Twitter’s Growing Pains
Twitter is going through some interesting changes, and I’m not talking about the recent theft of internal materials. On the one hand they are forming partnerships and continuing to grow at an ever increasing rate, and on the other they have to deal with a wealth of service abuse and SPAMmer tricks.
GoDaddy’s domain control panels now include Twitter integration. For any domain you have registered, you can instantly look up whether that Twitter account is still available or not, and create it immediately from your GoDaddy account.
Why would they offer this?
There would have to be money or recognized value in it for GoDaddy. Perhaps Twitter is making promotional deals with companies. In the “Free” or Open Source world, income from corporate support is frequently the more valuable and can be significant when you have a large audience of eyes to offer in exchange. We know from Techcrunch that they held discussions with Google and Microsoft. Buying a domain is often a person’s first excursion into changing from a casual Internet user to a more serious consumer of Internet technology. Another reason could be that GoDaddy offers business promotional packages and perhaps they use this as a lead-in. I suspect we are going to see more of this Twitter cross-company promotional activity. It’s the logical next step in their growth – become visible everywhere.
Twitter is going though some difficult growing pains.
In addition to being a more visible target of hackers, Twitter is becoming a favorite tool of marketers and SPAMmers. Why? It’s a revisit to old, familiar times. When search engines started they drove their categorization and ranking results from the site’s use of keywords, and a scan of the page content. This was subject to a lot of control and eventual manipulation by the site owner, so today results are driven by a complex formula that includes links, HTML parsing, content assessment, frequency of publication, cross-site connectivity, and more. Keywords are barely a factor in any of it. However unlike popular search engines, keywords and hashtags are all you have on Twitter. The best way to get noticed in only 140 characters is to cram it full of buzzwords, even when those words have nothing to do with your message. During the Michael Jackson funeral I saw German dating services throw every Jackson related keyword they could into their tweets, with their only real content being a short URL to click.
Search engines, email, and web pages generally require the user to visit the message to see it. Twitter is a bulletin board service with a potential audience of … ANYONE. Have you ever watched the public stream for a while? Some companies are broadcasting once a minute ad tweets. And like the days of email before smart filters, all you need to do is include a user’s @id in a message to target that person’s reply inbox. There are no SPAM filters or opt-in requirements to deliver that message. People with a lot of followers are eventually forced to use a tool that filters out every reply but specific people or topics they are interested in.
There are also issues of adult material. I received my first unsolicited adult photo as an @reply this year from a hit-and-run Twitter account. When people can quickly create an account, tweet once, and abandon it, you will get problems like this. There is no filter or rating service to prevent offensive material from reaching anyone, including minors.
Twitter has to be dealing with squatters also. While I haven’t (yet) see anyone sell or auction off a Twitter username, I have seen companies advertise the selling of their followers. It’s a common problem in domain management that people quickly buy up all the 1,2,3 and 4 letter domain names, as well as common nouns and marketing terms. This has to be a growing problem in Twitter. As favorite names are taken, they become more in demand by someone willing to negotiate for them.
Twitter is working on these issues. Earlier this year they quietly announced an upcoming “verified identity” service to help combat squatters and impostors, and they’ve started to register and protect aspects of their branding. These serve the company more than the users; there are many basic features commonly used by other services (rating systems, account creation verification, scanners, captcha, encryption) they could include to help fight abuse and protect their customer base. Their API also has rules preventing accounts from subscribing to too many people too quickly or sending messages to frequently, but you can circumvent that by creating disposable accounts.
It’s a difficult walk.
To encourage people to subscribe to other people, while preventing the issues that having a large following creates. It’s in Twitter’s best interest to have a large number of subscribers, each with a small manageable following, and their following to include several trusted accounts (such as celebrities) they can leverage.
Third party tools such as tweetdeck are the most useful in keeping the service usable to people with large followings. If Twitter continues growing like other startups do, they will eventually purchase/invest in one of these tools and brand it.