Christopher Mims

A View from Christopher Mims

Twitter is in Denial About its Massive Spam Problem

Twitter doesn’t seem to have enough incentive to eliminate auto-spawned accounts – and that’s a larger problem than most of us realize

  • April 26, 2011

How often does a spam email make it all the way to your inbox? My email address is everywhere, and I get about one a month. Yet on Twitter I get hit by spammers multiple times a day.

Don’t take my word for it: Angel investor Auren Hoffman points out that a simple search on Twitter for “! Copy & Paste: ” will yield an unlimited stream of tweets all leading to viruses and malware.

[Update 4/27 1pm: Twitter seems to have shut down the spammers using that trick since this was posted last night. Glad to see they’re listening!]

What’s galling about spam on Twitter isn’t that it exists: every low-friction system for communication is going to have spam. It’s that it’s incredibly dumb, unbelievably easy to identify spam.

The heuristic I use for determining whether a cryptic new @ message tweeted at me is from a spam account is that if said account is tweeting the exact same message over and over again, it’s a spam account. Detecting this behavior strikes me as a problem you’d hand out in an introductory programming class. The strings match exactly! If more than 3 of them are sent out in a row, it’s a spammer. GOTO 10.

Twitter wants you to know that the incidence of “spammy” tweets is way down. Great. So why does my @ mention inbox feel like Hotmail circa 2001? And why am I being asked to flag spam – how many tens of thousands of person hours is Twitter draining out of the world economy by forcing its users to be the carbon that filters out all the dross that its programmers can’t be bothered to eliminate automatically?

Maybe the problem is that Twitter is not a protocol, it’s a closed ecosystem. The incentive structure is all wrong. Google got good at eliminating spam in part because spam was a drag on Google mail system resources. It hurt the bottom line. But Twitter’s only incentive is to keep spam to a level that’s tolerable. No one can compete with Twitter to offer a less-spammy Twitter experience, unless it’s a Twitter client that auto-blocks spam for you (and I don’t know of any).

The larger issue here has been raised before, but it’s worth repeating: Twitter is now too valuable to be left to Twitter. Imagine if Microsoft were the only provider for email, how terrifying that would be. Imagine Microsoft did something anti-competitive to email, or merely inconvenient. Imagine if Microsoft owned the social graph consisting of all your contact’s email addresses, and there was no way to email them outside of the Microsoft Email system.

That’s where Twitter is today. In the mold of Google, it’s played nice so far, but its tendency to address – rather than solve – its own spam problem points to larger issues with our reliance on it.

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