Thinking Systemically About the Impending Death of Twitter Auto-DMs


Well, I made it official today. I threw in the towel and turned off my auto-welcome DMs (direct messages) I had set up using TweetLater. I’ve had a lot to say on the subject of auto-DMs, and I’ll sum it all up in another post at some point. But for now, I just want to lament the fact that it’s not the general principle of auto-DMs that is bringing about their demise, but the abuse of them by so many people.

Despite the mainstreaming of social media, it’s obvious a lot of people still don’t get it. It’s not for lack of trying. For example, here’s the advice TweetLater gives on their site about auto-DMs:

Best Practise: The message should not be about you, it should be about your follower and your future interaction with your follower.

Write a very simple welcome message. If you really want folks to unfollow you, then try and sell them something with this first welcome message. Very few people like that. Be careful even if you’re giving away something for free. The purpose of this message is to say hello and welcome. Most people take a dim view of you when you do any kind of self-promotion with this message. If your message smells remotely like, "Hi, thanks for the follow, now buy my stuff or do something that will benefit me or check out how cool I am," then you really are misusing this welcome message. Don’t send what you wouldn’t like to receive from others.

SocialToo had similar advice on their service. But despite their best efforts, it was abused. SocialToo made the move today to end their auto-DM service. For all you anti-auto-DM fanatics, read Jesse’s post closely. It’s clear he’s not happy about having to end the service – in fact, it’s why he started SocialToo:

For Twitter, as my followers grew, I wanted to show the gesture of at least following those people back that were showing interest in me. It was the least I could do, even if I could not pay attention to each and every one. (We’re working on that second problem)

I began by manually following those that followed me, and when my numbers were still small I would even message them, some times privately, some times publicly to thank them for their interest in me. This became a repetitive process for me, and therefore I wrote a script, and eventually an entire service which became, around this.

This is exactly why I’ve said before that auto-DMs are not necessarily inauthentic. That’s not the issue – it’s that people abused it. Classic Tragedy of the Commons:

“a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared limited resource even where it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen.” (Wikipedia)

In this case, the shared limited resource is the collective attention and goodwill of the community. And a bunch of people “acting independently in their own self-interest” abused the system:

Based on my statistics, while a small percent of you are using auto-DMs for legitimate business reasons (for instance, sending instructions to followers if you are doing an online promotion that includes following the Twitter user as part of the promotion), over one-third of you sending automated DMs have some sort of URL in your message to followers. The remaining majority is just sending simple thank you’s, which while I think are truly genuine, are now being ignored by most people that receive them. (SocialToo)

C’est la vie. Thing is, ending auto-DMs is a band-aid. The real problem – people not understanding the right time and place to promote themselves – remains the same. We’ve taken away a tool, not addressed the real issue. Another classic system archetype: Shifting the Burden. Where will it pop up next?