Following Anonymously on Twitter 2013

Bob Leggitt | Sunday, 28 July 2013 |

Before Twitter completely withdrew their RSS feeds on 11th June 2013, ‘following’ and probing a load of Twitter accounts with complete anonymity was easy. You could use an RSS reader, or, if you were a bit more tech-savvy, use a great custom tool like Yahoo Pipes, to round up and display any unprotected tweeter’s updates, without signing up for a Twitter account. Back in 2012 you had anonymous, remote access to a very wide range of Twitter information, including users’ follow lists.

That era is now gone, and today, if you want to keep truly comprehensive tabs on a fair number of Twitter users without them knowing you're there, signing up and using Private Lists is the easiest way. If you read on I'll give some advice on maximising your privacy in the event that you do choose to sign up. Then I'll refer you to my Private Lists tutorial.

However, you can still, if you wish, build a Twitter timeline (or several Twitter timelines) without signing up at all, and use Twitter itself purely as a reader. It's more convoluted than it used to be, but it's still not difficult. Please begin by clicking the link below (I should let you know that it leads to Twitter). Then come back...

Anonymous Twitter Timeline

Okay, so what you've just seen is obviously a Twitter timeline. In fact, It's a very simple timeline I made to demonstrate my current method of entirely anonymous following. It doesn't matter whether you're logged into Twitter or not, whether you have an account or you don't - you should see pretty much the same thing: a stream containing tweets from three accounts. The accounts in question are @BBCClick, @Revrunwisdom and @Channel4. I'm not following any of these accounts, and you may not be either, but that makes no difference. In technical terms, we're not following these accounts - we're making imaginative use of Twitter’s own Advanced Search function to simulate the effect of following them. In fact, what we actually get using this process is better than regular following, because we see any personal @reply tweets the users send (real followers only get those if they're following both parties), and we can't be blocked. Using this method, none of the people you're simu-'following' can see you're following them.

ADVANCED SEARCH

Twitter’s Advanced Search is a godsend. You can find it via the link below…

https://twitter.com/search-advanced



Normally, you’d probably use this to find topical info – details about a certain event maybe. In connection with that, Twitter also allows you to denote a source or a number of sources. If you want to know about a storm in Birmingham, for example, you can simply type Birmingham Storm into the top search box and go. However, a lot of people talk rubbish on Twitter, so you might want to restrict the results only to sources you trust. That way, you get what you feel is reliable information.

By typing Birmingham Storm into the top search box, and then adding the usernames @BBCNews and @Channel4 into the ‘From these accounts’ box, you’ll only see what BBC News and Channel 4 have to say about the storm.

But what if you add your sources to the ‘From these accounts’ box, and omit to enter any keywords into the ‘All of these words’ box at the top? Well, simply, you get a general list list of tweets from all of the sources you enter. The results are filtered to 'Top Tweets' only by default, but removing the filter is a single click operation. Just click on "All", as highlighted in yellow on the screenshot below...



Once you’ve done that, you’re seeing every public tweet from every user whose account name you add to the ‘From these accounts’ box.

In other words, for the duration of the search, you’re essentially 'following' every one of the accounts whose username you've entered. You can then make the duration permanent by simply bookmarking your search in your browser. And that’s exactly what the stream I linked to earlier in the piece is. It’s just an Advanced Twitter Search, with @BBCClick, @Revrunwisdom and @Channel4 entered into the ‘From these accounts’ box, as below…



I've then taken the URL straight out of my browser's address bar, and linked to it from this post. Compiling your follow list is, at its most basic, barely more difficult than entering all the user names you want to follow into the 'From these accounts' box, clicking Search, taking the filter off the results, and bookmarking the end page. Every time you click your bookmark in your browser, you'll get an up-to-date timeline, just as if you were following all the users in the conventional way. But of course, none of the users can see you're following them, and if you don't have a Twitter account, not even Twitter knows who you are.

I mentioned earlier that there's an easier alternative, by the name of Private Lists. By using private Lists you can create and customise your timelines a lot more easily. The people you're following still won't know you're following them, but to do this you'll have to sign up to Twitter. That might be just as well anyway, as a timeline is really only a launching pad to exploring Twitter, and if you want to explore more fully, things are easier and better if you have a Twitter account. Having an account and logging in will mean you can see people’s follow and follower lists when the need arises. You’re now flat out precluded from doing that if you’re not logged into Twitter, and I think follow lists are one of the most interesting facets from the observer’s viewpoint. From the user’s viewpoint of course, public follow lists can be seen as a gross privacy invasion, but users know their lists are public, and if they want to accept that the whole world can see who they’re following, and who’s following them, then that’s their decision.

You, on the other hand, won’t technically be following anyone, and no one will be following you. Oh, and you won’t be tweeting or sending any messages either. This is how you’ll maintain a high level of privacy on Twitter and go undetected. If you want to follow some people and interact with them, then I'd recommend using a completely separate account, with a separate email address, because if you compromise your private account in any way, your anonymity will steadily be eroded...

SIGNING UP

If you already have a Twitter account, forget that and start a new one from scratch for this project. Create a new email account using a completely random name, and making sure you don’t give away any real information about yourself, either when signing up or afterward. Don’t use an old email address which is used for other stuff – make a new email account – just for this.

Don’t add any email contacts, and don’t use your new email account to send any emails. That way you ensure that the risk of identifying yourself is negligible. Remember, not only will Twitter know your email address – your email provider will know your Twitter username too. Ideally, you don’t want either service being able to identify you through data sharing.

Now sign up to Twitter using your new, completely anonymous and otherwise unused email address. You don’t even have to confirm your email address to Twitter. You can still use the Twitter account perfectly well without bothering, although if you don’t confirm you’ll see perpetual nags. It’s up to you which option you take.

Spend time adjusting your Settings on Twitter. In particular, in Settings>Account, ensure you can’t be found by your email address, and make your account PROTECTED. This stops other users from being able to follow you without your permission. All you need then do is decline ANY follow requests, and you’ll never get any followers. It’s unlikely you’d get any anyway if you’re not actively communicating, but this makes it certain.

In fact, if your account is Protected you could even tweet messages and at present, provided you accept no follwers, no one but you can read them. But a) do you want Twitter collecting your thoughts?.. b) can you guarantee that your messages will never become public at any point in the future?… and c) what’s the point of tweeting if no other users can read any of it anyway?

Even though your new Twitter account is technically visible, you're not doing anything to draw attention to it, so there's no reason its privacy should ever be compromised. If someone randomly, by chance, searches your username and finds the account, there's nothing for them to see or do. They can't follow you, there's nothing for them to read, and you're not following anyone, so you're giving away no information whatsoever - except to Twitter of course; and if you've kept your email address anonymous, Twitter won't be able to link the info you're giving to any real identity.

So, Private Lists... Follow the link below, and I'll show you how people follow Twitter accounts, whilst logged into Twitter, without the account holders knowing...

Using Private Twitter Lists to Follow Without Being Seen

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