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Valley Girl

Is Twitter Pimping Porn to Family Users?

Back in March, I wrote a column about how Twitter is a closer competitor to Facebook than MySpace is. Twitter and Facebook are more utility than media sites, I argued. But lately, Twitter has begun displaying some troubling similarities to MySpace—and that should be a red flag for the growing company.

What I am talking about, in a word, is hookers. Over a four-day span in mid-August my husband got 43 new "followers" whose profile pages depicted naked or scantily clad women. My sister-in-law works for a radio station in San Jose. Recently she posted a tweet telling listeners how they could win tickets to an event being held next door to a Starbucks (SBUX). Instantly she got an "@-message" saying: "Here's how I make my chai latte at home." When she clicked on the link, let's just say it didn't show your typical barista's chai latte-making method.

Meanwhile, my mother-in-law—who would never consider using most social networking sites—recently began testing the Twitter waters. She was delighted to see some people adding her, but horrified when she clicked through to profiles littered with tiled pictures of naked bodies. "I felt so violated," she gasped over a recent family dinner. "What did I do to make them target me?"

It's not you. Really. Blame it on Ashton Kutcher. He was one of the earliest and most visible celebrities to seize on Twitter as a way to lure fans and drive traffic. And in social media, where mainstream celebs go, D-listers and sex peddlers follow. Many of my friends fled MySpace for Facebook early on because they were sick of come-ons from "Caroline" or "Tammy," asking them if they wanted to party.

Facebook Forces Newbies to Be Real The phenomenon is particularly troubling on Twitter. Much of the site's growth is not being driven by teens and young people, who have a built-up resistance to these images. Twitter is attracting an older crowd that's far more likely to be shocked or offended.

Facebook isn't immune, of course. But the site has taken some important steps to keep its users from receiving lascivious spam. At the outset, the site was open solely to college students, and it only gradually opened up to such other demographics as people affiliated with high schools, companies, and locations. Now anyone can join, but Facebook still insists they be real people. That weeds out a lot of thinly veiled profiles for erotic sites and escort services. Twitter's not quite so discriminating.

What's also objectionable about the new rash of Twitter spam is that it's so clumsy; a company as well funded as Twitter—it has raised $55 million—should find such garbage easy to catch. My husband's 43 new "followers" all used one or the other of the same two pictures and all had the same cooing message on their Twitter page: "Hey, wanna see me naked on a webcam and have a dirty chat : ) Add me on MSN. We can have some naughty fun. ;) xo xo."

Judging from the list of others they were following, these spammers were clearly adding huge groups of Twitter users alphabetically, by last name—another glaring red flag of spam behavior. My sister-in-law's "new follower" didn't even have a real name. We're not suffering at the hands of viral-marketing geniuses here.

Does Twitter Wish to Encourage Porn? Making matters worse is that reporting spam on Twitter is way too cumbersome a process. While Twitter features a "block" or "message" on a person's profile, it doesn't offer a "report spam" button. You have to follow an account called "spam," and then copy the URL and send a direct message to that account with the complaint. My husband did this for "Keri" and "Kelli" and "Jasmine" and their 40 doppelgangers, and each account got suspended. Great. But many users won't figure out how to report the names—or go to the trouble. If it takes the same number of steps to flag a spamming account as it takes to create one, users will never win the battle. There's no reason why Twitter shouldn't be catching spam, or at least making it easier to report.

Unless, of course, Twitter wants to be the new MySpace (NWS). After all, a lot of that site's early growth came from call girls, strippers, and purveyors of porn. Tila Tequila, who has been pictured in Playboy, Penthouse, and other publications, even got an MTV show out of MySpace. She was its first power user with 1 million friends. If Twitter wants growth for the sake of growth, porn will do that.

But knowing the founders, my guess is that the site doesn't want that kind of success. Lewd content helped hobble MySpace's advertising efforts.

T&A Will Scare Off Family Twitterers In the past, Twitter has taken a hands-off "live and let live" approach to the content traded over its platform. Craigslist famously favors a similar ethos, but even that site constantly cracks down on spam and solicitation. I'm all for tolerance, but if you want to run a mainstream site, you need an online equivalent of "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Service."

After all, its mainstream nature is what has been so remarkable about Twitter. The site has achieved something unique in the social networking world: Families, mothers, and grandmothers are comfortable using it to stay in touch with each other and the world around them. People who would never use MySpace or Digg or even Yelp are joining Twitter.

Many are like my mother-in-law. They have a few followers and are slowly getting comfortable about sharing information about themselves. They don't have the built-in tolerance for these kinds of shocking images that the MySpace generation does. And sadly for Twitter, they'll be quick to drop the site if it becomes more about T&A than tweets.

Lacy has been a business reporter for 10 years and is currently writing a book on global entrepreneurship. Her first book, Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0, was published by Gotham Books in May 2008. She also blogs for TechCrunch.

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