Twitter Is Testing a Way to Silence Reply Guys. It Might Work Too Well.

This could make the platform less toxic — and less magical

Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images

The Twitter “reply guy” — a user, usually male, who responds to others, mostly female, in an overly familiar or condescending way — has become a stock character on the platform. For some people, particularly women with sizable followings, every tweet brings a cavalcade of responses from them, turning their mentions into a sort of social media sausage fest. It can be exhausting.

But on Wednesday, Twitter began testing a new, powerful fix for the problem. For each tweet you compose, you have the option to restrict who can reply. The default is “everyone;” the new options are “people you follow” and “only people you mention.” The latter, as CEO Jack Dorsey put it, is essentially a “don’t @ me that actually works.”

The company announced the test in a blog post and made it available to a fraction of users, including some of the reporters who cover the company. (I was one of them.) Based on how the test goes, Twitter will decide whether to make the feature available to everyone.

Unlike most changes that Twitter makes, this one was warmly received by a lot of people I follow. When people talk about Twitter being toxic, the inability to control who can jump into your replies when you tweet is a major factor. Twitter replies can be an instrument of harassment, as hostile and hateful respondents drown out or intimidate the target’s own followers in the threads below their tweets. Over the years, Twitter has added options to block, report, and even hide replies from trolls, but they always boil down to a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole. This update has the potential to fundamentally alter how people communicate on the platform.

There are, however, some limitations and downsides.

More worrying than the possibility that reply controls won’t work is the possibility that they’ll work too well for the wrong people.

For starters, people can still dunk on your tweets all they want. They just have to do it in the form of a quote-tweet, or what Twitter calls a “retweet with comment,” instead of a reply. Thanks to another new feature, launched last week on iOS and forthcoming for web and Android, those quote-tweets are now easier to find: Twitter collects them in a single tab, which anyone can view.

That doesn’t render the reply controls pointless: There is value in making space for a clean, civil reply thread attached to the tweet itself, even if people elsewhere on Twitter are quote-tweeting it and saying, “Everybody look at this idiot” (or much worse). For example, reply controls would make possible experiments like tech journalist Kara Swisher’s infamous 2019 attempt to interview Dorsey on his own platform — a conversation that the cacophony of replies turned into what Walt Mossberg called a “chaotic hellpit.” It also makes possible jokes like this one, which will probably get old very fast.

What the change won’t do is stop harassment altogether. Quote-tweets were already a major tool in the hater’s arsenal, and they’ll likely become more common if reply controls catch on.

And more worrying than the possibility that reply controls won’t work is the possibility that they’ll work too well for the wrong people.

The test group excluded most elected officials, Twitter told me, because the company wanted to avoid temporarily creating an unequal playing field in which some could limit their replies while others could not. But the feature will face another politician problem once it launches. Allowing public officials and other public figures to turn off replies, or limit replies to people they follow, could shut down criticism of their tweets, or worse, prevent people from correcting misinformation. It could also allow them to turn the reply threads below their tweets into partisan propaganda zones populated only by their admirers. It’s a tool that Donald Trump would probably love to get his hands on. (Whether the courts would uphold his right to use it is another question: They’ve ruled in the past that the president can’t block individual accounts for criticizing him without violating the First Amendment.)

While quote-tweets offer another outlet for criticism of a tweet that has restricted replies, they’re far from a perfect substitute. The value of a reply on Twitter is that it’s visible to everyone who sees the original tweet, making it an ideal venue for asking questions, adding context or related ideas, correcting false information, or mounting a critique. Quote-tweets collapse that context, putting the response to the tweet into the feeds of an entirely different audience. Replies were one of the few places where people from different filter bubbles could routinely mix it up with others who see the world very differently.

Twitter is testing new “conversation controls” that would allow users to restrict who can reply to their tweets.
Image courtesy of Twitter

But the biggest drawback of reply controls might be their effect on ordinary Twitter users — the vast majority of people who lack large followings but still want to participate on the platform.

It’s easy for the media who write about Twitter — most of whom have blue checkmarks and followings in the thousands — to forget what Twitter is like when you have only tens of followers, or even a couple hundred. It can be pretty quiet and lonely. Every tweet that gets little to no engagement is a reminder that you are nobody, as far as Twitter is concerned, and no one cares what you have to say.

The question, then, is whether giving users more control over their replies is worth the cost of making the platform a bit less open and more exclusive.

Replies offer a chance for those ordinary users to take the mic in the crowded venue of a more famous user’s reply thread. A housekeeper in Oklahoma can reply to his favorite celebrity and have hope of acknowledgement, if not from the celebrity, then at least from the community of that celebrity’s fans. A schoolteacher in India can reply with a sharp rebuke to a prominent politician’s tweet, and if she phrases it just right, reach an audience of millions as her reply climbs to the top of the thread.

The democratizing effects of social media are often overstated or misconstrued, but the chance for a random Twitter user to interact directly with a celebrity they’d never be allowed near is a real draw. That could still happen, of course, if the celebrity permits it. But it would be much less common if limiting replies became the preferred mode for high-profile users.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the most negative reactions to the test that I’ve heard came from strangers with small followings who replied to my tweet about it — my reply guys, if you will. “I’ve had an on again/off again relationship with Twitter for a long time but this will likely be the final straw,” one wrote. Another noted, “If interaction is limited, [Twitter] loses its appeal. Like reading a newspaper or a book.”

The question, then, is whether giving users more control over their replies is worth the cost of making the platform a bit less open and more exclusive.

Becca Lewis, who researches media manipulation and online political subcultures at Stanford University, was cautiously optimistic that the feature would prove useful, on balance.

“Replies on Twitter have always been a double-edged sword, and in many ways, I expect the restriction of replies will be the same,” Lewis told me via Twitter direct message. “The worry I always have in these cases is that they will help insulate the powerful from criticism while not doing enough to curb the continual abuse of the vulnerable.”

Ultimately, she added, “I don’t think any single feature change is a panacea after a culture of harassment has developed on the platform.”

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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