Interesting Point of View: Twitter Spam and Motivation to Report it

Point of view from Marco Arment

I don’t know how Twitter handles spam internally. They’re probably devoting a lot of time to fighting it.

But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to observe so much repetition in the still-visible spam techniques and conclude that Twitter is being extremely conservative about deploying automated heuristics, relying heavily on the “Report Spam” feature instead.

Spam-fighting is always a tricky balance: if it’s too aggressive and automated, it’ll prevent some legitimate messages from reaching their recipients. But if it’s too conservative or manually triggered by user reports, a lot of spam will get through.

The operators of spammable services need to decide where their priorities are on that spectrum: severely annoy a small number of your users by not delivering some legitimate messages, or moderately annoy a large number of your users by showing them too much spam.

Twitter seems to have chosen the latter. At this point, given their resources, it’s almost certainly a philosophical choice — e.g. “every message must be delivered” — and not because of a lack of spam-fighting abilities.

There are three big problems with this approach:

  • A lot of spam is shown to users before it’s cleared away by the few that report it (and whatever actions result from that). The spam succeeds. And if only, say, 1 in 100 people report spam that they’re shown, the spam is annoying quite a lot of users before anything is done about it.
  • It appears to users that the service is taking a passive, almost neglectful approach to spam, which diminishes the motivation to use that “Report Spam” button. If the ratio of spam views to reports gets worse — say, if only 1 in 500 people report it — then spam starts to anger even more users before anything is done about it.
  • Report-and-respond-later systems are far less effective when the barrier to posting new spam is extremely low. In Twitter’s case, who cares if they ban a spam account after it has spammed 500 users, if the spammer has hundreds or thousands of other accounts that it can keep creating at nearly zero cost?

Fundamentally, I believe Twitter’s priorities here are wrong. Twitter needs a far more aggressive, automated, proactive, heuristic-based anti-spam system. And if someone has trouble legitimately tweeting a link with no text to 100 people in a row who don’t follow them at precise 1-minute intervals, that’s just the price we’ll have to pay.

In the meantime, I’m never using the “Report Spam” feature again, because it just seems like I’m wasting my time.

I have to admit, I still report Twitter spam, but it does seem like it's increasing. Doesn't that happen with each Social Media platform we see? What do you think?