The fleeting satisfaction of blocking every ad on Twitter

Logos of accounts blocked on Twitter by the author
Logos of accounts blocked on Twitter by the author
Image: David Yanofsky/Quartz
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

I joined Twitter in 2007, and became an active user about a year later, so I got used to Twitter as a conversation with people whom I chose to converse with. I knew that advertising was coming. Everything needs to make money one way or another, and Twitter is free, though I’d be willing to pay for it, since I get a lot out of it. When launched an ad-free Twitter alternative, I signed on as a charter subscriber, but the conversation didn’t migrate there, and I let my subscription lapse.

So I’ve lived with paid messages at the top of my timeline for a while now. I think I’ve given them a chance, and I realize that these ads are what keeps Twitter going. (In its recent earnings report, Twitter said that every 1,000 timeline views generated $1.44 in ad revenue, down from $1.49 for the fourth quarter of 2013.) Yet most of them annoy me. So earlier this year, I decided to start blocking Twitter users who post sponsored tweets that don’t interest me.

This experiment has been an effort. Favoriting something or following someone entails a single, obvious tap from your timeline. Blocking requires three: tap the avatar of the sponsoring Twitter account, tap the gear-shaped icon on the settings button, then tap the word “Block” (which, if you have fat fingers, is awkwardly close to “Add to contacts.”) Twitter’s web interface has an option to “dismiss” a promoted tweet, but the official iPhone and iPad apps, where I practice most of my Twitter, do not. And blocking is not obvious: The first two taps give no hint where you’re headed, and for awhile the settings button on the iPad was invisible, although if you tapped where it used to be, it opened the menu of options, including Block. Perhaps this was a bug; it was fixed recently.

The blocking sequence is like one of those videogame combinations that you learn only by accident, from friends, or on the forums. It was not the easiest habit to develop, but the blocking combo is now in my muscle memory.

I didn’t keep good records as I blocked—the whole point was *not* to pay attention to advertisers—but this being the era of Big Data, I reconstructed my trail using Blocked By Me, a service run by Gerry Mulvenna, a singer, songwriter, and IT consultant in Edinburgh, and powered by the Twitter API. Blocked By Me doesn’t tell you exactly when you blocked users or which tweet prompted you to block their account, but the blocks seem to be in reverse-chronological order, and they tell a story.

As of this writing, I have blocked more than 500 Twitter users, including accounts belonging to at least 20 of the 30 companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average as well as dozens of startups. I have blocked government agencies and industry lobbies, print publications and new-media ventures, burger chains and probiotic yogurts, top-shelf spirits and sports drinks, financial institutions, automakers, cell-phone providers, over-the-counter medicines, Hollywood movies, Broadway musicals, and public television shows. I blocked a lot of big sponsors during the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards, and The Final Four.

Occasionally I find myself in sponsored weird Twitter, with promoted tweets about a self-proclaimed chewing-gum expert, a cappella audio-production facility, or Sheldon Adelson-sponsored Israel project. I blocked Twitter’s account for British advertisers, but as far as I’ve noticed the main Twitter ads account has left me alone, so I’ve left it alone.

Twitter has two main modes of advertising—promoted tweets and promoted accounts—and in either case you pay for performance, not exposure, so until someone clicks, you don’t owe a cent. When you promote a tweet, Twitter bills you only when someone clicks on a link, replies, or otherwise interacts with that tweet. With a promoted account, you pay only when someone follows you. Prices are set at auction, and Twitter suggests bidding levels. Any Twitter user with a credit card can promote himself. To promote my own account, for example, Twitter proposes a bid of $2.50-$3.50 “based on historical averages,” and to promote my quip about New York Knicks owner James Dolan, Twitter suggests $1.80.

Reviewing my blocking history reinforces my suspicion that digital advertising is a blunt instrument, no less blunt than in television or newspapers. Although I do not enjoy golf or boxing and I have a full head of hair, I happen to be a man in his 40s, so I have had the opportunity to block sellers of golfwear and baldness aids. I am happily married, yet I have blocked several dating services. The only bank I can buy is a piggy bank, and my art collection is not sufficiently large to require storage, yet I have blocked such one-percent offers. I have been pitched pizza at 5:36am, concerts in cities I rarely visit, and bagels a few hours before Passover.

An unpleasant feeling usually accompanies my blocking routine. It’s hard for me to explain, let alone for Twitter to measure and report back to advertisers, but it’s something like how one feels when you squash a roach running across the backsplash in the kitchen: a blend of disgust and satisfaction, albeit a fleeting satisfaction, since there is always another roach.

Or is there? This was one hypothesis I wanted to test, to see whether, if I went deep enough and blocked enough sponsors, I would reach a hidden paradise, like the one in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth: a return to the innocent, ad-free playground of my early Twitter years. I haven’t gotten there yet, and there may be advertisers I blocked that bother me less than ones I see now.

Like the dopamine rush that a gambler feels in anticipation of betting, the disgust can build even before I tap-tap-tap. And the negative attitude extends to accounts that follow promoted tweets. For example, I used to follow the online journal Flavour, but I saw so many promoted tweets from fast-food companies it followed that Flavour seemed distasteful.

If it sounds like I block everything, I didn’t mind this public service announcement to sign up for health care before the deadline. In fact, I should have retweeted it. This campaign to give away mugs that resemble the people who drink from them falls into my uncanny valley of amusement. And I since I use Twitter to talk to people, I have more tolerance for individuals who promote their tweets than for brands, and am more willing to ignore a person instead of blocking him.

You probably think I’m a crank, and I won’t argue. As I’ve been conducting this experiment over the past few months, I keep thinking of a high-school friend whose father had rigged a switch to mute his television during the commercials. This was back in the 80s, before wireless remotes with mute buttons were standard. It was a primitive set-up, with a handheld on-off switch attached to a wire you could trip over if you weren’t careful. Was he a crank? He was ahead of his time.