Twitter is dead

Oh sure, it seems lively enough. But now that spammers and scammers have their hooks into Twitter, it's doomed.

Could Twitter be heading the way of the dodo?

Could Twitter be heading the way of the dodo?

It is my sad news this morning to report the demise of the world's most famous microblog. Twitter, we hardly knew ye.

From a distance it appears to be healthy enough. It's still growing faster than kudzu in a rain forest. The number of Twitter users surged a staggering 1,700 percent since last year. More than 20 million people visited in July, according to Comscore. Some (not so) poor slobs just dropped another $100 million into its profitless coffers, boosting the paper value of the company past the $1 billion mark.

[ Also on InfoWorld, Cringely has more thoughts on Twitter's twisty tale: "Twitter harpooned, Internet survives (just barely)" | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

I especially love this line from the IDG news report: "The money will give Twitter more time to figure out a business model." Hey, if somebody wanted to give me $100 million, I'd be happy to spend my time working out a business model -- preferably from a beach chair in the Caymans.

More than 3 million people now hang on every 140-character belch that comes from the keyboard of Ashton Kutcher. (Though, aside from shacking up with Demi Moore, it's unclear what he's done to deserve all the attention. Have you ever watched "That 70's Show?" I mean, more than once?) When The Gloved One died in July, researchers recorded 80 tweets per second mourning the loss of MJ. There are now academic studies of varying ridiculousness about the impact of "Twitter influencers." There's not one but two TV shows that are allegedly being built around Twitter. (Of course, in TV land they'd build a program around your grandmother's dead cat -- and it would still be better than "That 70's Show.")

So no worries, right? Wrong.

Twitter is dead because it is now so popular that the spammers and the scammers have arrived in force. And history tells us that once they sink their teeth into something, they do not let go. Ever.

Twitter scams aren't new. But I've never seen so many hit in a single week or with such rigorous precision.

First there's the "ROFL" phishing scam that drives users to a fake log-in page to steal their credentials. Per IDG News' Bob McMillan:

The scam begins with a direct message -- one sent directly between two Twitter users -- that reads "ROFL this you on here?" and appears to link to a video site. When the victim clicks on the link, however, they are sent to a fake Twitter page and asked to log in. The scammers use that log-in information to automatically message the victim's contacts with the same direct message.

Why would a scammer want your Twitter logon? Because he/she needs to borrow your Twitter reputation for a little while -- just long enough to spew out spammy messages that send hapless twits to other Web pages where the scammers can abuse you further.

I've run into two other Twitter scams that have not been widely reported. They may not be new, but they both hit me over the same two days, and they're kind of similar.

One is ingeniously simple. The scammers create a fake profile with the picture of a pretty girl (like this one). The profile has no followers, and it doesn't follow anyone. On Twitter all you need to do to reach someone is to send them a "reply" containing their Twitter handle; even if they've never sent you a tweet it automatically goes into their feed. So the scammer sends replies to people at random containing nothing but an abbreviated Web link. The ones I've seen drive people to a Web site by "Tammy Fisher" promoting Acai berries for weight loss. That's spam, pure and simple.

Scam No. 2: They create fake profiles of Boring White Men with handles like Edwardt42 or Georgel64, who have a mix of real and fake followers. How can you tell the difference? If the account has a picture of a smoking hot woman, it's probably a fake. These scammers know that, on Twitter, many folks scan the followers of their friends and pick out the good-looking ones to follow. (Not me, of course. I'm talking theoretically here.)

When I visited the Web pages of those hot-looking women, I found a bunch of tweets on different topics, all containing a tiny URL that leads to the same "dating" site: That site pays out up to $50 for every sucker you trick into signing up and up to $1.50 for every click. So this is an affiliate marketing scam, pure and simple.

From the scammer's point of view, this is far superior to e-mail. There aren't any Twitter spam blockers (at least, that I know of). There are no ISPs to get in the way and cancel your accounts. People on the service are still fairly trusting of each other. And with shortened URLs, there's no way to find out where that person is sending you until you've already arrived. It's a perfect storm of spamminess.

Here's an even bigger problem. Twitter makes it far too easy to create a fake profile and far too difficult to report one. To rat somebody out, you have to follow Twitter's internal spam account and send them a direct message containing the name of the spammer. It's so hard to block these folks that it seems almost deliberate -- as if Twitter didn't want to impede its growth by building in tools that would keep the service clean.

(MySpace took a similar laissez-faire approach, which is how it became infested with pedophiles for a few years. It's never fully recovered from that.)

By contrast, when some fake Skype user tries to worm his way into my address book, I can block and report him instantly with two clicks of the mouse. As a result, I get very little Skype spam. Would it be so hard to slap a "report this person" link on every Twitter account? Really?

Even sites that rely on "community policing" find themselves overwhelmed with spam after a certain point. But when your community starts out hobbled, you're dead. It's just a matter of time.

I predict that in a year my Twitter feed is going to look an awful lot like my e-mail inbox, which I opened this morning to find two dozen identical pieces of spam from "Fortune Maker News," among other useless dreck. (There is a special circle in Hell for spammers, filled with 24/7 infomercials and music by Paula Abdul.)

Spam will kill Twitter's usefulness for everyone but relentless Internet marketers, unless the brainiacs at TwitCentral can figure out a better way to block it. Smart people have tried and failed everywhere else, though. I don't hold out much hope.

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Robert X. Cringely

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