A woman uses a laptop emblazoned with the Twitter logo. | Chesnot/Getty Images
Twitter’s new reply moderation tool could be a game changer for victims of harassment.
In February 2019, Twitter announced that it was developing a feature to allow users to moderate their replies. Users would be able to choose who could directly respond to their tweets, out of a hierarchy of user groups: anyone using the platform, only people they follow, or only people directly mentioned in the tweet itself.
At the time, this planned change went largely under the radar — it was, after all, one more step in Twitter’s ongoing, exhausting quest to cut down on platform toxicity and give users more control over their experience, and it wasn’t exactly clear whether this particular feature would ever see the light of day. As it worked on the feature, Twitter rolled out other related changes first, like the ability to hide replies.
But now, 15 months later, the platform has finally begun deploying the feature in beta for some users as a test, and the reactions across Twitter have been striking:
BRUH ?!;4)$ this may be Twitter’s best update yet pic.twitter.com/XpnU6Btlmg
— ot⁷ naja (@BTS_TINGS) May 20, 2020
Don’t reply to this tweet if you think Twitter’s new update where you can’t reply to tweets is terrible
— Josh Wigler (@roundhoward) May 20, 2020
Someone has got to tell these lads about Twitter’s new “no replies” feature pic.twitter.com/BugwSc9yYk
— Michael Deacon (@MichaelPDeacon) May 23, 2020
While discussing the recent apparent suicide of Japanese wrestler and reality TV star Hana Kimura, who had been bullied and harassed on social media prior to her death last weekend, Danish comedian Sofie Hagen explicitly referenced the new feature as a means of providing protection and safety:
22 year old wrestler Hana Kimura took her own life yesterday after having been bullied by trolls online. Only a few months after Caroline Flack. A Danish influencer is currently sharing messages where she is being told to kill herself.
‘Just ignore the haters’ is not a thing.
— Sofie Hagen (@SofieHagen) May 23, 2020
What I will say, as someone who is often sent abuse and threats AND as someone doesn’t give a fuck about trolls’ opinions: when Twitter made it an option to not allow people to reply to my tweets, it was the first time I ever felt safe tweeting.
— Sofie Hagen (@SofieHagen) May 23, 2020
The new feature comes as part of a larger platform update, which also introduces other changes to your timeline. Most notably, quoted tweets now show up in your notifications feed. That means that when a Twitter user adds their own commentary onto a retweet of your content, you can actually be notified that their commentary exists. But the comment-moderation tool seems to be the update’s centerpiece.
This self-moderation idea is not new across social media; YouTube, for example, has had the ability to disable comments to posts for years. But on Twitter, where conversation virtually is the platform, this is a huge change — one that many users seem to view as a much-needed step in the right direction.
This tool won’t completely wipe out Twitter harassment, but it may drastically reduce it
A Twitter spokesperson told Vox that they’re still waiting to see whether the change will become a permanent fixture of the site, noting, “This is a test and we’ll be listening to feedback before determining if it should roll out to everyone. Being able to participate and understand what’s happening is key for useful public conversation. So, we’re exploring how we can improve these settings to give people more opportunities to weigh in while still giving people control over the conversations they start.”
The ability to control who replies to you singlehandedly truncates one of the worst aspects of Twitter harassment — being inundated with replies from strangers after a tweet you make goes viral or gets retweeted into a community beyond your own. Even if these conversations aren’t inherently toxic, they can still be overwhelming, unexpected, and difficult.
Before the new moderation options launched, Twitter only offered two options for dealing with unwanted conversations: deleting the attention-getting thread or locking your entire Twitter account for a while.
Neither alternative is ideal. Deleting your content is never a good look on the internet, and it can even expose you to further criticism. And depending on how you use Twitter, putting your account on private creates logistical difficulties — it’s essentially walling yourself off from the rest of Twitter, preventing you from interacting with any accounts that don’t follow you.
The ability to hide individual replies in a thread, which was added in fall 2019, can help you moderate conversations without completely cutting them off, but manually hiding individual replies takes time and can be exhausting if you’re facing a flood of comments.
