Will spam kill Twitter?


Why does Twitter seem to be unable to deal with Spam?

In Puffles’ early days of Twitter, I estimate that around four in five new followers was a form of spambot. It takes a huge amount of patience and vigilance to keep spammers away from Puffles. I clear them out several times a day. Not many people have the amount of time available. During my civil service days, a falling workload (due to the closure of the programme I was working on and the winding down of my civil service career prior to redundancy) and a long commute enabled me to do this.

In those days, spam accounts varied. Then I started noticing trends. There would be a period of spam accounts sending tweets containing various account names followed by a link that had no explanation. Then there was a period where such tweets would have a short “click for free [insert name of consumer good/voucher]” slogan. In very recent times, there has been a plethora of p o r n b o t s – some that post directly, others that don’t tweet but just follow – for no apparent reason whatsoever.

Some people see these accounts as harmless – others quite like the idea of such accounts bumping up their follower count. I quite like my list of followers to be both reasonably accurate in terms of numbers of people following, and that they are ‘real people’ with whom I can engage with in debate and/or learn things from. Spambots are a barrier to this.

Apart from the annoyance of spambots, some of the things that they have in their profiles are…how to put this… “not the stuff you’d want your young children reading” – to say nothing of the misogynist messages that others also object to. From an environmental perspective, spam is also not free. It costs in carbon emissions. If governments are serious about cutting carbon emissions, does cutting spam form part of the solution? If the vast majority of email is made of up spam…exactly. I don’t know what the solution is, though I do recall Bob Crow of the RMT Union being ridiculed at a suggestion of an email tax not so long ago.

But what of the technology companies? Why can’t they get a grip of it? Why can’t Twitter?  Part of the explanation may be to do with the number of staff they employ. For a firm with a huge global presence, Twitter employs very few people – 600 at the last count. Does Twitter’s valuation and revenue provide any further light on this? The WSJ covered this issue here.

One of the things social media companies are supposed to be good at is responding to the needs and demands of its users. Yet the problem of TwitterSpam seems to be getting worse. What can Twitter do? What should it do?

It’s one thing being reactive to TwitterSpam – I report every account that looks like spam that appears in Puffles’ followers list or Twitterfeed. But I have no idea as to whether it is acted upon. This system also does not deal with the sources of the problem. Can Twitter be more proactive in how it deals with spam? Looking at the relatively small number of people it employs, I’d like to think that there’s room for expansion. But that in itself is not the solution.

This then moves us into the realm of law enforcement online. This was something that I touched upon in my blogpost Puffles (*takes plate away*) on the issue of internet trolls. There are only so many technological tools that a firm like Twitter can use, and only so many people it can reasonably employ to deal with this problem. TwitterSpam – and generic email and internet spam is a global problem – it needs a global solution. (That does not inevitably mean centralised top-down draconian agency tackling it). Amongst other things it means social media companies working not just with law enforcement agencies and grassroots organisations too in order to deal with it.

I have no idea what Twitter plans to do about it – but do something it must. Failure to do so could result in people leaving in droves leaving little but the spambots. The road of the internet, digital and social media is littered with firms that grew very quickly, peaked and fell back at a similar speed. Facebook and Twitter may be top dogs today, but that’s no reason for them to remain that way in what is a very fast moving and evolving environment.


2 thoughts on “Will spam kill Twitter?

  1. Hmm. Is Twitterspam really a problem? Perhaps I’m doing it wrong (not that I truly believe there is a right or wrong way) but for me Twitter is about who I follow and not who follows me. Bots may ‘follow’ me but unless I follow back they have no impact at all. If they could clog my timeline I’d be unhappy but they can’t …

    I don’t disagree with the underlying point that spam email (and, worse, the fraudulent and virus bearing stuff) is a problem but just not sure it has any genuine impact on Twitter?

  2. I’ve noticed that when I tweet, I get spammed. I don’t tweet every day, and on the days I don’t tweet, no spammers following me.
    I actively report each pornbot, and have often wondered how they get so many people following them considering most of them don’t tweet at all.
    Excuse my ignorance, and perhaps if someone out there knows better, please enlighten me. I’ve been thinking about adverts I’ve seen to the effect of ‘get 1000 twitter followers now’. This seems like a twitter version of Google’s adsense. I wonder whether Twitter doesn’t get some kind of kickback from these firms offering to increase your following, Surely they must be able to pick up programmes that trawl their users?
    Have you, dear Puffles, alerted Twitter to this post? How does one bring this to their attention?

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