Don't Use Facebook Blocking

by Davis_Kingsley1 min read21st Apr 202023 comments

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This might seem like an odd and trivial thing to write a LW post about, but it bears mentioning after seeing another notable incident:

The Facebook block feature is implemented poorly and you should not use it if you intend to participate in community discussions on Facebook. When you block someone on Facebook, they cannot see any of your posts or comments. However, they also cannot see other people's comments in reply to you.

The failure mode that I've seen multiple times now looks something like this:

  • Person A starts a thread on a community topic that gets a lot of engagement
  • Person B, who has blocked many people, makes a comment on that post that itself gets a lot of engagement in sub-replies.
  • Person C, who is blocked by Person B, wants to participate in the discussion but is missing significant context because they cannot see either Person B's comments or any other comments made in reply to the thread person B started, even those made by Person A or other people who have not blocked Person C.

Yes, that's right -- if you block someone on Facebook, not only are you preventing them from seeing your content, but also in some cases you're preventing them from seeing *other people's content* because it happens to have been posted in reply to a thread that you initiated.

As a result of this dynamic, I think people are somewhat obligated to use the block feature sparingly or not at all if they intend to participate in serious community conversations on Facebook, as using it more widely can quite impede conversations.

(Of course, it would be better still if we just didn't have important community conversations on Facebook at all, but that's a different story...)

23 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 10:36 AM
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I upvoted this post, but I would have strong upvoted it if instead of presenting a one-sided case with a call to action, it had laid out the situation in a way that acknowledged why people might want to block in the first case. 

I think mental health is a sufficiently good reason to block people most of the time, but it does mean that people who do lots of blocking can't easily participate in important "Town Hall" FB discussions without distorting the conversation. This seems like a Rock/Hard Place problem. I think there are probably technical solutions, and probably this is situation we should solve by Eliminating Scarcity rather than fighting over tradeoffs.

I think Facebook is actually pretty good for community discussions – FB has just actually optimized itself fairly well to be a social hub for extended social circles. It seems to be the place where, by default, community Town Hall stuff at least in my own social scenes is likely to remain for the foreseeable future.

As I understand the mechanics, people who block a lot of people are equal to people who have been blocked by a lot of people, in terms of what they can see in such a discussion.

but it does mean that people who do lots of blocking can't easily participate in important "Town Hall" FB discussions without distorting the conversation. This seems like a Rock/Hard Place problem.

Hard place: leave Facebook for "Town Hall" discussions, so conversation isn't distorted by bad FB tools. (For people who love using FB, this may have the benefit of incentivizing FB fixes the tools - whatever that means.)

ETA: also see this comment on what the incentives might be right now.

This sure is a potential solution, and I think "leave FB en masse" is part of the longterm set of tools I want to be considering. But it's not going to solve the problems of people who are already using Facebook as their de-facto community hub, and I think it's quite hard to "leave FB" in a way that actually makes your situation net-positive, due to inherent constraints on who-is-likely-to-build-a-good alternative, and how they get funding.

I'm not suggesting "leave FB en mass". Just that groups switch for meetings where it's important that these FB tools don't scramble things, or communities where the problem has gotten really bad.

Also, it has limited effectiveness at hiding from the person you blocked; comments on posts with global visibility can be seen while logged out or in incognito browsing.

This is a new fact for me, which actually makes blocking seem more workable (if everyone knows this fact)

Publicly visible posts seem like the exception rather than the rule, and it seems odd to anticipate that people will regularly take steps to observe comments by people that they have blocked.

They do certainly seem like the exception for high-drama Town Hall discussions (which AFAICT have usually been semi-private, sometimes deliberately excluding people Whom the Drama is About). I don't think this fully solves the problem.

But it at least means it's possible for me to choose to host a Town Hall meeting in a FB thread that's deliberately fully public, and state explicitly: "I think it's important here to make sure people can see the whole discussion here. If you've blocked people you expect to be participating here, I'd appreciate it if you didn't make top level comments (you can instead reply here). And, if you think you might have been blocked, I recommend viewing this post while logged out to see all comments."

Having a high-drama discussion fully public violates a heuristic of "don't air your dirty laundry in public", and I don't understand that heuristic enough to advocate it.