The truth is, sometimes your mentions are just a total trash fire. Now, Twitter’s given us an easy (or easier, at least) way to douse the flames.
Better yet, you can control who gets to reply to a tweet before a conversation really even begins at all. This new factor both does and doesn’t substantially change the way Twitter’s social interactions operate.
For starters, this new change existentially threatens the dreaded “ratio” — the ratio of replies to “Likes” on a viral thread, which indicates at a glance how controversial a tweet can be. The Twitter ratio has become a meme over time, with people who dislike a tweet’s point using the numbers to proclaim that anyone so ratio’d has been owned by the crowd response. But if replies can be restricted, a ratio might not stand in as a shorthand for the tone of a Twitter discussion or as a public verdict on whether that take was good or bad. As the Twitter spokesperson noted, “With this test, people can clearly tell when the author chooses to limit who can reply.”
Instead, if replies are completely shut off, users might need to take their discussion elsewhere; or, if replies are allowed from people the user follows, the visiting bystander might be able to read their discussion and privately come to their own conclusions about the ideas under debate.
The advent of moderated Twitter replies also continues to be what seems to be an ongoing trend of modern-day social media slowly becoming LiveJournal circa 2002, complete with most of the features of that veteran blogging site, once-beloved but now mostly out of fashion among US users (it’s still big in Russia). LiveJournal’s open source features largely anticipated most of what social media users complain about lacking today, like easy-to-follow threaded discussions and enhanced privacy settings. It’s become something of a joke to note that between the addition of an expanded character count, bookmarks, and now comment moderation, Twitter is becoming more like LJ daily:
Twitter should have an option to make tweets that only your friends can see, like on LiveJournal. And there should be no character limit, like on LiveJournal. And there should be a separate field where you can add which Rilo Kiley song you’re currently listening to.
— Raphael Bob-Waksberg (@RaphaelBW) May 20, 2020
Beyond jokes about LiveJournal, this change further reflects the inexorable privatization of the public sphere on Twitter. The last half-decade or so has seen an explosion in locked, invite-only, moderated, and semi-public communities across the internet. The dominance of direct messaging and group chats, locked Facebook groups, invite-only Slack and Discord servers, and lately even closed Zoom meetings — all of these services allow greater privacy and protection from harassment and outside observation. In other words, they’re direct responses to many of the uncomfortable aspects of public social media. By allowing Twitter users to self-moderate, the platform is giving users a way to control their public spaces without having to retreat entirely.
Reply moderation fundamentally alters the tone of Twitter interactions for the better
Not everyone likes this new change, of course. And we should point out that Twitter’s official communications team nearly turned us off the idea altogether by making the world’s most smug, passive-aggressive tweet to “advertise” the feature:
reply if you want to be verified!
— Twitter Comms (@TwitterComms) May 20, 2020
Okay, we get it — the ability to turn off replies can be a secret form of weaponizing the hierarchy of your Twitter follow list, your verified status, and/or the people you’re chummy with. There’s that. Maybe it’s too much to assume that people won’t use the reply feature to deliberately snub people who can’t reply to them.
But assuming people don’t use the reply moderation tool to be assholes, most of its alleged disadvantages kind of sound like advantages in disguise. For instance, some K-pop fans worried that it would prevent them from doing something K-pop fans love to do: engage in heated debate when their favorite bands are dissed:
so what people are getting from this update is the ability to say extremely ignorant and disrespectful things about other groups and nobody can reply to defend their favs. got it. thanks, Twitter.
— ᴠɪᴄ⁷₁₂₇⁶ᵛ⁶ ☻ nsfr (@tinglyjimin) May 21, 2020
Not to worry, fans: You can still host these strident defenses of your faves. But if a tweet’s replies are turned off, you’ll just have to do it in your own space.
Reply moderation represents a huge potential shift from the way fandoms and fan campaigns have operated for years on Twitter. Twitter became a popular space for fandom and other communities within geek culture primarily because it allowed fans to interact with, praise, and generally be heard by the celebrities and creative teams behind their favorite media. At the same time, the ease of interactivity and engagement, discovering opinions held by strangers, and removing those opinions from their originally intended contexts and broadcasting them to a completely different audience has also made the platform a toxic place for many quieter members of emphatic fandoms.
