Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Twitter Death Machine

Twitter is this new phenomena that is raging across the world wide web. It is a massive interactive chat system, at least that seems to have been its original intention. They call it "microblogging" which means that each posting is minimized in size (140 characters or less). The brilliant thing is it is easy to "follow" people and there are several other social aspects to the system which makes it possible to create communities of interest. With the rising popularity of twitter there are some working on gaming twitters system for financial game. One of the more successful systems is the "Twitter Traffic Machine" which is an automated system to build up huge followings for the sole purpose of squirting advertising at them and gaining revenue. While the Twitter Traffic Machine is a brilliantly conceived Internet Marketing system, it is also contributing to global warming and other negative environmental impacts. To explain I will reveal how the Twitter Traffic Machine works. I used the title "Twitter Death Machine" because TTM is an example of the growth of the Internet causing more and more server systems to exist in order to handle the traffic load on the Internet. What's nefarious about the Twitter Traffic Machine is how much of the traffic it generates is machines talking to machines with no human benefit from the data those machines generate. As one who advocates for green web hosting and green computing the growing environmental impact of the Internet concerns me deeply.

The Twitter Traffic Machine relies on these automated systems:

  • A twitter account which you set up to look convincing and appealing to the audience you wish to reach
  • An automated system to generate relevant content, tweeting it into the account (Google Alerts plus twitterfeed.com)
  • An automated system to searching for and following other accounts tweeting with certain keywords of interest to the audience you wish to reach (twollow.com)
  • An automated system automatically managing which accounts to follow, such as autofollowing any accounts that follow your account and unfollowing any accounts that unfollow yours (tweetlater.com)
  • An automated system to send advertisement(s) for a product or service (tweetlater.com)

I've just set up the system on a couple accounts and it appears to be working. As a method of marketing a message, the idea is a brilliant one that promises an automated method to build a large following. However...

What happens when two of these machines detects one another? Two twitter traffic machines may be programmed to target accounts showing an interest in golf courses. Both would be locating content having to do with golf courses, and tweeting that content. Because the model is to find other accounts tweeting on the targeted subject (golf courses) the two accounts would follow each other. Since it appears there are a large number of twitter traffic machines being operated, it appears many of these accounts are robotically choosing to follow each other.

There appears to be a flood of automated tweeting traffic generators. Maybe it's the accounts my accounts are following but I'm seeing a lot of traffic consisting of article titles with links to news or blog sites. Further many are the same title from different accounts generally leading to the same article. Given the large number of solicitations I've received concerning the Twitter Traffic Machine, it's clear many people are setting up their own TTM's. Even if they're not following the precise TTM model, the value of automated content generation is pretty obvious and it's pretty trivial to set up a system to autotweet automatically generated content. I had worked it out on my own several months ago on the electric vehicle news and information portal I run.

I'm receiving many follows on my accounts from accounts focused on Internet Marketing or other topics totally off-topic to my accounts. These look like an automated seek-accounts-and-follow-them process with the strategy to follow as many other accounts as possible. It's well understood that a large percentage of people who are followed will reciprocate with following the account which followed theirs.

This makes for a growing number of twitter accounts operated by robots. Further it's likely many of them are not monitored by humans. I'm seeing many twitter accounts following 20,000 or more other accounts, which would be a crushing load of twitter traffic for anybody monitoring those accounts. Heck, I have two accounts following a very modest 2-300 accounts each, and find it impossible to keep up with that traffic flow.

An ominous question here is how many of the accounts following a given account are themselves operated by robots?

Every transaction on the Internet creates a requirement for the Internet infrastructure to transmit those transactions. Hence the more Internet traffic which exists, the more Internet infrastructure which much exist, and there is a direct correlation of Internet infrastructure to resources (energy and materials) consumed to build and operate the Internet. This growing level of traffic aimed at Twitter and services related to running twitter traffic machines is contributing to more transactions on the Internet. Therefore twitter traffic machines contribute to ever-increasing resources consumed by the Internet, and directly contributes to global warming and other side effects of resource consumption.

The measure I would apply to this is, does the expenditure of resources lead to human benefit? The expenditure of resources from robots talking to robots with zero human benefit is, to me, a waste. It's just as wasteful as the SPAM flooding my email, or the junk mail arriving via the post office every day. These get dumped immediately and they all consume resources to generate the SPAM. It would be better for all of us if the SPAM did not exist in the first place, to avoid consuming the resources required to create and transmit SPAM.

The twitter traffic machines aren't necessarily generating SPAM. It's possible that in some cases real people are gaining real value from following these robot controlled accounts. Especially if a given TTM operator is doing a sparklingly good job generating useful and relevant content. However I hope to have made it clear some portion of the robotic Twitter traffic is simply consumed by other robots, and that there is a growing web of Internet services adding "value" to the Twitter. Some portion of this traffic is wasted in a similar fashion that SPAM is a waste, in that no human being is gaining any positive benefit from robots talking to robots.