I wouldn't classify all Town Hall meetings as "dirty laundry-esque."

The most recent Town Hall that I considered hosting (but then decided not to for various reasons) was "hey everyone in the Berkeley Community, how are we feeling about coronavirus, and are there community-wide-norms we should be adopting?"

In that case I do expect there to be some drama (due to disagreement), but it'd be the sort of drama that you have in an Actual Literal Town Hall, which feels more appropriate to be public, to me.

When I block people on FB, I do so because I don't consider their contributions to discussions valuable and don't really care about them. If I'm correct about how much they matter, then presumably it's fine if they can't meaningfully participate in conversations. Furthermore, I don't think this is an unusual blocking pattern for people who block people on FB and participate in rationality community discussions.

Counterpoints:

  • There's a unilateralist curse problem where if just one person underestimates how valuable a person's contributions are, they don't get to fully participate in discussions. Hopefully this can be fixed by holding a high bar for blocking?
  • Even if you don't want people to participate in discussions, you often want them to see the discussion. A common case of this is when a norm is being hashed out that you want everybody to follow. (You could attempt to fix this by only blocking people who are peripheral enough to communities of concern that you don't care about their behaviour, but sadly your friends probably have slightly different communities of concern that you're bad at determining the boundaries of.)
  • If you're reading a big community thread, then even if nobody has blocked you, if you don't know that nobody has blocked you (and you don't) then you have an overhead of not knowing if you can see all the discussion, which probably makes discussions worse. This is a cost that you can only eliminate by having blocking be extremely uncommon.

Content:

Hopefully this can be fixed by holding a high bar for blocking?

Or have discussions that don't include disagreeing pairs. (Or maybe moderation could help with this?)

This is a cost that you can only eliminate by having blocking be extremely uncommon.

Or by having a public block list.


Style:

if just one person overestimates how valuable a person's contributions are, they don't get to fully participate in discussions.

underestimates?

Or have discussions that don't include disagreeing pairs.

The type of discussion I'm talking about is open-ended community discussion, so it would be weird to limit it such.

Or by having a public block list.

TBC, you need the vast majority of people to have a public block list for this to work.

underestimates?

Thanks, fixed.

Considering that facebook is designed around facilitating gossip then it could be that this is entirely intentional rather than a broken implementation.

I only block people who annoy me a lot, so I don't really cry over making their Facebook experience worse.

(I suppose this falls under "using the block feature sparingly", so I am not disagreeing with you.)

I disagree. If Person B is blocking Person C, then Person B probably has a good reason to. In that case, Person B doesn't want Person C to comment on a thread that Person B started, even if Person A has commented in the thread and doesn't block Person B.

Of course, the best solution is just to not use Facebook.

Note that the specific failure case that Davis is mentioning (there's a hole in Person C's context) is unrelated to the failure case that you're mentioning (person C might reply to person B, which person B doesn't want).

It might also be that "person B doesn't want person C to know anything at all about person B, including that person B is responding to this conversation." Perhaps that's an unreasonable thing to prioritize over person C's context, but then you're just conflicting different people's values.

I initially though this was going to be a critique about facebook container...glad to know there's nothing wrong with that.

But blocking in general never made much sense to me on a website... though I guess facebook is getting to be more and more of a self-contained adterner rather than a website.

As in, whatever you would all the self-contained ad distribution and behavior monitoring networks being build by the big tech companies. E.g. you can sell stuff on facebook, follow news, chat with friends, use a dating app, use maps, store data... etc, so it becomes a self-contained ecosystem, and maybe you leave to play games, but it's on a facebook controlled VR system, or you are young and you want to have a space for only you and your young friend to share stuff, so you go to FB controlled Instagram, or you don't use FB messanger so you message via facebook controlled whatsapp... etc

Facebook being just an example, you have similar setups for verzion, amazon, twitter and google (and probably more), and they are all collaborative to some extent.

adternet as just and tongue in cheek way of saying "internet but built for the express purpose of targeting ads".

You can improve this advice by removing the last word from the title. Move the ending parenthetical to the top, remove the parentheses, and bold it.