Faster Forward: Talking to Twitter about spam, marketing, memory and more

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 1:38 PM

SAN FRANCISCO -- I wrapped up a busy day here Wednesday by stopping by Twitter's offices, all of two blocks from the stage occupied by Apple earlier at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

I wanted to ask the management about a few issues I've been curious about and -- on the theory that dot-com offices are always more interesting--to check out the premises. (I had to note my arrival on a certain social-media site, which meant I was Twittering about Twitter while at Twitter.)

The second rationale didn't play out: The privately-held company's sprawling, not-fully-occupied space in a nondescript office building did not betray any signs of dot-com exuberance like an iPad-controlled kegerator> Nor did it feature any gigantic representations of the Fail Whale, artist Yiying Lu's illustration that replaces Twitter's home page when the service is offline (and which has since inspired other social-media sites to come up with their own cute "sorry our site is down" placeholder graphics). There is, however, a nice gallery of Twitter-themed artwork in the lobby.

So that left my questions.

I had to ask about Twitter spam first, which has been an unavoidable component of the site for most of the time I've been using it and may be getting worse.

Spokeswoman Carolyn Penner labeled it an "incredibly low" percentage of the site's traffic, although it had increased recently before getting back under control (the site relies on users' clicking a "report for spam" link and its own analysis of traffic to identify offenders). I would agree that it's far less of a problem than in e-mail, but the surpassing idiocy of some Twitter spam can get grating. What's your sense of the scope of this problem?

I also had to ask about Twitter's advertising initiatives, which began with its launch of a "promoted tweets" feature last April.

Penner's colleague Matt Graves said those advertiser-sponsored tweets were yielding an "engagement ratio"--defined as people clicking on them, replying to them or retweeting them--of 3 to 5 percent. If that doesn't sound like much, it's outstanding compared to the .3 percent click-through ratio a banner ad might get. But will the novelty have worn off in a year?

Twitter also lets advertisers buy promoted trends and promoted accounts.

Twitter apps made up a third category of questions. Penner said that the company has reinstated the UberMedia apps it had blocked two weeks ago--but its iPhone UberCurrent and UberSocial apps have yet to reappear in Apple's App Store.

Web services that connect to Twitter have also caused problems--for instance, by automatically posting content on a user's behalf, as is the case with Apple's iTunes Ping. Penner and Graves didn't sound too worked up about that but did object to particularly viral Web apps that put their "this will post automatically on your behalf" warning in tiny print at the bottom of a page.

Penner and Graves ducked questions about Twitter's priorities in writing apps for smartphone platforms (it now supports Apple's iOS, Google's Android, Research In Motion's BlackBerry and Microsoft's Windows Phone 7). And while there's a Twitter for Mac OS X, courtesy of the company buying the Mac app Tweetie last spring, they wouldn't comment on the odds of a Windows counterpart arriving.

At some point, Twitter's apps may add filtering options. They may also (finally) synchronize your progress, so that opening Twitter on a smartphone doesn't scrolling up past tweets you saw on a laptop.

The feature I'd most like to see would be a full archive query, instead of the current, short-term search that can only peer seven or eight days into the past. Twitter's move to share its database with the Library of Congress has not yet yielded that resource. Graves would not go beyond saying "that may be something that's available in our future," while suggesting such alternative search options as My First Tweet.

That's not good enough in the long run. Tweets, just like Facebook status updates, have become the functional equivalent of a journal or a diary for many of us; researchers and memoirists, as well as the merely curious, will want to read through them. Twitter needs to offer that export option, just as Facebook did last year... provided it can do so without acquainting any more users with the Fail Whale.

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