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Twitter Needs a Spam Filter? No, We Need a Marketer Filter

Written by Sarah Perez / July 3, 2009 6:16 AM / 36 Comments

Has Twitter spam gotten a little out of hand? According to today's top story on Techmeme, it has. Apparently, marketers are calling for Twitter to filter out spam and other adult content from the microblogging service. You know, so their all-important tweets about the products and services they're pushing don't have to share the same web space as that other nasty stuff. But fighting actual spammers is still relatively easy for an end-user: it's called the "unfollow" button.

Ironically, if anyone's to blame for spamming our Twitter timelines, it's the marketers themselves. They've managed to trick our friends into spamming us with their messages instead.

If You're Getting Real Spam, Blame Yourself

We're not sure where anyone, marketer or not, gets off telling Twitter that it's their responsibility to filter the content that flows through their service mainly because Twitter is already doing so. The company itself currently addresses the spam issue by providing an @spam account where you can report spammers and other abusers in the Twittersphere. If the account in question is indeed a spammer, Twitter boots them from the service. That sounds good to us. Simple and least for the end user. (It's probably a nightmare to deal with at Twitter HQ).

Of course, Twitter doesn't want their service overrun by spammers - no one would. However, they're probably more concerned with wasting their resources to support these fake accounts than they are with the annoyance it causes for their users. But do they have it under control? Perhaps not - fighting spam is sort of like fighting computer viruses. You block one and someone makes a new one. The same goes for spammers - kill one spammer and another appears to take his place. It's an ongoing fight, not a plague that can be wiped out overnight through some magic filter.

Besides, what you consider spam, I may consider "valuable information about a product." Probably not, but there is a gray area there that has to be taken into consideration. Some spam is out-and-out spam, but other stuff may just be "hot deals" from a legitimate company. However, if you didn't want to see said hot deals, you might consider them spam. Still, how would you see them unless you actually followed that account to begin with? Or maybe you turned on auto-follow using a service like SocialToo? If that's the case, it's a little ridiculous for you to get annoyed when half your timeline turns into a slew of "buy this" messages - you only have yourself to blame for that.

Where Actual Spam Hurts Us

The only place that honest-to-goodness spam can really affect you on an everyday basis is not in your own personal timeline of friends' tweets, but when viewing a trending topic's stream or when doing a keyword search. In these cases, spammers hijacking a currently popular hashtag may show up in the timeline, potentially diluting the results with irrelevant information. For this reason alone, we support Twitter's spam-fighting efforts.

Even More Dangerous? "Tweet to Win"

What's actually more concerning than spam, however, is the new trend we'll call "tweet to win." Legitimate companies have begun using Twitter to promote a message - essentially an advertisement about their business' offerings. To cajole twitizens into "spamming" their followers in this way, they're offering prizes or the chance to win prizes in return. (Full disclosure: this author did this once and still regrets it).

This situation hasn't gotten out of hand just yet, but it seems like it's only a matter of time before it does. Because really, how many of you could resist yourselves if all of a sudden a company started giving away free Macbook Pros? Oh, apparently not too many of you because you've already spammed up trending topics today with #moonfruit. What's Moonfruit? Why, it's a company that's giving away a free Macbook Pro every day for 10 days. Is this a brilliant social media promotion (as Adam Ostrow of Mashable claims) or just a new, inventive way to junk up the twitterstream with advertisements? We think it's closer to the latter.

The only consolation in this particular case is that Moonfruit doesn't care what your tweet says, so it can just be appended to any ordinary tweet. That's not usually the case - most companies provide a message for you to re-tweet.

What's frightening about this "it's not spam, it's a message from your friend" is that it's really not. My friend isn't actually telling me that Moonfruit is this great new company they have just heard about and that I really have to check out. This isn't a word-of-mouth recommendation - my friend just wants to win a new laptop. They know this, I know this, and the company knows this. And that makes the message just as spammy to me as any other in-stream tweet from an actual spammer.

So, what can be done? Well sure, I could unfollow that so-called friend, but why would I? It's not like they do this regularly and 99% of the time, I like what they have to say. But while one day that friend is tweeting to win a Macbook, another may be tweeting to win something else. Even if only a small percentage of an ever-shifting group of my friends tweeted a promotional message every day, it would be enough to junk up my timeline.

Sadly, that's one kind of spam that Twitter can't really block. And neither can I.

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  1. Amen! Twitter isn't email; you have maximum control over your individual stream. Stop playing the "get as many followers as possible" game and focus on quality instead.

    I think you should repost this every week!

