Twitter's Inexplicable New Settings Highlight Problems with Abuse

By Annalee Newitz on at

So Twitter created a rather obscure new setting in its privacy menu called “Receive Direct Messages from Anyone”. What that means is that people you don’t follow can send you a direct message, or DM, which is not public. Here’s why this setting got people’s knickers in a bunch — for some pretty good reasons.

First of all, the whole point of Twitter has always been that it’s a public conversation. So DMs, Twitter’s answer to private messages, have always been kind of a slapped-on feature. One of the main selling points of Twitter DMs is that people can’t send them to you unless you follow them. So you only get non-public messages from people you actually want to hear from.

For this reason, DMs on Twitter are not really a thing. Mostly I use DMs to send people my address or phone number if we’re going to meet up somewhere. Occasionally I use them to send a heart emoji to my sweetie. But I don’t really use Twitter to talk to people in private — I have a lot of other apps for that, including good, old-fashioned email.

But Twitter wants to keep up with what the kids over at Facenoodle and Wassup are doing, so they created a new setting that allows anyone to send you DMs. It appears that initially this setting was the default. And that pissed people off.

Comedian and game designer Casey Malone has become Twitter’s man of the past few hours for this helpful tweet:

My Twitter settings did not show this box as checked by default. Here is what I saw in my privacy settings:

Twitter's Inexplicable New Settings Highlight Problems with Abuse

So it was definitely opt-in, and the explanation was a lot less tortured than what Malone saw a few hours earlier. Indeed, this is no different from an already existing option, but Twitter announced it today with great fanfare (along with another feature that allows you to DM people who DM you, even if they don’t follow you — try to say that three times fast). Just like so many other things on the internet, this wound up being a deeply dramatic non-announcement.

That said, Twitter’s “new” settings actually raise a couple of issues worth thinking about.

First, the spam. You probably already get a lot of spam in your mentions, but now you’ll get it on DM too. Actually, the main reason why this is annoying is that obvious spammers will no longer be obvious: You won’t be able to go to somebody’s Twitter feed and see that they’ve sent the exact same message to 200 people. So this gives you less information that you might need to block somebody. For example, if somebody sends me a personalised sales pitch, I just ignore it. But if they’ve spammed the same pitch to the rest of Twitter, I block. So with the new DM system, I have fewer ways to spot bad actors.

The second issue is more serious: trolls, creeps, and death/rape threateners can now DM you. This means that abusers can cover their tracks more easily (like the spammers I just mentioned). But it also means there’s one more avenue of abuse on Twitter. Apparently Twitter has a solution to this, which is incredibly awful and bewildering if true. Writing in the New York Times, Vindu Goel reports:

Twitter says that to protect users from unwanted messages, if a person deletes a message string from someone who is not a mutual connection, that essentially blocks the other party from sending further private messages.

Say what? So if I delete a DM from somebody I don’t follow then I am blocking them? That ... does not solve any problems, and creates many more.

Oh Twitter, your ways are so mysterious and complex. Maybe one day you will figure out how to create on/off toggles for all your features that make sense. Or even just figure out how to deal with abuse in the first place. In the meantime, I am not accepting your DMs on Twitter, people. If you want to talk to me on Twitter, you can do it in public.