What's a tweet worth?
One of the successful aspects of Twitter is its API and the healthy third-party 'value-add' application environment that has grown up around it. This environment has seen the development not just of new clients but of all sorts of weird and wonderful, serious and trivial, applications for enhancing your Twitter experience.
In the good old days, third-party applications gave you the option of tweeting your followers about how wonderful you thought their shiny new application was. The use of such an option was typically left to your discretion and no incentives were given to encourage you to do so - other than that you thought the information might be useful to those around you. Such an approach kind of worked when we all had relatively low numbers of followers and there were relatively few apps.
More recently I've noticed a new 'business model' emerging on Twitter which can be summed up as, "spam all your followers with a single tweet about us and we'll reward you in some way". The rewards vary but might include a free entry into a prize draw, or money off the full subscription rate for the application in question.
Unfortunately, in a twitterverse where lots of people follow lots of other people, every person's "single tweet" quickly turns into a "deluge of tweets" for those people who follow a reasonably large number of other twitterers.
One recent example of this (in my Twitter stream at least) was people's use of the #moonfruit hashtag in order to enter into a prize draw for a Macbook, leading to a collective series of tweets that quickly became very annoying.
More recently I've noticed a similar thing, though so far much less widespread, arising from the BackupMyTweets service. This service is somewhat more interesting than the Moonfuit example. For a start, it isn't as mainstream as Moonfruit (I don't suppose that most people give two hoots about whether their tweets are backed-up or not!) and therefore hasn't given rise to the same level of problem. Conversely, being more academic in nature notionally gives people a more credible reason to tweet about it.
The trouble is... BackupMyTweets is offering one year's free subscription to their service if you send one tweet about them (and they offer a facility to make doing so very easy with a stock set of phrases about how useful they are). One year's free service is worth (US)$10 so that's quite an incentive.
However, users of this facility (and others like it) need to remember that the real cost of tweeting about it (even if that tweet is intended genuinely) lies in the trust people place in their future tweets. If I know that someone is willing to tweet about how good something is just because they are getting paid to do so, what does that tell me about their future recommendations?
Does one such tweet have any impact on someone's credibility? No, of course not. But if there is a trend towards this kind of thing (as I suspect there is) then it will become more of an issue. This is particularly true where it is a more 'corporate' Twitter account sending the tweet (as, for example, the Institutional Web Management Workshop Twitter account did yesterday). People follow such accounts on the basis that they want to keep up to date with an event or organisation - they don't want to see them used to send spam about other people's tools and services.
Assuming this trend continues I guess we'll soon start to see the addition of a 'block more tweets like this' button in Twitter clients, followed (presumably) by some kind of Twitter equivalent of RBL? Maybe I'm making a mountain out of a molehill here, though people probably thought the same in the early days of email spam? Remember, the only reason these kinds of approaches work is because we so easily fall into the trap of using them. The problem is ours and can be fixed by us.