When using the micro-blogging service Twitter, by default you get email notices whenever anyone signs up to “follow” you (when you follow someone on Twitter, their Twitter posts, or “tweets,” display on your main Twitter page, along with Tweets from everyone else you follow). A few weeks back, I noticed that I was getting inundated with new followers with names such as “moneymadman,” “getgooglewealth” and “make money online.” One of the charms of Twitter is that you only see tweets from the people you follow, therefore making Twitter a safe haven from spam. At least, that’s what I thought.

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My in-box filled up with follower spam messages

That inundation of new followers gave me insight into the world of “follower spam” on Twitter, which has been a growing problem since last spring for the nascent service. The way it works is that an online marketer sets up a Twitter account and then asks to follow hundreds of people, hoping that some small percentage will follow them and see their commercial messages — and then click through to buy a product.

While there is nothing illegal about this practice, it gets to be annoying for people who have to sift through their list of followers to see whether those people are spammers not worth following or colleagues they might want to follow. The growth of spam on Twitter has led to various community efforts such as the Stop Twitter Spam blog and the My Tweeple application to more easily monitor your followers.

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Biz Stone

Twitter itself has hired a “spam marshall” and is now looking for another spam engineer. According to Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, the company has been shutting down accounts of users who follow large numbers of people with little reciprocation — the telltale sign of a follower spammer. (See this Twitter blog post explaining “spammy behavior” that raises red flags.) Stone told me Twitter would beef up its spam-fighting unit while working with the community to fight the problem.

“We have plans to grow our spam team and continue building out our tools for keeping the user experience as spam-free as possible,” he said via email. “We’ll certainly continue to welcome community feedback as an integral part of fighting spam.”

How It Started

There are two factors that helped give follower spammers a foothold on Twitter: 1) people get email notifications by default for each new follower; 2) some people like to reciprocate and follow everyone who follows them. The latter was the usual mode for social media strategist Tabitha Grace Smith, who had to change that behavior because of spammers.

“Before the spam blast of ‘6figure’ spammers, I just auto-followed everyone,” she told me via email. “But at the height of the spam nightmare I was getting like 20 requests a day from profiles that had one update…‘we’re making a bunch of money.’ So for a couple weeks I just didn’t follow anyone (it was too overwhelming). I also stopped my email notifications for new followers.”

Michael Doeff is a product manager for software company Avolent in San Francisco, and started the Stop Twitter Spam blog because of a follower inundation last March. He traces that spurt of follower spam to a screencast presentation done by Howie Schwartz, a “black hat” online marketer that does not play by Google’s rules in generating traffic. Schwartz is known for a program called Google Wealth Maker that automatically sets up Twitter pages and Twitter messages to populate pages that will be spidered by Google, thereby raising Google rank and search results pointing to your pages (in theory).

Michael Doeff

Doeff explained to me how someone like Schwartz would use Twitter to get attention and make money:

There is a general feeling that spamming through email, instant messenger, and MySpace is ‘played out’ and micro-blogging sites such as Twitter are thought of as virgin powder. There are a number of variations to how these spammers try to exploit Twitter, but their basic goal is to get Twitter users to pay attention to their Twitter profile page in an effort to get clickthroughs to their website.

They do this by following a large number of people, either randomly or based on some niche area (e.g. people who are dog owners). This mass following is sometimes done using automated ‘bots.’ Whenever they follow someone, an email is generated telling the followee that they have a new follower. This email alert can be turned off but it’s turned on by default. So in a way, the spammers are using the ‘New Follower’ email as a trojan horse because it allows them to get into their email inbox without getting caught up in a spam filter.

While Twitter was dealing with other serious issues earlier this year, such as network outages from massive traffic, users such as Doeff decided to help out with the spam problem. Shannon Whitley, a computer programmer in the San Francisco Bay Area, created My Tweeple so he could more easily see who was following him and whether they might be a spammer. The application gives you a better view of your followers — their stats, bio, and recent tweets — without you having to click through to their profile page. Plus, you can “ding” someone who is spamming and see who else has been dinged multiple times before choosing to follow them.

Whitley said that spammers haven’t been the only ones who have annoyed him on Twitter.

“I was followed by a white supremacist who had started to follow people just so that others would look at his tweets and view his hate speech,” Whitley told me via email. “I contacted Twitter about it, and while they did remove him from the public timeline, they did not delete his account. By following me, he had caused me to read his offensive words and I believe he violated Twitter’s terms of service. Twitter didn’t want to disable his account and responded that he had a right to free speech.”

There are now an array of marketers using Twitter to promote their businesses or to give better customer service responses. Some marketers are pushing the envelope with programs like Twitter Squeeze, which says it will help you: “Learn How to Quickly Generate a Massive Crowd of Followers Who Give You Cash When You Tweet!” However, the pitch clarifies that “Twitter Squeeze is not a spam technique, [and] it does not employ software to spam Twitter.”

When I received a free pass to check out this service, launched by marketer Rick Butts, there didn’t seem to be much more than videos and instructions on Twitter basics, along with a forum where marketers could follow each other to build up an audience.