     Posted by: Guy Author Profile Page | July 3, 2009 7:12 AM

  2. I totally agree with Guy above, "Stop playing the "get as many followers as possible" game.

    History shows you will anyway.

    Posted by: David Dalka | July 3, 2009 7:27 AM

  3. I understand your point; however, isn't it unrealistic to think people on Twitter will behave differently than people off of Twitter? I still receive annoying emails spreading urban legends from well intended friends (or family members), requests to sponsor friends, or their children, in charity walks, and others selling the latest and greatest things. If it gets out of hand, I either call it to their attention and deal with it immediately (usually) or cut ties (seldom). And the same applies on Twitter, too.

    Effective social media marketing, and better quality promotions on Twitter, will find deeper and more authentic ways to encourage fans to share benefits and experiences by rewarding the quality of their expression.

    Posted by: zach braiker | July 3, 2009 7:37 AM

  4. I agree with most of this article until "Tweet To Win" I think you put way too much thought into that.

    Posted by: Deneil Merritt | July 3, 2009 7:37 AM

  5. I vote for 1 of each...

    Posted by: Vic Berggren | July 3, 2009 7:55 AM

  6. You make a compelling argument that ultimately Twitter is nothing but a conduit to another service such as Facebook.

     Posted by: Wayne Author Profile Page | July 3, 2009 8:06 AM

  7. The tweet-to-win type of friend spam is disrespectful to your followers, it devalues your stream and negatively effects your credibility. I'd love to unfollow everyone in my stream who does this but it's grown to such epic proportions. We have to address the issue and/or create tools the enable better filtering. I wrote about this on my blog.

     Posted by: Ben Author Profile Page | July 3, 2009 8:15 AM

  8. That's the truth. I find Twitter pretty ridiculous because of the all the affiliate, MLM people, but there is always the unfollow option. Still, I get 10 new followers a day and 70% seems to be of the affiliate nature.

    Posted by: Ben Hanten Posted on FriendFeed   | July 3, 2009 8:17 AM

  9. Sarah, I concur with your assessment of "tweet to win" gambits done moonfruit-style. The problem is moonfruit's "ask" -- they're giving people default tweets that add no value to the tweetstream. Pure noise, and that's a major no-no as far as I'm concerned.

    As Zach says, "reward the quality of [a participant's] expression." That's the right way to do a Twitter-based contest or other social-media marketing effort.

    At Brighter Planet, for example, we set up a hashtag-based campaign -- Earthtweet, pegged to Earth Day this past May -- with daily giveaways that asked contestants to use a little imagination of one kind or another. For example, we asked people to submit a green-living in haiku form -- the results were fun, and clearly had some intrinsic value.

    Doing something like this is asking your fans to do more work, and it takes more work to engender some participation. It's going to be a lot harder to become a trending topic. But so what? I just can't believe moonfruit's lame effort is going to do much aside from creating a huge number of people with an unfavorable opinion of their would-be brand.

     Posted by: Ian Author Profile Page | July 3, 2009 8:18 AM

  10. Totally agreed Sarah, the Twitter contests are dominating the trending topic areas and it's getting a bit ridiculous. I hope (and suspect) they will fade after a few months, but still, it is annoying.

    I recently had a follower write to me about someone sending her to a Twitter profile for a porn website. So I think the issue here isn't so much just unfollowing, but devising a way to clearly identify potential spam profiles and zap them. Twitchuck is helpful in doing this for users who are not sure.

    It all comes down to user education.

    Posted by: Brandon Mendelson | July 3, 2009 8:21 AM

  11. Good thoughts re "tweet-to-win" crap. Left a comment on RRW. (And what I really want from twitter: ability to do keyword search, see what's trending, etc. AMONG MY FRIENDS. Not among the hopelessly degraded overall Twitter firehose. Give me the ability to restrict all such queries of twitter activity to those I follow.)

    Posted by: Ian Wilker Posted on FriendFeed   | July 3, 2009 8:24 AM

  12. Yes I believe twitter spam is increasing. I get follow request and a lot of them with spam. Good to know I can sent them to @spam.

    Posted by: alfred westerveld Posted on FriendFeed   | July 3, 2009 8:28 AM

  13. I personally feel that the WORST spam is when someone logs in once a day and just @replies EVERYONE in their time line one after another filling up PAGES of MY time line with their meaningless replies.

    It's not important to them, they are not actually interested in anyone they are replying to, it's always promotional. These people don't "use" twitter, they just login to promote themselves once a day by pretending to be interested in everything in their time line.

