Late last night, I started getting Twitter notifications that people I don't know were adding me to lists.
As someone who's been harassed many times on that hellsite (as many women have) I know being added to lists usually isn't a good sign. My own lists are usually tame; at best it's annoying, at worst it can be used in a coordinated harassment campaign. So when I'm added to a new one, knowing the experiences of others on Twitter, I'm still obligated to check it out, just to make sure nothing nefarious is happening.
These new list notifications turned out to be coming from an app called Vicariously, created by a tech entrepreneur named Jake Harding. He launched the app a few weeks ago, but it's just now reached a tipping point in virality—partially due to people complaining about how irritating all these list notifications are.
Vicariously is voyeurism for someone else's feed: it works by adding everyone a user follows to one list, which then works as a mirror to what they see in their own feed. Filter bubbles and echo chambers are well-documented social media phenomena, so the temptation to see what someone else's bubble looks like is understandable.
Twitter lists were a tool the platform launched without considering the potential for harassment. Users will put people on lists to swarm with targeted harassment. It took Twitter years to launch an abuse-reporting feature for specific lists.
As TechCrunch reported, Vicariously violates Twitter's own rules against automation. But Twitter is working closely with Vicariously to get it in compliance, while allowing it to continue operating on the platform.
“We love that Vicariously uses Lists to help people find new accounts to follow and get new perspectives. However, the way the app is currently doing this is in violation of Twitter’s automation rules,” Twitter said in a statement to TechCrunch. “We’ve reached out to them to find a way to bring the app into compliance with our rules.”
So as usual, until they figure this out, it's up to users to find workarounds for problems platforms create.
To stop Vicariously from adding you to lists, you have two less than ideal options: You can log into the Vicariously.io app, which involves authorizing it to access your Twitter account, and select options to prevent users from adding you to generating lists and creating lists based on your follows. Obviously signing up for an app you already kind of hate isn't ideal.
Another option, according to Harding, is to sign up then immediately go back to Twitter and revoke permissions from Vicariously using Twitter's own privacy settings, then DM the Vicariously account and ask them to add you to their own deny list. Again, this is giving up more information—your preferences, and putting you on yet another, albeit different and privately-owned list—that shouldn't really be necessary to stop a bot.
If the lists don't bother you but the incessant notifications do, you can turn off notifications from people you don't follow. But this is a blanket solution, and doesn't allow you to monitor when you're added to a negative list that's intended to streamline harassment against you—a necessary self-protection step if you're a woman or marginalized person on the platform.
If you're using Vicariously and want to make sure thousands of people aren't pinged when you create a list, you can set it to private.
But that doesn't change the fact that he rolled out an app without considering consequences for users who don't want their feeds monitored by others. Now, Vicariously is trying to clean up the mess, with Twitter's help. Why Twitter "loves" an app that's in violation of its own rules, but punishes others for minor or non-existent infractions and allows white supremacists to thrive on its platform is a question that comes up every time the platform supports some new feature no one asked for.
On the Vicariously Twitter account, Harding said that some of the features that existed when the app launched—such as putting the private lists option behind a paywall—were "random decisions." He also said that an opt-out option would "require some thoughtfulness" and several days to implement. This type of thoughtfulness would have been better before publicly launching an app that annoys and potentially harasses users across the whole Twitter platform, and waiting for users to troubleshoot it.