Disabling replies won’t curtail all of this. A tweet with a moderated reply setting doesn’t mean that people can’t still yell at you. We all know how much Twitter users love yelling. Anyone can still mention you and come to your Twitter and strike up conversations in your direction; they just can’t do it in response to a specific thread whose mentions have been restricted.
Plus, people can still quote-tweet your replies. With the new update to notifications, you’ll even see them doing it. Anticipation of this added emphasis seems to be why Twitter tweaked the quote-reply interface:
Don’t miss the Tweets about your Tweet.
Now on iOS, you can see Retweets with comments all in one place. pic.twitter.com/oanjZfzC6y
— Twitter (@Twitter) May 12, 2020
But a moderated reply chain has the potential to substantially change the inflection of Twitter interactions, even if those interactions can still occur. Seeing that replies have been turned off might be a wake-up call to some users that they are not invited into this person’s personal space — that this person, like them, is just a real human going about their day, living their life, not seeking outside input from strangers.
That shift has the potential to profoundly alter fandom engagement on Twitter, especially regarding their relationships with celebrities. Imagine, for example, how J.K. Rowling’s transphobic tweet might have been publicly received if she’d chosen to disable replies from heartfelt fans telling her how hurt they were. And think how different the entire culture of Twitter might be if K-pop stans can no longer show up in response to viral tweets to share random concert fancams.
The ability to turn off replies also potentially impacts the way entire sub-communities and subcultures interact with one another across ideological, cultural, and political divides. When people can’t easily go into another user’s space and react to their tweet, the knee-jerk emotionality that drives many reactive Twitter brigades might dissipate.
It’s even tempting to hope that the inability to directly engage with strangers about their opinions might fundamentally shift how we think about those opinions, and it might deflate the value of those opinions and their impact on your life. When it takes a couple more seconds and a few more clicks to put your emotional response to a tweet out into the world, maybe those extra seconds and those extra clicks will put that emotion into perspective. Is a deeper engagement with this idea, and with your own reaction to this opinion, really worth the additional labor?
In the case of some users, like those avid K-pop fans, the answer may well be yes. And that’s fine! Debating someone’s garbage talking point is every Twitter user’s right. But being forced to relocate your reaction into your own space, through the act of quote-tweeting someone instead of replying to them directly, puts a buffer zone between you and any potential target of your emotions. Even many people who resent the change seem to agree that the alternative in the extreme would be unbearable:
Me: Twitter should be a conversation, making it so people can’t reply is foolish.
Also me: If I say I have a headache and don’t ask for help, I just wanted to SAY I have a HEADACHE, STOP TELLING ME TO GO TO THE FUCKING DOCTOR.
— Seanan McGuire (@seananmcguire) May 21, 2020
Twitter really doesn’t understand its audience.
They offer us “Everyone can reply”, “People you follow”, and “Only people you mention”, but what I really want is “Everyone that sees this tweet has to formulate a thoughtful & proper response before being able to scroll on”
— Rami Ismail (@tha_rami) May 21, 2020
Well I don’t want other people to have them that sounds atrocious
— Rami Ismail (@tha_rami) May 21, 2020
In other words, this change potentially redirects the focus of Twitter’s public sphere toward the public debate rather than interpersonal attacks or exhausting unwanted conversations. It promotes the idea that an exchange of opinions doesn’t necessarily have to involve direct engagement with the owner of that opinion.
Maybe I’m assuming too much. Trollish types will invite and encourage replies and feed off the negative emotion they stir up in other users. That’s not likely to change. And for some people, this argumentative back and forth has always been the best part of Twitter:
The twitter update to limit who can reply to your tweets sucks ass. The best part of twitter has always been that blue checkmarks can post terrible things and dudes like “cockpirate420” could respond with tons of evidence to prove them wrong.
— grant (@TakeForGrantd) May 22, 2020
But if the choice to refuse to allow engagement becomes an accepted community practice, then maybe the choice not to engage can also become a new, stress-alleviating standard of behavior — for Twitter and beyond.
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