    I don't expect a twitter "filter" for this, but I definitely unfollow these people immediately, and they should know that what they are doing is not helping, it's hurting - themselves and everyone who follows them.... you know.... in a twitter-hurt kind of way.

    Posted by: Ben Mc | July 3, 2009 8:40 AM

  14. I have a hard time telling people they're annoying on twitter. I do it anyway, but it's hard. The moonfruit thing was lame. I tweeted that i thought that and didn't get much support from my network, many of whom had tweeted to win.

    I like to see compelling messages, links or info retweeted. In my experience those are more compelling. I wondered what moonfruit was, so I clicked on their link, saw the contest, concluded that they were douchey and moved on.


    Posted by: Mike | July 3, 2009 9:10 AM

  15. I certainly share concerns regarding tweet to win that co-opts users into marketers & spammers.It concerns me to see users bemoan the explosion of spam auto followers but naively see little wrong in generating excessive tweet to win posts themselves.

    Posted by: Em Posted on FriendFeed   | July 3, 2009 9:15 AM

  16. Trending Topics is the biggest concern, because without the spam it is a really cool feature. Maybe Twitter could introduce a special kind of hash-tag that users could use to mark spam? So something like this could be used by users to identify spam...


    If enough people put that in a tweet then Twitter can take it out of the trending topics.

    Maybe there's a better way. Even a simple "flag this" icon on the trending topics could work, no?

    Posted by: Darren | July 3, 2009 9:44 AM

  17. I actually suggested to twitter via a tweet that they just let us block has tags.

    right click on the hashtag and then have a block this hashtag.

    Quickest way to get unfollowed is to tweet about how to get 400 new followers a day.

    Posted by: Darren | July 3, 2009 10:09 AM

  18. It's too relative. A spam to one may not be spam to another.

    you're so right with highlighting the unfollow button! It's your fault if you're seeing spams, you followed them in the first place! with that the power lies in your hands and not on twitter (company). I think that's much better!

    Posted by: Mikes Sumondong | July 3, 2009 11:17 AM

  19. The more interesting question to me is how much spam actually is on Twitter? With the mainstream hits and growth ramping up, one has to ask how much of that traffic is actually real people. When people talk about Twitter competing with Facebook this is the only thing I can think about. Facebook has no spam at all, how can Twitter compete with that if it's dominated by sleazy marketing schemes?

    I can't help but feel a little disgusted when I think about the effort going into spam on Twitter. Twitter bots following other twitter bots in an attempt to attract one or two Twitter noobs who can't spot the difference and then posting streams of random garbled words and hashtags. It's such a waste of existence on a grand scale.

    Posted by: Gabe da Silveira | July 3, 2009 11:31 AM

  20. Conceptually, there's an easy solution (not sure how hard it would be to implement technically, haven't looked at Tweeter API in detail). An App could just have a feature that lets you setup "rules" like in email programs, so you could filter out any message that contains a specific hash tag...

    Then again, I"m not a very trendy kinda guy ;)

    Posted by: Yann | July 3, 2009 11:42 AM

  21. The examples you cite are not marketing, they are stupidity. Don't insult the rest of us.

    Posted by: Brian Clark | July 3, 2009 12:01 PM

  22. I don't get it. Unfollow. Easy. Done.

    This argument is weak.

     Posted by: Jim Author Profile Page | July 3, 2009 12:05 PM

  23. Gonna have to go with Brian on this one.

    You seem to be confusing real marketing with other's stupid attempts at it.

    Posted by: Steven-Sanders | July 3, 2009 12:13 PM

  24. I think Brian and Steven are half-right. Yes, these are pretty stupid tactics. But those in marketing should know that perception is often more important than reality. So maybe this kind of stuff isn't "real" marketing in your book. But this kind of "stupidity" IS what a lot of people call marketing. And that confusion is not the audience's fault.

    So I don't agree that the author is insulting you "real marketers." Instead, she's observing legit reactions from real people. That's something the best marketers should value AND appreciate.

    My two cents.

    Posted by: Emily | July 3, 2009 1:01 PM

  25. I don't understand the big deal. Sure the type of spam you all are referring to changes the trending topics but it isn't like you are having to read a spam message. So a friend ads a hashtag (#moonfruit , etc) to one of his or tweets. This doesn't devalue the contents of the tweet. The only thing that it changes is trending topics. So if you don't see what you're looking for in the trends because a contest, etc. has pushed it out then simply search for your term. My opinion is that the complaint is petty or small in nature. Move on and gave fun being able to socialize with others. There was a time when Twitter didn't have trends, we could always go back to that time.

