Social Media Spam and the Death of Twitter

17
Jun
2008

You’ve heard me talk about the predictable nature of Internet marketers (not all, but enough to make an impact), and how they abuse new social media tools. Will this group of social media spammers be the death of Twitter?

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Twitter’s going to actually vanish or anything. What I am saying is that Twitter seems to be one of the least-equipped social media companies to be able to take on massive spamming (just look at their hands-off approach thus far in the community, as they supposedly want it to grow naturally). Unfortunately, growing naturally includes spammers.

We all know about Twitter’s problems in the recent past with keeping the service online, handling the traffic they already have. Do you think they’ve moved beyond that issue well enough yet that they could handle a new influx of users should the spammers “invade” the system? I think it’s already happening to some degree, and I’ve heard that they’ve certainly noticed and banned people. But can they handle spam on a large-scale? I think that’s a question that’s going to determine whether or not Twitter keeps its spot in the limelight for much longer.

What Twitter Got Right

You should know I’m not a Twitter fan. But they did get one thing right – their links are no-follow. While I’d say they have other linking issues internally (or at least did when I last checked), the no-follow attribute probably played a role in keeping spam down thus far – people aren’t simply posting tweets for the link juice.

Where Twitter is Vulnerable

Unfortunately, people don’t only spam their links around for link juice. Those who perceive Twitter to be a worthwhile traffic source will still do it – why you’ll see some of the most-followed “twits” (as I like to call them) posting links to things like their most recent blog posts every time they post, even when it has nothing to do with enhancing the overall conversation.

The Spammers are Coming! The Spammers are Coming!

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned here in the past, I’m a moderator at a large webmaster community. As such, I spend a good bit of time looking at various threads and discussions – one issue seemed to crop up repeatedly lately – how to manipulate Twitter. Here are some of the things people are talking about doing:

  • Trading friends / followers with others, to artificially increase follower counts.
  • Twitter bots (which automatically add friends, much like bots used and shut down by sites like Myspace in the past)
  • Selling or trading links in tweets (again, based on supposed traffic, as the links are no-follow – this is why people will want to artificially increase their follower counts)

Is Twitter Ready?

I’m not naive enough to think these things aren’t already happening. I’m absolutely certain they are. I just think the recent buzzing in certain audiences says it’s going to increase. Do you think Twitter would be ready to handle it? Do they have the resources currently to deal with massive spamming if it does occur (as in being able to spot it and delete the accounts efficiently)? Do you think they’re even at a point where they’re willing to step in to be even more directly involved in the community in an effort to keep it clean? Do you imagine that you’ll face even more downtime with Twitter if there’s a big influx of spammers adding even more noise to the mix, or do you think Twitter’s prepared for that?

I’m curious to know what the Twitter fans think of what some of these folks are using the service for. We’ve heard people support Twitter, saying they’re an option for emergency communication to professional communication. Would a spam invasion kill their credibility? Would you move to a competing service? Does this leave a door open for other services to come in, who may be more prepared from the start to deal with these potential issues?

Been There, Done That

If Twitter gets slammed with spam, they would be far from the first social media tool to be abused in the name of Internet marketing. You would be hard-pressed to find even one that hasn’t been through something similar. So for shits and giggles, let’s take a look at a handful of social media services, how they’ve been abused in the past (or are still being abused), and some of the things they’ve done about it:

  • Myspace – Myspace is really the best example, because they were one of the first to gain huge popularity. They therefore attracted massive numbers of webmasters, business owners, and professionals who were determined to not only promote themselves there, but to make money through the site. They probably were the service hardest-hit by friend adder bots. They also stepped up to the task (although perhaps too late) and many of those bots were shut down. They also had (and still have) an issue with people creating fake accounts – people create an account to promote a website for example, and they’ll use a fake name and fake pictures to make it look like it’s a real person’s personal account. They then add friends, people accept thinking it’s a real person (they often use pictures of hot chicks to net the male audience), and they then get subjected to links and such in their comments, messages, and bulletins. Myspace still has work to do here, but by enabling us to report more spam, it’s helped. One thing they’ve also done is essentially mask all links to external sites (so you can’t get direct link juice when you put your link up on the site). Myspace hit the spammers the hardest, but I think they did so too late in the game. Sure, they’re still huge, but I’ll never take it as a coincidence that their spam issues and the rise of Facebook were happening at the same time. They may not have lost a huge number of people, but I do think they helped their competition.
  • Del.icio.us – Del.icio.us is a nice little tool for sure, but they’re as subjected to abuse as others – although they’ve (at least from my observation) not suffered much on the credibility front. What gets abused here? People bookmark all of their own pages, or they buy / trade favorites with others to increase their popularity to try to get more traffic to their sites. Big enough problem to quit using them? Nah.
  • Technorati – I have to admit, I rarely use Technorati for anything anymore. I just don’t look at them as a reliable source at this point. Why? Too much going on with favorites exchanges and such, where I’ve seen garbage sites pick up supposed authority, while high quality sites that don’t abuse the system get knocked out of view. Then again, we all know I hate any kind of blog ranking system, so that shouldn’t be a surprise. And really, if I want to simply look for blogs in a niche, Google’s blog search works just fine and dandy without needing all of the bells and whistles and without the overwhelming odor of spammers. And honestly, I think Technorati is simply trying to do too much. They lost their focus in my view, and I’d much rather see a company do one thing right than try to be everything to everyone.
  • StumbleUpon – SU is the last social media tool I’ll talk about here, as they were one of the hardest hit, and one of the most recent. Their problems? Stumble exchanges, buying stumbles, applications for automatic stumbling, stumbling all of your own pages, friend exchanges, etc. Stumbles are basically like votes. The more votes you get, the more traffic you’ll tend to get as your page is shown to people expressing an interest in your topic area. I’d say the stumble exchanges were one of the worst issues. The forum I mentioned earlier actually ended up banning them – when that happened I started seeing more new forums and such launched solely for doing these exchanges – not too long after, SU implemented a captcha feature which more than likely weeded out automatic stumbles. I can’t imagine it had a huge effect on exchanges or purchased stumbles, but it may have helped.

