Friday, April 18, 2008

Twitter: do you follow me?

This week's hacking task was to implement a "follow all" function for Twitter.

Even for Twitter users, this needs some explanation: the follow functionality now means "enable notifications". However, the command interface in IM/SMS wasn't changed, so the command name remains "follow". For brevity, I will use the word "follow" instead of "enable notifications".

The reason for having this command is that there used to be a function "follow all" in Twitter. It used to instantly turn on notifications for all your friends (users you're following in new terminology). Now there's a user, called "all" and the function doesn't work (ok, maybe that's not the real reason). This put an end to a very useful feature for users who rely often on the Twitter IM integration.

Having a quick look at the Twitter API it seemed pretty straightforward to fetch all users and enable notifications for all of them one by one. It would be fairly slow, but there was no information in the user list whether notifications are enabled for a user or not. This would have eliminated the need to send requests for users, for whom we already have notifications enabled. Ah well...

The first tool I reach in my toolbox is Ruby. I tried using JSON, but had to give up- I simply couldn't handle Unicode issues:

/usr/lib/ruby/1.8/json.rb:288:in `chr': 1090 out of char range (RangeError)

It turned that it was much smoother with REXML, and it really is a superior library for XML processing (Python's are either easy or full-featured, REXML seems to be both).

I initially took the path of using 'open-uri' for fetching the data over http. After all, it handled even http base authentication and abstracted the nitty-gritty details, and so was easy to use.

But it isn't meant to be used for more fine-grained control, and I soon ran into performance problems, which required special treatment. I found that I quickly exhausted the rate limit of the Twitter API- it's only 70 requests per hour, and with one request per user... you get the picture. The web interface wasn't actually subject to such restrictions, so I wanted to check how it's doing it. A slightly different URL, but worked like a charm, and rate limits seemed to be no problem now!

This time, though, the script ran much longer- 80 seconds compared to about 30 before the change. I analyzed the requests and found out that each received a 302 response, forwarding back to the home page. That meant that open-uri was downloading the whole home page for each user!

At that point open-uri had to go and make way for Net::HTTP. It took more lines to rewrite it, but now I had the choice not to follow redirect responses. I only needed to toggle notifications and didn't care what I got back (as long as it's not an error code). In addition, I could use the same Net::HTTP object, meaning that I use the same HTTP keep-alive connection (not sure if open-uri can do this).

And here's the result- dirty, but still quick. You can configure the action to "follow" or "leave" (to disable all notifications). You need to configure the user and password. Putting the configuration options as command-line arguments is left as an exercise to the reader.

#!/usr/bin/env ruby

require 'uri'
require 'net/http'
require 'rexml/document'
include REXML

user = "lazyuser"
pass = "notmypassword"
action = "follow"

Net::HTTP.start("") do |http|
page = 0
page += 1
req ="/statuses/friends.xml?lite=true&page=#{page}")
req.basic_auth(user, pass)

doc =
ids = doc.elements.to_a("/users/user/id")
ids.each do |entry|
req_follow ="/friends/#{action}/" + entry.text)
req_follow.basic_auth(user, pass)
end while ids.size == PAGE_USERS

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