The 5 People Who Could Destroy Twitter

I’m a fan of Twitter – it can be really useful. But status update services and microblogging are relatively young technologies. Twitter is the frontrunner now, but it’s still possible that everything could go south really fast. Here are five people (or more accurately, types of people) who could destroy Twitter and what can be done to stop them.

The list is in no order, except I’ve saved the most dangerous for last.

1. Spammers

Seeing a lot more spammers on Twitter lately... Twitter spam is growing, and my guess is it’s a profitable business to be in. Spammers are getting crazy refollow-rates with very little effort put into their fake profiles. Part of this is a technical problem, with Twitter playing catchup to the collective innovative power of the greediest jerks on the internet. The more difficult part is social – users’ trust barriers are too low. Either Twitter finds ways to deal with this, or people will start treating reply tweets, direct messages, and invites the same way they do unsolicited emails now. One of the reasons I stopped logging in to MySpace was a flurry of fake friend requests that followed every session. Twitter runs that risk, in addition to the risk of service degradation.

What can be done? The good news is that no communication medium can be considered successful until someone has tried to send you unsolicited marketing and scams over it. But the Twitter team needs to redouble their efforts and head off potential problems proactively. For example, there are lots and lots of apps built on top of Twitter’s API – and almost all of them ask for your username and password. How long until one of those apps is compromised, or worse scammers make password-phishing apps of their own? Twitter needs to implement strong API keys or something like OpenID.

2. Anyone who uses url shortening services.

It’s hard to fit both a witty observation and a url in 140 characters, especially given url inflation., Tinyurl, and the like perform the valuable service of giving you more space. They also cloak the destination of almost all the links on Twitter and get everyone used to following links blindly. I’ve already had friends whose accounts were hacked in order to send out a tweet like: “Check out this hilarious video: http://tiny/innocuousgibberish”. The New York Times’ account has been hacked, among others. Twitter can work on improving security and removing spam, but the more everyone uses url shorteners the more we train our friends to click recklessly. I’m as guilty on this one as anyone.

What can be done? People post links to Twitter frequently enough that maybe it should be separate field with it’s own character limit. If that’s too much complication for the brilliantly simple interface, maybe url previews should be enforced. Clients can do this now, but to be safe it should be done by Twitter.

3. Pirates, ninjas, zombies, and mafia thugs

Ah, I remember logging into Facebook the day I got my first “robots vs. hobos vs. Chuck Norris vs. etc.” request. “Ha,” I thought, “that’s a somewhat entertaining way to extend an internet meme into a social networking site.” Little did I know the horror that was about to unfold.

In all seriousness, the “tag, you’re it” games and gratuitous survey apps didn’t ruin Facebook, but they did make everything a bit more tedious. Those apps still fit within the umbrella of social networking – they don’t work at all in Twitter’s use model. When I log in, I want to see, very quickly, what the people I’m interested in are doing or reading. I don’t want to weed through their halves of various games I’m not interested in.

What can be done? This one is up to us – just don’t do it. Twittering with a hashtag for an event, a theme, etc. is fun and useful to others. Sending around vampire bites is not.

4. Chinese government officials

Think periodic fail whale sightings is bad for Twitter’s reliability? China can (and does) just block the whole site, most recently in advance of the Tienanmen Square anniversary. Why does this matter? China is a huge market, and growing. The days where being big in the U.S. meant major marketshare on the whole web are running short. What’s worse countries with theoretically free speech like Australia are following the Chinese model, proposing national internet content control (i.e. censorship).

What can be done? Many American companies just give up. Even Google has had to bend to government pressure. This is not easy to remedy. Perhaps there’s a way to take advantage of the small byte size of tweets, decentralize serving, and wrap access with something like Tor to get it through the Great Firewall. Let’s hope there’s a grad student or genius hacker out there with the right idea and Twitter is smart enough to hire them.

And finally, the absolute worst, most pressing threat the Twitter’s survival is…


5. Your mom

Despite the allure of turning this into one big “your mom” joke, I am completely serious. What happens when your mom joins Twitter? Do you censor yourself? Take your tweets private? Delete off-color tweets from your recent past?

There’s no right answer. Just about any social software eventually runs into this dilemma where the very different ways you communicate personally, professionally, and publicly collide.

What can be done? Some of the problem might fade as the userbase of sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter ages. But that will take years, so what can Twitter do now? It might help to have better relationship management. You could at least put your friends in one group and family in another. But in general, this strikes me as the toughest problem of them all – I don’t think there are any real solutions for the general possibility of parental embarrassment, or all efforts of every teenager in the world has yet to reveal discover them.

Disagree? Any threats I missed? Please post in the comments below.

16 thoughts on “The 5 People Who Could Destroy Twitter

  1. Good article. LOL at point 5!

    But I like what you say in point 2. It is neat to be able to shorten long URLs and squeeze in one more word or two to an already succinct thought or comment. Having a separate tab for URLs is interesting but I think enforcing preview is the way to go. Keeps posting to tweet simple. I don’t want an additional step when i post… i’d rather twitter does the work for me.

