a way to make the most egregious activities of groups like Gamergate impossible on Twitter. Until then, I feel glad that stopgap solutions like ggautoblocker and blocktogether.com exist, thanks to a few of my fellow Twitter-loving hackers. And I support the decision of everyone who chooses to make use of them.