How Spam Might Kill Twitter

Twitter LogoTwitter has been remarkably spam-free in its first year of existence. There’s no way to use the service, as is, to push messages into people’s faces.  You have to friend someone to follow them, but they’re not obliged to follow you back.

That was an early mistake some users made when Twitter first came on the scene.  Used to services like Facebook and MySpace, where large numbers were good and social convention demanded you friend someone back out of politeness, new Twitterers automatically followed anyone who followed them.  They soon learned that you can’t follow everyone.  Sure, you can, but it’s more time than it’s worth.  And if you have all Twitter messages in your feed going to your cell phone, you were in for an expensive day if you paid by the message.

In any case, people are smarter now. As many people can follow them as they like, but they’ll only follow a small number or percentage back. (There are exceptions, of course, and Robert Scoble is an extreme outlier to this.)

But ANYONE can follow you on Twitter.  I get an e-mail every time someone does.  Sadly, half of the new followers I get these days aren’t real people.  They’re new Twitter-related products or services.  They’re scam artists.  They’re spammers trying to work a new system.  I don’t use their product, so why would I care about them?  Still, no harm no foul.  They can’t spam me, so they don’t bother me.  I’d like my Number of Followers stat NOT to be inflated by such barnacles and clingers-on, but it’s not worth the time to go into the settings to ban them.  Though it may be soon. . .

However, at a time when new Twitter services are popping up like moles waiting to be whacked at a carnival, I can’t help but get the sinking feeling that the spammers are coming to Twitter, and it’ll happen via one of these services.

One new service that launched in the last month will suggest new friends to you.  It follows who you’re following and then branches out to who they’re following and presents you with people of interest that others mutually follow.  Isn’t that a handy way for potential spammers to get your Twitter name automatically, without investing much man power into compiling a list of people to follow?  (No, I’m not naming them.  They annoyed a number of people earlier this week by suddenly friending them. They’re spammers, as far as I’m concerned, and don’t deserve the name recognition.)

Even better, this service went and added 8000 users as a friend.  They claim that they friended only those people who were looking you up via their service.  They don’t tell you that when they offer you their service. It’s a back door.  That might not be “spam” in the traditional sense, but it’s definitely “spam” in the Twitter sense.  They’re not following me because they’re interested in what I say. They’re following me to increase their own stats or their own service’s effectiveness.  I’m not quite sure what it is.  Can someone with the Twitter API enlighten me on this?  What privileges does following someone give you that just looking them up out of the blue not give you?

Twitter also has, built in to the web site, a tab to see a list of all the people who’ve replied to you, by prepending “@” to your user name.  Now, a spambot can span the tree of users, compile a lengthy list of those they’d like to advertise to (using a Small URL that looks benign), and get users’ attention by replying directly to them. It’s no problem to send the same message hundreds of times with a different user’s name at the beginning.  Twitter might have some sort of built-in control limiting your number of posts per minute.  I don’t know.  But spammers are a patient lot.  They’ll send all those Tweets out eventually.  And all those people who want to see who’s talking directly to them will end up seeing pages of spam messages, losing all the direct messages sent to themselves. In order to not lose the functionality of the “REPLIES” tab, they’ll have to learn to deal with it.

The era of Twitter Spam is almost upon us.  Will Twitter be able to program around them?  Will it take too much work to avoid them for users?  Could it result in the death of Twitter?  Not in the short run, no. But spammers know how to get what they want.  They always win.  There’s no way to stop them effectively.  It’s sad, but true.  Everything is eventually ruined, often by them. (Have you ever turned off the spam filter on your e-mail or in the comments engine of your blog?  It’s ugly out there.)

Enjoy Twitter while it lasts, kids.

Update: (11 Apr 2008) I’m not the only one noticing this.

3 thoughts on “How Spam Might Kill Twitter

  1. Great post. We’re at a tipping point with Twitter and it can either slide over to the dark side or we can try to fix this. I have a few points I’d like to add:

    1) Are you blocking the suspected spammers? Twitter staff actively monitors blocking activity and will take action if enough people block a user.

    2) In the past day, Twitter added a ‘spam report’ page on this page:

    3) If you have ideas for how to fight spam on Twitter, submit your idea on Get Satisfaction: Twitter has been very responsive to issues / ideas submitted here.

  2. I still don’t understand how this will cause spam to be sent to users. Will it create a bunch of cruft accounts? sure. Is that going to be a huge problem? no. But spammers still can’t force you to follow them or to read their messages. So the worst is notifications that X is following you. Myspace sends out messages when people friend you. Spammers do that CONSTANTLY, and it doesn’t seem to have affected them (not that myspace was ever usable but the comparison holds) at all.

    The reply spam you mention is probable, but I don’t think it is going to turn into such a huge problem. And it would be easy to code around. “Only see replies from people you follow” as an option and bang you’re done.

  3. Adam – I hope you’re right. I really do. But the problem is, “Only see replies from people you follow” is a bad move. I’d miss half the replies to my Twitter posts. I realize that not everyone is a “public figure” the way I guess I am, but I’d hate to miss any replies to my posts. I would rather not wall off my garden. Then, Twitter becomes a much more closed arena.

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