Twitter’s DM Change Won’t Increase Abuse

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Starting yesterday, those who opt in on Twitter can receive direct messages from anybody, even people they’re not following — a change to the current system, in which both people usually need to be following each other before a DM conversation can ensue. As Jaime Fuller pointed out, “opening up direct messages to the entirety of the internet could … lead to endless harassment and spam, which has led people to immediately question this change.” 

Much of this questioning has focused on the harassment side of the equation, since Twitter is infamous for the dog-piling and abuse, some of it consisting of violent threats, that is sometimes heaped upon users — particularly female ones. At Vox, for example, Kelsey McKinney writes that the move ”is a glaring reminder of Twitter’s priorities” — namely, putting “the opportunity to make money ahead of improving the safety of harassed and threatened groups.”

It is certainly fair game to question Twitter’s commitment to fighting the rampant harassment its platform facilitates, and Science of Us has covered that subject before. But in this case, the charges are overblown. That’s because the fact that the feature is opt-in, rather than opt-out — a fact that’s being relegated to an aside in many writeups about the change — is a massively important, fundamental design decision that will help shield users from harassment.

If you ask anyone who studies the psychology of human behavior, they’ll tell you that the so-called “power of defaults” is extremely important. Humans have a certain natural inertia that’s hard to overcome — whatever our goals or desires or intentions, we’re easily thwarted by forms that need to be filled out, or even boxes that need to be checked. This applies to even the most intimate of decisions: “A study published in 2003 showed that while large majorities of Americans approved of organ donations, only about a quarter consented to donate their own,” reported the New York Times in 2011. “By contrast, nearly all Austrians, French and Portuguese consent to donate theirs. The default explains the difference. In the United States, people must choose to become an organ donor. In much of Europe, people must choose not to donate.”

The people who build the apps we use daily think about this stuff a lot. There’s no such thing as a neutral design decision — no matter how designers build a given interface, it will have the effect of nudging users toward decision X or decision Y. And there’s real power in this: In 2012, Facebook decided it would attempt to prop up its unpopular email service by automatically changing users’ listed address from the one they had to a new, incomprehensible Facebook one. Suddenly people looking to contact me via email were directed to 2213778@facebook.com, an address I had been theretofore unaware existed. It felt like an obnoxious mini-violation, but, more important, changing one’s email address back required going into Facebook’s settings section. Millions of Facebook users were unlikely to do so — not because they’re lazy or dumb, but because they’re humans, and humans are susceptible to the power of defaults. The new setting would win out simply because it was the new setting.

In this case, the power of defaults is working in favor of those who want to keep the status quo. McKinney herself writes, “The reality is that no one has to opt in and everyone can keep their DMs exactly the way they are right now. That’s a precaution that shows at least some consideration for users’ safety and security.” It’s more than a precaution, though; it’s an intentional decision that allows Twitter to experiment with a new way to make money — surely, that’s what this is about — without exposing a single user to harassment at the hands of some internet rando. (Ars Technica runs down the specifics of who can DM whom here; the one notable change to the defaults is that a followee — but not a follower — can instigate a conversation when only one person is following another, but the no-randos situation remains intact.)

The critique McKinney and others are making would be 100 percent valid if this had been an opt-out situation, if millions of Twitter users woke up today and found they had to wade into their settings just to prevent jerks and perverts from sliding into their DMs. But it’s the opposite — I went into my settings and found that it took about five clicks and a password re-entry and a bit of scrolling just to find the right box to check. If Twitter wanted users to carelessly or accidentally stumble into changing this setting, this was a funny way to show it.

In changing the setting (and then promptly changing it back, of course — I’m not a masochist), I did find one solid ground for complaint. Anyone who does enable the setting should get a quick “Are you sure?” notification from Twitter alerting them that they may be opening themselves up to harassment from strangers. Given the site’s track record in handling these issues, it at least owes its users that. As for the broader rollout of the feature, Twitter didn’t really do anything wrong — as long as it doesn’t stray from its extremely wise opt-in approach.