When Twitter recently changed their handling of @replies back in March, few called it anything less than a drastic improvement.
The change was simple enough, rather than reading an @reply as a message that had @username in the beginning, it looked for the @ symbol anywhere in the Tweet and changed the feature name to “mentions”.
It was a great idea that helped foster the conversation on Twitter, it came with some consequences, the biggest of which seems to be @ spam, which is where spammers aren’t content on polluting the regular stream or simply adding hundreds of people, but are actively polluting the mentions feed with advertisements.
It is a growing problem that Twitter is trying to battle, but finding the right way to stomp out this unintended side effect might be easier said than done.
How it Works
The idea is fairly simple. Since mentions can now be anywhere in the tweet and multiple users can be mentioned in a single tweet, spammers just put out a very short message, often just a URL, and @reply it to several people. Each of them then see the tweet in their mention column (or page) rather than in their stream or search feeds.
The reason this method is gaining attention is that it is more effective than other techniques. For example, ever since Twitter added follower numbers to their outgoing emails in May, users typically don’t click through to accounts that appear to be spam, making auto-following less effectively.
Other methods such as search term and hashtag spamming are also falling flat as popular terms become more crowded with spam and such feeds are usually only glanced at, not intently read.
However, most Twitter users read their mention stream very carefully and click links sent directly to them. Though this method might not be able to deliver as many messages, what it lacks in speed it makes up for in targeting, getting into the second-most intensely followed stream, right behind DMs.
Best of all, unlike DMs, the person receiving the mention doesn’t have to be following you. The counter though is that this is more likely to draw spam complaints from users, making these accounts easier marks for closure. However, given how automated the system is, closure likely doesn’t come before many hundreds, if not thousands, have had their mentions feed polluted.
What Can Be Done
Obviously Twitter is working to fight this kind of spam, the same as it is with all spam, but a real resolution may be slow coming. The easier it is to get content into someone’s mention feed, the more people will abuse it.
Users, obviously can and should continue to report these spammy accounts and block those that do this. Other than that, it will likely come down to Twitter looking at new rules for mentions. Possibly including the following:
- The option to see mentions only from people that you are following.
- A requirement to have so many tweets before being able to send a mention to someone not following you.
- A requirement of a positive follower/following ratio before sending mentions to those not following you.
These are just some ideas, almost certainly other ones are out there, but they are ones to consider if the problem continues to grow.
In the end, this is just another illustration of how the cat and mouse game between Twitter and spammers is progressing. As Twitter takes steps to close garbage accounts, reduce the effectiveness of common techniques and shut down spammy applications, the spammers keep finding new ways to get their junk out there.
This is just part of the challenges of building a communications platform, such as Twitter or email. Once you have a means to reach people, others will abuse it.
However, let’s all hope that Twitter doesn’t become more like email when it comes to spam. After all, an estimated 90% of all email is junk and, without the use of spam filters, we would almost certainly drown under the weight.
Twitter may get knocked for not being useful, but imagine just how useless email would be without spam filters keeping the flood at bay.