Twit nits: 12 top Twitter annoyances

What's missing, what's exasperating, what you can do about it -- and what Twitter should do about it

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Twitter does regular sweeps that purge thousands of spam accounts, but new ones are opened up just as quickly -- and Twitter offers only limited tools to help users clean it up. Users can block followers who are suspected spammers and report spammers by sending a direct message with the account name to Twitter's Spam Watch account. However, both processes are cumbersome if the volume of spam is significant.

"I don't like spammers, so I have to spend some time blocking them, even though it's not my job," says Rheingold. But he does it anyway, he says, because it helps Twitter identify and shut down offending accounts.

One third-party product, Clean Tweets, provides additional tools to help Twitter users combat spam. The product, a free Firefox toolbar add-on from Web analytics vendor BLVD Status, deletes tweets from your account page when the account that created them is less than 24 hours old or when it includes three or more trending topic keywords (you can adjust that number up or down). But keeping up isn't easy: To get around the 24-hour rule, some spammers are "aging" new accounts before attempting to follow other users.

Clean Tweets also allows the user to flag spam messages. It displays an "X" next to each tweet. When the user clicks on the "X," the post is removed and future posts from that account are not displayed. Chris Bennett, co-founder and president of BLVD Status, says the company also plans to add a feature that detects tweets that contain links to malware sites.

Direct messages: More trouble than they're worth?

As noted above, Twitter's direct message feature lets you send a private message to another Twitter user, but only if that person is following you. Bennett thinks the DM mechanism isn't well thought out. "The direct message system is rubbish -- it needs things like built-in search, marking, mass deletion, filters, etc.," he says. But DMs are an annoyance for another reason: They have become an attack vector for spammers.

How is this possible? Since you must follow a user to be able to receive a direct message from them, anyone who doesn't follow other people -- or who is extremely careful about who they follow -- won't be bothered by DM spam. But it's easy to follow the wrong person; when someone follows you, it's natural to follow them back.

What's more, many users who attract a large number of followers have turned to third-party services such as SocialOomph to automatically follow new followers. Such users are particularly vulnerable to DM abuse, and not just from commercial spammers. Otherwise normal Twitter users who use tools like SocialOomph to send automated DMs to greet new followers -- and include self-promotional links, jargon and so on -- are also a growing problem, says Fitton.

Wallace says her incoming DMs are now mostly spam. What's worse, she says, Twitter doesn't provide a way to delete them en masse. "Auto DMs and spammers have outpaced the level of service provided by DMs, rendering them obsolete at best and an annoyance at worst," she says.

As always in the Twitterverse, there are some fixes. SocialToo, for example, not only allows you to automatically follow accounts that follow you, but also lets you automatically unfollow accounts that exhibit spammer-like behavior. It also lets you block automated DMs, filtering them through a set of customizable rules.

SocialToo filters
The SocialToo service offers filters and other controls to reduce DM spam.

Still, Twitter could make DMs work better by allowing users to filter incoming messages, mark offending DMs as spam and delete them in batches. Fitton thinks the whole DM model of requiring a subject to follow you before you can send them a message is flawed. "Why not permit DMs by default?" she asks. Then users could exclude those who send DM spam or other unwanted messages.

But the DM channel wouldn't be needed at all if Twitter allowed users to send private @replies. "Maybe you ought to have a checkbox that says 'private' if you don't want your tweet to appear in the public timeline," Fitton says. It's a minor change, she says, that would lead to a cleaner design.

No conversation threads for @replies

A cleaner design is exactly what's needed when it comes to management of @reply messages. Twitter allows you to reply to any tweet with an @reply, and you can click a link back to the source message by clicking the "in reply to" text on the @reply tweet, but you can't easily view on a single screen the a series of reply messages -- and the links and branches between them -- that make up the context of the conversation. With no conversation threading, tracking who said what in a string of @reply messages can get confusing fast.

"Sometimes by the time someone replies to me on Twitter, I've forgotten what I originally said," says Lisa Hoover, a blogger who has written for Computerworld.

Twitter competitors such as Jaiku and Identi.ca do offer threaded conversations. But on Twitter, if you want to get a consolidated view of your tweet streams you need to go through a service such as FriendFeed. Message threading is a basic feature that Twitter should incorporate into its own platform.

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