Hawkzilla vs The Sock Puppet

Let me begin by saying that I don’t know if this allegation is true or not. I don’t play computer games anymore- not because I wouldn’t love to, but (a) I don’t have time and (b) if I want to keep my kids from discovering what an X-Box is, Daddy can’t sit around playing Civ IV all day.

But I do know a lot about message boards, having founded and developed some very popular ones. And, unfortunately, I know about the sock puppet problem. A sock puppet is a separate account (or many separate accounts) that a user creates to support a message or position he or she wants to promote on a message board. We had that problem the day ACCBoards.Com went live, and we still have it today. The first cousin of the sock puppet is the shill poster- someone who has an undisclosed relationship with the original poster and whose primary purpose on the message boards is to further the agenda of the original poster.

The most common reason someone creates a sock puppet is to avoid or delay getting banned from a message board. If someone posts objectionable material at ACCBoards.Com they get banned. It they have another account or accounts in their pocket, they can continue the disruptive behavior using the other account.

You also see this on some of the penny stock message boards, typically by short sellers who want to trash a stock they have shorted. Another good reason never to read stock message boards. I learned that lesson the hard way back when I was otherwise doing very well in the market. My story about avoiding stock boards made the cover of Money Magazine, but I digress.

The other reason for a sock puppet is to try to take a short cut to credibility or respect. If every time someone posts something, 5-10 sock puppets (controlled by the original poster) post messages agreeing with whatever was said, it gives the temporary and false impression that the original poster knows what he or she is talking about. I say temporary because in my vast experience in this area, sock puppets are always discovered and the puppeteer subjected to harsh criticism and ejection from the message boards.

A sock puppet is the message board equivalent of setting up a bunch of other blogs and linking like crazy to your own posts. I’m sure it happens. I’m also sure it would be apparent to anyone who looked closely.

sockpuppetAnyhow, The Consumerist has posted an article indicating that computer graphics card manufacturer Nvidia may have hired people to post on gaming message boards in a manner favorable to Nvidia graphics cards.

According to a follow-up post at The Consumerist, the Public Relations Director of Nvidia responded to the original article with an email (I presume it was an email, the follow-up doesn’t say how the response was delivered) that does little to dispel the allegation. The quoted response says, in part:

AEG [the company alleged to have hired the sock puppets] helps us to manage the online community – we engage with some NV fans to help educate people on the web.

They are NOT hired actors!

They are NOT “shils”!

I know I’m from the country but “manage the online community” sounds like one of those pre-owned cars words. It sounds good, but doesn’t tell us much. Again, I don’t know if Nvidia hired sock puppets or not. It may not have. My point is about the need for message board integrity- not about what Nvidia may or may not have done.

And even if a mistake was made, as Thomas Hawk points out, we’ve all made them. The important thing is to admit them, apologize and learn from your mistakes. Sony learned something about that lately.

But I will say this. If a company did hire people to go to message boards and acquire multiple accounts for the purpose of gaining an audience and then posting favorable comments about its product, that would concern me greatly as a member of that message board community and as a consumer.

There’s more at stake here than what video card someone buys. It’s the expectation on the part of message board users that the people they are interacting with there are who they claim to be. Not someone paid to be there for some other purpose.

Paid representatives are fine- they provide a presence, promote good public relations and give quick, if unofficial, technical support to users. But such people need to disclose that relationship, in their signature or at least in their profiles.

It’s all about disclosure.

What a difference a signature (the end of a post message board kind) makes.

Thomas Hawk has posted updates to his original post linked above. It seems he has emailed with and spoken to the same Nvidia representative. I can’t tell exactly what the actual relationship is between Nvidia and the people, if any, who are paid to post on message boards, but Thomas seems to be asking the right questions.