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Twitter enters an age of brute-force marketing

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Mesiab Labs in Boise, Idaho, has its own Twitter-follower-building software called Hummingbird that uses keyword searches for tweets to automatically identify and follow Twitter users. (Photo courtesy of Mesiab Labs)

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Through trial and error, Rich Bryda, seen here, developed a set of tactics that, he claims, allowed him to boost his Twitter following from 1,400 to 76,000 followers in less than three months. (Photo courtesy of Rich Bryda)

Facebook can find you a couple hundred friends you never knew you had. LinkedIn might snag you a couple of career connections here and there. But on Twitter, you can achieve the instant status of claiming tens of thousands, even a million, followers without the pesky task of starting your own religion.

Even before actor Ashton Kutcher earned the bragging rights of beating CNN in the race to reach 1 million Twitter followers, the frenzy to gain more followers on the microblogging site inspired a cadre of Internet marketers and Web developers to sell their methods of exponentially increasing a person’s Twitter following. Part of the craze is about social status, part of it is about business promotion and, according to some Twitter users, much of it is suspect.

Rich Bryda, a 34-year-old Web publisher who sells weight-loss e-books that he pens under a female pseudonym—one of which advocates that women spin around in a circle very fast to lose weight—was not satisfied with his 1,400 Twitter followers

Through trial and error, Bryda developed a set of tactics that, he claims, allowed him to boost his Twitter following from 1,400 to 76,000 in less than three months. Today, he has approximately 78,000 followers on Twitter.

Bryda says he realized that he could turn a sizable profit by sharing his strategies with others. “I created Brute Force Twitter because I was getting messages asking how I got so many followers,” Bryda says.

Bryda’s Brute Force Twitter provides a set of videos and an e-book that explain his Twitter tactics for $97. He recently began to offer to personally operate a client’s Twitter account for $497 a month. Bryda’s tactics range from following people who follow known spam artists to knowing the right time of day to follow people.

And Bryda is not alone. In the past few months, several Internet marketers and software developers have sprung up with programs that automatically identify and follow Twitter users and use other techniques to quickly increase a user’s Twitter following.

For the uninitiated, the term “brute force” might sound incompatible with a communication platform whose mascot is a diminutive sparrow. “In the online sense, it means to force an issue—rapidly firing a method either on a server or a service in an inauthentic way to get a lot out of a service in a short space of time,” says Phil Campbell, a 36-year-old freelance Web developer and consultant based in Derbyshire, England.

The term goes back to the days of the first modern software companies, when hackers tried to discover a software product’s protective serial code by building a program called a key generator, which entered possible combinations at a breakneck pace until it broke though a program’s protective barrier.

“Brute force is the best way to describe my software,” says Peter Drew, CEO of XRT Services, which recently unveiled a product he calls Brute Force Twitter, the same name as Bryda’s product.

Drew sells a line of software products under the Brute Force brand and has used the brand for several years, long before, he says, Bryda began to sell his Brute Force Twitter. “I’m the Brute Force guy and everyone knows it,” Drew says.

“Basically, the idea is about forcing your way to the top,” says Dana Willhoit, 45, CEO of ThePressReleaseSite.com and a social-media consultant who partnered with Drew to create his Brute Force Twitter product.

Willhoit says that as she gained Twitter followers, others began to take her more seriously. “I get a lot more joint venture offers and invitations to speak at seminars,” Willhoit says. Since joining in August, Willhoit no longer advertises outside of Twitter.

Unlike Bryda’s product, which relies on manually employing different tactics, Drew’s Brute Force Twitter is a piece of software that automatically identifies and follows Twitter users who have tweeted specific keywords. Drew’s product is connected to a database of Twitter users, ensuring that users do not follow the same person twice and mitigating the risk of being reported to Twitter as a nuisance.

Bryda and Drew’s methods have less to do with cultivating individual relationships than with gaining as many as followers in as little time as possible.

Many Twitter users and Twitter-marketing professionals do not condone these kinds of tactics, likening them to spam at best and coercion at worst.

“It’s a violation of the Twitter culture,” says Kevin Mesiab, 28, CEO of Mesiab Labs, a Web production company based in Boise, Idaho. “Every time you get marketers trying to game the system, you really get a negative reaction,” Mesiab says.

Mesiab Labs has its own Twitter-follower-building software called Hummingbird, which, like Drew’s Brute Force Twitter, uses keyword searches for tweets that automatically identify and follow interested Twitter users. At a cost of $197, Mesiab says, Hummingbird “will work to ensure that it’s only connecting you to people who want to hear what you say.”

However, not all Twitter users feel that the software is any better or more organic than other techniques available. “It’s like walking into a pub and joining in a conversation about something when you do not know the background of the people or have respect for the flow of the conversation,” Campbell says.

For Bryda, however, there is wiggle room in what constitutes a meaningful relationship, on Twitter and elsewhere. “I don’t talk to my parents every week, but I have a relationship with them,” Bryda says.

At the heart of this debate is a difference in opinion regarding what Twitter is and how it should be used. “My take is that it is less of a community and more of a utility,” says Scott Allen, About.com’s entrepreneurs guide, who uses Bryda’s methods, asking if you’re going to tell people how to use the telephone or e-mail.

For Allen, products like Brute Force Twitter and Hummingbird are the best shot for noncelebrities to make a dent in the post-Ashton Kutcher Twitter world. Others are captivated by the idea of achieving massive results in a short period of time. “I don’t have to think anymore,” one Twitter user recently tweeted on the topic. “I only make connections.”

Twitter itself acknowledges the variety of ways its users view its service. “Many are experimenting with how to be more successful with Twitter and even what that means for them,” says Biz Stone, Twitter’s co-founder and creative director. Nevertheless, Stone draws a line, albeit a hazy one, when it comes to using Twitter for spam purposes. “We look very seriously at those on a case-by-case basis. Accounts that violate our terms of service in this regard are suspended,” Stone says.

Some believe that how you use brute-force methods matters more than the methods themselves. It’s up to users if they want to use Twitter for spam purposes, says Nathan Gilder, a 28-year-old Internet-marketing consultant who uses Drew’s Brute Force Twitter. “And the nice thing about Twitter is that if you don’t want to listen to someone, you can just unfollow them.”

Indeed, Twitter stalwarts hold that the more coercive brute-force methods will eventually fall by the wayside. “Twitter is self-correcting,” Mesiab says. “If you are abusing the system, you are going to fail.”

E-mail: smo2002@columbia.edu