Update: Sources close to Twitter have now told us that there was a miscommunication. This is not a Twitter experiment, and the account has been suspended. Original story follows.
Twitter, regularly tinkering with the look and features of its news-sharing platform to drive more usage, could be experimenting with yet another way of introducing people to new things that it’s trying out. A new TestLab account has appeared on the service that encourages users to follow it to test out early releases of new features. It has only tweeted once since first appearing last week, effectively laying out this purpose:
The account was first flagged to us by a reader, and we’ve confirmed with sources close to Twitter that the account is in keeping with a wider mandate, first introduced last year, to try out new features.
In other words, it looks like @twtestlab is a Twitter experiment to try out experiments.
A Twitter spokesperson would not comment for this story.
There are some quirks about @twtestlab that are worth pointing out. When @twtestlab was first flagged to us on Thursday, there was only one follower on it. I happened to know him (Pat Phelan, co-founder of Trustev) and so I got in touch.
Phelan told me that he found out about the account through a friend (who doesn’t work at Twitter), who mentioned it was a Twitter Labs project. He began to follow the account to see what came out of it, “or even if it is real.”
By Sunday night, the follower number had ballooned to over 12,000:
As of this Monday morning, London-time, the number was up by nearly another 5,000:
Taking a closer look at the followers there are some similarities between them.
A large proportion seem to come from outside the U.S., and have sent very few or no tweets. That could be a sign that these are bots or fake accounts. Drew Benvie, a founder of social media consultancy Battenhall, points out some of the telltale signs after I asked him to analyse @twtestlab’s followers:
“A common phrase used in their profiles is ‘follow back,'” he says, noting that this is a commonly recurring phrase in phantom accounts. “And the stats are really weird,” he continues. “99.9% of the followers have a low influence score, 99% have under 50 followers, and 99% have tweeted under 50 times.” Although there is a wide geographic spread, a lot of them are based in Kathmandu and India, he adds. Benvie used Social Bakers and Followerwonk to crunch the numbers.
But it could be that these are simply new users, getting suggested the account as part of an onboarding process. Benvie says most of the followers are between 1 and 4 weeks old, with 5,500 over one month old.
Why international users? It may be more a case of wider trends. These days, Twitter is seeing more growth in countries outside the U.S. than it is in its home market. Twitter reported 271 million monthly active users at the end of July. 211 million of these are outside the U.S., CEO Dick Costolo noted during the company’s earnings. U.S. MAUs grew by 3 million — level with the previous quarter — but international MAUs were up by 13 million — an increase from 11 million in Q1.
(It could be, too, that Twitter has tweaked its algorithms to suggest this account to specific new users. In the company’s FAQ about suggested accounts, the company notes that Twitter “uses an algorithm that determines highly personalized suggestions based on the accounts you currently follow, the accounts followed by the users you have chosen to follow, and how other users express interest in Tweets sent from these accounts.”)
We’ve contacted a few of those following @twtestlab, but have yet to hear back.
Twitter Labs, you might recall, was a concept first floated back in 2009, when Twitter was a smaller startup. Back then, Twitter envisioned Twitter Labs as a way to work directly with third-party developers on new tools for the platform, more involved than simply providing an API.
@twtestlab co-exists with a more official Twitter “experiment” account, @twitterlabs. That account has only tweeted once, earlier this year, also to describe itself: “A Twitter experiment to bring content directly to you.” TwitterLabs is verified.
It’s also interesting to consider how @twtestlab may fit in with the bigger product picture at Twitter. As the company looks for more users and more usage on its platform to drive advertising, its main source of revenue, there has been a lot of executive upheaval and reshuffle at Twitter this year, and product has not been spared. Daniel Graf, a Google Maps alum and Twitter’s current head of product, is the fourth person to occupy the role in five years, after he replaced Michael Sippey in April of this year.
“[Graf’s] charge is to make the daily experience of using Twitter more intuitive and inviting without alienating core fans,” a BusinessWeek profile notes, and some of his early moves have included more personnel changes, and, “to reinforce the focus on adding and addicting new users, he’s killed a series of side projects.”
But perhaps as Graf is killing some projects, he’s giving birth to some others.