There’s an interesting story brewing at Mobile Read about two user accounts which were banned for ‘sock puppet’ activities–these were posters who created regular accounts and posted as regular users, but were actually employees at Ectaco who were posting as such and trying to build up buzz for their company. The thread announcing this little bot of detective work has over 3,000 views, with some posters condemning the Ectaco folks and others shrugging and chiding them for being so dumb.
Nate at The Digital Reader does some additional digging around and points out that Ectaco’s activities were not just limited to Mobile Read; he found them posting on at least three other blogs, including his own, and offers some background on this also-ran company.
A few points came out of these discussions on the story which I found interesting:
• Several Mobile Read posters pointed out that employees from other companies have posted at Mobile Read in the past, sometimes even to useful effect. I remember that when the Kobo Arc came out, a Kobo support guy created his own thread where people could ask him questions. People did not object to this behaviour; it’s the sneakiness of the Ectaco posters which was bothersome, not their presence online.
• Nate remarks that, by this point in journalistic history, we should always be suspicious of fanboyism, shouldn’t we? And he’s right. If someone only ever posts about one product or company, they only say positive things, and they ignore all questions or rebuttals or negative comments, that’s suspicious. And if you’re not smart enough to see through that, maybe you need to work on your media literacy skills…
• It was also pointed out that these things are trivially easy to catch these days, once you start looking. Anybody engaging in sock puppet behavior should expect to be caught, and should expect their behavior to reflect badly on their company and on their product. If you want to create a ‘buzz’ for your product, a certain amount of self-promotion is generally OK at relevant forums and message boards, but you have to play by the rules. One message board I frequent requires all posters who have commercial affiliations to disclose them in their signatures. Another only permits commercial posts in a designated area. Mobile Read will allow, for instance, a Kobo employee to answer a question in the Kobo area as a Kobo employee, but does expect some transparency on disclosures in such cases, even if that’s unofficially and not a hard and fast rule.
For what it’s worth, the fine folks at NAPCO take this sort of thing very seriously and we at TeleRead have, to my knowledge, never run a ‘sponsored post’ of direct advertising. Periodically, we are sent free products to review. But when we do so, we are careful to mention both pros and cons and review these products honestly, and speaking personally, I have always noted the provenance of products I have reviewed here. Sometimes I do get a freebie, and I’ll say so if that’s the case. But just as often, I buy my toys with my hard-earned money and come into review materials that way.