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Twitter's Forced-Follow Flaw Fix Purges Users' Fan Files

Twitter's Forced-Follow Flaw Fix Purges Users' Fan Files

A Twitter flaw surfaced last weekend in which users could force other users to follow their feeds. Twitter tackled the bug quickly; however, in so doing, it apparently emptied the follower lists of some users, a few of whom had millions of followers. "Maintaining a real-time site is like changing the engine in your car when you're going down the freeway at 60 miles an hour," said analyst Carl Howe.

By Richard Adhikari
05/11/10 11:59 AM PT

Twitter has stomped out a bug that for a brief period allowed users to force other users to follow them on the microblogging site. In eliminating the glitch, however, Twitter emptied out some users' list of followers entirely.

"Like other social networks, Twitter was originally designed to serve a pretty small community, and when it grew so big, funny things were bound to happen," Yankee Group analyst Carl Howe told TechNewsWorld.

Twitter's real-time nature exacerbates the problem. "Maintaining a real-time site is like changing the engine in your car when you're going down the freeway at 60 miles an hour," Howe explained.

You Will Be My Friend

The bug, which struck over the weekend, let users unilaterally decide to add anyone they wanted as followers. This was a reversal of Twitter's normal approach, in which the decision to "follow" someone -- to see that person's tweets as they're posted -- is left up to the follower, not the followee. In some cases the person being followed may need to also grant permission.

Twitter on Monday announced that it had resolved the problem. However, it was rolling out the solution in stages, so users who were still being forced to follow others unwillingly had to block or unfollow them, it said.

In addition, the solution deleted some Twitter users' followers. Several celebrities, including Ashton Kuchter, Demi Moore and teen star Justin Bieber, complained about losing their followers.

"Twitter is being hacked by some Turkish hacker," Kuchter wrote on the microblogging site. "Haha I have 0 followers. Whew! There's an update from Twitter, 'Missing relationships are being restored'."

"Hackers, I send a warning -- U have now p**ssed off over two million teenage girls. They are more dangerous than Navy Seals," Bieber wrote.

Twitter's Woes

The "follow" bug that surfaced over the weekend was the third problem to hit Twitter in less than two weeks. On April 26, outbound emails were delayed for up to five hours. However, no tweets were lost.

"Twitter is one of the more fragile of the social networks, because it was originally designed to do a set of things and do them very well, and it's morphed into this giant website and so had to go through a lot of changes," Howe, who's director of anywhere consumer research at the Yankee Group, pointed out.

The forced following flaw was probably caused by a programmer taking "a couple of shortcuts" before implementing Twitter's "accept" feature, which governs followers, Howe said. Here's how "accept" feature is supposed to work: If you want to follow someone you admire on Twitter, find his or her page and click "follow." If your idol has certain privacy restrictions implemented, he or she must first grant permission; otherwise, you are now one of that person's Twitter followers.

However, the real-time nature of sites like Twitter sometimes obligates admins to take shortcuts because service needs to be restored as quickly as possible after a problem surfaces.

"Always-on, real-time sites are a maintenance nightmare because most of the problems occur under load when millions of people use them; most of them occur in funny ways when millions of people use them; and you can't bring them down for maintenance," Howe said.

Twitter cofounder Biz Stone did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Dominance Is Good

On the other hand, although users may be voluble in their complaints, they have little recourse.

"Any interruption in service is problematic, but there's no rival service out there to Facebook or Twitter," Josh Martin, a senior analyst at Strategy Analytics, told TechNewsWorld. "Occasional hiccups in service are expected in the Web 2.0 world."

Still, putting a little thought beforehand into planning might alleviate some of the problems Twitter and other social networking sites are facing, Yankee Group's Howe said.

"All the things we tend to do in the real world, like making sure we know who we're talking to and making sure we know they are who they think they are, should be implemented in the online world," he added.

"In the electronic world, people never seem to think that others might use technology outside their use case," he concluded. "They need to think out of the box."


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