Twit Nits: 12 Top Twitter Annoyances

Twitter's popularity may have exploded over the past year, but its feature set continues to evolve at a seemingly glacial pace. New users quickly realize that they need to shop around in the Twitter developer ecosystem for add-on software and Web-based services that fill in missing features and address the annoyances that the microblogging service's deficiencies present.

Twitter's popularity may have exploded over the past year, but its feature set continues to evolve at a seemingly glacial pace. New users quickly realize that they need to shop around in the Twitter developer ecosystem for add-on software and Web-based services that fill in missing features and address the annoyances that the microblogging service's deficiencies present.

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While this ad-hoc approach to completing Twitter is great for the community of developers working on complementary products, it doesn't foster a coherent environment for users. Twitter Inc. relies heavily on third parties to develop the most basic solutions rather than provide a robust core feature set within its basic service.

To be sure, Twitter has a strong ecosystem of developers who, using Twitter's API, have built applications that address many of the service's shortcomings. "What is amazing to me about Twitter is the degree to which the community has learned to game the system to create work-arounds," says Margaret Wallace, a Twitter enthusiast and CEO of Rebel Monkey Inc., a developer of online games.

"Twitter has gone further in opening up its APIs than most companies, so it is easy to build these things," says Jeffrey Mann, an analyst at research firm Gartner Inc. For Twitter, he says, the real value is in the tweets, not the tools to make tweets. More developers means more traffic. "They want to build out the platform, not the tools," says Mann. But since no tool does it all, some users end up with a full toolbox.

Wallace finds herself flitting among several different tools that augment or extend her Twitter environment. She regularly depends on Buzzom, Mr. Tweet, Tweetie and TinyURL, and she occasionally turns to WeFollow, Twitterholic and Twitpic to meet her needs.

She's not alone: Computerworld spoke with a variety of sources for this story, from run-of-the-mill users to celebrity tweeters. While individual lists of Twitter annoyances varied a bit, about a dozen criticisms rose to the top. All of the users said that they rely on third-party tools to remedy shortcomings, but the component stereo approach to Twitter has its limits. Most would like to see at least some of the missing features integrated into a more complete offering.

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Like Wallace, many users aren't happy about having to move among several different services to manage all aspects of their Twitter environment. Howard Rheingold, a frequent Twitterer, lecturer at Stanford University and author of the book Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, thinks more of the core functionality needs to be pulled into one place. "I only have so much patience with installing applications," he says.

We ran several of these criticisms by Twitter for comment -- and received no response. A Twitter PR representative did reply to one initial question for this story but did not reply or acknowledge a more detailed list of questions, despite repeated attempts to contact her over a two-week period. Messages left for others at the company, including co-founder Evan Williams, also went unanswered.

Do these Twitter shortcomings annoy you? Judge for yourself. Here's our list of top annoyances -- and the third-party tools and fixes users say they've come up with to work around them. When you've finished reading, vote in our quick poll to let Twitter know which enhancements you'd most like to see, or discuss your pet Twitter peeves in the article comments.

No support for groups

The inability to group the people you are following into discrete message streams (news, family, friends, etc.) is one of the biggies. Grouping is vital as the number of people you follow and who follow you expands.

Twit nit tweet: No group feature! This is probably the No. 1 reason that users reach for TweetDeck and other tools -- which, by the way, do a great job.

Fortunately, the lack of support for groups is one that many third-party tools address very well. The TweetDeck user interface software for Twitter was among the first products to offer support for groups, and it remains one of the most popular Twitter add-ons.

Other tools offer their own unique group features. Laura Fitton, founder and CEO of Pistachio Consulting and a heavy Twitter user, says she likes the fact that PeopleBrowsr groups can follow everyone who has used a specific hashtag, such as #iranelection, while Twitter4Groups lets you set up private notification groups.

Alternative user interfaces do a good job. Still, why not offer at least a basic group functionality within the Twitter interface?

All or nothing privacy

Without support for groups, it is difficult to offer private message streams to certain users. Today, privacy is an all-or-nothing proposition on Twitter.

Sure, you can use Twitter's direct message (DM) feature to send a private message to any individual -- if that person follows you. And @replies are semi-private in that those messages can be seen only by Twitter users who follow both the sender and the recipient. You can also "protect" all updates to your Twitter stream, making them private so that only followers you approve can see them. But Twitter won't allow you to have a mix of both public tweets and private ones that, for example, only your friends or co-workers can see.

"I want to be able to notify a specific team privately but do so right in the main stream of their normal Twitter usage," Fitton says. For that she needs a work-around like the one offered by GroupTweet and similar tools.

Twit nit tweet: Public or private? You can't have it both ways. It's all or nothing when creating tweets.

But the solution is a bit of a kludge. For example, GroupTweet's scheme requires that you set up a separate Twitter account for your group name, protect it and then explicitly allow each member of the group to view tweets from that account. When one group member sends a DM to the group account, GroupTweet republishes it as a tweet that all group members can follow. It works, but native Twitter support for private groups would be much cleaner.

No consolidated view of multiple user accounts

Not only can't you group tweets, Twitter won't let you group multiple accounts you've created into a single aggregated view. If you have more than one Twitter account, there's no way to get a consolidated view of the activity across those accounts. Instead, you must log into them one at a time.

