thoughts on astroturfing

I’ve been following with some trepidation the efforts (see here and here) to get 1000 reviews of Firefox on C|Net’s download.com. Why do I say trepidation rather than excitement? There are various reasons…

First of all, I don’t think that review-spamming is a legitimate method of promoting Firefox. The idea that “we don’t provide boilierplate text, and want people to give fair reviews” looks good on paper, but there is an inherent bias. People reading Asa and Blake’s blogs are unlikely to give Firefox bad reviews, no matter what.

It just strikes me that mozilla.org is encouraging astroturfing, which I tend to think is dishonest. It’s sort of like going to the Democratic National Convention and asking Kerry who Americans should vote for. No matter how much you insist that you want his honest opinion, you already know what its going to be beforehand, because of the person to whom you’ve intentionally directed the question.

I think there are various other legitimate ways to increase mindshare. Some of them we’ve been pursuing for some time, others we haven’t yet started, and others we haven’t even yet conceived. But asking people to increase mindshare this way I think is a step backwards from the kind of organisation I’d like to see mozilla.org become. So far I’ve been happy and supportive of all of mozilla.org’s marketing initiatives for Firefox. I can’t say I’m going to get behind this one, though.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Firefox, and sincerely think it’s the best browser out there. I have no plans to stop devoting time to what I think is an amazing project. I’m just a little saddened to see mozilla.org encouraging this kind of behaviour.

11 thoughts on “thoughts on astroturfing”

  1. This is not astroturfing. The fact that we expect our readers to love Firefox is not something we’re trying to hide. I thought it was rather clear that that expectation forms the basis of our effort.

    Facts:

    1. The people posting reviews are Firefox users.
    2. The people posting reviews are free to say whatever they wish.

    These are the facts. Anything else is just a fuzzy attempt to cast some malignant light on a completely benign effort.

  2. Blake,

    I respect your view, but I think there is a very fine line between what is and isn’t astroturfing. If we had said something along the lines of “here is a list of you can do to help us promote Firefox, it would be great if you could help out”, that would have been perfectly fine.

    I think the line is crossed when you start setting goals, such as “we want you guys to do x amount in y time”. At that point, things look a little more questionable.

    I know that neither you nor Asa have malignant intents, and it wasn’t my intent to suggest that you did. I was merely expressing my opinion about the method that was being advocated.

    All of this is just my own opinion, and I know that you and Asa disagree with me on this. We can always agree to disagree. 🙂

  3. Ali: I don’t think you actually understand what the term “astroturfing” means. Astroturfing is “creating artificial grassroots”, hence the name. Our grassroots, who are posting reviews on c|net, are totally genuine. They are real people who really like Firefox.

    It would be astroturfing if, for example, Mozilla Foundation employees posted good reviews of Firefox to c|net under pseudonyms, or if we encouraged people to post multiple reviews under fake names. But nothing like that is happening.

  4. Let’s not get caught up in a discussion on the word ‘astroturfing’ itself. It’s possible that I may not be using it in its cleanest sense.

    Again, I don’t believe that what mozilla.org is encouraging here is going to be the root of all evil. 🙂 I merely think that out of all the ways to promote Firefox, this is one of the less good (and less legitimate ways in my opinion) to promote Firefox, and I was a little surprised to see it being encouraged.

    Our grassroots are genuine, there is no doubt about it. That we’re driving them around and saying do this and that somewhat makes it seem less spontaneous.

    I just have a feeling that if the readers of download.com knew under what circumstances all these reviews for Firefox showed up, they might be less trusting of their objectiveness (even though we all know how great Firefox is).

  5. Astroturfing?

    Asa and blake recently started a drive to get Firefox users to tell c|net what they think of the browser. aebrahim suggested that this activity counts as astroturfing. I’m not sure I agree – astroturfing is artificial grassroots – ours…

  6. Just to add on to that last comment, I want to clarify where I’m coming from when I wrote this post:

    From time to time I do visit review sites before deciding whether or not to purchase something or download a piece of software. My intent of visiting these sites is that I want to get a balanced opinion on a product. This typically consists of those who cared enough about the product to write a review (hopefully there would be some), and those who hated the product enough that they had to tell the world (hopefully not too many), and some mixed feelings.

    When people go to review sites on their own accord, they usually take the time to write useful, thoughtful reviews that make me, the reader, more enlightened about the product, including its shortcomings.

