Duane Hoffmann / msnbc.com
“We've made significant progress implementing tools for spam detection and removal," Twitter co-founder Biz Stone told Technotica.
Helen Popkin
updated 9/8/2009 8:49:12 AM ET 2009-09-08T12:49:12

Ethan Zuckerman’s “Cute Cat Theory of Digital Activism” includes the hypothesis that any decent Internet outlet where users can participate will attract porn and activists.

“If there’s no porn, the tool doesn’t work,” it states. “If there are no activists, it doesn’t work well.”

As co-founder of one of the first Web hosting services, Tripod, Zuckerman should know. And if Zuckerman’s hypothesisand/or Internet handwringers are to be believed, Twitter, turns out, is working really … really … really well.

You know how Twitter’s 140-character limit proved plenty in supporting digital activism following the contentious presidential election in Iran? Well, OMG you guys! Guess what I just heard? There is PORN! On Twitter!

“No way!”

Yes way!

“Shut up!”

You shut up!

Seriously.  Close your cakehole. Yes, there’s been an influx of porn bots, along with the rest of the annoying spam. But no one here on Al Gore’s Great Green Internet is truly shocked or surprised that Twitter is going through the exact same growing pains experienced by every single social network that ever existed, from Facebook and Google all the way back to Usenet (kids, ask your grandparents) including, but certainly not limited to, attracting the sex trade.

“Certainly as Twitter grows we become more of a target for many varieties of spam,” Twitter co-founder Biz Stone told Technotica via e-mail. Indeed, unique visitors to the microblogging site catapulted from 475,000 in February 2008 up 1,382 percent to 7 million in 2009, according to Nielsen Online. And spammers, they’re never early adopters. They go where the action is.

Users can report spam via a direct message to @spam — an unsatisfactory process as you may not hear back on your complaint. But if spam is doing any real damage to the social network service currently heralded as the pulse point of the population, the porn bots aren’t to blame. It’s the easily gamed "trending topics," which is a Twitter-generated list of what's hot on the site. Spammers bomb Twitter with a keyword, and as it climbs up the trend list, curious users click on the keyword, driving it even higher.

Let’s not forget about the malware. If you've been on the Internet more than an hour, you should know enough not to click on any suspicious link, not because you risk your eternal soul by casting your eyes on bare nekked ladies. It’s about the malware you’ve just allowed to load on your computer. Alas sex (as the sexy porn bots might tell you if they were sentient and not, you know, computer code) is a far sexier topic.

Twitter “has taken a bit of a dark turn into the world of spam, pornography and escort services,” industry site MediaPost noted this summer. Observing this summer’s blogosphere handwringing,Andrew Belonsky at Valleywag wrote, “It's an age-old tale: site becomes popular, slags and hags use it for financial gain, the olds get mad. And Twitter is not immune.”

Oh hookers! You’ve already co-opted Friendster, ruined Craigslist and forced us to abandon our glitter GIFs and other assorted Blingees on MySpace! Must you also ruin Twitter, too?

Not, apparently, if Twitter can help it. "In the past six months our Trust and Safety team has grown fivefold,” Stone said. “We've made significant progress implementing tools for spam detection and removal and we've been engaging with others — for example, we make use of Google's Safe Browsing API which helps protect users from phishing, malware and spam.”

Throwing some levity on Twitter’s “dark turn,” Rainn Wilson (“Dwight” on “The Office”) took time out from his regular tweets on political issues and SoulPancake, the Web site he maintains with his son, to issue this bon mot:

“Of my million followers, like 800k r porn bots and they dont care about nuclear disarmament, comedy or Soulpancake. How do I impress them?”

Funny stuff … but oh no! Who will protect the children? Won’t somebody please think about the children? Except wait, there’s all this empirical data that reveals kids aren’t using the Twitter, on account of they’re way too cool for that…or something. It’s all grownups on Twitter. Gammy could be on Twitter! The seniors!

Won’t somebody please think of the seniors!

“Too much of a stretch?” you say. “Someone would have to be an unfrozen caveman who just logged on to his very first computer and immediately turned the channel to Twitter to be honestly shocked that there’s porn on the Internet.”

You got a point there.

Per Zuckerman, if it’s on the Internet, somebody will try to porn it up. Why do you think Wikipedia is monitored 24/7? The second someone looks away, somebody else tries to turn it into Pornapedia. You can’t fight 50 ka-jillion years of evolution.

Let’s not even get into Craigslist … OK, let's.

That online classified Mecca ought to require you to click a box acknowledging that you understand you're about to open a photo of some dude doing something both impressive and awful with his reproductive organs … even if there’s only like, a 50 percent chance you might stumble upon a picture of some dude doing something both impressive and awful with his reproductive organs … whether or not you're even looking for some dude who can do something both impressive and awful with his reproductive organs.

OK. That's hyperbole. You should be ready, is all. 

Meanwhile, shocking seniors new to Twitter isn’t much of a discussion. The older generation was far more adept at spreading the filth. Think about it. Gramps never had the luxury of a porn machine at his fingertips (i.e. a computer connected to the Internet). Back then, it was Tijuana Bibles and dodging Senator Estes Kefauver’s anti-pornography investigators.

At any rate, porn on Twitter won’t enjoy even the half life it had in the early days of search engines, back before the spiders got smart enough to avoid the naughty stuff with misleading keywords. Remember when an innocent search for “home hardware” returned something you could’ve gone your whole life without seeing … and would’ve been better for it?

At least on Twitter, you have to actually click a link that’s already suspect before you see something that’ll destroy your marriage. MySpace suffered serious spam damage because you got the garbage right on your profile, where it interfered with your dish. On Twitter, follower-followee communications are uni-directional. The great irony is that when a hooker/porn bot follows you, you're essentially spamming them until they unfollow you or get dumped from the site.

(Seriously y’all, don’t click the links!)

If the porn bots are still too close for comfort, Twitter is on it. Rainn “Dwight Schrute” Wilson jokes about his 800k porn bot followers. But like many users, he may have logged on to his account July 24 only to find his follower count somewhat-to-significantly less than the night before. That’s when Twitter took action against the growing army of spammers, nuking thousands of accounts, and possibly the egos of those who realized they weren’t nearly as popular as their previous follower count would have them believe.

Before culling the herd, Twitter posted an announcement on its site alerting users to the distinct possibility of follower shrinkage, “as we correct for spam accounts and data inconsistencies.”

That’s not to say you won’t log on to your Twitter account later today and the followers you gained overnight include a couple of suspiciously named gals whose profile pictures exhibit physical assets other than their faces. If you click on their profile pictures, you might discover a tiny URL invite to check out videos of oh-so-much more … maybe even info on how you can meet up IRL. 

Much like the mighty cockroach destined to survive a nuclear holocaust (according to what, like every nuclear holocaust movie, ever), spam bots, porn or otherwise, always find a way in. Still, you may note they get dumped quicker than before.

Helen A.S. Popkin has made significant progress implementing tools for spam detection and removal on Facebook (if you want to friend her) and she's been engaging with others on Twitter.

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