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Raise your hand if you agree: Twitter is not that hard, in principle.
You can send out a tweet into the universe, and anyone can read it. If you want a particular user to see your quip, you @mention them. If you need to say something privately to a fellow Twitter user, you can send them a DM, or Direct Message – but only if you follow that person, and that person follows you.
In practice, Twitter is pretty complicated.
You’re trying to tweet at regular intervals, keep your current followers happy, get more followers, and just plain say things other people want to read. You’re also trying to have a good experience in spite of brands, sponsored posts, robots, spammers, harassers, and abusers. You can block them individually from seeing your tweets or contacting you, but if you get harassed a lot, that can get tedious.
So what happens when Twitter changes the game and lets people opt-in to Direct Messages (DM) from anyone?
Twitter tested allowing people to receive anyone’s DMs with select users in 2013, but pulled it around one month later. As of April 20th however, Twitter has brought this feature back.
The first thing I observed was extremely minor celebrities (no offense to any of the above) who feel they’ll be able to connect better with their fans by allowing anyone to send messages them privately. I don’t know who would want to DM any of the above users, but nonetheless they are excited about being able to open the proverbial floodgates.
But what about everyone else?
Why Letting Anyone DM You Is Complicated
From a technical standpoint, letting anyone DM you is simple. Socially, however, this is – like Twitter itself – complicated. If it were straightforward, we wouldn’t see tweets like these:
The above two tweets, if taken alone, tell the story that one user is digging the option to let people be idiots. Which sort of makes sense: spammers will in all likelihood take advantage of an open inbox to send who-knows-what that you don’t want. One way to look at it is that, you can accept the consequences if you want to take that freedom.
Letting anyone DM me on Twitter has opened me up to a whole world of mysterious strangers speaking in foreign tongues pic.twitter.com/8Cf5wXZMAS
— Harry McCracken (@harrymccracken) April 23, 2015
And lots of users have decided that, if you’re okay with more ads and/or unsolicited dick pics in your Twitter inbox (and not just Internet-friendship), more power to you – simple enough. But there’s more here still than just everyone agreeing to “let people be idiots”. After all, this feature isn’t really for individuals.
What This “Feature” Means For Twitter Culture
If you’ve been following Twitter much lately, you probably noticed it has a huge harassment problem that disproportionately affects women and minorities, and for many of them, this isn’t helping. According to The Verge, Twitter’s opt-in to receive direct messages from anyone “shows how little [Twitter] cares about harassment.” The Verge goes on to say, while Twitter has in recent months rolled out improvements for people who have been harassed, this time, “Twitter chose the opportunity to make money”.
The theory is that this feature will encourage more people to use Twitter actively (which will make the company more attractive to advertisers), rather than just lurk. Of course, what’s good for business isn’t necessarily going to help out those who are routinely harassed.
Maybe you think, “So what? Just leave this feature off.” But it’s also possible that opening yourself up to DMs from anyone could indirectly hurt the rest of the Twitter community, too.
Even if I personally opt out, Twitter is encouraging almost everybody else to opt in. And if many people opt in, it will allow spammers to hide. Right now, if you go to a spammer’s Twitter feed, you can see that they’ve sent the exact same message to 200 people. But if they move all their spam to DM, you won’t see their history of garbage tweets. They’ll appear to be an ordinary, innocent Twitter user. As a result, it’s harder to see abuse and take action. – Annalee Newitz, “Twitter’s Inexplicable New Settings Highlight Problems with Abuse” via Gizmodo
The main groups that stand to benefit from this service are companies. As WIRED points out, “organizations could use DMs to send advertisements, coupons, and business related appeals to anyone who turned on the new setting, and users would be free to respond.” The feature also means that companies can take DMs from clients with customer service requests, without having to follow them.
Journalists make up another group that may find this feature beneficial. As TechCrunch reminds us, “For some public figures, and especially for journalists, that restriction made it difficult to communicate more privately. For reporters, it could also potentially tip people off about one’s sources, since users would have to engage in public tweets asking to get a follow back so they could send that direct message in the first place.”
Recent Policy Changes to Combat Abuse
Fortunately, Twitter hasn’t given up on their fight against harassment.
In the wake of the announcement to let people open their Twitter inboxes to anyone if they wish, they also announced policy and product updates aimed at combating abuse on April 21. One policy update includes extending their prohibition against “direct, specific threats of violence against others” to “threats of violence against others or promot[ing] violence against others.” Twitter is also empowering their support team to be able to lock abusive accounts for specific periods of time, or until they delete specific tweets.
What You Should Do
If all this sounds a little scary, not to worry. All you have to to minimize the effect of this feature on you is not go to Twitter’s Settings > Security & Privacy to check the box at the bottom labeled “Receive Direct Messages from anyone”. Or, go and have a look to verify for yourself your DM inbox status, or toggle it if you dare.
Unless you have a good reason for opening up your DM inbox, you can (for now) just sit back and relax. Personally I don’t think this feature will become mainstream unless Twitter ever decides to make it opt-out, but it’s worth knowing about.
Will you be turning this feature on, and do you think anyone other than businesses and journalists should? Does the potential for more invisible spam bother you? What about their new policy and product updates: useful, or just lip service to abuse prevention?
Finally, is it just me, or is it weird that random people are just blasting out that they take DMs now?
Image Credit: Twitter Eggs at OSCON by Garrett Heath via Flickr