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Howie Schwartz shows how this Obama Twitter account was populated — before being shut down

The Howie Schwartz screencast, however, leads to a pitch for a “Micro-Blogging Automation” offer for $197 (and $49 per month) to get an automated Twitter account where they provide the content, links, and promotion for you. This clearly isn’t about creating a compelling Twitter experience. The pitch continues: “The LAZY way to make the top Web 2.0 sites work FOR YOU and bring you FREE Subscribers and FREE MONEY from affiliate and product sales everyday without lifting a finger.”

Of course, many of these money-making ideas end up making the most money for the people offering to do the promotion. I asked Twitter’s Stone how the company decides on who is doing legit promotion and who is crossing the line.

“Commercial accounts are welcomed on Twitter,” Stone said. “We encourage businesses or companies to send out messages to their followers…‘When is it legitimate for someone to follow a lot of people…?’ gets into the realm of disingenuous activities intended to abuse social aspects of Twitter — that’s when lines start getting crossed.”

How to Stop It

So if you are a Twitter user, how can you avoid spammers and other people with nefarious motives? Here are some basic steps to stop spam and report it to Twitter:

1. Block users.
When I queried my Twitter followers about how they dealt with spammers, they almost uniformly answered that they “block” anyone they find unsavory. You can block Twitter users by going to their profile page and clicking “block [user],” which will keep your feed from showing up on their list of people they follow or in their timeline of friend updates. Unfortunately, they can still request to follow you even after you have blocked them, generating an email alert if you have that function on.

2. Report the spammer to Twitter.
Now that Twitter has put more resources into fighting spam, you can contact them directly about taking down suspected sites, either via this contact form or by following a special spam account set up by Twitter. Once you are a follower, you just need to send a direct @reply to this account with the name of the spammer, like so:

spam moneymadman

3. Be careful who you follow.
The days of following everyone who follows you are over for Twitter. Now, it makes more sense to check out their profile or use a tool such as My Tweeple to preview a user before following them. “Now, I’m very cautious about who I follow,” said Tabitha Grace Smith. “If I see a ton of links — I don’t follow. Or if there’s only a couple updates. I still follow most of the people who request to follow me.”

4. Twitter limits number of follows.
One concrete step that Twitter did make was limiting the number of people you can follow on the service — depending on how many people follow you. At first, many bloggers misread the limitations, thinking they would be limited in how many followers they could get — rather than how many people they could follow. Twitter co-founder and current CEO Ev Williams wrote last August about the limits:

Our challenge is to curb this type of behavior without interfering with non-spammy users — some of whom may just be very enthusiastic followers. What is a reasonable number of people to follow, anyway? Most users may have a hard time finding 500 accounts they are interested in — while others would think a limit of 10,000 is too low.

5. Turn off email notifications.
If you grow tired of getting notifications from new followers who want to spam you, you can easily turn off all your email notifications. Just log into Twitter, and click on “Settings” and then click the Notices tab. Uncheck the box next to “New Follower Emails.” Of course, you won’t get emails when non-spammers follow you either.

Twitter also is considering adding a “report as spam” button on profiles, so that people can more easily report spammmers. There’s a long discussion on this topic at Twitter’s forum on Get Satisfaction, an online support site. You can also use this forum to report spammers or other problems with the service.

Doeff told me he hoped that social media sites could band together, along with their communities, to lessen the spam epidemic.

“This is an issue that is common to many social media sites such as Tumblr, FriendFeed, Facebook, Digg, etc.” he said. “I’d like to see some efforts for these companies to work together to tackle this issue. For example, if Twitter identifies a spammer, publish some info about that spammer (IP address, user ID, profile URL) to a database that could be checked by other services. I’d also like to see Twitter do more to leverage the efforts of the Twitter community in their fight against spam — i.e. provide the Twitter community with more tools to regulate the problem. This will become more and more important as Twitter continues to grow and gain mainstream adoption.”

What do you think? Have you been a victim of follower spam on Twitter? How do you fight it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo of Biz Stone by Jennifer Woodard Maderazo.

UPDATE: I heard from Carrie Wilkerson, the new owner of Twitter Squeeze, and she was upset that I insinuated that her product “advocated and taught spamming techniques for Twitter.” While I never did say that in the article, she tried to clarify what Twitter Squeeze is:

The former owner, Rick Butts and myself, are big spam haters. We advocate wise following, good content and building up a list the right way…I have 2,600 followers on Twitter and have NEVER been spammed, even though I have an auto-follow policy.

Rick Butts, the original owner of Twitter Squeeze, backed up Wilkerson in a separate email to me:

My ‘service’ is no service at all. It is a series of videos showing how to ETHICALLY leverage the way people look into who you are so that they are more likely to follow you, by reducing the options they have on your BLOG.

In fact in the training I make it very clear that you want to keep the wrong kind of people from following you. Twitter Squeeze is all about increasing followers — every single thing I offer from that point on relative to USING Twitter is to not spam, not even close, but to build relationships — and market sparingly.

I agree that Twitter Squeeze is more of a training on how to use Twitter to market to people, but the language around the product does sound to me like a get-rich-quick scheme (even if that’s not what it ends up being). The Schwartz product, “Micro-Blogging Automation,” is much worse, labeling itself as “black hat” marketing and the profiles he created have been shut down by Twitter.