What counts as harassment, anyways?

A couple weeks ago I posted a mildly sarcastic tweet about Barry’s Bootcamp and I ended up solidly in the Twitter crosshairs of one of Silicon Valley’s most notoriously noxious individuals. Tagging on to his aggression, I got a cascading pile-on from people determined to take me down. I get no shortage of unwanted content on Twitter, but this was the first time I felt compelled by harassment to finally delete the app off my phone, in an effort at self-preservation. One pseudonymous individual I blocked was positively cackling with glee about this situation. She snarked that we must have quite different definitions of harassment and derided me for “hawking a blocking app”. Her followers then came along to mock me for my tough life as a “pretty Chinese woman in San Francisco… correction, not pretty, just thin.” Even after I deleted the app (though not my account), people continued to DM me telling me how stupid the concept of Block Party is and how stupid I am. Twitter kept sending me notification emails about these. 

“Harassment” is an imperfect term to capture all the ways in which you might be exposed to or targeted with unwanted attention, contact, or content. Likewise, “abuse” or “bullying”. There may or may not be intent to harass or bully. Whatever it is may or may not meet some definition of inappropriateness. That doesn’t make the behavior itself, or the impact on you, any less of a problem. Maybe it’s “just” uninteresting, annoying, or unpleasant content. Sometimes it is traumatizing or triggering. In order for authorities to take punitive action, like French police issuing fines for street harassment, or Twitter banning someone from their platform, it is necessary to define the boundaries of what is acceptable or not, what is abuse or not. But for an individual, what matters is the violation of your personal space, physical, digital, or psychological. 

I don’t care to argue with the guy persisting after me on the street, commenting on my physique, asking for my name and information, whether what he’s doing is appropriate or not. I just want to get away from him. I don’t care to argue with the reply guys and gals in my Twitter mentions whether they’ve crossed some line that constitutes harassment. I just don’t want to hear from them anymore. And as a private citizen (and not, for example, an elected official), I should have the prerogative to block or mute them, for whatever reason. They can have their freedom of speech; I want my freedom to not listen to them. 

Relatedly, the issue of filter bubbles is an important one to address, and deserves a more involved discussion than the brief treatment I will give here. Suffice to say for now that polarization and radicalization are very real problems wrought by our algorithmic overlords eagerly reinforcing our human tendency to seek confirmation and validation, and yet—I’ve found open, default public platforms that encourage a long tail of content creators and participants to be one of the best ways to learn about different people’s perspectives and experiences. I am regularly presented with new information and insights that alter my thinking and push me to expand my empathy. I also enjoy sharing what I am thinking and reading, and I find tremendous value in getting feedback and reactions on my own inner monologue, typed out by thumbs and posted short-form. 

Now that I’ve been on Twitter hiatus for two weeks, I feel the absence of the pulsing digital interchange acutely. Of course I can use alternative networks and I can go directly to news outlets, but it’s not the same. The most frustrating part of it has been the feeling of being muzzled. No one is preventing me from being on the platform, per se, but knowing that a necessary part of engaging is the psychological toll of dealing with harassment or otherwise unwanted content is a strong motivation for self-silencing. I’m coming back, because the benefits still outweigh the costs for being online, and I’m stubborn about the idea that I should be able to be on Twitter, but I’m still mad that this is the decision calculus I have to make. 

What we’re building at Block Party is directly inspired by all of my own experiences,  as well as those of the 100+ people we’ve interviewed. Our beta product connects to Twitter to let you configure filtering on your account and clean up your main Twitter experience, but instead of just hiding all the questionable content and pretending it doesn’t exist, we put it into a Lockout Folder on Block Party where you can review and take action on it later. For accounts that you need to keep an eye on, you can flag them to put them on a watchlist. You can also add people you trust as Helpers to help moderate what’s in your Lockout Folder. It’s not always pleasant for them to see all of this, either, but they can help share the burden and oftentimes the abuse is less toxic to manage when it’s not directed at them. We are building first for Twitter but are keenly aware of cross-platform issues and more broadly, that anywhere there is user-generated content online, there is a need for something like Block Party. It’s not just about solving for “harassment”. It’s about letting people be in control of their experience online.