rate limits – Stay N Alive

The Real Solution to Fix the "Twitter Game"

twitter-gameTwitter has been initiating a crackdown of sorts on sites that offer “automated unfollow” services such as my own SocialToo.com.  Since we announced we were removing it on SocialToo, at least 3 other services have also been asked to remove the functionality, which enables people to automatically unfollow others that unfollow them on Twitter.  I have also noticed Twitter is now cracking down on Twitter accounts that perform this practice.  When chatting with Twitter, their reasoning is that auto-unfollow “perpetuates the idea that Twitter is about follower counts”.  Assuming that this is the real reasoning behind the request, I’d like to suggest a more effective means of killing that idea: kill services that allow proactive follow in the first place and follower churn will go away.

Let me first explain what proactive follow is.  There are many services out there right now that enable you to find new followers based on keywords.  You specify search terms, perhaps based on your brand, and these services then go out and find people Tweeting with these keywords, and the service follows those people.  Some will even send a public @mention or DM if they meet your search criteria.  The entire hope is that those people will follow back (note that not everyone does this automatically), increasing your follower count and potential reach.

The problem with this method is that Twitter has limits in place.  As people unfollow you as you are increasing your numbers in this way, soon you will be following way more people than are following you back.  Twitter has a limit right now, in which if you’re following around 10% more of the people that are following you on Twitter, you will not be able to follow any more.  So what happens is these people using these “get more follower” services then use legit services like my SocialToo to unfollow all of the people that have stopped following them, bringing their ratio back in check.  It’s a direct rebellion against Twitter’s rules and regulations, and I don’t blame Twitter for being concerned about it.  In fact, I refuse to allow proactive follow on SocialToo just for this reason – we are not a “get more followers fast” site.  We’re a utility that enables you to manage your Twitter stream better and easier.

So Twitter has come up with the best solution they can come up with – “let’s kill the sites that are providing automatic unfollow and the follower churn will go away”.  The idea being if users can’t unfollow those users that have unfollowed them after they proactively went out and followed everyone, it’s a lot harder to game the system and break Twitter’s rules.  Based on my experience with what users are telling me on SocialToo, this breaks Twitter for many big brands using the service in a legit manner though.  Let me share a few use-cases people are telling me about after we removed it on SocialToo:

Legit Use-Cases for Auto-Unfollow

Some Brands Just Have Big Numbers — On SocialToo we service some really big brands.  Let’s face it: these brands have a lot of followers.  Following those followers back gives their followers a sense that the brand is listening to them.  It’s a PR move, as well as a customer service move because their followers can now DM them.  For instance, I followed @PCSki the other day, hoping to be able to get a spot in for my wife’s and my Ski Vacation to Park City Utah.  Because they followed me back, I was able to keep our conversation private.  This reciprocal follow is an important piece for Brands looking to communicate better with their followers and customers.  @PCSki got a sale (and future blog post) out of me because of that relationship.

Now, assuming we’re dealing with millions of followers, or hundreds of thousands of followers, or even thousands of followers it is absolutely impossible to continue following back the people that follow you based on Twitter’s 10% ratio limit.  If I want to follow everyone back, the fact is about 1/3 to 1/2 of those people I follow back will unfollow me at some point, and my ratio breaks.  I’m then stuck waiting until more people follow me before I can follow back more.  This is bad for brands, especially those with bigger numbers.  If you think numbers aren’t important for a brand, you’re flat out wrong.

Auto Unfollow Kills the Churners — The main reason I created automatic unfollow on SocialToo was because it’s another effective technique at combating spammers if you do auto follow (see above for some good reasons to auto follow as a brand ).  For a good auto follow service to occur, it’s the natural thing to do to offer auto unfollow services as well in order to keep out the spammers you might follow unintentionally.  This is also the reason we offer DM filters and other filtering services on SocialToo.  For those gaming the system, the minute they unfollow me to hope their numbers stay up, I immediately unfollow them as well, and their numbers don’t increase at all.

