When social media companies change important functions without notice, they risk social backlash from users—often enough, a backlash transmitted by the company's own platforms. You'd think they'd wise up about that, but so far, there's little sign that social giants like Twitter and Facebook have figured out how not to get burned by all this pent-up social energy they've released.

Last week, Twitter quietly changed the way it handles users who are "blocked" by others in an attempt to minimize backlash and antagonism from those who found themselves blocked. Yet when Twitter users discovered that they could follow someone who had blocked them and see those tweets in their timeline, the social network erupted in outrage. 

It’s worth noting that many people misunderstood Twitter's original blocking feature, and wrongly claimed that it could block other users from seeing your tweets. In fact, the only way to keep tweets from being viewable by literally everyone on the Internet is to set your account to private.

Although Twitter reverted the policy back to the one it had originally, plenty of disgruntled users were still asking why it needed to be changed in the first place. 

Social Media Déjà Vu

Unfortunately, what Twitter experienced yesterday is an all-too-common scenario for social networks. It generally goes something like this:

  1. A big social-media company—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.—makes a major policy change that affects millions of users without telling users why they're making the change and how users will be affected
  2. The Internet discovers the change and panics
  3. The company is forced to explain itself under fire, often several times. In some cases, it backtracks completely

Last year, Instagram experienced its own dustup of this sort. The company updated its terms of service to include a clause suggesting it had the right to sell access to user photos. As you might imagine, people were not happy about the potential for Instagram—and its corporate parent Facebook—to make money off their original images.

Instagram backed off and eventually eliminated the controversial wording, but not before users and the media accused it of privacy violations

Facebook, which has earned a reputation for putting revenue ahead of user privacy, has faced similar backlashes for years. In 2007, when it abruptly unveiled an advertising service called Beacon that would track Facebook users across third-party websites. More recent examples include using user names and images in advertisements without consent, accidentally outing secrets as a result of misunderstood privacy violations, and of course the controversial Graph Search

Two years ago, Mark Zuckerberg admitted that the company had mishandled privacy concerns. While Facebook continues to insist that it handles user privacy transparently, it's still landing in hot water with recent updates

To its credit, Facebook has on occasion backtracked in the face of public opposition. Zuckerberg admitted Beacon was a mistake, and the service also conceded that "sponsored stories" featuring Facebook users in ads were a violation of user privacy

According to a Facebook spokesperson, oftentimes the company does give users an opportunity to review and comment on proposed policy changes before they go into effect, and sometimes user input does, in fact, lead to additional changes.

Learning Experiences

Some companies actually have managed to learn something about communicating with their userbase. Reddit, for instance, did it the right way when it updated its user agreement last week in ways that paralleled the changes Instagram made last year. 

Redditors, of course, are no strangers to Internet panic. In this case, though, site admins managed to quell the backlash before it really gathered steam by quickly and clearly explaining the policy updates and why they were legally necessary to allow Reddit to function the way users expected.

Now, was that so hard? Other social media companies, please take note. 

In the meantime, there's yet another option for the avatars of social sharing. Since these companies rely so heavily on user judgement, why not solicit user opinions before making controversial changes?

We've reached out to Twitter to see if, in the future, the company might announce changes to followers before implementing to gauge the general reaction. The company has yet to respond to our requests for comment.

Posting proposed changes—again, in a clear and compelling fashion—and letting users chew them over before formally implementing them would make social users feel more a part of the process and might even yield useful feedback for the companies in question.

Of course, many changes will stick whether users want them or not; business is not a democracy. But by being truly transparent about policy changes and what difference it makes to users, companies can avoid getting publicly shamed both in the media and on their own social networks. 

Lead image by **RCB** on Flickr