If you’ve ever experienced a bad breakup, harassment, or unwanted attention online, you’re probably familiar with the block button.
On mainstream social networks—Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—it’s pretty straightforward. Blocking someone prevents them from interacting with you, full stop. It’s handy for obvious reasons.
But harassment isn’t limited to mainstream platforms. Many apps that aren’t traditionally “social” now include social components, like Spotify, Etsy, Fitbit, and Airbnb. When users can contact each other via messaging or other means, there’s an opportunity for abuse.
Take Square Cash for example. Last October, Anna Marie Clifton, a product manager at Yammer, shared an anecdote on Twitter:
Clifton had a friend who was receiving $1 payments from an abusive ex for months. The reason? At the time, Square Cash allowed you to include a message with payments, and they were impossible to block. The app immediately fixed the issue, but similar problems lurk in many commonly used apps, both small and large.
Another example: At the moment, Slack, the popular workplace chat app, does not allow users to block a specific person from DMing them.
Slack’s usual response to requests like this on Twitter is that the company is focused on building tools for teams who work together, “where a block feature isn’t so needed.” This assumption is both misleading and dangerous. Slack has quickly gained popularity around the world and is used as a private network for communities, events, and organizations that are not formal workplaces. Even if we consider that as a small company, Slack is resource strapped, harassment within the workplace can and does take place.
Spotify is another app with social features that can be easily abused. You can’t prevent users from following your Spotify activity unless you make your account totally private. Spotify’s help forums are filled with numerous posts like this one:
A live post on the company’s ideas forums has been dedicated to the feature, which was recently updated to “good idea,” but it’s not on the company’s current road map.
We definitely think this is a strong idea, however it isn’t in our current road map. The teams behind our social features are aware that you’re bringing your feedback here and we’re working closely with them to bring forward all your comments and concerns. If there are any updates on blocking Spotify followers we will let you know here first.
While someone following your playlists or activity on Spotify may not seem like a big deal to many of us, to people experiencing harassment this can change the app from feeling like a safe experience to yet another place where they have to worry about abuse.
On commerce platforms like Etsy and Airbnb, both buyers and sellers open themselves up to harassment. While the platforms have codes of conduct, they don’t prevent users from being mistreated. For instance, Etsy’s support page says “Etsy does not currently have a “block buyer” feature. However, a seller may refuse service in some situations.”
Etsy users have repeatedly requested a block feature to deal with harassment from buyers and sellers alike.
Women and minorities tend to get harassed more, and the absence of a simple block button can prevent them from having a safe experience online.
While a block button is not nearly sufficient for every situation, it is at the very least necessary. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but a careful and well thought-out block feature, tailor-made to suit the platform, can go a long way in effectively handling harassment.
The unfortunate reality for technology companies is that their platforms will be misused. It’s on them to make sure they prioritize the experience, especially for their most vulnerable users.