Auto Unfollow Enables Steady Growth, Despite Friends Unfollowing — if auto unfollow were not available, a typical brand or person wanting to enable auto follow on their account would go as follows: Number of friends increase. Number of friends stay stagnant until ratio is met.  Number of friends increase again.  Steady growth is not attainable with Twitter’s current ratio limit and the lack of auto unfollow.

The Solution

So what can Twitter do?  I understand they’re between a rock and a hard place here.  They could remove the ratio limits, but then the churners (or gamers) would take over again.  They could kill automated unfollow services, but other services will still take over – I can already think of  a good way to create a browser extension that does it on a user-by-user basis if we wanted to.  Also, killing automated unfollow removes the ability for users to defend themselves against the churners.  Twitter could just let the churning happen, but then jealousy happens and people complain (not sure that’s a bad thing as I think people can see through the fakes, but I understand their viewpoint).  Twitter could remove the numbers, only enabling them in private for each individual, but that would remove some of the fun and competition of Twitter.

The only decent solution is to kill the services that are enabling proactive follow.  Disable those enabling the ability to search by keyword and follow based on that keyword.  This is a pure API-based service that Twitter can shut off at the source pretty easily.  Once these are gone, churning, and the “Twitter Game” will be over for those abusing the system.

The Fact is Twitter is About Numbers

While I don’t think Twitter wants people gaming the system to create more numbers, I think Twitter knows that the only way to grow the service is to enable people to increase their number of followers and grow an audience.  If you don’t think that, you’re lying to yourself.  Everyone wants more followers, especially if you’re a brand or business.

Twitter prominently displays follower counts on each user’s page, along with a list of who’s following them, the number of lists they’re on, the number of lists they’ve created, and the list goes on.  Twitter has a Suggested User List  – the entire goal being to give people a larger number of people those people can follow and find interesting things from.  Users get higher prominence in Google if their numbers are higher on Twitter.  Numbers are everything to Twitter, let’s not kid ourselves.

Twitter Needs to Kill the Proactive Follow

The only way Twitter is going to fix the problem they see at hand is to kill services enabling users and brands to go out and proactively find new followers.  Killing the unfollow isn’t going to fix this.  Killing the proactive follow will.  My hope is that, assuming this is the real reason Twitter wants to kill it, Twitter will realize this and give freedom back to their users to continue maintaining their accounts.

As I said on the SocialToo blog – in the meantime, we’re in Twitter’s world and we’re subject to their rules, so until then I’ll do what they tell me.  Let’s hope they’re listening though.  SocialToo provides many more services than just this though, so I’m not worried – I am worried about our users however.

Are there use-cases I’m missing?  How were you using auto-unfollow?

I Should Have Heeded My Own Advice About Twitter

whale.pngAbout a full year ago, I wrote of developers leaving the Twitter development platform due to Twitter consistently removing features, making changes without warning developers, and effectively putting developers out of business with just a single change of policy.  I advised other developers to be careful building a business model around Twitter, adding that it was a risky move, much more risky than many of the other platforms out there.  It would seem I should have taken my own advice.

It was this time I started SocialToo, a service that originally we built around the auto-follow concept. I named it such because I did not want it to work solely on the Twitter platform.  It was clear Twitter was on an unstable architecture, and their relationship with developers was also quite shaky.  For this reason, I added in features like Facebook profile redirects at the time (a simple “yourusername.socialtoo.com” which redirects to your Facebook profile).  But Twitter, at the time, was the easiest solution to build around, and made the most sense for where we had started so I figured we had to make what we did with it perfect.  Here we are, one year later, and I’m still trying to make it work perfect, but not because our code sucks – it’s because Twitter keeps changing their system, and the rules that go with it!

