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The Twitter mute button: Passive aggressiveness for the win!

How social media works now: A paradise of bliss where everyone ignores everyone else and no one feels disrespected


Andrew Leonard
May 13, 2014 12:02AM (UTC)

Twitter might not be turning a profit, but we can't fault the service for bad timing. On the same morning that the social media network erupted with a cacophony of Solange Knowles-beating-up-on-Jay-Z-in-an-elevator tweets, Twitter unveiled a new function: a mute button.

In the same way you can turn on device notifications so you never miss a Tweet from your favorite users, you can now mute users you’d like to hear from less. Muting a user on Twitter means their Tweets and Retweets will no longer be visible in your home timeline, and you will no longer receive push or SMS notifications from that user. The muted user will still be able to fave, reply to, and retweet your Tweets; you just won’t see any of that activity in your timeline. The muted user will not know that you’ve muted them, and of course you can unmute at any time.

Again: fantastic timing. When even normally responsible technology reporters like New York magazine's Kevin Roose are making jokes about How Google Glass Could Have Prevented the Solange Fight the enormous utility of a Twitter mute button is obvious.

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I can also see how a mute function could be useful in cases where people who are being harassed or trolled don't want to further rile their detractors by taking the hostile act of blocking them. Letting people actively know you don't want to hear from them is a direct invitation to have the volume of abuse turned up. There's something mildly satisfying about the thought of all those nasty tweets just disappearing into the ether.

(Never mind that third-party apps like Tweetbot have included more powerful mute functionality, including the ability to mute hashtags, for years.)

But it's still weird. The Twitter mute button represents the enshrinement of passive aggressiveness as an integral, highly valued part of Twitter's architecture. Is that how "social" media was supposed work? What happened to all that connection and communication. The more we use the mute button the more we're going to wonder: Is anybody out there? Is anyone listening? Does anybody really care?

Consider the social media paradox. We come for the conversation, but we're annoyed by most of what we hear. So we crave tools that will allow us to tend our gardens better and keep all those nasty troll weeds out of sight and out of mind. When we are denied these tools, we get grouchy. It is, after all, a constant annoyance that Facebook makes it so difficult to prune our Newsfeeds as we would like.

So, yes, the impulse to applaud Twitter for giving us better management tools is strong. But heaven forbid that the people whose conversation we're stifling become cognizant of our dismay. That would be rude! That would be hurtful. What we seem to want is the right to ignore people without paying any price. Could there be any better demonstration of how social media is an artificial construct? Ignore someone in real life: you're a jerk. Ignore someone on Twitter? It's a feature!

Of course, there are way more jerks on social media than in real life, so maybe a Twitter mute button offers necessary balance. But where does that leave us? Whiling away our hours in a world in which everybody is an asshole and everybody is ignored? This is what we've built?

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Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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