Spam in the Twitterverse

I’ve noted in the past that “real-time” alerting systems, in contrast to search engines that place less emphasis on immediacy, are particularly vulnerable to spamming. It’s a lot like telemarketing–you could avoid it entirely if you routed any questionable calls to voicemail, but then you would, at the very least, not be able to be reached in real time.

At first glance, Twitter seems immune from this sort of spamming, since you only see tweets from the users you follow. Yes, Barack Obama and Guy Kawasaki must spend a lot of time on Twitter! But, regardless of how many users you follow, you are the one in control.

At least that’s the theory. Of course, things tend to work a bit differently in practice. Like many Twitter users, I use Twitter Search to maintain a running vanity query for mentions of my user name, employer, blog, etc. As a result, a user I don’t follow can nonetheless get my attention by tweeting an “at reply” to me. Twitter has struggled to figure out whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, but I suspect that my erring on the side of vanity is a common behavior.

But I do recognize that I’m opening myself up to alert spamming–perhaps not just in theory, but in practice. Today I read on All Things Digital that:

Pontiflex, a lead generation startup that hoovers up names and other other info from users that visit its network of publishers, then sells the data to marketers. The Brooklyn-based company is rolling out a Twitter product that lets marketers compile a list of interested Twitter users.

Since the users aren’t actually signing up to “follow” any of the marketers, said marketers can’t send them direct messages. The marketers could try to “at reply” their leads — the equivalent of shouting out the name of someone you think might be at a loud cocktail party, but who you can’t actually see. But that’s about it.

That’s about enough, if enough users are like me. Fortunately, I’m not enough of a celebrity to be particularly concerned about being singled out–at this stage. But I think the writing is on the wall, and spammers will innovate to embrace social media. I’ve already experienced a few examples of such innovation, and I’m sure that they are child’s play compared to what’s in store.

Personally, I look forward to this spamageddon. Why? Because I think we already have a problem managing attention scarcity in social media, but haven’t found sufficient motivation to confront the problem head on. A spam epidemic will certainly cause us to revisit our priorities, and I’m optimistic that we’ll innovate beyond the existing approaches used for email spam.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

3 replies on “Spam in the Twitterverse”

First, thanks for the link.

I think spam is a problem on Twitter, but only if you let it be one. I block and report all spammers there. The more we do to discourage spamming activity, the more spammers will realize that they’re wasting their time. The trick will be to get rid the automated spamming tools, including autofollow bots and those that send out spam messages to new followers.


Spammy followers are easy enough to ignore–I might see the notifications when they follow me, but that’s about it. Spammy re-tweeters–or anyone who shows up on my “vanity plus” search query are a bit more annoying. When spammers start @replying to me, then it will be a real problem.

But even without all that, spammers devalue Twitter. They latch onto popular topics–especially trending ones–wreaking havoc on the quality of Twitter search results–which can only be sorted by time. That’s certainly a problem if Twitter is to be effective as a discovery tool–I don’t want to discover that I’m drowning in spam!


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