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'Why are you ruining Twitter?'

A talk with the creator of Spymaster, which sends out silly game progress notes on behalf of its users. Plus: How to block the notes.

I told Webware writer Josh Lowensohn that I was being pitched to talk to the guy behind the Twitter game Spymaster, and his first reaction was, "Ask him, 'Why are you ruining Twitter?'" It's suitably belligerent question given the violent Twitter postings that the new game is generating. Reminiscent of the Vampires and the Zombies social role-playing games that were big on Facebook last year, Spymaster rewards you for building an army of followers on Twitter, and makes it too easy to spam Twitter with your actions. When you "assassinate" a competitor, or perform other in-game activities, Spymaster sends out a Twitter notification if your account is configured to do so (which it is by default).

Chris Abad, CEO of iList, which built Spymaster as a side project, says, "We're not encouraging people to spam Twitter." He reminds me that when you sign up for the game, it gives you "a granular ability to tweet out or not" your activities in it. There is a small in-game recurring reward to sending out Twitter notifications, although Abad says it's "insignificant" compared with the rewards you get for doing other things, like recruiting members and achieving objectives. But that's why those notes are out there.

Tip No. 1: There are Twitter tools that can filter out tweets that contain the #Spymaster hashtag: Tweetdeck, Destroy Twitter, Twitterific, Peoplebrowsr, and other Twitter clients have an "exclude" filter. Twitter.com does not, unfortunately.

Tip No. 2: You can also go to the Spymaster opt-out page to prevent yourself from getting invited to the game at all. You may get invitations to the game via direct messages to your Twitter account if you don't. The best bet, if you don't want to participate in this system in any way, is to user both tips: use a client that blocks those spammy updates you're getting, and opt out of getting the game's invitations.

Spymaster default: Tweet your in-game activities. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

I tried the game, and I don't see the appeal. But then, I never got into the slot-machine battle style of Zombies either. I have more interesting battles to fight, thank you.

When I talked to Abad, he was clearly focused on making the game more fun. In particular, he's aware that the big Facebook games got monotonous as players reached the higher levels, so he's trying to make the game more fun and collaborative as players progress through it.

He doesn't know, yet, how this virus will make money. "There's an opportunity here," Abad believes, but he doesn't appear to have an idea of where exactly the opportunity lies.

Beyond murder

One company that has used Twitter's viral capability to drive actual business is HootSuite, which, during the Twittercon conference over the weekend, told audience members that the first 100 people who visited a certain URL could could get access to the private beta of HootSuite 2.0. The instructons on that page told people to retweet a message ("@hootsuite HootSuite 2.0: Get More Twitter Tabs, Columns and Stats [100 FREE Invites] #twtrcon") to get their prize. Unfortunately, far more than 100 people retweeted that message, and the message took on a life of its own in the retweetosphere. For a few hours the ad swamped the Twitter stream of people who were trying to follow the conference by tracking the #twtrcon hashtag.

I had lunch with reps from HootSuite, who recognized that their little marketing stunt had gotten away from them. They were suitably cowed and promised never to do this again. Ironically, HootSuite is a tool for marketing and PR pros to help them track what people are saying about their company on Twitter. It looks like a good app. But spam is no way to build business relationships.

There are going to be more Twitter spam problems in coming months. From games like Spymaster that ask players to recruit their friends, to give-aways like HootSuite's that reward people for sending out messages, to just plain blanket spams from clueless marketers, spam is about to get much worse on Twitter. As I wrote previously, there are some people trying to do something about it. Loic LeMeur says he's building an antispam database for Twitter. And, as I said, several Twitter clients currently have rudimentary controls for filtering out specific messages. Future releases will probably get more sophisticated. Chances are also good that someone will combine a Twitter client with a proxy service to manage and spam-filter Twitter accounts for customers.

Spam is, sadly, a solid and proven monetization engine for almost every electronic communication system. That's doubly true when there's no cost to transmit a message, and triply so when you can get a system's users to do the dirty work for you. Spam makes money. Fighting it can be profitable, too. Welcome to the one of the best ways to make money on Twitter.