These are just a few examples. Others exist. Facebook has its own bots to deal with. Digg’s had more than a few issues with spammers and people trying to manipulate the system. Yet all of these services are still around, so why would anyone worry about Twitter?

I honestly think Twitter’s demonstration thus far is that they may very well be the least prepared to take action, and take action quickly, should they be next on the spammers’ hit list. But enough about what I think. What do you think? Can Twitter take it?

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6 Comments

  • Twitter can barely handle the legitimate Tweets that are going on, let alone if mountains more spammers who may overrun the site. They need to upgrade those servers stat, regardless of who joins. It’s really getting ridiculous.

    However, I think they will be willing to crack down on spam if it gets too bad. The bottom line is that they don’t want to risk having users go to other sites. In fact, they may have already done so. I don’t know about anyone else, but it seems like I’ve received fewer friend requests from random spam-trepreneurs. For a while I was getting 5 or 6 a day; Now I’d say it’s once a week.

    That said, a spam invasion will probably not kill the site’s credibility. You have to remember it’s up to you who you follow. If you don’t follow someone back, you won’t get their updates and thus no spam. You always have the block option too. This will do nothing for spammers mucking up bandwidth, but at least it doesn’t clog up my feed.

  • True, but being able to choose who can or can’t be included didn’t really stop the spam drama with sites like Myspace, and how it’s affected their reputation over the last two years or so.

    I know Twitter recently got more funding, and I saw somewhere that they’re planning to bring in more people. I think the biggest problem they’re going to face is that it’s still in the “talk” phase with the bulk of the spam-style types – I know it’s being spammed already, but I think it could be potentially much worse if buzz starts up around some of this stuff and it takes off on a large-scale, like with SU. I’m just not sure that funding it enough, if you don’t really know what to expect. I’m curious to hear what others think will happen with the improving financial state – do you think they’ll focus on problems, or something else?

  • Andy Walpole says:

    My understanding of using Twitter for marketing purposes is that it doesn’t reap much in the way of many visitors, and those that do visit bounce right out again.

    It will be a focus for spammers because of it’s popularity – something that I’m shocked about.

    When Twitter first appeared it was difficult to read a good word about it, but I’m surprised at the number of range of people who are using it.

    I have a humanities website and quite connected with the history blogging community, and I’m surprised to read, as I have done on a number of occassions, how online historians are using and engaging with Twitter.

    To me, as you point out Del.icio.us is the best of the bunch you pointed – perhaps there’s something in its inbuilt architecture that makes it less fertile territory for spammers, and consequently perhaps there’s something there for other Web 2.0 sites to learn from.

    Digg has historically (if that is the right adverb for a site only four years old) been easy to “game”, although they seem to have sorted themselves out better now.

    Personally speaking, I find Digg the Empire of the Senseless. The stories that make it to the frontpage are sensationalist, self-referential (Digg, S.Rose) and just damn right innacurate.

    I don’t know about anybody else, but the spam (mostly porm) seems to have died back on MySpace over the last few months.

  • Actually, Twitter has recently taken steps to reduce Twitter. They are actively looking for spammers based on various statistics (they won’t reveal the specifics but the following:follower ratio has a lot do fo with it). If they suspect that it is a spammer account they will terminate the account. Many people have noticed that the number of people following has been dropping. Most people suspect that this is due to the recent terminations of the spam accounts. They have also imposed new limits on their API’s to prevent the spam bots from mass following people and using scripts to automatically create tweets.

  • “Actually, Twitter has recently taken steps to reduce Twitter.”

    LOL That was cute. ;)

    I already mentioned I know spammers are there, and I know they’ve banned folks for it. My question is more about whether or not they could handle a huge influx, especially from the webmaster / IM crowd who can be rather good at being sneaky about it (such as trading friends/followers to artificially build links, seeing paid links versus non-paid links – the smart spammers have gotten pretty good at making things not look like spam). I’m not surprised that the bots are being hit – they’re usually one of the first things to go. When those are killed off, that’s generally when we’ll start seeing people offering cheap services to do these things manually. Do you think they would be able to finally get their act together on the downtime issues, and have the servers prepared for a big new wave of folks if that happens? I’m not convinced yet, but perhaps.

  • From a marketing/PR perspective, I really like twitter. But then again, I’m not really using it to distribute messaging but rather to monitor for brand and competitor mentions. I do use it to respond when my brand is mentioned which, I think, does serve to create an additional lead-gen and reputation management opportunity.

    I have a company twitter account which does not follow anyone but has many followers (build it and they will come?) and a personal account with my three friends followed. I get no noise from either one given the low following counts.

    Unlike so many other social media platforms, with twitter you really get to control your exposure.

    I’m starting to use the search function in Friendfeed to eliminate the need to monitor the many social media platforms separately. Using search functions in this way is a wonderful means of utilizing these platforms for my purpose while ignoring most of the noise.


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