Thanks to spammers, there are definitely some days that I do wonder whether I have the stamina to continue to engage in the "conversation" that is so much a part of social media. Take today... I get the standard email that someone has submitted a comment to the "Voice of VOIPSA" weblog and I need to moderate it. So I go and find that just in the last day there are 10 comments awaiting moderation... one of which is real and the other 9 are comment spam. And not just quick spam but rather these big giant link dumps that I have to scroll down through, hoping that I don't miss a "real" comment in all scrolling through the crap. VoV is a WordPress blog, so I do the quick "Mark all as spam" and then find the 1 that isn't and mark it for approval.
Now note that this is with the wonderful Akismet Spam protection module installed! In fact, Akismet helpfully tells me that there are 3,108 spam comments that it has caught since I hit "Delete all" just a couple of weeks ago. It tells me that 18,311 spam comments have been caught since we installed Akismet on the VoV blog sometime back in the fall.
A quick trip to Akismet's home page will show you this nice graphic to the right, along with a page with more stats. Now, of course, they are a vendor of blog comment/trackback spam prevention software, so naturally it is in their interest to show a high number of spam comments. (Just as it is in the interest of anti-virus vendors to talk about how many viruses are out there in the wild.) But whether or not their stats are indeed accurate and 94% of all comments are spam, I think we can all agree that it's a problem. As I wrote earlier, fellow VoIP blogger Alec Saunders wrote back in December about how spammers were outgunning him 275-to-1. Shel Holtz writes of having to deal with 100+ trackback spam messages each day. Any search of Technorati or Google for "trackback spam" will show you the many pages and articles that are talking about the issue. Even black hats are talking about the issue.
And the level of spam is definitely changing the openness and speed of the conversation. As I noted, Voice of VOIPSA is using both Akismet and moderation. On TypePad, I've implemented CAPTCHAs to reduce automated blog comment spam, and it's seemed to work okay, although occasionally one gets through. I've also moderated trackbacks... which is fine, but does obviously introduce latency in the conversation and requires more work for me. Shel Holtz can't moderate trackbacks on his platform, so he's turned them off completely: "Farewell, trackbacks; screw you, spammers". He's not alone as I know of others doing the same. I've seen some bloggers turn off comments completely.
I don't blame them. Who has the time to deal with sorting through all the junk? And if you don't moderate or somehow deal with the issue, who wants their blog to turn into a pure spam site? And each time someone turns off trackbacks or comments, the global "conversation" of which we are all a part dies a little bit more. Even turning on moderation huts the conversation... others don't see comments quickly and can't reply to those comments - and it's more work for the blog author. I submitted a comment to a blog last week and because it said comments were moderated, I knew I wouldn't see my comment right away, but when it never appeared I contacted the author and found out the comment never showed up in his moderation queue! It was a software error, apparently, but I had no way to check. Now, almost a week later, is my comment even still relevant? Do I really have the time to go post it again?
What's the solution? It's not entirely clear to me. Part of the solution is obviously back-end tools like Akismet and the other similar services. Part of it may be the CAPTCHA tools that we use (although that's really a bit of an arms race against spammers developing tools to overcome the CAPTCHAs... such tools are out there with varying levels of effectiveness). Part of it may be identity assertion - things like TypeKey or OpenID (although note that there is nothing preventing spammers from creating OpenIDs). Part of it may involve a retreat into gated "communities", i.e. you have to register and be approved by the blog author before commenting (some sites do this now) or be added to the authors known and trusted "friends" list. I could, if I chose, do this on my LiveJournal blog right now and restrict comments to only my LiveJournal "friends".
But each one of those solutions throw up barriers and potentially diminish the openness of the conversation. What about the comments from random readers that sometimes can lead you to other very interesting topics? (Or might simply make your day in their praise?) If everyone must be registered or moderated, how "real-time" can the conversation be? (unless it is within the walls of trusted users?)
Will spam kill the "conversation" of social media just as that medium emerges so strongly? Or will we find the ways or create the tools to allow the conversation to continue?