Twitter, popularity, and just plain creepiness

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Unless you've been living under a very large rock indeed for the last six months or so you've probably heard of Twitter, the now-nearly-ubiquitous microblogging thang where people lay out their deepest thoughts in 140 characters or less. If other people are interested in your deep thoughts they can follow you to make sure they don't miss them, and you can stalk other people too without having to go to all the trouble of having to read their tedious blogs or set up an RSS reader. You can read their tedious tweets in mere seconds, and they can ignore yours even faster. You can even use it to find out that celebrities' Twitterings are just as banal as yours, and that Lance Armstrong has just had his twenty-somethingth drug test since coming out of retirement late last year (why he thinks this is odd I don't know - Mark Cavendish claims to have had around 66 tests last year).

Anyway, I've had a Twitter account for a strangely long time. By the look of things I signed up in February 2007, which is how I have a three-character username - always the sign of a fool, uh, an early adopter. My very first tweet was "Trying to wake up.", which is probably about as profound as I've ever got in the 1222 tweets since. Of course, I didn't really use it for ages, and it's only recently as a critical mass of people have started using Twitter that it's actually been worth using it extensively.

Along with this critical mass and the thousands of news stories about how Twitter will change the universe, it's suddenly become a mainstream part of the Internet. What this means - of course - is that the spammers and shysters have appeared. They generally appear in the form of mass followings - accounts which either just automatically follow everyone they can get hold of, or bots which scan for keywords in the public Twitter stream and follow everyone mentioning those keywords in case they're interested in what they have to say (usually, we're not).

The former tend to claim to be lonely, hot 18-year-old girls who'd reeeeeally like to chat with you and maybe share some saucy piccies of themselves in 140 characters or less. The latter tend to be a variety of breeds. What they all have in common is that they're hoping you'll get the email Twitter spits out to let you know when you have new followers (unless you've turned that off) and go and look at their stuff. I've been known to post tweets full of possible buzzwords just to see what came out of the woodwork - it's a fun sport, and you get to feel really popular as all the mail comes in telling you about your new followers.

So what sort of stuff is it followbots want you to pay attention to? Well, there are multiple categories of followbots. Some of them are clearly breathless marketing and search engine optimisation types who view themselves as doing something exciting and dynamic by inviting people to leverage synergies over Twitter. Some are political nutters who want you to visit their site full of conspiracy-theory-laced exhortations to overthrow the system (in favour of what depends on the individual nutter). Some are genuine conspiracy nutters, such as the Internet has known more or less since its founding. Some are just out-and-out spammers pushing probably-fake Viagra, although those accounts usually get canned fairly rapidly. And so on.

Most of these followbots are fairly harmless. The definition of what constitutes spam in the Twitter universe is nebulous - is following you spam? I don't know, and I don't think it is - if you don't like any particular account following you you can block them, thus stopping them seeing your stuff or adding you as a friend, but I don't generally bother doing that except for the out-and-out-spammer category of followbot. After all, I don't generally put stuff on the Internet in a world-readable form unless it's stuff I'm happy for the whole world to know - there's not much blackmail material in a blow-by-blow account of my experience moving the cat to Switzerland.

One recent followbot hit, though, creeped me out a little. After I posted that I had "spotted a Scientology centre in Z├╝rich! It's gratifyingly tiny and a little shabby, in the middle of an industrial estate in Glattbrugg.", a few minutes later ding, mail from Twitter:

Scientology Church (_SCIENTOLOGY_) is now following your updates on Twitter.

Whoa! Now, I'll say at this point that I'm no anti-Scientology activist (although from what I understand of the way they do business, I certainly don't approve of them or their tactics), but once I'd taken a look to verify that this actually looked like a genuine Scientology account (it does) I found myself feeling rather creeped out. In my mind it was akin to posting uncomplimentary things about the current British government and getting a ping a few minutes later to say "MI5 is now following your updates on Twitter!", or mentioning explosives and getting followed by the US Department of Homeland Security. In other words, a little bit too much like "you are being watched - mind what you say".

Other than the blatant spammers and Viagra merchants, that became the first time I bothered to block a follower. Of course, this paranoia is probably un-called for. If people really wanted to read what I was saying for nefarious purposes they wouldn't bother following me and would just write a script to grab specific users' tweets directly. And unless you've actively made your Twitter stream protected so only people you authorise can read it, anyone who's not logged in can read it anyway regardless of whether you've blocked their account.

So why was I so creeped out by being followed by the Church of Scientology? I guess it's just because their record of interaction with the users of the Internet is not.. untarnished, and it reminded me of just who else might be out there watching and gathering information.

Of course I'll keep using Twitter. I'm not really all that worried about who might be reading my stuff (it's dull anyway, so if they want to suffer through it that's fine by me). After all, Twitter is on the whole a good thing - it deserves to be seen in the public eye as more some kind of sophisticated celebrity-stalking (and celebrity-sucking-up-to) service. And I'm not just saying that because @stephenfry hasn't followed @mpk yet.

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I tweet way more than I blog because I'm a very lazy man. Obviously you should follow me there and bask in the glory of my wisdom in chunks of 140 characters or less.

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