Today Twitter pulled the rug out from under its developers once more by, with absolutely no notice, announcing that (paraphrased, in my words) since their way was the right way, they were discouraging auto-following, and would only allow a user to follow 1,000 people per day.  What Twitter neglected was that, while not many, myself and others were building business plans around the users that would need this.  A little notice would have been helpful, but is very consistent with the way developers have been treated over the past year or more by Twitter.  Yes, I’m a big boy and we’ll survive, but that’s besides the point.  You can read more about what developers are experiencing over on LouisGray.  Put lightly, I’m not happy.

Twitter Needs a Firm Terms of Service

I know I’m not only one to say this when I say that I don’t have a clue what to expect from Twitter any more.  Any developer out there is prone to this type of treatment, and I can pretty much guarantee it will affect every Twitter developer out there at some point until something is done about it.  The reason for this is that Twitter really has no firm Terms of Service around its platform.  I am not required to agree to any way of using their platform when I write software for them.

Some might see this as a good thing, but what they are neglecting to see is that a Terms of Service gives developers a vision of what to expect, something we don’t have now.  This needs to change, and soon – we as developers need to know what we can and can’t do on the platform.  Can we write apps that auto-follow?  Can we write apps that auto-DM?  What about mass-DM?  Can I store data and what data can I store on my servers and for how long?  What is the definition of spam? There are lots of rules for Twitter users that we agree to, but nothing a developer must agree to when writing apps.  This is why you’re seeing so many apps out there gaming the system, causing these ridiculous rules to have to be made, when it can realistically all be settled before-hand with a simple agreement all developers must agree to before developing apps for Twitter.

If I knew what I could or couldn’t do on Twitter I could avoid it in the first place.  Unfortunately Twitter hasn’t defined that and it’s pretty darn confusing, not to mention extremely risky, to write apps for the Twitter platform right now.  With Facebook, on the other hand, I’m required to agree to a very specific agreement, and they’re very clear when they’re going to change any of the terms, giving developers plenty of warning.  It’s well written out and well defined. It’s a platform with little risk and high reward for businesses because they give developers time to work with any changes they make to it.

We need notice, Twitter!

These “day of” announcements are very immature and something a 15 million user company with millions to billions in the bank shouldn’t be doing.  They were doing this type of stuff a full year ago, and even today they haven’t changed their ways, even though they said they would.  Twitter needs to start notifying developers of these changes or a lot more are going to be put out of business at the drop of a hat.

Every day on the developers mailing list I’m seeing other things like this happening – OAuth technology being removed without notice (I recognize it’s beta, but we still need to know!), no notice to developers on what’s happening when site slowness happens, when things are fixed on the platform, and when they’re broken, and more.  As a developer with 12-15 years of experience in these things, the entire Twitter platform is a joke!  You just don’t do these types of things in the real world of software development!  I worked at places I would have gotten fired for this type of activity!

Developers will continue to leave if this doesn’t change

I have to admit, I’m re-evaluating my strategy to stop working on what I was doing in the Twitter environment, and move more to other platforms at the moment.  When I do that, no, I won’t remove the existing Twitter technology, but I will admit it will be very easy for the users on my service to get the same value they’re currently getting on Twitter on other services, and as they experience similar treatment by Twitter they’ll be leaving as well (as I’m already seeing).  I know I’m not the only developer in this boat right now – there are a lot of frustrated developers out there with almost no signs of change from Twitter.  I know developers that now refuse to develop on the Twitter platform because of the way they were treated, and that will continue to happen.

I have to admit I had to send out e-mails to 20 or 50 or so of Twitter’s very top users today telling them that Twitter wasn’t allowing them to auto-follow.  Those are tough e-mails to write, especially considering the influence Twitter has allowed these individuals to have and the audiences these people are capable of engaging.  I’d like to make Twitter look good for these people, but Twitter isn’t making it very easy.

Twitter, it’s time to get your act together.  Hire some more smart people, get people in management that know how to make these decisions right, and make us believe, not by words alone, but by actual actions, that you’re going to do something about it.  If you don’t, as I’ve said before, when the developers leave, so will your users.

Come follow me over on FriendFeed over at http://beta.friendfeed.com/jessestay or over on Facebook at http://jessestay.socialtoo.com.