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Rise of the Spewbots

Dear Reader,

More specifically,

Dear reader thinking that it is a good idea to write a twitter bot that automatically spews tweets without regard to anyone else because everyone obviously wants to know what your bot has to say,

I guess because Oprah is now on twitter, things are exploding. Today alone, I’ve noticed 5-7 new bots on twitter polluting my search time lines spouting drivel and polluting them to the point of almost uselessness.

How I use twitter

I guess first, I should explain how I use twitter since different people use it differently. One of my jobs at Ibuildings is to be a PHP Community Evangelist. It’s the awesome part of my job and I love it. My twitter persona revolves around that aspect of my life. I try to make most of my tweets valuable to at least someone. (ok, my recent rants against #skype were just therapeutic for me.) My general rule of thumb is that most of my tweets need to inform or amuse.

I like finding people asking questions tagged #php and helping by answering them when I can. I like finding new blog posts about #php and helping spread the good ones. The rise of using search and hashtags has really expanded the usefulness of twitter for me…until now.

Rise of the Spewbots

Over the past few months I’ve seen an increasing number of bots tweeting. I have coined the term spewbots because for the most part, these bots spew forth data that I can easily get elsewhere should I want it and they add very little to the conversation. These bots break down into four categories.

Accidental spewbots

Today I got 6 svn check in notices from a spewbot. Now honestly, I’m sure they weren’t trying to pollute anyone’s time line. However, because they use the Zend Framework, I get their notices. I’ll refrain from ranting about the stupidity of tweeting svn check in notices, if that’s your thing and it doesn’t affect me then hey, go for it. Please let me make one request though. Protect your account’s timeline. A simple check of a box on your account’s settings and your tweets won’t go out into the public time line. Anyone who wants can follow your bot and once you approve them, can can partake of your spewy goodness.

Hashtag repeaters

I really don’t understand why some people feel the need to automatically re-tweet things that people tag. @hashwordpress is an excellent example of this. If anyone wants every tweet that has the #wordpress hashtag, all they need to do use search.twitter.com, twitterfall.com or any of a hundred ways to get these tweets; re-tweeting them helps no one.

Can we please just get rid of these? If you are the owner of one of these bots, please either shut it down, protect it’s time line so that you are not a spewbot, or leave me a comment here telling me why I’m wrong and they are really a good thing.

Bot testing spewage

All of a sudden on Friday, my entire twitter time line was replaced by a series of tweets from a single account. Each of them were just random words and the #php hashtag. In my frustration, I tweeted to this bot to please stop polluting my time line. Much to my surprise, I got an email about 20 minutes later from the owner of the bot asking what the problem was. I explained to them that their testing was polluting the #php hashtag. I asked them to replace the # with another character and they wouldn’t be bothering anyone. Much to my surprise, they agreed and I haven’t seen a tweet from them again.

If you are testing, there is no need to tag your tests. You are monitoring them and can tell if your bot is working. If you refuse to protect your bot’s time line during testing at least don’t tag the tweets, please?

…and the rest

There’s not really a way to classify the rest of the spewbots. Most of them that pollute the #php time line are job related. If they only tweeted one or two tweets a day it probably wouldn’t annoy me so much but you get bots like @fresh_projects, @freelance_jobs and @joomlajobs that tweet multiple tweets at a time several times a day.

I really don’t have a good way to handle these. To be honest, they are like like Democrats, they piss me off but they’ve got as much right to be here as I do. I really wish my client of choice, twhirl, would let me right click on an account and tell it to never ever show me a tweet from this account again. That way they are free to pollute, but I am free to ignore them. Actually, this would be an awesome feature to implement in twitter itself but since it takes 30 days to get a response from them on a simple bug report/request these days, the chances of that happening are slim. So for now, I’ll just have to put up with them.

If anyone has a good idea for how to cleanse the #php search timeline of these parasites, I’d love to hear it. I tried building a Y!Pipes filter to filter them out but Pipes won’t check the feed often enough to pickup all the tweets.

Conclusion

Until we find a permanent solution to the problem of spewbots, I’ guess we just have to put up up with them. I filter the most egregious of the spewbots with the -from: option in search.twitter.com but there’s a 140 limit to the search query so I have to constantly have to re-evaluate which ones I filter and which ones I put up with.

I’m open to ideas on how to combat the problem of spewbots, especially the last group of them. For now though, I’m out of ideas.

Until next time,
(l)(k)(bunny)
=C=

6 thoughts on “Rise of the Spewbots

  1. I agree, this stuff drives me nuts. Unfortunately, unless we get that “ignore” button you were talking about implemented in Twitter itself, there’s not much we can do.

    I suppose that could be integrated into any number of AIR apps, though. New project? :)

  2. Twitter already has a feature to prevent accounts from entering your timeline, being the “block” feature. The only thing I don’t know about is whether that block feature also applies to the search. It might well be that the search doesn’t take the logged in account into consideration, so might still show them.

    Have you sent the twhirl feature request @twhirl? They might well implement it if they know someone wants it.

  3. @Jason,
    I would love to see one of the existing clients pick it up. I just don’t have time for another project right now. :)

    @stefan,
    No, as @martin found out, block does not affect search. Yes, I’ve suggested the feature to twhirl a couple of times but seesmic owns it and they are working on a new client…that I really don’t like as much. Oh well. If spaz supported multiple accounts and twitter search I would switch back.

    @martin, yeah, I kinda figured that but didn’t test it. Thanks for testing.

    Thank you to each of you for comments.

    =C=

  4. @vincent,

    It is possible to ask but that’s like ICANN’s brilliant idea to create the .xxx tld; you can’ force people to use it. Unfortunately, twitter.com doesn’t see spewbots as a real problem so until my favorite client (twhirl, and no, I don’t like Seesmic Desktop) lets me permanently ignore users, the problem won’t really get solved.

    =C=

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