One of Twitter’s most compelling features is its “Trending Topics,” a list of the ten most popular terms in global tweets and updated on the fly.
Users can see at a glance the zeitgeist of the day and join in the conversation. Participating is made easier by the use of hashtags. The user places a hash in front of the word, which allows the terms to be readily searched.
Twitter seems not to censor such use, so from time to time, we see quite strange, if not offensive (or NSFW), topics rise to the top ten.
A recent meme rising to the top was #crapnamesforpubs. Users came up with names for pubs (real or imaginary) that they thought were crap. A search for the tag then allows the user to see other contributions.
Hashtags have a real practical use. I tweeted several items about a presentation by James Protzman, who used the metaphor “turn the telescope” to illustrate how to switch perspectives in developing messaging for clients. I used #turntelescope to allow me and colleagues to easily find the accumulated tweets. The tweets serve as a record of the meeting.
But some users have found a more insidious way to take advantage of hashtags, and Trending Topics in particular. There appear to be three main ways to game the hashtag system.
1. Create an account and spam all tweets with the hashtag
Yesterday, #twatlight climbed into top ten. (No, I don’t know what it means.) While a number of different users had used the hashtag, one user created an account @twatlightforeva and posted 140 character tweets comprising nothing but the hashtag. It seems this users purpose was simply to flame the Twitter timeline.
Other users spammed the hashtag on individual tweets, presumably to boost the topic to the top of the list.
2. Post a commercial tweet and add the hashtag
Another interesting (and perhaps more insidious abuse) was the use of the hashtags to post commercial spam tweets (sweets? speets?) unrelated to #twatlight. These users are exploiting the popularity of the hashtag to post their own message. Given the low cost of the tactic and the high number of eyeballs, such an approach may be worthwhile for spammers.
This may become a pervasive abuse. Just today, the top trending topic #whyitweet was soon spammed by someone trying to promote an iPhone lottery.
3. Phishing for confidential information
Another exploit is to use a hashtag game to get information that would not otherwise be disclosed. The “porn name” game (#twitterpornname) asked users to take the name of their pet and mother’s maiden name and combine them to create their “porn name.” Articles in PC World and elsewhere warned that such information was phishing for terms users might use for secure site passwords.