Twit nit tweet: Need more than one Twitter account? If so, you'll need to log into each one separately to view activity on Twitter.com.

You also can't associate more than one Twitter account with a single e-mail address. While the Twitter ecosystem of third-party tools and services doesn't solve this directly, there are tools that can pull together all of your accounts into a single view, including TweetGrid, FriendFeed and Tweetie, which runs on the iPhone and Mac OS X.

A rising tide of spam

As Twitter traffic has increased, so has all of the lovely spam that users must deal with. Spammers have infected tweets, direct messages, @reply messages and follower lists. To get messages in front of as many users as possible, tweet spam often includes the trending topic keywords du jour that Twitter has posted on its Twitter.com and Twitter Search Web sites, and it may include other popular search terms and Twitter #hashtags in order to push the spam message into as many Twitter streams and search results as possible.

Twit nit tweet: Spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, lovely spam, wonderful spam!

Twitter spam may be structured to include a pitch right in the tweet, or it may do a bait and switch, where an embedded hot link goes to a Web site with content that's completely unrelated to the original message. Twitter spam messages that include hot links may lead the recipient to a Web site containing a product pitch -- or malware. Retweets may replace the original text and are then associated with a trusted name. That became a continuing problem for the online publication Search Engine Land, says Editor in Chief Danny Sullivan.

Short URLs embedded in a tweet can serve to obfuscate obvious links to spam, porn or malware sites. Some third-party applications let users view the full URL before they click on the hot link: TweetDeck, for example, can be configured to open a preview window that displays the expanded URL when you click on the link, while Mixero shows you the full link when you hover your mouse cursor over the short URL. These previews can help you avoid URLs that are obviously inappropriate. They won't, however, help if the full URL doesn't offer any clues that you're about to be transported to an undesirable site.

Rebel Monkey's Wallace finds the growing spam problem frustrating. "Twitter really needs to move quickly to implement better filtering and user-initiated blocking," she says.

Shea Bennett, a Twitter enthusiast and author of a blog called Twittercism, says the current blocking mechanism is useless. "People you've blocked can still read your timeline, retweet you, @reply you, etc.," he says.

Twitter does regular sweeps that purge thousands of spam accounts, but new ones are opened up just as quickly -- and Twitter offers only limited tools to help users clean it up. Users can block followers who are suspected spammers and report spammers by sending a direct message with the account name to Twitter's Spam Watch account. However, both processes are cumbersome if the volume of spam is significant.

"I don't like spammers, so I have to spend some time blocking them, even though it's not my job," says Rheingold. But he does it anyway, he says, because it helps Twitter identify and shut down offending accounts.

One third-party product, Clean Tweets, provides additional tools to help Twitter users combat spam. The product, a free Firefox toolbar add-on from Web analytics vendor BLVD Status, deletes tweets from your account page when the account that created them is less than 24 hours old or when it includes three or more trending topic keywords (you can adjust that number up or down). But keeping up isn't easy: To get around the 24-hour rule, some spammers are "aging" new accounts before attempting to follow other users.

Clean Tweets also allows the user to flag spam messages. It displays an "X" next to each tweet. When the user clicks on the "X," the post is removed and future posts from that account are not displayed. Chris Bennett, co-founder and president of BLVD Status, says the company also plans to add a feature that detects tweets that contain hot links to malware sites.

Direct messages: More trouble than they're worth?

As noted above, Twitter's direct message feature lets you send a private message to another Twitter user, but only if that person is following you. Bennett thinks the DM mechanism isn't well thought out. "The direct message system is rubbish -- it needs things like built-in search, marking, mass deletion, filters, etc.," he says. But DMs are an annoyance for another reason: They have become an attack vector for spammers.

Twit nit tweet: Twitter's DM feature: clunky, replicates IM and e-mail, attracts spam. Not much to love here.

How is this possible? Since you must follow a user to be able to receive a direct message from them, anyone who doesn't follow other people -- or who is extremely careful about who they follow -- won't be bothered by DM spam. But it's easy to follow the wrong person; when someone follows you, it's natural to follow them back.

What's more, many users who attract a large number of followers have turned to third-party services such as SocialOomph to automatically follow new followers. Such users are particularly vulnerable to DM abuse, and not just from commercial spammers. Otherwise normal Twitter users who use tools like SocialOomph to send automated DMs to greet new followers -- and include self-promotional links, jargon and so on -- are also a growing problem, says Fitton.

Wallace says her incoming DMs are now mostly spam. What's worse, she says, Twitter doesn't provide a way to delete them en masse. "Auto DMs and spammers have outpaced the level of service provided by DMs, rendering them obsolete at best and an annoyance at worst," she says.

As always in the Twitterverse, there are some fixes. SocialToo, for example, not only allows you to automatically follow accounts that follow you, but also lets you automatically unfollow accounts that exhibit spammer-like behavior. It also lets you block automated DMs, filtering them through a set of customizable rules.

Still, Twitter could make DMs work better by allowing users to filter incoming messages, mark offending DMs as spam and delete them in batches. Fitton thinks the whole DM model of requiring a subject to follow you before you can send them a message is flawed. "Why not permit DMs by default?" she asks. Then users could exclude those who send DM spam or other unwanted messages.

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