Would Twitter’s user model help combat email spam?

As Twitter grows, so the number of potential spammers to my daily tweet stream increases. Twitter’s user model is the saving factor in all of this ‘noise’. It prevents me from being overwhelmed and could have important advantages over existing legacy internet services like email. In this blog post I’ll look at whether other internet services like email could learn a lesson from the way Twitter connects its users.

My main Twitter stream is like an RSS reader; my Mentions stream is like my Email inbox and my Direct Messages are like my Instant Messenger service(s). I can reduce my RSS spam by subscribing to less feeds and I have direct control over my Instant Messenger communications.

The biggest culprit for unwanted communication in my life is Email and as a concept it’s not moved with the times to block this abuse of the internet and my time. With Twitter I can be @mentioned or replied to through use of my username in a tweet so anyone can get a message to me even if I don’t follow them. This is the equivalent of getting an email from a previously unknown source. Twitter, though, allows me to Block the sender at the first sign of trouble. Suddenly, I am no longer plagued by messages from this source and without them knowing.

Whilst the ability to not follow people or block them gives me apparent control, most Twitter users are aware of the quantity of fake Twitter accounts registered on a daily basis. By fake, I mean an account being used for other purposes than to send genuine micro-updates to the world.  My Twitter follower count peaks and troughs based on these fake phishing accounts trying to persuade me to follow links in their timeline just because they’ve done me the ‘honour’ of following me. And I’m sure for some, the vanity of this spam attempt works. However it does also mean that a newly registered fake account could still mention me in a tweet and I’d, once more, get the notification in my Mentions stream and I’d have to move to block it again. Cat and mouse once more.

Most Twitter fake accounts at the moment are passive. They list bad or spam URLs in their timeline and just follow other users. It won’t be long before they start to actively tweet those they follow to try and get users to click on a link, probably compressed by a URL Shortener service to obfuscate the spam or even malware destination.

Twitter does offer the Privacy option which will batten down the hatches so that only people you authorise can contact you. This does have the desired effect of blocking all but validated users but does turn you into an island limiting your communications. Which as an email replacement isn’t exactly useful.

Compared to the ‘open door’ policy of email, without some additional junk mail service running on our behalf, the Twitter subscription model does take us a step closer to reducing spam.

The eternal question of how you verify that a newly registered account is a real person will always be difficult to find a solution to. We need to take steps to put us, as the consumer, in charge of what we receive.

If Twitter’s user model was applied to email, could you see it reducing your spam traffic? As service providers are running out of bandwidth and we might face being charged on data quantity downloaded isn’t it about time we fixed email to stop the large slice of the world’s traffic being wasted on spam?

Your thoughts, as ever, gratefully received in open discussion.

(Of course, we’d need to lift the 140 character limit to make it a true replacement, unless we simply link to our email text in Google Docs or some online source. )

2 thoughts on “Would Twitter’s user model help combat email spam?”

  1. You might take a look at TrulyMail (TrulyMail.com). They have an email replacement similar to what you describe. For example, you mention the ‘Privacy’ option which will ‘batten down the hatches’ but, as you mention, this prevents new people from contacting you – which is less than ideal.

    TrulyMail handles this differently. Anyone can contact you (if they can find you by your TrulyMail address or if you publish your TrulyMail profile) but they can only contact you with one very short, plain text invitation. If you accept the invitation then you can send full messages to each other. Report the invitation as spam and watch the account be dealt with appropriately so all users can benefit from one flagging someone as a spammer.

    TrulyMail also deals with other things that email does not but you can read about that for yourself. I use it all the time and love it.

    One last point: Twitter is really designed for broadcasting, which is not what email is. Yes, email can be used to send notices (and newsletters) to large numbers of people but I would argue it is more a one-to-one or one-to-few tool. It is not a one-to-millions. Twitter does what it does. I certainly would not consider it an email replacement. Still, it’s a good article. Thanks for writing it.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment. An invitation-based email system does address some of the flaws with the email system at the moment, so thanks for posting the link.
      I accept your point that Twitter is a fire-and-forget broadcast medium; a shout into the dark if you will (especially if you have no followers!). Email ‘should’ be used for one-to-one or one-to-few however it is the way that email spam has grown to crowd our daily information-driven lives that means we should spend more time investigating alternative ways to reduce the noise and only get communications which matter.

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