There are many good ways to slide into someone's DMs. Reaching out to an old friend. Complimenting someone who you think posts great tweets. Maybe even offering some useful information.
But sending unsolicited dick pics? Not one of them.
Cyberflashing is a serious form of sexual harassment that is all too common: 78% of millennial women have been sent an unsolicited dick pic, according to a 2017 YouGov survey.
So when I heard technology might be able to offer a solution to the problem it has created, I was intrigued.
Late last year, three developers issued a call out for help to test the "Safe DM" Twitter app. It was, they said, an AI filter that could identify and block photographs of penises sent over Twitter DMs.
One of the developers, Kelsey Bressler, asked Twitter users to send their dick pics to @showYoDiq to help test and train the software. Bressler said the account received 4,000 images.
After months of testing, the team announced a launch date: Valentine's Day.
The developers have made the bold claim that the app could save people from significant discomfort or harm. Bressler estimates it will block up to 99% of dick pics.
So I did what any discerning journalist would do: I decided to give it a go.
I signed up for the Safe DM service on the website the day before Valentine's Day. (It is expected to go live on Feb. 14 in the United States.) I typed in my email and then gave the app permission to do just about anything it wants to my Twitter account.
Bressler said the developers can't read your DMs, but can see if a message contains a dick pic or not. She added that in order to carry out its central functions — seeing pictures, blocking users, etc. — the app needed the highest level of access to Twitter accounts, even though it doesn't need all the permissions listed. "Unfortunately Twitter doesn't allow us to pick and choose. It's all or nothing," she said.
Once I authorised the app, I was taken to the Safe DM dashboard to view my settings. The app can currently respond to DMs and hide photos. The developers are also working on a block function and an offence limit — an option that gives users the ability to select how many explicit images a person can send them before being blocked. Bressler hopes to roll these out soon.
And...that was it! It was extremely easy to set up. Now, all I needed was some dick pics for the test-drive. To make sure the app works in all conditions, I needed pictures of penises in all shapes, sizes, colours, and arrangements.
After an enthusiastic newsroom discussion on where we should source these pictures, we landed on Wikimedia Commons, which has a wide array of penis pictures that are licensed for reuse.
I assembled a tranche of images that I hoped would test the filter to its limits and roped in my colleague Ryan — whose usual job is making Tasty cooking videos — to be the DMer.
We sat next to each other, and I asked Ryan to send me one of the images. He happily obliged. A new DM notification popped up, so I clicked on it and then opened his message.
It was, unmistakably, an unfiltered picture of a dick.
I was a bit disappointed and began to wonder if I had set it all up properly. A few minutes later, once I had started to type out a message to Bressler to see if there were any problems with the service, Ryan spoke up.
"I got a reply," he said. Underneath the image he had sent to me, my account had written back to him: "⚠️That image was NSFW⚠️. Deleted! ❌".
I looked at my messages with him again — and, lo and behold, the image had vanished! It was still on his screen.
But it wasn't on mine.
It turns out the filter works but has, on average, a two-to-three minute lag.
After this first attempt, we went hog wild with pictures of penises and penislike objects (courtesy of the r/wildlypenis subreddit). Here's how it went.
JUST SO YOU'RE AWARE, THERE ARE LOTS OF IMAGES OF BLURRED PENISES COMING UP NEXT.
1. An erect penis
Just a classic dick pic. Safe DM absolutely recognised it.
2. A flaccid penis
Safe DM caught the soft cock too.
3. A penis in a condom
Safe DM did NOT block this image.
4. A tattooed penis
5. A heavily modified penis
Thank you, Safe DM, for blocking this.
6. A penis from a statue
7. A penis in a vagina
Technically, this isn't a full visible penis, but it was still blocked. (Bressler told me that Safe DM can also block pictures of vaginas, anuses and even violence, but I didn't test this.)
8. A micropenis
This was blocked.
9. A full body shot with a penis
This was also blocked.
10. A dildo
This was blocked! To be fair, it is very realistic.
I understand why Safe DM filtered this, but...it is not a penis.
12. A plant
Also blocked. Wow, nature is incredible.
13. A garden umbrella
Allowed! Clever Safe DM.
This looks delicious and it was permitted.
15. A statue of an adult giving bread to a child
This is fine, according to Safe DM.
16. A popsicle
Safe DM says no, and frankly I agree.
17. A cartoon penis
This was NOT allowed. Sorry, anime fans.
The good: Honestly, I'm gobsmacked. Safe DM is a simple piece of technology that works well. Only in one case did it let a penis photograph through. It was very eager to block penislike objects, but I'm guessing most people who might want to use this filter would rather be safe than sorry.
The bad: This does not protect users entirely from dick pics. It takes a few minutes to work, so if you open a message immediately, you will likely see the image.
Bressler told me the team plans to roll it out to other platforms in the future, but it is only on Twitter for now. But hey, it's a start — and a pretty effective one.