Wednesday, June 15, 2011

5 Techniques To Deal With Spam: Open Letter To Twitter

I love Twitter, but lately, I am getting annoyed by Twitter spam and I'm not the only one. I don't want Twitter spam to become email spam. I don't want to whine about that either, so I spent some time thinking about what Twitter could do to deal with spam. Consider this an open letter to Twitter.

Facebook's privacy settings are the new programming a VCR. Google has been criticized a lot about profiting from content farms. I believe that all the major players are playing a catch-up game. A lot of people have stared to complain about LinkedIn spam as well. Quora went into different direction — where they started out with a strict upfront policy regarding who can join Quora, ask questions, answer questions etc. — to maintain the quality of their service. Strict upfront policy hampers new user acquisition and adoption but could ensure better quality where as liberal policy accelerates the user acquisition with a risk of service being abused. I do believe that there's a middle ground that these services could thrive for by implementing clever policies.

Here are five techniques that Twitter could use to deal with spam:

1. Rely on weighted rank based on past performance: I ran a highly unscientific experiment. I kept a record of all the accounts that I reported as spammers on Twitter in the last few days. I went back every few minutes, after reporting an account, to see whether that account was suspended. It took Twitter some time before that happened. Every single account that I have reported so far has been suspended. I don't think Twitter is using that knowledge. If it did, my subsequent actions would have resulted into quicker suspension. Learn from Craigslist. Craig Newmark will tell you all about community-based flagging. Instrument the system to rely on reputation of power users — who are savvy enough to detect spam — to suspend a spammer's account. If it turns out that it's not a spam, give an opportunity to the account owner to appeal. Spammers don't waste time arguing; they simply move on.

2. Expand categories to match how people consume: Create a separate "unsolicited" category to receive mentions and replies from people whom you don't follow. This could be a separate window in a Twitter client that replaces the current "replies and mentions" window. Require Captcha for direct replies (and not mentions) for the conversations where both the accounts don't follow each other to stop automated spam. Everything else, including real spam, goes into "mentions", which is now a new category, that can be consumed in a separate window leaving the "replies" window clean.

3. Remove spam tweets from the stream: Many users don't consume their mentions or replies in real-time or even in near real-time. Mark the tweets spam once you suspend the account and require the Twitter clients to remove them from users' stream in real time. No API restrictions and no throttling. If you do it right and spam gets detected within a few seconds, the account can be suspended in no time, and the tweets are removed even before the most users would even see them. Emails can't be recalled, the tweets can be, if Twitter wants it to. Let's do it.

4. Focus on new accounts: Set a reasonably low limit on number of tweets per hour on a new account. A first-time genuine Twitter user doesn't go from 0-100 in a day, but a new spammer certainly would. Focus energy on new accounts; spammers don't wait for a few weeks or months to start spamming. The current "verified" account feature is a black magic. Open it up to all the people and use standard means such as cell phone, credit cards, and other identities to verify their Twitter accounts. These accounts enjoy the benefit of doubt - an upfront requirement of multiple signals before their accounts are suspended. Spammers don't want to verify themselves.

5. Find and fight bots with bots: There are a bunch of bots out there that look for the words such as iPad, iPhone, and XBOX in your tweets and then they spam you. Twitter can crate their own bots to tweet these words to catch these spam bots and more importantly harvest the links that they are tweeting to detect other spammers. Twitter's own bots would obviously be far more intelligent than the spam bots since they would have access to a lot more information that the spam bots don't.

The spammers do catch up, but if Twitter spends a little time and energy, they can stay ahead in this game. They can even lead the pact of social media companies on how to deal with spam.

Update: As soon as I published this post, I tweeted it and copied Del Harvey on it. She immediately responded to the post. You can read her response here. I really appreciate Twitter responding to this. My take on the response is that they seem to understand what the issues are and how they might solve them, but they haven't fully managed to execute on it, so far. I don't agree with their feedback on issue #2 calling it non-safety. Users see Twitter as one integral product where spam is very much part of it. Personally, I don't think of spam as a security issue for me. It's just plain annoyance. Executing on these ideas will matter the most. Let's hope Twitter gets behind this with full momentum and it doesn't become a "project".

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