Spam and user responsibility

Twitter, like any communication medium (physical or electronic) has a spam problem. They’ve been able to mostly keep it under control, but it surfaces every now and then. I was talking to a friend about this recently and he noted that certain kinds of spam are easier to detect than others. For example, a tweet full of suspicious URLs may very well be spam. But is an account that never tweets but follows lots of people a spam account? Part of this is an perception issue. I personally don’t care about being followed by (possibly) spam accounts. I get more annoyed if I get a tweet from one of them. However, I do know people who are really careful about who follows them. For Twitter, the question is how to tell spam tweets and spammers apart from legitimate traffic and users.

Getting users to report spammers is perhaps the first line of defense. If a large enough group of people report an account as a spammer, there’s a high probability that it actually is a spammer. But on the users side, what is my incentive to report an account as spam? Unfortunately, I feel that Twitter’s nature plays against it in this regard. In particular, a spam tweet is much less annoying than a spam email. Tweets and the Twitter stream are, by design, ephemeral and temporary. You see something and a few hours later it’s gone. You’re not expected to read each and every tweet and you’re certainly not expected to reply to everything and everyone (unless you’re  a self-styled social media guru, but that’s another matter altogether). Reporting a spammer is a pretty high overhead activity, especially with the current web interface. As far as I can tell, you can’t directly report a tweet, you have to click on the user image, click on the profile button and only then do you see the option to report spam. If I see a spam tweet, the easiest thing for me to do is shrug my shoulders and move on — it’ll be out of sight and out of mind in a while anyway.

Contrast this with email: I don’t reply to each and every email, but I do read most of it and I reply to a lot. Reading and answering emails (especially if they’re technical in nature) are fairly high load activities and my inbox definitely isn’t as ephemeral as my Twitter stream. Consequently, getting spam in my email inbox is correspondingly more annoying, especially if it’s more sophisticated spam (like a phishing attempt). It’s in my own best interests to report spam so that I have less to deal with in the future. Furthermore Gmail (and I would hope, most email interfaces) make it easy to report spam — generally just one click (two if you need to open a menu first, sometimes there’s a confirmation request).

(Aside: Note that Twitter associates “spam-ness” with the user, while email conventions associate it with the email itself. Objectively the two are isomorphic: the sender of spam message is very likely a spammer and a spammer account very likely sends out mostly spam. I find the difference is interface and convention interesting from an HCI point of view.)

An argument could be made that reporting spam is the users’ best interest, irrespective of quality of interface and immediate overhead. But I wonder if even this argument doesn’t quite work in Twitter’s case. Twitter is, and has always been, a largely public medium. Private accounts exist and you can block followers, but by and large you use Twitter to share everything with everyone. Email by contrast has always been more personal and private. But this means that reporting spam on Twitter is a lot like picking up litter off the street — it is bothersome, and you know that at some level you should do it, but is it really your problem? What’s really in it for you, and if you don’t do it someone else surely will, right? By contrast, spam email is pretty much exactly  like getting junk mail delivered right to your home.

While Twitter’s image as a public space has probably been key to its success, I do believe that it’s hard to get people interested in taking care of something they don’t have any ownership over (as far as I can tell the only way to pay for Twitter is to buy ads and it’s becoming increasingly harder to hook up non-official clients). To its credit, I haven’t found spam to be much of a problem — most days I don’t see (or at least don’t notice) any spam at all. Whatever they’re doing, it seems to be working. I don’t have any suggestions, just the above ruminations. But if you’re in the process of creating (or interacting with) any sort of user platform, it’s worth spending some time thinking about how to deal with spam.

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Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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