Digitally Yours: Social media blocking is not a cop-out, it’s a coping mechanism

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

There are no hard and fast rules to etiquette on social media — that’s what makes it exciting. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about blocking, an online function that is, by nature, antisocial and appears antithetical to the goals of social platforms. Experts have yet to fully analyze the possible motivations behind blocking others online and the effects they may have on the human brain and body.

Although there are no concrete scientific reasons as to why we block others, the act is commonly viewed as a last-resort action — a form of digital escapism. Public figures with large Twitter followings have been criticized for blocking users online, and earlier this year a federal judge ruled that President Donald Trump is not authorized to block Twitter users who criticize him because that action violates the First Amendment.

According to a cyberpsychologist quoted in a Quartz article, blocking is “a hasty, emotion-based response to a stressful event, which may turn a difficult relationship phase into a non-salvageable one.”  

However, this loose definition discounts the millions of people, especially women and members of the LGBTQ+ community, who block users to circumvent the threats and harassment they receive online. On Monday, acclaimed author Celeste Ng posed a question to her followers about the most effective way to limit harassers on Twitter: “I’ve always muted, but recently someone pointed out blocking is like herd immunity: spares your followers from seeing the bile & prevents harassers from harassing them too. Thoughts?”

Similar to Ng, I tend to mute people online, rather than block them. I’ve always been a firm believer in engaging in critical dialogue with others online, but as I’ve spent my time in Twitter circles, following popular writers and creatives, I’ve noticed a concerning trend: Women of color, specifically Asian women whose work and ideas I admire, are constantly speaking out about the online harassment they receive, even from others within the Asian community. The idea that blocking is a form of intellectual immaturity, that it’s an emotional and rash action, is especially harmful. It constructs a myth that people who block — especially women, who are more concerned and affected by online harassment than men — are hypersensitive or easily offended.

This summer, “Star Wars” actress Kelly Marie Tran wiped out her Instagram posts to escape the constant harassment she received. But even lower-profile figures, such as bloggers and activists, face trolls and harassers with misogynistic ideas that they should not bother to confront.

The digital world is messy; it’s hasty and emotional, but women too often bear the burden of having to entertain arguments to the most basic opinions they express online. No person, unless they are elected officials, should be expected to listen to the concerns of everyone else. Roxane Gay, author of “Bad Feminist,” summarized it best in a tweet from March 2018: “I don’t owe anyone my time! I don’t have to participate in debates other people want to have. Goodnight.”

Admittedly, Gay has blocked or ignored valid criticisms of her opinions and work online, but the notion that she has a binding responsibility to respond to these comments, or even acknowledge them, is absurd.

The social media landscape is not like a college classroom, where different perspectives are proposed and debated. These platforms are self-serving, and therefore allow individuals the right to make social connections and interactions with those they are willing to engage with.

Blocking ultimately serves as an immediate coping mechanism to this stressful online world, whether the block is directed toward former lovers, friends or even disagreeable public figures. It provides users with a sense of power and control over the events and relationships in their life. It’s an action that frees people from potential interaction with individuals they would never want to interact with. If you disagree with that — well, I guess you can block me.

Terry Nguyen is a junior majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the digital managing editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Digitally Yours,” runs every other Wednesday.