For members of Open Salon, probably the most irritating part of the "OS experience" is the amount of spam, especially during the evenings and weekends. In addition to being unwanted, intrusive, and sometimes downright stupid, spam also has other negative aspects. It clutters the database of posts, making searches for good posts more difficult. Spam comments clutter individual posts, sometimes to the point that discussions of the actual post are disrupted. Spam can also contribute to the slowness of the site.
Since many readers rely on the "Activity Feed" and "New Posts" queues, spam comments, spam posts and new spam membership announcements add to the volume of activity, thus allowing less visibility for legitimate posts. I think anyone who has posted on OS has had the frustration of seeing his or her posts fly through the activity and new post queues, propelled by a wave of spam. Probably the main reason people sign up on OS is because, unlike most other blogging sites, on OS their posts can actually be read. As spam steals attention and visibility from the legitimate posts, it directly undermines the reason why people sign up in the first place. In that regard spam is an attack on the OS community as a whole.
So when I was offered the opportunity to be one of a few "spam cops," I immediately accepted. Stated simply, being a spam cop means having access to utilities by which spam posts and entire accounts can be deleted.
Since becoming a spam cop, most of my time on OS has been spent deleting spam accounts. Having spent probably a couple hundred hours deleting spam and closely observing the practices and strategies of spammers, what follows are my personal reflections on the current state of spam on OS.
First, whatever you think about spam, however irritated you might because of it, it is probably worse than you think, probably much worse.
Spam comes in many forms, some of them not easily recognizable as spam, and the sheer volume of it not comprehensible unless you look for it. For example, everyone knows that there are spam posts, and the "watch live streaming video" posts are easily recognizable. But the way the activity queues work, you'll typically see only one post per account. In fact, spammers typically have 3 to 5 of such spam posts per account, and I have seen as many as 25 spam posts generated from the same account in only a few minutes. Unlike the manual tools available to the few spam cops, It's obvious that spammers are using programs or automated scripts. Thus the spam posts that you see flowing through the queues are only the tip of the iceberg.
Everyone can also easily recognize spam comments. But spammers have come to understand that obvious spam comments and spam on cover posts is usually deleted. So they go to the older posts where spam will be less noticed. There are some older posts that literally have 200 or 300 spam comments. And just like the spam posts, these spam comments occupy time and space in the activity queue.
And then there are the odd academic, business, or scientific posts, some of which appear to be made up of random phrases. You won't see any spam in the bodies of these posts, but if you look at the html source code you'll find concealed there a large number of spam links. And like the other kinds of spam posts, each account typically generates more than one of these posts, even though you'll see only one in in the activity queues.
Another kind of spam is what I call the spam link account. These accounts generate no posts or comments. Instead, the spam consists of spam links in the Links section of the main blog page. Since they have no posts or comments, these accounts can be difficult to identify; some members do not even know that such accounts exist.
In fact there are thousands of them, perhaps even tens of thousands. Just as one example -- do a search on the phrase "Interesado en" (Spanish for "interested in). You will find over 6,300 (yes, six thousand three hundred) spam accounts. On February 15 I did the same search, and there were around 5,700 accounts. This means that in the intervening 22 days 600 new spam accounts of this type were created, or around 27 per day. Keep in mind that this is just one type of spam, quite likely created by a single spammer.
When a spam cop observes a spam post, comment, or link account, he or she can delete the account using a special utility. Without going into detail, in my experience a spam cop can only delete an average of 2 accounts per minute. This means that even if a spam cop wanted to clean up the old spam, it would be almost impossible to do so. For example, for a spam cop to clean up the 6,300 "interesado en" accounts would require several weeks of work, 8 hours a day, on his or her own time for free.
Also, the way the queues work on OS, when a spam post is deleted, the post announcement continues to travel through the activity and new post queues. Unless you click on the post you won't know that it was even deleted. Thus even deleted spam posts continue to steal attention from legitimate posts.
Another problem is that spammers work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When there are no spam cops logged in, no one is deleting spam (unless someone in OS management decides to delete some. As far as I know most of them do not work during the evenings or weekends).
And finally, as I mentioned earlier, many spam accounts are difficult to identify. In particular, there is no reliable way to identify the spam link accounts, and their "new post" announcements typically clutter the activity queue with impunity.
My best estimate is that around 80 percent of all posts on OS are spam posts. As I mentioned before, you won't see all of these in the queue; in fact, you'll see only the tip of the iceberg. But the spam is there nonetheless.
Also, my best estimate is that around 95 percent of all new accounts are spam accounts. These include spam post accounts, spam comment accounts, and spam link accounts.
People typically think that Open Salon is a blogging site with a spam problem. It is more accurate to say that Open Salon is a spam site that also includes blogs.
The "spam cop" concept was a good idea, but, I believe, is inadequate to the task. We can neither handle the volume of new spam nor clean up more than a tiny fraction of the old spam.
One way to control spam would be to make it financially infeasible. This could be done by charging a small account setup fee, perhaps just $5. This would be prohibitive to spammers, but would be a tiny expense for legitimate new members.
Another way to control spam would be to moderate all new accounts. In this scenario, no new account would be visible until it published a post or comment, and the post or comment were approved. "Approved" here means being verified that it was not spam. This solution would not be perfect; a devoted spammer could make a legitimate post or comment and then follow up with spam. But it would take time to do that, and no doubt would discourage many spammers. It would also mean that legitimate members would have to wait some period of time before their contributions became visible.
The way things currently work, as soon as a spammer creates an account, he or she can generate a high volume of spam, and with no active spam cop there is nothing to prevent that. In addition, a spammer can create one account, 10 accounts, or 6,300 accounts, and it is quite possible that these accounts will be neither detected nor deleted.
Another possible solution would be to provide spam cops with better, more automated tools and reports. I think this is not a very good solution as it does nothing to address the conditions that permit a high volume of spam in the first place. But currently, spam cops are using a manual tool to combat spam that is being created by automated tools. Spam cops simply do not have the "firepower" that would allow them to be competitive with the spammers.
It would also be very helpful if deleted spam posts would disappear from the queues. Currently, when a spam post is published the damage is already done, even if it's deleted.
At various times I have presented these solutions to OS management, but so far have not received a response, either positive or negative.
What You Can Do
If you believe that OS should address the spam problem more forcefully, you might want to contact them to them to let them know your feelings. You may also have ideas for controlling spam that are better than the ones I have presented here. Though my suggestions have not yet moved forward, they have been politely received, and further feedback to OS management on the topic may inspire them to work faster to create a venue that is largely spam-free.
Thanks for reading, and I look forward to your comments.