Twitter Has Lost The Plot

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You’ll have noticed that the title is not phrased “Has Twitter Lost The Plot?”, in keeping with the usual style of this blog. It’s a much more assertive “Twitter Has Lost The Plot”. I promised myself that I’d keep this blog vaguely professional and would not get my knickers in a twist over take-it-or-leave-it facets of the Internet. But I can no longer persuade myself that there’s some kind of logic to what Twitter is doing. The site has, quite seriously, lost the plot…

I hate when people on the Internet think they know better than experienced businesses, and begin spewing out armchair advice. Now I’m doing it myself.

But it’s a fact: Twitter doesn’t know what it’s doing. Its plans are not working, and it admits its plans are not working. Any user could see that the ‘Instant Timeline’ idea (which forces unsolicited tweets upon new users until they follow a required number of accounts) would appear patronising to a 14-year-old. Twitter still wonders why it didn’t work. Any user could see that spamming up 10% of people’s timelines with promoted tweets would have seriously adverse consequences (like people blocking the advertisers rather than dismissing the ads – thumbs up to all who did that). Twitter still wonders why we couldn’t all be a bit more tolerant.

And even now, the organisation is coming up with new measures which don’t address the problem, and will in fact make the site worse. I won’t get hung up on the rumoured plan to significantly increase tweet capacity to accommodate more than 140 characters of text, because we don’t know if it’s true. But the very fact that Twitter won’t quash the rumour suggests it’s at least under consideration, and that thought sends chills down my spine.

Can you imagine the amount of content theft? Can you imagine trying to read a timeline with essays and super-tall bids for attention thrown all over it? Given the massive (and in my view disproportionate) amount of weight Twitter carries with Google, can you imagine the effect the move could have on blogs and other sites with substantial content? If people were able to spin your blog articles on Twitter, could a Twitter spin outrank your blog?…

But let’s focus on what we know is happening, and more fundamentally, the nature of the current problem…

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TWITTER’S PROBLEM

Twitter’s problem can be summed up in a single word: SPAM. Take away the spam and everyone’s happy. But Twitter appears to be doing everything in its power to increase the amount of spam.

Do you know how many DMs users can send per day?… 1,000. D’you know how many tweets users can post per day?… 2,400. Who on earth, other than a spammer with an automated scraper or spambot, would even be capable of posting that many original messages of value, within a 24 hour period? It’s just stupid! It’s nearly two tweets per minute, round the clock, no sleep. 200 tweets per day is a sensible limit. It won’t stop people using bots, but it’ll massively reduce the deluge of useless crap they post.

True, there’s a case for business service departments needing to reply to a large number of individual enquiries, but surely that can be tackled with a reply clause, exempting solicited replies from the limit.

FOLLOW LIMIT INCREASE

In late October 2015, Twitter increased its standard follow limit from 2,000 accounts, to 5,000 accounts, retaining previous clauses and mitigations for higher follow potential. But this was the wrong answer to the right question.

The question?… How to stop the horrendous scourge of unfollowing which massively demotivates users. “Oh great – someone followed me!”… “Oh what??? Someone unfollowed me!”… “Oh great – someone followed me!”… “Oh what??? Someone unfollowed me!”… It’s a perpetual loop which reveals all too clearly to users what a joke Twitter follows have become.

These ‘followers’ are not reading anything. They’re all just clicking buttons in a bid to make themselves look popular. In other words, they’re spamming. The constant unfollows are a fiasco. There’s no greater illustration of the fact that everyone’s just pretending to like everyone else.

But upping the follow limit was not the answer. How is that going to change anyone’s behaviour? The people who got stuck on 2,000 friends and then randomly started unfollowing people in order to progress further will just shift up to 5,000 and do the same when they get there. Indeed, I’ve already noticed that three or four of the people who were stuck on 2,000, are now stuck on 5,000 – just a few days after the limit was increased. So, my observations to date are that user behaviour has worsened in response to this move – not improved.

BAD BEHAVIOUR

Bad behaviour across the site is something Twitter bosses stare at in wonder, and don’t in any way associate with the oh-so-important user experience they’re apparently trying to improve. People using automation to spam and annoy 1,000 users per day. People using automation to list and annoy 5,000 users per list. People using automation to tweet, automation to follow, automation to unfollow…

Twitter: just BAN AUTOMATION!!! PROBLEM SOLVED!

Twitter knows who’s using automation because the apps have to go through authorisation and are subject to full monitoring. So this is not that Twitter can’t ban automation – it’s that they won’t, despite the fact that they admit in their ToS…

“… most automation is detrimental to the user experience.”

So THEY KNOW THE PROBLEM! THEY KNOW HOW ANNOYING IT IS! They just conclude that we, the users, are nothing more than marketing-fodder pawns, who don’t really have the brains to reject an awful user experience.

Twitter shows some tenuous examples on its ToS Automation page with the intention of illustrating how automation can be used for good. But the harm of automation so completely outweighs the small pockets of usefulness (which could and would in any case be achieved manually if automation were banned), that there really is no case for allowing it, other than to pander to spammers.

Some uses of automation are already banned, but Twitter doesn’t police the prohibition, and often, even when reported, accounts using automated spam techniques are allowed to persist.

SO BAN AUTOMATION, AND BLOCK IT!

