It’s kind of rare that I interrupt the stream of articles on this blog about historical events, analyses of movies and geographic anomalies to talk about social media, but it seems an opportune time to do so. In this article I’m going to make a simple, blunt and direct appeal to users of Twitter, especially authors, bands, artists or others who use their Twitter accounts to promote a creative project. The argument is this: stop using automated direct messages (DM’s) to promote whatever it is you’re selling. Just stop doing it–across the board, with no exceptions. Just stop it. Please.
You know what I’m talking about. Let’s say you decide to follow an author on Twitter–let’s call him “Herman Melville” for short–and you click that big blue button. Moments later a DM notification appears. You click it and see Melville’s face staring at you, and a message to the effect of, “Thanks for the follow! Download my new book, Moby-Dick, here! [Amazon link].” You have never interacted with Melville, though you did decide to follow him for one reason or another. He may be a fine fellow and he probably is, but let’s be honest–doesn’t that spammy auto-DM sort of annoy you?
The simple truth is that the vast majority of people find DM’s extremely annoying, regardless of the reason for which people use them. One of my most “famous” articles on this blog is a polemic against the fulsome Twitter app known as TrueTwit, which deceptively hijacks a user’s account to send spam DM’s in the disingenuous guise of “fighting spam.” (I also wrote a follow-up article with more detail on TrueTwit’s practices). Although TrueTwit is the number one offender in the Twitter spam universe, it’s by no means the only one. In my opinion virtually all automated DM’s cross the line into spam. The hypothetical Melville example I posed above is, I readily concede, much less off-putting than a TrueTwit DM, but it’s still spam. Aren’t there better ways to promote your book, band, Kickstarter or Facebook page?
“Hi, thanks for following! Do you love verbose prose, nautical adventure and whaling references? Click here to read Moby-Dick!”
As long as we’re sharing simple truths, let’s hash this one over. Are promotional auto-DMs really effective? Actually, let’s scratch the word “really” from that sentence. Is there any evidence that they are effective at all? I’m a very early user of Twitter, and I’ve been on six years now. Never once in all of those six years have I ever clicked a link in an auto-DM to view someone’s book, band or Facebook page. Not even one time. Of the thousands of promo auto-DM’s I’ve received since 2009, not a single one of them has ever worked on me. I just ignore them, which is why my DM box (part of it appears in the header image to this article) is still clogged with every single one of those thousands of pieces of spam.
The problem comes when someone wants to send me a real DM, about something substantive, non-promotional–a DM that may actually pertain to something other than e-commerce. If someone does that, sometimes I may not pick it up for days because whenever I see the DM notification at the top of my screen I roll my eyes and think, “Oh, jeez, another spam message,” and I avoid clicking on my inbox to spare myself from looking at row after row of “thanks for following,” “buy my book” and “so-and-so uses TrueTwit” messages. That one out of 100 “real” DM is a tiny dot bobbing on a vast sea of unsolicited spam. Promo auto-DMs, for all intents and purposes, have vastly overwhelmed the legitimate uses of the direct message function. In my opinion direct message permission should be user-by-user–when you follow them you must specify whether it’s OK for them to be able to send you DMs.
Unfortunately Twitter doesn’t agree, and in fact they’re going in the exact opposite direction. Yesterday Twitter announced a new change in its service involving direct messages (DMs), which is why this article is timely. Formerly, Twitter users could only receive DMs from someone they follow and who follows them. As of yesterday, they’ve tweaked the system, so that you can receive a DM from any Twitter user regardless of following status. Right now–and I pray this never changes–the feature is only available by opt-in, meaning you have to set your account specifically to allow this. (Who would want to?) I fear this will only deepen the already nearly-bottomless ocean of spam through which Twitter users must swim in order to find real human connection.
This is what my DM inbox looks like. Now isn’t this just a little bit ridiculous?
Not to sound like a curmudgeon, but I think even the non-promotional “thanks for following me” (and nothing else) messages need to go too. Most of these messages come from some sort of Twitter follower management tool like unfollowers.com, but even these outfits have been pulling back on sending unauthorized or automated DMs as a price of using their services. You don’t need to thank me for following you. As of this writing I follow nearly 7,000 people, so me following someone isn’t exactly a rare occurrence which needs to be treated with reverence and awe. And regardless of your intentions, you’re still spamming me. Spam is not the act of a friend.
The change announced yesterday makes it quite clear that Twitter isn’t interested in cracking down on auto-DM’s. Thus, the change is going to have to be voluntary. So let me call be clear, unequivocal and unquestionable, and if you agree, spread the word (in a legitimate, non-spammy manner, of course). So here it is again.
Do not send auto-DM’s to anyone. Ever. For any reason. Under any circumstances. Just stop it. Now.