On Monday June 14, 2010 at the Hilton New York there was a one-day conference on the business opportunities related to the use of the popular social-media application Twitter. The organizers of the conference set up a twitter account and published a hashtag #TWTRCON to encourage realtime collaboration and discussion about the conference topics. The conference had a large-screen projection of the live stream of twitter messages that contained the hashtag. At about 12PM, NASA public affairs specialist Stephanie Schierholz took to the stage to discuss her organization’s use of social media. As the presentation began, a stream of messages using the #TWTRCON hashtag were displayed with content unrelated to the conference topics. Within minutes the stream contained hundreds of message-tweets protesting NASA’s primate experiments. These messages were posted to Twitter by a coalition of animal rights defenders, and seriously damaged the utility of the hashtag and the associated channel to both conference attendees and those interested users following at a distance.
The problem of hashtag hijacking was first reported in mid-2009 as unrelated promotional messages (for example, from HabitatUK) were using trending topics and hashtags associated with the news on the presidential elections in Iran. In recent national events (e.g., the Bonnaroo Music Festival, June 10-14) and international events (such as the 2010 FIFA WORLD CUP June and July 2010), we have noted substantial problems with hashtag hijacking (e.g., 20% of all messages in the case of #Bonnaroo).
A more subtle problem exists in the unwanted commercial messages increasingly appearing in the feeds of people who are widely respected and influential broadcasters. Consider the case of Tim O’Reilly who is an influential Twitter user, broadcasting daily messages on topics related to computing technologies. O’Reilly is CEO of a media company, and his knowledge and insights have built a following of nearly 1.5 million users. However, his feed contains a significant fraction of commercial messages related to his media company, often advertising “DEAL OF THE DAY” and including coupon codes. In addition, online advertising companies (e.g., Ad.ly) are actively recruiting influential users of Twitter, such as O’Reilly, to insert commercial messages into their feeds.
For many users this increasing use of twitter as a platform for commercial, unwanted messages significantly impairs the social media experience. The examples of Twitter trash above indicate that social media users need new tools to keep their feeds free of unwanted and unneeded messages.