Twitter anti-spam efforts go overboard

Summary:Twitter's spam-blocking efforts have falsely identified popular company Twitter feeds and individuals as spammers, creating a definite damper in community engagement.

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone wrote yesterday that its fight against spam is an "ongoing battle" but his team has taken big steps in stopping the unwanted follows from bots. According to Stone, Twitter's already implemented a serious action plan:

To combat aggressive following directly we have recently imposed new limits on following—spammy accounts following too many users have been drastically curbed. Those that existed prior to this new limit await review. Our administrative tools for finding and dealing with spam grow more sophisticated as we learn more.

Unfortunately, in doing so three companies who use Twitter to engage with their customers have been limited in their ability to add new followers. Comcast, Jet Blue and Pandora have all confirmed that as of yesterday they were unable to follow folks who have followed them -- a swift kick to their customer engagement outreach. The companies aren't even going around trying to add random new users. These are users who have reached out to them.

I just learned this is hitting individuals as well. Last night Chris Brogan (who follows just under 11,000 -- a reciprocated amount) told me that he was, indeed, able to add followers. But as of this morning he cannot. Around midnight last night I heard from Robert Scoble (who follows about 20,000 people -- also a reciprocated amount) that he can still follow but I haven't yet heard back about whether or not he can still do so today.

Frank Eliason of Comcast, who runs the company's Twitter feed, said when he first found out he could not follow-back customers he immediately contacted Twitter support. What he received was a lackluster reply.

"The first response was to delete followers," Eliason said. "The second response was it may take a few days but they will look into it."

So both Comcast and Pandora began deleting followers and in Pandora's case, only after deleting about 600 followers was the company able to follow new fans who were already following them.

"I do want to be completely respectful in how I use Twitter, so if anyone thinks I'm being too spammy, I'm open to changing how I communicate with Pandora fans on Twitter," said Lucia Willow, community manager for Pandora.

But these companies, nor individuals, should have to go to these great lengths. None have been flagged for spamming and all have a principle to follow customers who have engaged directly with them or who discuss their companies. As more and more companies turn to Twitter for customer loyalty and customer engagement, it is critical that they, at the very least, be able to follow back the folks who follow them. While Twitter's stability issues are improving this new battle-gone-awry with spammers might be the next thing to make users look to other services for customer engagement through microblogging.

It appears, according to the Twitter blog, that the service is stabbing at spammers based on a ratio of followers to followees. This works, but it creates issues like the above -- something that security experts might call a "false positive" -- and it's nowhere near refined enough.

"Rather than looking at the ratio of followers to following, which could artificially deflate because of people unfollowing a user, Twitter should look into the probability of a user being reciprocated on a following notice to a given individual within a limited period of time" said Adam J. O'Donnell, Ph.D., director of emerging technology at Cloudmark.

"It is computationally cheap to perform that ratio computation, and probably why Twitter decided to do that first," O'Donnell said. "It's a great first step but it definitely needs some fine-tuning. Spam is a continuous battle and you need to have many mechanisms to prevent abuse, including this kind of throttling and blacklisting on behavior on a social network."

While Twitter was not reachable for comment, it said on its blog that its measures may not be as sophisticated as required and the service will continue to grow.

Part of our work will be to keep iterating and evolving our approach to spam so we can provide a good experience on Twitter.

In the meantime, what can companies, community managers and individuals do to not lose reader or customer loyalty?

  • Whether or not you can immediately follow folks back, engage with them directly. Keep your notification emails handy and reach out to those folks through "@" messages until you can add them directly.
  • Keep your communications active with your existing Twitter follower base and engage in conversations versus using your feed to merely push information (which could inadvertently get you categorized as a spammer).
  • If you've been forced to unfollow people to keep your account from getting completely blacklisted, communicate honestly to your customers and fans, and let them know that this move was due to Twitter's current spam policies and not due to your lack of interest in engaging with them. Let them know you WILL be back.
  • Keep a log of which customers you've had to unfollow and re-follow them immediately after Twitter updates its spam procedures.

[Update 7/22/2008: 11:44 a.m. - Receiving word from folks who follow as few as 50 people that they are being capped as well. This does not appear to be a volume issue.]

Topics: Security, Social Enterprise

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