    In the case of Firefox on download.com, if I knew nothing about Firefox, I’d likely read these reviews and come away with a false impression that Firefox is perfect (and believe me its not there yet).

    If I knew that people had been asked to “write 1000 reviews in 7 days”, particularly people enthusiasts in the Firefox community, the value of these reviews would be lessened in my eyes, because people were asked to come here and review, and didn’t get there because they themselves thought they should review.

    As it happens, visitors to the download.com page will have no idea about the circumstances under which these reviews were written, and won’t have the same information as we do. In light of this, I think the effort to have these reviews written (though well intended) is ultimately misleading.

    Even if I’ve misused the word astroturfing, which has a somewhat subjective meaning, my sentiments based on what I just wrote still stand.

    For what its worth (probably not much), I’ve heard a lot of agreement with my sentiments from people on IRC and over AIM, and pretty much no disagreement except from those who have taken the time to comment in my blog.

  7. Would the Mozilla community think it was fair if Opera developers’ blogs encouraged 1000 Opera users to comment on Firefox’s faults at download.com? I think it is perfectly fair in response to the Mozilla effort.

    The comments on download.com attempt to represent a fair sample of downloaders who decided that it was worth giving a review. Encouraging happy Firefox users to leave reviews isn’t inherently bad. It’s just that asking potentially positive reviewers to flood the reviews doesn’t exactly maintain a natural balance.

    The review system on download.com (and many sites online) is naturally flawed in this way. When REAL polls are taken, the sample surveyed is chosen at random. When online polls are taken, only those people who feel strongly enough about the issue get to vote.

    When I read any kind of reviews online (from software to recipes), I try not to pay attention to the rating system for this reason. It makes much more sense to (painstakingly) read a lot of reviews–ignore any obvious fanboys, idiots, and trolls–and figure out what rational human beings actually had to say.

    Unfortunately, most people probably just look at the average x/5 score.

  8. “Would the Mozilla community think it was fair if Opera developers’ blogs encouraged 1000 Opera users to comment on Firefox’s faults at download.com? I think it is perfectly fair in response to the Mozilla effort.”

    The Mozilla community is NOT being encouraged to negatively review Opera. They are not being encouraged to review Opera at all. They are only being encouraged to review Firefox.

    Whatever faults this marketing program has (let’s call an apple an apple), asking people to rip on alternative browsers is not one of them.

  9. I think everybody else (Opera, MyIE, bla) should astroturf back with their own product or with Firefox to let mozilla.org learn their lesson that spamming like a bunch of asses isn’t good.

  10. I’m don’t really care whether or not the term astroturfing applies – what concerns me is that the whole cnet reviews thing is a deliberate attempt to misrepresent the average Firefox user. If I read a few reviews of a piece of software, I sure as hell don’t want them all to come from people that are relatively close to the development community. These people obviously like the product and are probably more skilled users than the average Joe. By asking that readers of Asa’s blog post reviews, the reviews no longer reflect the average user. They reflect a subset of users who are very unlikely to say anything bad. Sure – they are free to say what they want, but you know very well what they are going to say and it is misleading to pretend you don’t.

  11. I thought the goal was a lofty one and a good one, then I thought it was a little shaky, and just a few seconds ago I realized why.

    We have a problem. People download our software from our servers instead of download repositories. When people looking for software don’t know where to go, they go to download repositories (download.com). Since nobody has downloaded our software from these download repositories, nobody has left impressions to help others decide the quality of our software.

    Blake realized this and decided to artificially boost our numbers to where they ought to be for the number of downloads we get (my estimates put us at #3 on the top downloaded list). I think I (and I think you too Ali) have a problem with the goal set for number of downloads. Blake set an arbitrary goal for number of reviews so that our software would get noticed. What would have been ideal would have been to ask that if anyone felt compelled to review firefox, they should go to this download repository and share their experience with others.

    But then you still can complain about telling your userbase to go vote. You can’t win on that one. It’ll never make the news of a technology neutral website. Going to the opera forum won’t do any good. You need to have firefox users review firefox software. Most firefox users are going to give it a favorable review because they deem it good enough to still use in light of the many other options.

    I don’t think the problem was in the call for the reviews, but in the driving for a goal. The only way to get good number of fair and balanced (I hate that phrase) reviews is to ask for reviews when users download the software. The only solution I’d see would be to put a request for a review on the download or start page, but I doubt that will get past Ben. He knows to well not to annoy users with trifle requests.

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