The Day My Twitter Boutique Turned into a Spam Bazaar

A few weeks ago I made a one-click mistake that transformed my idyllic Twitterverse from a wonderful gourmet boutique to a deafening street bazaar, replete with shilling merchants, junk that fell apart, and seedy grifters inviting me to "follow them to another site" for some special deals and special "peeks" at their hot pictures. Very special indeed!

My troubles started innocently enough: I was browsing through my followers looking for interesting new people to follow back, using a great little tool called Twitter Karma that allows you to do just that.

I was already following 700 tweeters, each of whom I considered a winner -- interesting people, worthy causes, and sources of thought-provoking info. But there were 800 tweeters following me that I wasn't following back so I was sifting through them, seeing who they were.

And then it happened: with one fatal click of the mouse, I accidentally chose "bulk follow," and started following all 800, more than doubling my already well-populated stream.

In they all poured, flooding my feed, jamming my inbox, offering me "irresistible" messages like "**ATTENTION** New to Twitter and want to grow your followers??" and "Market your products and make money with Twitter!!" and "Click here 2 C more of me..." The only thing missing was "Want 2 make your teeth 10 shades whiter overnight???" With that one click, my controlled Twitter ecosystem was suddenly buffeted by a blinding swath of incoming locusts, dust devils, and hail.

I'm not an expert enough Twitter Historian yet (is Stanford hiring?) to know how long the spammers, charlatans, and frauds have been hanging out on the periphery. At first, Twitter was a bit like an all-day concert where the real tickets, the real CDs, and the FDA-approved sirloin burgers were being sold inside the fairgrounds. Alas, it was only a matter of time until scalpers, bootleggers, and mystery-meat stands started massing at the gates, waiting for the fences to give way. And give way they did.

Should we blame it on Ashton Kutcher? Some observers do. Before he challenged CNN to a popularity contest to see who could get the most followers, 800 was considered respectable and 5,000 an incredibly impressive number of followers on Twitter. And that was good, because why would a spammer target 5,000 people when it was so much more lucrative hacking into email accounts? Kutcher, or AplusK as he's known on Twitter to his astounding 3.1 million followers, raised the threshold, garnering not only inflated numbers but incessant media attention, big name converts, and millions of people signing up to see what the fuss was about. But while Mr. AplusK seems like a likable, tech-savvy, do-gooder, not all the folks that he -- and the subsequent media storm -- attracted to Twitter are as benevolent as he. And too many are playing a kind of Twitter quid pro quo: "I'll follow you if you'll follow me back, and if you don't I'll un-follow you and follow someone else who will."

I have "Twitter Friends" who follow and are followed by anywhere from 5,000 to 100,000 people. Most of them are respected professionals who have earned those large followings by being helpful, friendly, and informative ("adding value" in Social Media parlance). Social media giant Chris Brogan, for instance, used to follow back everyone who followed him, both out of courtesy and because he's genuinely interested in discovering new people with valuable points of view. But even Chris is rethinking his position now, overwhelmed by spammers and automated direct message bots.

And so I've spent the last few weeks undoing the damage my one keystroke wrought. First I unfollowed all the people who promised "thousands of new followers," then the people who promised "guaranteed ways to make money," then people only tweeting links to their products and services, then people whose tweetstreams were widely divergent from my interests (I'm not into "rad snowboarding," for instance), and of course the stock photos of hot women whose hilarious English-challenged tweets ("I'm kind of girl who like 2 lay back and relax") all end with "want 2 see my pics?"

Things are almost back to normal now. My Twitter stream is tidy, the quality is high again, and, in the end, I discovered at least 300 very interesting new people I am happy to be following. And if I inadvertently unfollowed some interesting new folks, I'm confident I'll find them again. Because, while Twitter is being invaded by the Barbarians at the Gates, it is still a wonderland of fascinating people to discover.

There are lots of ways to use Twitter, almost all of them right, and everyone finds the way that works best for them. I've discovered that I am most comfortable being a Boutique Tweeter and not a supermarket, content with a group of people whose tweets I really enjoy, not aiming to have the most stock or the widest range, but enjoying a play-list of handpicked Tweeters, each of whose tweets adds value and quality to my day whenever I power up Tweetdeck. I still use Twitter Karma, it's still a great tool, but I steer clear now of that little Pandora's Box known as "bulk follow."