August 23, 2011

Idea: The @TwentyWords Retweeter

This has been on my “Ideas to post” list for what seems like a couple years already. I keep going back and forth between “I should just post it as an idea” and “No, I should actually make it a real thing.” And then I go back and forth between “This is a good idea” and “It’s not that good” with the occasional “Maybe it’s an annoying idea” thrown in for good measure.

Anyway, it’s been on my list so long that I think it’s time to get off the pot and just post it. So here it is:

You know how sometimes you get an automated tweet in response to something you wrote? It’s often spammy, but sometimes it’s something strange like @AllTheCheeses that retweets any time someone mentions cheeses. Or @thedreamstream that retweets anyone who talks about their dreams.

I came up with an idea to turn automated retweets like this into a game that’s actually played on Twitter.

I registered the username @twentywords. The idea was that @twentywords would automatically retweet anyone who used one of 20 secret words. By following @twentywords, you could try to figure out what the trigger words are. And the first person to reply to @twentywords with a list of all twenty words wins. Then a new bunch of words are picked and it starts all over. @Twentywords would follow the winners, keeping a running tally of who has won.

Most people wouldn’t know that @twentywords exists until they notice that it retweeted them. They’d wonder “Who is @twentywords and why is he or she retweeting that totally mundane thing I just wrote?” so they’d check out the profile. And in the profile it would explain that @twentywords is a game and explain the rules with a link to more info. It would start out slow but grow organically as more people happened to discover the game because they happened to be retweeted.

That was the idea. One problem I ran into was picking the words. If they’re too common, the account would go crazy retweeting, and it wouldn’t be difficult for people to scroll through the retweets to find the 20 words. And if they’re too obscure, the game would be impossible.

Also, it turns out that many uncommon words in everyday life are still pretty common on Twitter. With 175 million registered user, a lot of obscure words get used a lot.

See for yourself. Think of an uncommon-but-not-too-uncommon word, and do a Twitter search to see how many people used it today. Sarcophagus? Alveoli? See what I mean?

Hmm. Maybe I’ve accidentally stumbled upon a different game. Is there a Twitter equivalent of Googlewhacking?


If you have trouble with the words coming up too often, you could change it to require at least two of the words in the list, or maybe three, etc. You could even have it automatically ratchet up or down the number of words required based on how much retweeting is going on.

Interesting idea! Some thoughts:

- How easy would it be to write a script that analyzes @twentywords’ retweets and automatically finds any not-so-common words based on a large word list. As the twenty words would have to be relatively rare, it seems that this could be pretty easy.

- If the winner is supposed to write all the twenty words in a tweet, the words could only have an average length of less than 6 letters.

Another thing to consider is the proliferate misspellings on the Internet and how to handle those. Would you match on sarcafogus?

You might want to create another script that picks the 20 words based off of real tweets, something with tuneable difficulty.

You would probably want to stem the words as well, it would make it harder for automated scripts to solve the 20 words, and make it a bit more challenging for users.

I love the idea, though I agree I’d first write a script to watch/solve, but that would be fun too.

You could use more common words if you only retweeted posts with two of the words. That would reduce the RT frequency and still make figuring out the words a challenge.

When you mentioned the handle, I thought the gimmick was going to be that it would retweet people whose posts were exactly twenty words long. Now if you added that criterion to the one about the key words, that would cut the rate down something fierce, wouldn’t it? Also, the eventual winner ought to post the twenty key words and no others to bring the cycle to a halt.

Which brings to mind an issue involving the word length - if each of the obscure words is as long as sarcophagus then you’ll never fit twenty of them inside 140 characters.

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