    Posted by: Earl Hensley | July 3, 2009 1:04 PM

  26. Virtually everything on twitter is marketing. The only way to filter out all of the marketing is to not use it at all.

    Posted by: garth | July 3, 2009 1:08 PM

  27. We must remember that span and telemarketing calls would stop if they didn't work. Anytime you participate in a spam offer or buy from a telemarketer you are helping fund an intrusive system.

    Posted by: sovereignjohn | July 3, 2009 1:15 PM

  28. As someone who has wanted to stab the eyes out of every tool that fills my feed with "FollowFriday" recommendations, unfollowing is easier said than done. This Moonfruit thing is a perfect example. These are my regular Twitter friends - I don't want to dump them for all time just because they got it in their heads to do Moonfruit (or FollowFriday, or Spymaster or any other inanity). They are misguided children.


    Posted by: RightGirl | July 3, 2009 1:15 PM

  29. Really? I mean, we're talking about Twitter here, not quantum physics or the emergency broadcasting network. Sure, we get interesting tidbits of information and are able to vicariously follow other peoples lives, but it's Twitter for crying out loud.

    As far as moonfruit goes, I quite think it's the exact thing people who talk about viral marketing should be. They are a web service that's been around 10+ years, and wanted wide exposure. Their bet has paid off. 15 grand has gotten them more exposure via Twitter than 5 times that would have gotten them via traditional media. It very well could have blown up in their face. And they aren't requiring a specific tweet, only a hashtag, some of which are quite ingenious and funny. I've actually taken to following their account to read their RT's of some of the more interesting ones.

    But personally, as far as the "noise" goes, that's one reason I've switched to a tool like Nambu, so I can create my own groups and filter the noise myself. If I feel like scrolling through a certain subset of those I follow, for what ever reasons, I will. Otherwise, there's the old "mark all as read" option. Which I do quite regularly, because again, it's Twitter, not answers to the universe I'm going to be missing out on.

    Posted by: miklb | July 3, 2009 2:04 PM

  30. >>>So, what can be done?

    I'd like to be able to block #hashtags. So when I see a stupid #moonfruit thing going, I can somehow invoke a Block #moonfruit command and never see the stupid things.

    I think participating in these contests is demeaning.

    Posted by: Mike cane | July 3, 2009 3:47 PM

  31. There's nothing wrong with contests. I love giving stuff away. Besides, a follow is like an opt-in. Unfollowing is an opt-out.

    Happy Tweeting and hope you win one of the contests!

    Posted by: TopGDIPro | July 3, 2009 6:02 PM

  32. Sure you can unfollow them or avoid following them in the first place but my problem with spammers is with their using hashtags and putting trending words in their posts. If you use either of those things it's impossible for you to avoid seeing spam, whether you follow them or not.

    Posted by: Hugh Briss | July 3, 2009 6:22 PM

  33. Whoops, I just did a 'tweet to win' promotion for an organization I'm affiliated with. The contest ran for 24 hours, and the message was canned: tweeting to win (event) tickets: go to (url) for details.

    I didn't even really think about the spamminess, now I see the other side :(

    Posted by: Andrea Hill | July 3, 2009 6:26 PM

  34. Great Article Sarah~

    You hit the head on the nail.

    This is one of the reasons why we created
    Watching out for you, one tweet at a time.

    and to let everyone (especially because of spammers and
    some marketers know that Twitter is about 3 things.
    1. Engaging
    2. Building Relationships
    3. Providing value

    Thank you for sharing this article, great job~


    Posted by: Al | July 3, 2009 8:14 PM

  35. The spam that I get from twitter is the porn sites and adstreams that are automatically following me which means I get an email saying so-and-so is following you. I have to go look at their twitter profile and realize they are a spammer.

    Some people might actually click a link or follow back if the spammer bothers to make the account look legit (most these days just say "Oh I like small guys because I'm a small girl http://... with a single tweet).

    The people who use those auto-follow-back and auto-DM bots are probably the ones who are really annoyed because they automatically follow any spam account that follows them.

    The other kind of spam I have trouble with is when I'm monitoring brands on twitter using search and seeing the same auto-tweets scrolling by ten times a day making it hard to detect actual customer inquiries.

     Posted by: Dobes Author Profile Page Posted on FriendFeed   | July 3, 2009 8:26 PM

  36. Incidentally I too wrote about Twitter Marketing, especially the spammy one's like #moonfruits.

    Since marketers don't relent this easily, the only way out is if Twitter offers a way to help companies/brands get some visibility. It could be either ad's or sponsored content/pages or something else..

    Posted by: Mayank Dhingra | July 4, 2009 11:08 AM

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