Illustration: Jordan Speer

Bad Ideas

‘Brand Blockers’ Are Trying to Scrub Their Feeds Clean of Every Advertiser on Twitter

I’ve blocked over 1,000 brands on Twitter, and I can’t stop them

Welcome to Bad Ideas, a column in which we examine the practical limits of technology by considering the things you could do and then investigating exactly why you shouldn’t. Because you can still learn from mistakes you’ll never make.

TTwitter users love to joke that they “can’t believe this website is free.” But the website hasn’t really been free since 2010, when Twitter introduced the promoted tweet. The average Twitter user might not be paying anything, but the brands are. Twitter reported $702 million in advertising revenue in Q3 of 2019, an 8% increase over 2018.

That money results in ads and sponsored posts — lots of them. Last year, Twitter experimented with increasing the amounts of promoted tweets, which led to an uptick in ads that were either offensive, absurd, or both. (Coincidentally, 2019 marked a watershed moment in Brand Twitter when the Sunny D account tweeted that it was depressed.)

Heinz ketchup? Blocked. Salesforce? Blocked. During one 24-hour stretch, Twitter only served me promoted tweets from NFL teams. They all got blocked.

Luckily, Twitter also lets you block accounts. Unlike Facebook, where users can only “hide” advertisements they don’t like, and Instagram, where you can block brand accounts but are still subjected to advertisers who are not on Instagram, Twitter is one of the few platforms where users still have the final say over how they can be advertised to. In theory, at least, you can block out every advertiser on the platform. Through a healthy use of the block button, could I turn my feed into an ad-less, post-capitalist utopia? I decided to find out.

Over the past three months I followed a simple rule: If I saw a promoted tweet in my feed, I would block the associated account. For the first few weeks, it completely changed my Twitter experience. After years of being a passive consumer of whatever nonsense was paid to be inserted into my feed, to just up and block Starbucks felt transcendent. Hundreds of brands stepped up to the plate, and I’d send them packing with the block button. Heinz ketchup? Blocked. Salesforce? Blocked. During one 24-hour stretch, Twitter only served me promoted tweets from NFL teams. They all got blocked.

I relished an imaginary scenario where my relentless blocking sent Twitter’s ad department into crisis mode. “My god, he’s blocking everyone,” someone at Twitter would say. “What the hell do we serve him? Jenkins! What do we have?”

“Well, we have this tweet for tarp tractor trailer covers.”

“Christ, okay. Send it. Let’s see what he does.”

I’m not the first, or even the second, person to try this of course. In 2018, over 70,000 Twitter users staged an advertising boycott by blocking hundreds of big brands in an effort to force Twitter to deplatform Alex Jones. “What makes Twitter so valuable is that it can monetize its users’ time and attention,” boycott organizer Shannon Coulter told AdWeek. “The idea is for us to take that away until Twitter enforces their terms of service.”

A quick search turned up a dozen individuals just like me who have attempted to block every ad out of their feed — a group I’ll call the Brand Blockers. While the practice of Brand Blocking has yet to scale to the popularity of web browser-based ad-blocking — which jumped 30% in 2017 and still threatens the economics of digital media — Brand Blockers share the same motivation.

“The users of ad-blocking tools often view them as a force of natural selection: It is a way of letting publishers know that they love what they are selling (their content) but not what allows that content to exist (ads and trackers),” Casey Johnston once wrote in The Awl. “Therefore, by blocking them, the argument goes, they are encouraging the system to evolve.”

In my quest to block every sponsored ad, I found comrades. Eric Limer, a freelance writer, amassed a blocklist of 1,101 accounts, going so far as co-creating a Twitter account with the sole purpose of cataloging every single brand account on Twitter. Limer tallied 1,360 brand accounts before he had to stop.

“It started feeling positively Sisyphean,” he told me over Twitter DM. “I was doing more intellectual engagement with these brands by taking the time to notice and block them than I would if I was just tuning them out.”

As my brand block list swelled, I ran into a similar issue. Every day, I spent an hour or two diligently blocking brands, but more would surface to take their place. I could never quite reach the post-brand Twitter experience I craved. Block @budweiser, and in comes @budweiserusa, and then @budlight and so on. After blocking over 1,000 accounts over three months, I saw a promoted tweet from @Google, and a few days later, @Amazon. It was devastating. I had barely scratched the surface. Just how many brands would I have to block?

What began as an act of defiance now feels like one of complicity.

I looked to Brand Blocking masters for advice. Through a combination of imported block lists (a feature Twitter no longer supports) and years of manual blocking, Tara Seplavy, a branding and marketing professional, has blocked over 110,000 accounts. And yet, as we chatted over Twitter DM, Seplavy reported seeing a promoted tweet from a Budweiser account she had failed to block — suggesting that, perhaps there is no escape from the brands on Twitter.

Three months in, what began as an act of defiance now felt like one of complicity. I catch myself spending more time on Twitter hunting for brands to block rather than reading tweets from people I follow.

I reached out to Twitter, asking what they thought about people who block brands and if it actually has any meaningful impact on how their ad targeting functions. They haven’t gotten back to me. But Matthew Montesano, a public health professional and data communication specialist who has also blocked over 1,000 brands on Twitter, suspects that Twitter couldn’t care less.

“I wonder if you make a bunch of unpredictable choices, their algorithm sort of writes you off as statistical noise. An outlier,” he told me over Twitter DM. “And that doesn’t really matter to them, because there are a hundred million people who aren’t doing that.”

Out of the dozen or so Brand Blockers I spoke to, most shared this sense of resignation. It can feel good in the moment to block a brand, but it’s likely not going to result in any sort of material change. There will always be another brand to block.

“At the beginning it felt subversive,” says Limer. “But after a while it started to feel like it was me who was being owned.”

I write about technology. Regular contributor to Medium’s OneZero. Seen in Vice, Businessweek, The Outline and others. he/him.

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