Twitter just gave us the most accurate guess to date at how many of its active users aren't users at all. As Zach Seward of Quartz notes, Twitter's latest filing of Form 10-Q (a financial document comparing year-over-year performance) estimates that a whopping 8.5 percent of active Twitter accounts are bots. That's more than 20 million active users tweeting away with no one behind the wheel.
@glentickle Alright, Twitter. I'm closing you. What? Why? No thank you, Internet. You're the john and the a kid.— tofu (@tofu_product) October 9, 2013
Twitter's loose take on user identity makes it a natural playground for bots of all stripes. While most users have only one Facebook or Instagram account, creating and managing multiple Twitter accounts is quick and painless, demanding only an additional email address. These accounts aren't all tied into any kind of central identity, so tracking them proves impossible—a boon for Twitter's official active user count.
According to the SEC filing:
... approximately 11% of all active users solely used third-party applications to access Twitter. However, only up to approximately 8.5% of all active users used third party applications that may have automatically contacted our servers for regular updates without any discernable additional user-initiated action. The calculations of MAUs presented in this Quarterly Report on Form 10-Q may be affected as a result of automated activity.
Still, not all bots are created equal. Any automated Twitter account can be called a bot, but they offer a huge range of content and quality, from rote erectile dysfunction spam to some of the most oddly poetic accounts to ever grace the social network. Thanks to Twitter's uniquely lax stance on botting, creative forms of spam can thrive on Twitter until the axe falls. We reached out to Twitter about its plans to address the bot uprising, but have yet to hear back.
Beyond simple @ replies fishing for quick traffic or hawking questionable Viagra, creating and selling fake followers is one of the more lucrative, large-scale flavors of Twitter botting. Some bots are automated services that actually tweet out interesting, random information, like this prime number bot that tweets "Every prime number, eventually. (Or the heat death of the universe; whichever happens first.)"
76231— Prime Numbers (@_primes_) August 12, 2014
But some of the best bots have no point at all. (Or do they?)
The sea struck up its song with a deep, calm solemnity. The souls of the dead came forth to hold me in their comforting embrace. Yacht life.— KimKierkegaardashian (@KimKierkegaard) June 22, 2014
Just about anyone can make their own bot. Everyone should have one, really.
Nice buzzfeed profile on the rocks but sometimes its hard to tell with him.— TaylorBot5000 (@taylorcatmaker) August 4, 2014
Non-sentient Twitter accounts, both the profitable and delightful sort, are booming. Cracking down on them would prove not only difficult in practical terms, but a threat to what makes Twitter so strange and serendipitous. Bots, all 23 million of them, are the service's erratically beating heart. We hope it beats on, one bizarre 140-character outburst at a time.