The following is a conversation about auto-DMs that I overheard last night in the land of make believe.

Demosthenes: Auto-DMs are the bane of Twitter. Every time I follow somebody new, I get a direct message that’s obviously automated. They clog up my direct message in-box.

Fluffy: What do the messages say?

Demosthenes: Some of them are like email spam — advertising some product. Others try to be funny. Some just say “thanks for following me”.

Fluffy: Hmm, the spammy one’s sound annoying, but the others don’t seem so bad.

Demosthenes: Yeah, but everybody knows they’re fake. Twitter is supposed to be about building personal relationships, not about using software to send fake messages.

Fluffy: Well, yeah, they’re not actually sent manually by the sender, but that doesn’t necessarily make them fake. Maybe you really do want to welcome each new follower and thank them for following you. What’s wrong with doing it automatically?

Demosthenes: People don’t want their in-boxes clogged up with hundreds of fake automated welcome messages. DMs are for real personal messages.

Fluffy: …hundreds? How many people are you following?

Demosthenes: 5,722

Fluffy: 5,722! Sheesh, no wonder your in-box is overflowing! How do you keep up with so many people’s tweets? It must be a full-time job!

Demosthenes: Oh, I don’t read all their tweets. I use TweetDeck to filter out all the people I’m not interested in.

Fluffy: …hang on. If you don’t want to read their tweets, why are you following them?

Demosthenes: On Twitter, it’s good manners to follow anyone who follows you. If they spam you, you can unfollow them, but you should start off by reciprocating.

Fluffy: But if you’re not going to read any of their tweets, what good does it do to follow them? All it does is pump up their follower count and create the illusion that somebody’s listening to them.

Demosthenes: First of all, it’s just good manners. Plus, if you’re following them, they can send you direct messages.

Fluffy: Oh, so you’re not using Twitter’s tweets, just the DMs.

Demosthenes: No, I tweet a lot. It’s a really effective way to communicate with people.

Fluffy: Yyyyyyeah, as long as they’re not following thousands of people and ignoring them too. I don’t really see how it’s good manners to follow people if you’re really just ignoring them.

Demosthenes: My followers can use something like TweetDeck to filter out the people whose tweets they don’t want to read. I focus on providing a lot of value in my tweets, and I get a good response every time I tweet, so either my followers aren’t following too many people to keep up with or I’ve earned a spot in their whitelists.

after a minute or two of silence

Fluffy: I’m having a little trouble wrapping my brain around this. It sounds like you’re partly using Twitter like a mailing list manager — getting a bunch of followers and sending broadcasts to them. And partly you’re using it like an email address with a blacklist that blocks messages from people who’ve spammed you before, but accepting messages from anybody you haven’t manually blocked. The only difference I see is that all the messages are 140 characters or less.

Demosthenes: Yeah, I guess you could describe it that way.

Fluffy: So why not just use a mail list and email? Unless you’re just so uninterested in what people have to say that you don’t want them to be able to send you messages longer than 140 characters.

Demosthenes: Look, on the internet, nobody cares about you. They only care about finding a solution to their own problems. People follow me because I help them solve their problems. If they can give me similar value, I’ll read their tweets.

Fluffy: But how do they get your attention so you’ll realize their tweets are worth reading? Do you read a few of each new follower’s tweets and decide whether they’re worth reading?

Demosthenes: They can use @ messages to reply to me if they want to catch my attention.

Fluffy: You don’t have to be following someone to reply to their tweets, right?

Demosthenes: Right.

Fluffy: What about using direct messages to reply to you?

Demosthenes: DMs are for friends and personal acquaintances. People who’re trying to build a relationship should use replies, not clog up you in-box.

Fluffy: Now you’re not making any sense. You follow people who follow you so that they can DM you, but you say they shouldn’t DM you unless they’re already a personal acquaintance. They don’t have to follow you to reply to your tweets. So really, there’s no point at all in your following them. You started off complaining about how auto-DMs are fake because they’re not personalized messages sent manually to each person, but when you “follow” people, you’re even more fake than some people’s auto-DMs. When you follow someone you’re signaling to them that you’re interested in what they have to say, but you get offended that they have the gall to say something. You could solve your auto-DM problem by not “following” so many people.

At this point, Demosthenes clicks “unfollow” and walks out of the room without responding.

Okay, a little commentary.

First, as Fluffy says, I think the “auto-DM problem” is really an over-following problem in disguise. Of course, you should limit yourself to one auto-DM per new follower and not use DMs to broadcast messages to existing followers (that’s the job of regular tweets). But I don’t think that’s what anti-auto-DMers are talking about.

Second, just because a “welcome” auto-DM is automated and not personalized, that doesn’t necessarily make it “fake”.

In a way, auto-DMs are sort of like an answering machine message. When your answering machine picks up, it doesn’t just beep. It doesn’t just say “leave a message at the tone”. It doesn’t just say “I can’t take you’re call right now. Leave a message at the tone.” It probably doesn’t just say “This is Antone. I can’t take your call right now. Leave a message at the tone”. It’s probably more like “Hi, this is Antone. I can’t take your call right now. Please leave a message at the tone and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”

It’s an automated message, but you still put some effort into making it personable. Would Demosthenes complain if someone used an answering machine instead of an answering service? That their message wasted a bunch of time trying to sound personal? Not likely.

I suppose it’s really about expectations. If you expect Twitter DMs to be one-to-one custom personal messages, anything less might bug you.

But even then, it’d be a problem so tiny that you probably wouldn’t even notice it if you were only following people who you really wanted to follow.