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Why Replies On Twitter Are Far More Damaging Than Direct Messages

The direct message system on Twitter is only two-way if both parties are following each other. If you’re following somebody and they’re not following you back, they can send you a direct message, but you can’t reply using the same method. Not only is this poor etiquette on their part, but it’s a really stupid idea from Twitter.

Where’s the logic? Is it meant to protect us? If you’re following somebody and they’re spamming you with direct message after direct message, you can unfollow them. You can block them. They’re no longer an issue, because the direct message facility has been removed from their power.

It’s not so with @replies. Anyone can @reply anybody else at any time, whether they’re following you or not. In light of the policy regarding DMs, how does this make sense?

  1. @replies go into the public stream, and are visible by everybody (you can read any user’s @replies by going to Twitter search and entering @username, i.e., @stephenfry).
  2. Even if you block somebody, they can still @reply you. And while those replies won’t appear in your timeline, they will become part of the stream.

Meantime, direct messages are private: they can only be seen by the recipient. It doesn’t add up.

The potential for abuse here is enormous. It’s so big, in fact, that I’m not only surprised we haven’t seen a major event already, but that one doesn’t take place on a daily basis.

Twitter is now mainstream, and with the good comes the bad. Thus far, trolling is a pretty limited occurrence – we’re essentially in the golden era. But like every other discussion portal on the internet – chat rooms, forums, blogs – trolls will eventually hit Twitter hard. There’s a kind of naïve whimsy on the network right now, certainly from some of the celebrity A-listers, many of whom are experiencing online communities for the first time through Twitter. Unless some security measures are applied, they’re in for a bit of a shock. Not everybody is a fan, and some people are fanatics.

Earlier this week, Robert Scoble had some interesting thoughts on why Friendfeed is so resistant to trolls and spammers. The system is sound, but as I said in the comments, right now Friendfeed is largely troll-free because it’s largely user-free. It wasn’t an issue on Twitter a year ago, either, for the same reason. Post-Oprah, it will be. Stick 15 million users on Friendfeed, and then we’ll see how the system holds up.

Twitter works really well because the platform allows you to shape your own network – you choose who you want to follow. But because the @reply feature has no safeguard – it works whether you’re following me or not – it’s very easy to repeatedly spam a celebrity or Twitter VIP with message after message and they can do little about it. If they block me, the tweets are still ‘out there’, in the stream, and will continue to show up in searches (and I believe will be visible to all of my followers who are also following the target) until my account is removed. They can complain, and Twitter might step in, but the power has been taken out of their hands. I can write anything I want. I can make false allegations; or perhaps more damningly, honest ones.

And even if Twitter does step in (which can take anything from hours to days), it’s about thirty-seconds work to set up another account, and keep doing the same. A handful of users or bots could bombard a series of real people into oblivion, essentially destroying their replies inbox.

Sometimes, Mud Sticks

I’m all for open discussion on Twitter, but there needs to be some basic protection, too. Otherwise, long-term, we’re going to see more and more accounts set to private updates, and nobody wants that.

Some ideas: if two parties are both following each other, reply away. There are no limits. But if I’m following you and you’re not following me, then maybe you can set your daily quota for how many replies you want to receive from folk you’re not following. It can be unlimited, it can be ten, or it can be zero. You make your own choice. If you see followers as fans, you might enjoy the attention. But it won’t all be positive.

Also, Twitter should let us flag tweets for removal. These 140-character messages are becoming part of internet history, are searchable on Google, and have already ended a few careers. I don’t like the idea of being able to delete replies from other users, and I’m always edgy about moderation, but it would be nice to have a ‘flag for abuse’ option. Twitter would investigate and you’d make your case. As it is, when an account is suspended all their tweets are hidden from public view – doing this on a tweet-by-tweet basis seems a logical step. (I wonder what the legal ramifications might be for Twitter leaving libellous tweets unattended?)

Maybe it would be nice to have an option to set all my replies to private. My updates would remain public but anything sent to me is for my eyes only. Or possibly just my followers. The problem here is Twitter’s real-time search feature. Most people think this is the most likely way the company will monetize the product, but if you prevent select tweets from appearing, it loses value. But if trolls and spammers become an issue and many of us go private, that’s going to result in the exact same thing.

Maybe we need a ‘semi-private’ option, where you can preview a user’s last 25 tweets, say, to get an idea if it’s somebody you want to follow. This would work a bit like the privacy features on Facebook. You can let new people have a taste, but to get the full monty they’d need to follow you and be approved.

I also like the idea of the small bio we currently have but a much richer profile below the surface, that the user can elect to make public or visible only to followers. As it is, many users are filling their profile backgrounds with all of their bio details and I see this again as a logical step.

Direct messages, meantime, should become two-way only. If I’m not following you and you’re not following me, no direct messages for us.

Doesn’t this all equate to a fairer, more secure system? I realise the beauty and attraction of Twitter is its simplicity, but that’s to do with the communication aspect of the service. The tweets are fine; leave them alone. We can maintain that pretty much as is whilst installing a lot of extras under the hood, as well as having significantly more control over who gets to see our content. Because the security within the network impacts everybody – not just Hollywood, but the hoi polloi too – and it’s that latter 99.99% who really matter.

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