Banish Twitter Spam by Following Three Simple Rules

As the amount of followers you have on Twitter increases, you might find yourself dealing with an increase in Twitter spam. Twitter spam derives from people who take advantage of you following them by sending you unwanted direct messages or merely by following you with the express intent of upping their follower count (meaning, they have no sincere interest in your tweets).

What defines Twitter spam, however, varies from person to person. By politely following someone back, for instance, you essentially opt-in to receiving direct messages from them. While your token of goodwill might be broken by people sending you terrible marketing-minded pitches, they can argue you asked for it.

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If you feel you have been spammed, you can report it to Twitter at the @spam account, which monitors these types of activities. Before you report anyone, however, we suggest you read these tips from our experts about managing Twitter spam:

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1. Vet a Follower Before You Follow Back

You can save yourself a lot of headaches by vetting another user's Twitter profile before you decide to follow that person back. On many Twitter profiles, users will provide a link for "why they use Twitter." According to social media experts, you should give a person credit for providing full disclosure that the account is intended to announce promotions or be product-centric. Look at a couple days worth of the person's tweets to see if following back makes sense for you.

"While Twitter can do things to prevent spam, a lot of it falls on you as a user," says Caroline Dangson ( @carolinedangson), a IDC analyst who researches social media. "The human element of moderating it will help you figure out who might be a spammer."

2. Deal with Unwanted Direct Messages

Twitter's has a clear policy on direct messages: If you follow a user, you're allowing that person to send you direct messages. While some users have noted it would be nice to follow someone, but withhold the right for them to DM you, such a capability does not yet exist.

As a result, you need to use your judgment as to whether someone is spamming you via direct messages. Aggressive marketers and some members of the PR community are notorious for sending a "thanks for following me" direct message. While annoying, it's become rather standard unfortunately.

If a follower is up front about the purposes of his account, you shouldn't be surprised if he floods your inbox with messages about products or services. You might politely DM back that you generally don't prefer to receive direct messages.

You should be careful about reporting people to Twitter's spam account unless you see particularly egregious actions. At this point in Twitter's history, some spam might not be ill-intentioned.

"Companies generally don't say, 'we want to spam people," even if they end up doing it," Dangson says. "People and companies are still learning the platform and make mistakes."

3. Watch Out for "Follower Spam"

A lot of Twitter users (especially ones that are pushing product) like to artificially build up their following list by following as many people as they can. This can have extreme effects on the end-user experience. Twitter's founder Evan Williams ( @ev) wrote a blog post on the matter last year in which he described the problem for end-users and how the company is dealing with it:

Follow spam is the act of following mass numbers of people, not because you're actually interested in their tweets, but simply to gain attention, get views of your profile (and possibly clicks on URLs therein), or (ideally) to get followed back. Many people who are seeking to get attention in this way have even created programs to do the following on their behalf, which enable them to follow thousands of people at the blink of any eye.

As you can imagine, this is a problem. In extreme cases, these automated accounts have followed so many people they've threatened the performance of the entire system. In less-extreme cases, they simply annoy thousands of legitimate users who get an email about this new follower only to find out their interest may not be entirely...sincere. On rare occasions we may see a person who is mass following and actually cares about every tweet - there is an opportunity for us to learn more about this use case and work to provide a better experience.

The subsequent restrictions Williams and the Twitter team put in place have been kept under wraps, but speculated about by social media experts. Laura Fitton ( @pistachio), who runs Pistachio Consulting (which helps companies with their Twitter efforts), summed up her best guess for us in an e-mail:

Up until 2,000, Twitter is liberal about letting users follow as many as they would like. At 2,000, if the reciprocation is not within [an estimated]10 percent, the account's ability to follow new people is put on ice. Once the follow/followed ratio evens out, it automatically releases the freeze.

Twitter will not manually override the freeze no matter who you are or how legit your reasons for the difference. @Pistachio auto-follows back new followers, so my differential sometimes climbed above 10 percent. Whenever it did, auto-follow back just stopped working, and I could not follow anyone, and since I don't generally proactively follow anyone, I rarely noticed this was even happening.

If you think you have a clear case of someone committing follower spam, experts say you should report it to Twitter right away for investigation.

C.G. Lynch covers Twitter, Facebook and other social and consumer Web technologies for CIO. You can follow him on Twitter: @cglynch.

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