Wednesday 1 April 2020

To mute is human, to block is divine

I hit an important benchmark today when I blocked my thousandth account on Twitter. A volley of deranged abuse after I tweeted an article by Toby Young helped me sprint over the line.

A thousand sounds like a lot, but it's a big world out there and most of us will only ever see a few pockets of it. Of the planet's seven billion people, there are bound to be many millions of bad faith actors, obsessives, bores, pile on merchants, psychopaths and borderline retards, but you don't realise quite how many morons there are until you get on social media.

Twitter has 145 million active daily users. If you assume that one per cent of them are scumbags - surely a massive underestimate - that is well over a million people with whom you want no contact. Even if you block several thousand people, you will barely scratch the surface.

But Twitter is also host to many of the world's funniest, cleverest and most creative people. It is indispensable for breaking news, expert opinion and knowledge you would never otherwise stumble upon. I have probably learned more from being on Twitter than from any other medium and it saddens me when people feel they have to delete the app for the sake of their sanity. Yes, it can be a cesspool, but not if you curate it properly.

Several of my friends believe that the best way to de-scum their timeline is through judicious use of the mute button. There are two arguments in favour of this.

Firstly, they think that an idiot will take being blocked as some sort of victory.

Secondly, they like the idea of someone tapping pointlessly away at their keyboard to produce a reply that will never be seen.

Both arguments are flawed. On the first point, I doubt many blockees take being blocked as an admission of defeat by the blocker. Even if they do, so what? The worst they can do is take a screenshot and tweet it to their 16 followers, saying 'lol, looks like someone doesn't beleive in free speech!'

The second point misunderstands how many people use Twitter. A tweet is a micro-blog and the replies are effectively the comment section. The person replying is not just interacting with you. They are interacting with other people who reply. The muted user is therefore not tapping pointlessly away. They are saying things that other people can read and you can't. They are continuing to pollute your little slice of the internet and every time you don't reply they are thinking that you don't have an answer to whatever pathetic zinger they imagine they have launched at you.

No, it has to be a block. Blocking also holds the possibility, however slight, that the individual might reflect on their conduct and try to be more civil in the future.

It's not about stopping people seeing your tweets; you should be happy for everyone to hear your views. It is about stopping the worst people fouling the air of your timeline and the timelines of those you engage with.

Your time is not limitless and you have to remember that you are on Twitter for your own benefit. You are not there to provide a free service to other people. You are not there to be harassed or insulted. You are not there to provide information to anyone who demands it, especially when they could easily find it themselves elsewhere on the internet.

Respectful disagreement is a good thing. Arguments are useful and it doesn't matter if they get heated once in a while. But there is nothing to be gained from engaging with people who are never going to change their mind and are intent on arguing aggressively about somebody about which you know something and they know nothing. You shouldn't be prepared to waste a nanosecond's screen time thumbing through idiotic responses from irredeemable nitwits.

If someone comes striding into your mentions with a comment that maliciously misrepresents what you said, questions your motives, or insults you, ask yourself two questions:

  • Will your life be any worse if you never hear from this person again?
  • If a stranger came up to you in a pub and said what this person has just said to you online, would you punch them in the face?

If the answers are no and yes respectively, get them out of your life forever.

You can do due diligence by looking at their profile. More often than not it will be full of retweets - Twitter flotsam rarely have anything original to say - and the retweets will usually be from the most needy, lowest common denominator Twitter personalities (David Schneider, Otto English, Owen Jones, etc.)

After a while you get a sixth sense for the type of person who is going to start out with a seemingly innocuous question but turn into a snarling demon within a couple of replies. The following first impressions prompt an instant block from me:

  • Communist or fascist iconography in profile. I don't see much of this but it's always creepy when I do. Anyone who publicly aligns themselves with regimes that killed millions of people is at least half-mad and should be avoided.
  • #FBPE in profile. Since February I have been blocking 'follow back, pro-EU' accounts on sight. I wish I'd done it sooner. It's not that I disagree with their europhilia, though I do, it is that they are so consistently thick and hysterical on every issue. They are so ovine that in my mind's eye, they are all the same person. Putting pro-EU hashtags (and black spiders) in your profile was sad enough when there was a chance of overturning the referendum result. Keeping them there two months after we've left is inexcusable.
  • 'Who funds you?' bots. This is a niche one for people who work for the IEA. We don't publish a list of all our donors, partly to protect them from the kind of lunatics who tweet 'who fnuds u?' fifty times a day. Long experience has taught me that these people are not actually interested in who funds the IEA. It is just a way of avoiding debate on substantive issues. I have also learned that the conversational skills of someone who tweets those three little words as their first interaction with you are not going to improve if you engage with them.
  • Malicious quote-tweeting. Commenting publicly on someone else's tweet is fine, but if it is  done purely to invite a pile on, block the fiend responsible. Admittedly there is a fine line, but you know it when you see it. Similarly, if you have deliberately not tagged in the person you're tweeting about (because you don't want to lead a pile on), it is very bad form for someone to try to stir things up by tagging them.
  • Profile pics that only show the user's eye. These are almost invariably men. Presumably they do it because they are ugly. Maybe they think it makes them look cool. It actually makes them look like serial killers. For reasons I can't explain, their opinions are nearly always appalling.

There are other red flags that do not necessarily deserve an instant block, but point that way if combined with other aggravating factors:

  • Red rose (🌹). Popular with Corbynistas in recent years. Not everybody who puts it in their profile is a wrong 'un, but many of them are incorrigible spreaders of fake news and are liable to go into a psychotic rant at the drop at the hat.
  • Football imagery in profile pic. I love football but using a footballer or football stadium as your main photo isn't really acceptable for anyone over the age of 15 (I'll tolerate it as a background or header image). Adults who go down this route on Twitter seem inclined towards witless and illiterate abuse. Supporters of one team in particular are worse than most, but I won't name the club.
  • Photo of the user (always a man) running or cycling. Usually, but not always, a sign that the user is an angry cyclist or a low carb diet bore.

As I was writing this, I received a tweet that nicely illustrates my point. This one is virtually a full house: #FBPE and spider in username, basic misunderstanding of a simple point, obvious spelling mistake and a bit of gratuitous abuse to finish it off.


Don't be like MrsMinx🕷#GTTO #FBPE. Be like Mike.

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