    Go tell the folks at twitter!

  2. My mom is on twitter, and I haven’t deleted tweets or really modified my behavior at all — she and I have a good relationship, and a very honest one. I am facebook friends with my grandmother as well, and she does have other friends her age on there. I understand that this makes my family outside the average, but enough people of varying ages are internet-literate now that it could almost be expected that your parents might find you posting publicly. That’s part of what public implies, really.

  3. Actually, parents are twitter’s perfect audience.

    All those banal tweets about what people are eating* are exactly the kinds of things my mother calls me regularly to ask about.

    Mums, if you have a Google Alert set up for my name and are reading this, yes, work is fine, and I’m eating enough vegetables,*

    * tacos are a vegetable, right?

  4. Here’s a suggestion that completely addresses item #2. The Tweetdeck client has a cool feature that lets you preview information about a shortened URL before you visit the link. It actually gives you the long link, short link, title, and sometimes a description and stats!

    I find it VERY helpful as a means to protect myself and pre-screen content I don’t want to read.

  5. Who else can ruin Twitter?

    Your boss.

    For the same basic reasons as “your mom”.

    Not every boss gets it that sending tweets about Homer Simpson, the International Space Station and Bing are all good for business via the social networking meme.

    Poll 100 office workers and ask them if they feel feel comfortable and natural while their boss is listening over their shoulder to their phone conversations…NOT!

    Twitter conversations are kinda the same thing…

    Anyone else run into this problem? Did it change the way you tweeted once you’re boss started following you?


  6. Heh. I beat my kids onto Twitter. But may I point out that you don’t even need to join Twitter to read or subscribe to a user’s feeds. Users should consider their Twitter feeds to be as private as their activities in a shopping mall hallway. If they’re under any illusions otherwise, it’s just as well their mom turns up. Seriously.

  7. Re: allowing for URLs outside of the 140 character limit. I read an interview with the founder of Twitter a few days ago here in Canada, and he mentioned they are working to implement that.

    Well thought-out article; thank-you.

  8. oh and re: #5 “your mom”. My mother follows me on twitter and reads my blog. It’s the only way she can keep up with my life since I live out-of-province. I solved the work/social/family dilemma years ago by making a commitment to not do anything or say anything online that would embarrass myself, my family or my co-workers.

    I just follow the golden rule. Easy enough.

  9. If everyone followed Sonja’s Golden Rule advice, imagine what the world could be thanks to twitter ?! Thanks to all who are trying to do just that.

  10. You forgot a growing trend, porn avatars and follows. Twitter is hardly safe for work any more. What happens when all those politicians who now use Twitter see these? What about AGs out there who already have tasted blood from Craigslist? And then there is Oprah. What if she starts attacking Twitter as unsafe for kids? Never underestimate the power of porn. Twitter has no idea how to deal with this. They can’t possibly afford the staff needed to screen all avatars as they are added and changed.

  11. Great article, well structured,well spelt (very important!) altogether readable and not over-geeky.

    Geeks may be the flavour of the month (and for some time to come?) but they do not yet control the world.One day they will be known as Geeky-Boomers.

    Twitter is a tool that levels the playing field, thank goodness and is far better than many other Social Media sites with all those stupid and mindless flashing apps.

    For the record , like Janet above, I beat my kids not only to Twitter but also to the web.

    Baby Boomers may yet triumph….

  12. Hahahaha! I am NOT kidding: as I was reading point #5 a facebook friend request came in from my 80 year old uncle. I adore and respect this man and now I’m in a quandry: do I delete some slightly off-colour party photos from my facebook profile before accepting him? I’m a grown man and I’m worried about this — can’t imagine what it’s like for teens and twenty-somethings.

  13. Zombies. Zombies would destroy Twitter. All they would talk about is who’s brains they were eating for breakfast. Boooring.

  14. My mom *is* online.

    She occasionally reads my tweets.

    Kudos to her for braving through all the spam, malware, and the jungle that is the internet. If her interest in getting engaged in the dialog trumps frustration enough for her to learn comfortably, so be it.

    No need to censor. We’re all learning here.

  15. Re: #5…
    I *am* the mom – and very active on twitter. My college-age kid has yet to be even slightly interested in joining. She does, however, occasionally read my tweets as it is all very public. Keep in mind also, that family members and bosses may very well be following you under a username unfamiliar to you. It really isn’t hard at all. Whether or not your mom joins really isn’t an issue at all. If you don’t want your mom, spouse, employer, professor, parole officer seeing your content, don’t put it online. Period.

    After reading so many times about how Baby Boomers or *moms* are ruining social media, I wrote (tongue in cheek): Is Generation Y Killing Radio?

    And, for those who think their FB is private, it’s often not as private and protected as you may think. Again, if you don’t want everyone to know, don’t put it online.

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