Twitter has recently added a new option for managing timelines called muting.
Muting is a half way house between following and blocking.
When you have ‘muted’ a user that user can continue to follow you and interact with your tweets, but tweets from that user will not appear in your timeline or indeed be visible to you.
This is a great feature to prevent timelines becoming clogged with spam re-tweets, or remove content from followers which you would prefer not to carry on your timeline. However, it does introduce an asymmetry which fundamentally changes the nature of the Twitter platform.
The feature is advertised as being invisible to the ‘muted’ party, a claim which is actually false as will now be revealed.
So, you have tweeted a message to a user who in good faith you have followed.
That user may have followed you back – pleasantries exchanged over DM to confirm good relationship, and then you tweet and get no response.
Fine – there is no onus or temporal limit on tweet reply – most go unanswered.
Then you notice something fishy.
When you open a reply from your own timeline, you should see something like this:
Note the visible chained tweet above to which the reply was made.
With a tweet to a user who has muted you, other than the tweet conspicuously not appearing in the target timeline (which unless you are monitoring the remote timeline you likely would not notice) when the reply is opened in your timeline the tweet appears like this:
Apparently disjoint: The reply appears as a direct tweet. It is invisible to the recipient.
There is some good news: Muting does not affect ‘favourites’. Your avatar should still appear associated with the tweet that has been favourited:
Whilst the mute feature is useful for controlling third party content in your timeline it perhaps should be used with care.
It is a very powerful asymmetric tool on the Twitter platform for silencing.
For corporate users Twitter have issued best practice guidelines in order to minimize wasted resources of clients using the platform for advertising: To avoid being filtered out by target users through muting.
In the context of Twitter accounts that are projecting certain views and contents this can obviously bias timelines and have a negative effect on balanced debate.
The use of muting to silence opinion which may run contra to your own further subverts from its intended use to control ‘Troll’ and ‘Spam’ content on timelines. Admission of use also invites attacks discrediting – true or false – your own timeline content.
After having directly observed it being used in this manner by certain accounts on the Left of the political spectrum (who also have significant traditional media presence), and significantly some who describe themselves as ‘Journalists’, the misuse case appears strong and real.
A corollary of this is that Twitter trends and apparent consensus seen forming in threads must be considered biased, leading one to conclude that Twitter is no longer a free or fair barometer of opinion.
From a libertarian perspective, this feature and its use is dubious.
Whilst a timeline owner should have the freedom to control the content which appears on their timeline, not disclosing that presents a case of misrepresentation about what others are actually viewing in their timeline.
This touches on the boundaries of fraud, and in the case of political threads has a distinctive anti-libertarian feel.
Users of the feature are perhaps best advised to consider the ‘no harm’ principal when using it, easily satisfied with a clear disclaimer, perhaps in their profile description.
A community response could include a ‘hashtag’ for identifying problematic or unreasonable users of this feature.
The harm argument is reflexive for those who would follow and then mute a corporate stream: Follow then mute would place an unnecessary burden on the corporate users resources.
The fundamental misrepresentation of sorts by the timeline owner when using this feature is: You are following me but I am not telling you that I am not listening.
I would like to extend h/t’s to: @owenjones84, @missmillicent for their assistance in learning about this feature.