Users on Twitter no longer need to follow someone else's account to be able to send that person a private direct message, under a change announced by the company on Monday. Instead, people with Twitter accounts can now specify in their settings whether they want to be able to receive private messages from anyone, anywhere.
Twitter's update to direct messaging also lets users privately reply to anyone, whether they follow that person or not. Mobile users on Android and iOS devices who enable the feature will now also see a "Direct Message" button on their profile pages, as well as on the profiles of other Twitter accounts.
The changes are designed to help people connect more easily and directly with others on Twitter, said Senior Software Engineer Nhu Vuong in a blog post on Twitter. As many observers have noted, however, the new capabilities seem to run counter to recent pledges from Twitter to do more to protect users from unwanted comments and online harassment.
Response to Abuse 'Sucks'
In February, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo acknowledged in an internal memo to employees that his company "sucks" at "dealing with abuse and trolls." Many women in particular -- including the late comic Robin Williams' daughter, Zelda, and feminist writer/media critic Anita Sarkeesian -- have publicly called attention to the excessive abuse they have received via the social network. (Williams eventually deleted her Twitter account to avoid harassment.)
Last month, Twitter announced that it would be making it easier for users to report online threats to law enforcement officials via e-mail. Other recent updates have included streamlined reporting for users experiencing harassment and new, behind-the-scenes enforcement actions against those who violate Twitter's rules and policies.
Twitter said it will suspend accounts "when appropriate" if users are found to be violating its rules. Its policies prohibit threats of violence, targeted abuse, username squatting, impersonation and spam, among other things. However, the problem for Twitter is that it's usually quick and easy for users to create new accounts and/or multiple accounts if older accounts have been suspended.
An Opt-In Feature
Being able to privately send direct messages to anyone on Twitter would seem to create the potential for more, rather than less, abuse. But Vuong noted in her blog post that the feature requires users to opt in. People who choose to receive direct private messages can also block individual users from contacting them via that feature.
The most obvious users to benefit from the change in private direct messaging are Twitter's business accounts. Vuong offered the example of a customer who wanted to tell "the ice cream shop down the street about how much you love their salted caramel flavor."
Previously, you’d have to ask them to follow you first. "With today’s changes, the ice cream shop can opt to receive Direct Messages from anyone; so you can privately send your appreciation for the salted caramel without any barriers," she said. Big brands will also likely find the change even more helpful for connecting with key customer segments.
The response from Twitter users has been mixed, with some welcoming the change. On the flip side, a Tweet from a user named John Scalzi noted, "It . . . appears the 'DMs from everyone' is optional and off by default. Mine will stay off." (His comment had been retweeted more than 150 times as of Tuesday).