Yes, some spammers will cry off, but LET THEM GO! Let them go and ruin some other site. You cannot pander to spammers and then expect ordinary users to enjoy the inevitable result.

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PRE-EMPTIVE CONTROLS

To tackle some spam, users need more controls. Pre-emptive controls, such as being able to block tweets that incorporate certain links. paper.li, crowdfireapp.com, bit.ly, ow.ly – whatever crap the user wants to block from their notifications or timeline, let them block. Ordinary users who are not trying to spam or market rubbish do not use custom link shorteners or auto-promo/aggregation tools. They don’t need to.

I’m not, it should be stressed, saying ban the use of bit.ly. I’m saying give users the tools to exercise choice on what they do or don’t want. If they consider bit.ly to be link spam, and don’t want it, let them block it out. I AM, incidentally, saying ban paper.li. paper.li spam is in any case a contravention of the of the ToS, so why paper.li isn’t already blocked by Twitter I can’t properly establsh.

It is, however, most likely because attacking spam threatens to noticeably dent the fake site usage stats that automated routines create. Killing spam would, in the immediate term, devastate Twitter’s on-paper usage stats, because the most intensive usage of the site is typically spam. That is, I guess, why Twitter talk tough (as a hopeful deterrent), but when it comes to the crunch, turn a blind eye. Spam is something they can lump in with real site use, and say to potential advertisers: “Hey – look how many users we have!!! Look at the level of activity!!!”. Yeah, but IT’S ALL BLOODY AUTOMATED! Take out all the automation and what are they left with? On paper, a much, much smaller audience for advertisers to target.

Other pre-emptive controls could include the means to auto-block all users whose messages contain persistent and exact repetitions of the same phrase. Like “Thanks for following! Please check out my shit!”. That would be invaluable within the DM system.

If someone’s just posted exactly the same thing a hundred times, how can they NOT be a spammer? Either shut their accounts, or let real users block them en masse. There are teenagers on Twitter who have posted the same tweet to Justin Bieber more than 20,000 times. Why does the site tolerate that? Even if Bieber himself doesn’t receive the messages, they still show up in Twitter search and potentially obscure more useful posts. Spammers of that magnitude make the Internet a misery. But Twitter clearly doesn’t see any problem with them.

And what about pre-emptive controls such as being able to auto-block all users who re-post an overwhelming incidence of (other people’s) existing messages without employing the retweet button? Word for word recurrences of phrases wouldn’t automatically be a copyright infringement (in the case of “Have a nice day”, for example), so it would be unworkable for Twitter to ban identical Tweets per se. But there are reliable formulae Twitter could implement to determine when accounts are scraping or calculatedly copying other users’ content well beyond the odds of coincidence. The site could offer everyone the means to mass-block those accounts, should they wish to.

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DETERRENT

The real impact of anti-spam measures would not be the small direct improvement on the notifications screens of users who take options to mass-block. It would be a massive reduction in spam, due to the deterrent effect. People only spam because they prosper from it. If you stop spam from reaching its target audience, or you operate a zero tolerance suspension policy, spammers give up.

TWITTER’S ATTITUDE

Twitter does have a problem with recognising how much its genuine users are put off by spam. It’s easy to dismiss spam and say: “you don’t have to respond to it”, or “you can keep clear of it if you try hard enough”, but that’s not really the point. The point is that spam is not just the annoyance of unwanted incoming messages. It’s burial. It buries what you say, and what I say, and it buries the meaningful contributors we want to find, under a sea of useless rubbish.

When someone searches for your tweet based on a keyword, they won’t find your tweet, because someone’s just spammed 100 identical messages on top of it in the chronological search timeline. If you’re lucky, and you have a little Klout, or your followers interact with your tweet, you might achieve top tweet status and rise above the spam. But you should not require the help of others to become visible. From the start, EVERYONE contributing something of value should have a right not to be instantly buried under 100 identical pieces of spam. EVERYONE looking for something of value should be able to find ALL useful contributions without having to page through hundreds of identical tweets.

Twitter does not get this at all. It expects people to accept that everything they post goes straight into a trash can full of crap, and that for the vast majority, the only escape is to fake-follow other users in the hope of being noticed. In other words, become a type of spammer. It’s not acceptable. People are worth more than that. If you begin using a website which has pandered for years to those who indiscriminately shout, at the expense of those who seek a quality reading experience with proper choice, then the task of integrating into that environment will most probably either result in failure, or in becoming part of the misbehaviour.

IN CONCLUSION

I know it seems like attacking the problem of disengagement and the sense of exclusion would require more than just eliminating spam, but it really wouldn’t. Think about it. If NO ONE on Twitter stole or scraped other people’s tweets, used automated apps, repeated the same message over and over again, built pointless lists purely to invade your notifications screen, followed accounts purely to be followed back, auto-faved tweets to be noticed (often un-faving them again), etc, etc, what would the site be like?

To many users, the collection of misdemeanours I’ve listed above, are all Twitter represents. Remove those misdemeanours, and suddenly daylight appears. All the good things about the site, which only experienced users are able to isolate, become visible to everyone. What people want is already there. Nothing needs to be added. But an enormous, ENORMOUS amount needs to be taken away.

Author: Bob Leggitt

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