So Twitter created a rather obscure new setting in its privacy menu called “Receive Direct Messages from Anyone.” Now, people you don’t follow can send you a direct message, or DM, in private. 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 generally 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, DMing on Twitter is not really a thing. Mostly I use it to send people my address or phone number if we’re going to meet up somewhere. Occasionally I use it 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.

Still, 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, but it was changed at some point during rollout.

In the morning, comedian and game designer Casey Malone took a screenshot of the new feature, with the box checked by default. He became Twitter’s man of hour for this helpful tweet:

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The new feature did not show up in my settings until the afternoon, and the wording of the feature had already been changed — as had the default. Here is what I saw:

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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. But, you may be saying, if you don’t like this feature you can just opt out of it. There’s the problem, though. Even if I personally opt out, Twitter is encouraging almost everybody else to opt in. And if many people opt in, it will allow spammers to hide. Right now, if you go to a spammer’s Twitter feed, you can see that they’ve sent the exact same message to 200 people. But if they move all their spam to DM, you won’t see their history of garbage tweets. They’ll appear to be an ordinary, innocent Twitter user. As a result, it’s harder to see abuse and take action. For example, if somebody sends me a personalized sales pitch, I just ignore it. But if they’ve spammed the same pitch to the rest of Twitter, I block. With the new DM system, I have fewer ways to spot these bad actors and get rid of them.

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The second issue is more serious: trolls, creeps, and death/rape threateners can now DM you. More importantly, they can cover their tracks more easily, like the spammers I just mentioned. They can move their threat tweets over into the private DM zone. Which means there’s now a more hidden 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.

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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.


Contact the author at annalee@gizmodo.com.

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