February 10, 2010

How to Sniff Out a Twitter Robot Posing as a Human


I was speaking on threats to Twitter in this past week’s #ESM Emerson Social Media class and it occurred to me that Twitter’s biggest internal threat is not people tweeting inane things that best belong on Facebook, but rather something much more annoying and far worse – the multitude of robots passing themselves off as humans on Twitter.  I’ve noticed over the past year that the robots have been multiplying at such a fast pace that they could someday possibly out number humans on Twitter, rendering the platform virtually useless.
Let’s be clear on what a Twitter robot is – A fully automated Twitter handle that usually has a human face for an avatar, but is more like a fishing lure than anything else.  Using automated follow services like TweetAdder, TweetWhistle or TweetSpinner, a robot will automatically follow other Twitter handles based on preset keywords the robot is programmed to follow. The idea is to stimulate these Twitter handles to reciprocate the follow, building a Twitter following.  If a Twitter handle doesn’t reciprocate a follow after a set amount of time, a rule is triggered that has the robot automatically unfollow non-reciprocating handles.
If this was all a robot did they’d be super easy to spot – they would appear to follow a ton of people and have a slightly lower number of followers with very few tweets.  But most people who set up Robots understand this and take their robot an extra step by adding in a feed API like Twitterfeed, which on schedule grabs recent posts from a single or multiple sites and spits them out as tweets, making the robot look like a member of the Twitter community.
So how to sniff out a Robot?
Here’s a few Robot types I’ve found and ways to identify them:

  1. The Simple TweetFeeder – The tweets from this account will all be the same with a shortened link and will look like someone stamped out all their tweets.
  2. Skippy the Scratched CDbot – Probably the easiest robot to spot – this account will tweet the same thing multiple times – probably because whoever set it up double input the autotweet request.
  3. The Scheduler – a variation on a TweetFeeder , this robot tweets out the same number of tweets at the same time everyday. Often times throwing out so many tweets so fast that no human could possible type and tweet at that speed – a sure give away.
  4. The Wall Flower – This robot has no feed but has thousands of followers, is following slightly more people than has following it and has zero or very few tweets.
  5. The Complex TweetFeeder – To not appear like a Simple TweetFeeder or Scheduler, this robot uses a mix of automated tweet applications to look more varied. These robots are a bit harder to spot, but the tell tale sign they are a robot is there will be no @ messages going out to anyone.

Got a different type of Robot to report? tweet me at: http://twitter.com/davidgerzof and I’ll add it to the list with a credit to you.


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