One lesson you’ll learn again and again in Internet media is that it doesn’t matter what system you’ve come up with to keep things real, somebody, somewhere, will try to exploit it to make a buck. We started with Bulletin Board Systems and Usenet, and they got spammed. We invented email, and we all know how that turned out. Chat rooms got infested with bots posting “Live Nude Lesbians!” spam; lesbians are probably still wondering what all the fuss is about. We got search technology, and the spam sites immediately began gaming search engines.
And now we have “Black Hat social media”. One unabashed company is “Subvert and Profit”, a service which, for a fee, will get you all the popularity on social linking sites that you want. Currently all they advertise is for Digg and StumbleUpon, but you can guess that if they haven’t built up a portfolio of fake user accounts on sites like Del.ico.us and Reddit yet, they’ll soon be there too. Quite sobering is their claim of 1 million Digg users. Did you think you were on Digg talking to people just like yourself? Think again!
Nor is this phenomenon unique in time. Before our little Web 2.0 revolution, the idea of paid users pretending to be voluntary users while pushing a corporate agenda was known as “astroturfing”. You’ll get the reference if you think about how voluntary agendas popular with a large crowd is a “grass-roots movement”. “Astroturf”, then, in this usage, is a “fake grass-roots movement”.
Wired’s geek femme fatale, Annalee Newitz, published a story a while back about how she bought votes on Digg, strictly as an experiment. It’s pretty funny; she created a fake blog about crowds for a test subject! And she used a different service, “User/Submitter”, where people who want to rig Digg and the people who want their stories rigged can all come together.
The big problem with this is the psychological stress that comes from the online abuse this generates. Did you honestly review a product that you hated, only to have 100 people materialize from no-where and flame you all at once? Are you honestly going with conventional wisdom on a subject, only to be overwhelmed by a crowd of users all squawking the same line and shilling for a specific product? How about some of your friends on that social bookmark site; are they really your friends? Or paid shills who are just pretending?
This fraud goes much, much deeper than what I’ve covered here. One watchdog site is the “Antiastroturfing” page at The New PR site. Big studios hire people to “thumbs up” their movies, “think tanks” are actually shills for commercial interests, and it pretty much goes without saying that commercial software companies such as Microsoft and Adobe have made use of the astroturf concept, and gotten caught many times.
If you like this story, feel free to Digg it… but please do so honestly!
- The State of Social Networking
- Digg Friends
- Eight Myths About Social Media
- Top 10 Reasons Not To Permit Duplicate Submissions On A Social News Site
- The Year of Digg 2007