Oct 14

Here’s an interesting debate we had this morning in our office:

Would you consider this Twitter account SPAM?

Or the deeper question here: how do you define SPAM?

  • By a certain practice used to reach people?
  • By any unsolicited message with commercial-serving intent?
  • By a shotgun-style approach in communication?
  • By the relevancy of the message to the recipient?
  • It can’t be left to a completely relativistic definition because it becomes impossible to make laws to protect against it (ie. the one guy that happened to be wanting to buy viagra this morning finds the SPAM email to be very timely and useful, but that doesn’t justify the annoyance for the rest of us). On the other side of the continuum, it can’t be boiled down to specific practices because that’s what Bruce Schneier would call “the futility of defending the targets.” Here’s my position on the matter:

    I monitor key phrases on Twitter, certain sequences of words that indicate a user has a problem that one of our free JumpBoxes could solve. I skim hundreds of these tweets and select the few that we can help and respond to them individually introducing them to our product. I documented this technique awhile back. I’d say all but two of the 68 responses I’ve gotten from reaching out to people in this way have been received with appreciation. Two people have responded calling foul.

    According to the Twitter TOS the account above clearly violates the “If your updates consist mainly of links, and not personal updates” rule. But that could be satisfied by peppering it with personal updates and fluff. The reason I don’t do this out of my personal account or our JumpBox account is because doing so would inundate the followers of those with a bunch of repetitive info that’s uninteresting to them. But I digress. The point is there are ways to satisfy the TOS requirements but that just feels shady. I can see someone making the argument that this technique is not the “personal updates” spirit of use of what Twitter intended. I get that.

    But here’s what I don’t understand:

    • Making a freeware product recommendation for someone else’s product on a mailing list in response to a need that a participant expresses. Completely 100% kosher and expected.
    • Making a freeware product recommendation that’s your own on a mailing list when appropriate… cheesy maybe but still completely appropriate.
    • Making a freeware product recommendation of your own product in a distributed micro-blogging environment like Twitter where you single out a recipient who expresses a need your free product solves and you direct a thoughtful reply to that person… sorry but I see that as a legitimate way of reaching out to people. It’s not like you’re cluttering their inbox- it’s a message that appears on their @replies page in Twitter.

    If you were tying to sell them something- okay, I agree. If you were repeatedly harassing the same person- gotcha. But a one-time message that makes them aware of a solution that’s free and completely unique such that they would never know to search for it in the first place, I don’t see the SPAMiness in that. Anyways I’m probably going to be discontinuing this practice not because I think it’s spammy but because the return isn’t there time-wise.

    What do you think about this practice and the bigger question of how do we define what constitutes SPAM in the evolving world of social media?

    6 Responses to “To what extent is SPAM in the eye of the beholder?”

    1. I'd define spam as unrequest/unwanted solicitation. If you're send me that tweet out of the blue, then it's spam. If I post a message that says “Drupal rocks!” and you send me a tweet about Drupal on JumpBox, then it's spam.

      However, if I say “Can't get Drupal working!!! Need help!”, then sending a tweet about a solution is fine.

      In simplest form, if you're answering my call for help, then I don't see it as spam. If it's unsolicited, then I see it as spam.

      Just my two cents…

    2. David says:

      Is web advertising spam? It is absolutely unsolicited, commercial solicitation. Does the ease of ignoring it, help determine whether it is spam or not? Something else? In-your-face web advertising (click to skip, click to make popup go away, etc.) really annoys me, but text ads I can just ignore.

      Dan Switzer, I agree with your examples, but what about the case where a tweet is “Gee, I wish Drupal wasn't so hard to install!!!”

    3. scrollinondubs says:

      Dan & David,
      Here are examples of the messages I respond to: https://scrollinondubs.com/wp-content/upload
      I only respond to people expressing frustration or explicitly asking for help with installing an application.

      If I setup a bot to automatically tweet a canned response based on the presence of certain keywords, then that would be SPAM. Instead I'm sifting through hundreds of tweets and finding the one or two cries for help where our _free_ solution fixes their problem. Then responding to the individual personally. I consider this to be a completely valid use of Twitter but not everyone in our office agreed so I wanted to get some outside opinions.

      Thanks for your feedback.


    4. jamesbritt says:

      I disagree with Dan on being so hardcore about calling something spam. If I make a comment in a public arena (e.g Twitter), then related DMs or replies are to be expected. At least if it's *one* message related to something I posted.

      But it's a fine line when deciding what “related” means. If I tweet that I like the show Hell's Kitchen, I am not looking for replies about your restaurant. But maybe your cooking school would interest me.

      As for calling attention to your own stuff, I don't see the problem if you're actually addressing someone's question or concern, but I've seen people get all pissy about this. For example, on HN, people ask What time tracking tool do you use? And I tell them “JotBot.”

      One time I did not say that I sell it. For one person, that was a major faux pas. But my answer was the truth, answered the specific question, and my selling it had nothing to do with my using it ( I actually like me own product!) except perhaps to the extent that, as the owner, I get to make it the product I want.

      Some folks get antsy about that, which I think is tied to a sorry culture of self-deprecation: don't toot your own horn and that sort of crap. I say, tell the truth, be honest about yourself and your work, and if you have something good to offer, speak up.

    5. jamesbritt says:

      “Instead I'm sifting through hundreds of tweets and finding the one or two cries for help where our _free_ solution fixes their problem. Then responding to the individual personally. I consider this to be a completely valid use of Twitter but not everyone in our office agreed so I wanted to get some outside opinions.”

      That sounds like the exact thing twitter is for. Maybe it's not for everyone (including me, at times), but that quasi-random interaction thing is a feature, not a bug.

      Seriously, if people don't want to hear from other people, let them run their own blog with comments turned off. If twitter is a form of micro blogging, then feedback is to be expected.

    6. Mike Portson says:

      I can’t disagree with an opinion that Twitter is just one huge spam machine – it is one hundred percent truth. And so are other social networking sites, there is nothing strange about it. We live in web marketing times and spammers are just people searching for a way of making money (not exactly fair with other people). Spam a phenomenon that will grow in strength and become one of the most common form of communication in upcoming years.

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