“Blocking” does more harm than good

For a long time now, almost all online communications platforms have had some kind of “blocking” functionality, whereby one is able to “block” or “ignore” content from a specific user. Even as far back as IRC, the /ignore command allowed one to choose to no longer receive posts from a particular user, and despite email not having any such functionality in itself, a lot of webmail services and email clients offer the ability to automatically delete any emails from a particular email address. Social networks allow one to block a specific user from messaging them or reading their posts, while forums usually allow one to “ignore” a user whereby their post is made visible but the content is hidden by default. Skype similarly allows one to block all calls from a particular user, such that one never even sees that the calls were made, while Android, iOS, and even most feature phones allow one to automatically ignore or reject calls from a particular number.

But is all this control over other people’s ability to contact you a good thing?

It’s obvious why these tools were developed: spam. Malicious users used to go onto IRC and flood innocent users with rubbish data until their computers crashed, so the /ignore command provided a way to defend against that. And in the days when spam filters weren’t so good, having a way to manually filter out junk mail was definitely a Good Thing. Although a more recent development, I’m sure this was even at the back of the designer’s mind when they started adding blocking functionality to phones, as although that won’t stop the bad guy from tying up your phone line at least you won’t go deaf at the same time. And I’ve used Skype’s blocking function when “hot girls” keep sending me invites (because, even if I was looking for a girlfriend, I don’t, despite being somewhat geeky, want to have sex with a spambot).

But there’s nothing to stop people from using these functions to block real, legitimate, users. And that’s part of their purpose. And people aren’t shy in using them in that way, and no more shy about announcing their use of them in that way. These functions are even more frequently used to block people who piss you off than they are used to block spam. And I can completely understand that – indeed I’ve blocked such people before, and part of why I started a blog is because I used to discuss a lot on forums (I don’t use social networks) and their “ignore” functions are always inferior, or at least not compatible with my obsessive tendencies to read every post that the “ignore” function hides! And if someone does eventually come along and offend me in the comments on my blog, I’ve already warned them on my “about” page that I won’t hesitate to eliminate them from my world.

But in the days before we had the power to completely cut another person off from us, we had ways of dealing with arguments. We worked things out, talking things through until relationships were on their way to recovering. Sometimes we just accepted our differences and continued the relationship with a mutual agreement not to discuss certain topics. Friendships were tried and tested, and the weak ones died off while the strong ones lived on evermore healthily.

These days, you can have one argument with your best friend and they’ll block you. Then you’ve got no way of reaching out to them. Your relationship may well be repairable, but with no way of getting your apologetic, pleading message through, there’s nothing you can do. They’ll never care to know what more you have to say, and you’ll be desperately reaching out to them, begging that perhaps they’ll just let you talk, just once, just for now, while in reality your messages aren’t even getting there. So you wait six months and try again, and by this time they’ve either forgotten that you are still on their block list or it’s too late to do anything about the damage. In other words, by blocking you in the heat of an argument, they’ve well and truly severed your relationship for life.

Yes, it’s that harsh. I’ve been through that. And I know that the person in question doesn’t hate me, but one small disagreement turned into a blocking war in our circle of friends and now they’re all still together without me. They’ve all blocked me on Skype and blocked my emails, every single person in the group, and no matter how much I ask to just have a brief catch-up chat with them, I know I’m wasting my breath (and my fingers). The emails never get bounced. The emails never get replied to. The emails just get deleted. They don’t even bother to write “We’re still not talking to you.”, because they don’t even know I’m here. There’s nothing more hurtful than that sinking feeling of sending an email to a former close friend and knowing that it’s just falling into a black hole.

So I might say that the answer to this modern phenomenon of relationships splitting up with one mouse click is to remove all blocking functionality from these services. But in addition to the fact that that would lead to a rapid resurgence of spam, it presents a legal and moral dilemma. After all, I agree that we should have the right to choose who we have contact with, and indeed there is such a thing as harassment in terms of the law where one can request that a person is legally banned from contacting them (assuming, of course, that there is sufficient reason for that action to be taken). And in the case of online harassment, having a blocking function means that we don’t have to pay legal fees and hold a court case just to get someone off our online ass. But a disagreement between friends isn’t harassment, and that’s where the blocking function gets abused.

Is it abuse though? If we have the right to choose who contacts us, then surely we should have that right on an unconditional basis? I think that we should, yet I disagree with people using the blocking function to break up a friendship over an argument – which comes as a direct result of an unconditional right to ban a certain person’s contact. Perhaps, I think, the solution is to have a time limit, where one can block a person but the block only takes effect after 24, 48, etc. hours thus giving the relationship a chance to heal. But there’s no way to make that a law – you just don’t get laws about things like how long a blocking function must wait before taking effect.

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