Astroturfing by the Elearning Society

AstroturfToday boys and girls we’re going to learn about astroturfing. Can you say “astroturfing”? I knew you could.

A grassroots movement is an authentic spontaneous movement of support. Astroturfing is when an organization, business, or politician fakes grassroots support.

Today I received two comments on my blog within minutes of each other, both about a new site called “the eLearning Society.” One was on my post about professional organizations for instructional designers; the other was on my top ten tools list.

The content of the posts themselves isn’t as blatantly advertisement as some other ones I’ve seen, but I still consider this astroturfing.

  • Although the posts were under two different names and email addresses, they were from the same IP address. I’m really skeptical that it just happened to work out that way, especially within a few minutes of each other. He felt the need to fake his identity when talking about his own group—not a sign that fills me with a sense of confidence.
  • When the person running the eLearning Society posted under his own name, he linked to his personal website and used an email address that isn’t connected to the site. I’m actually much less likely to delete comments from a company representative when they are honest about who they are. I don’t mind comments from vendors if they are upfront. For example, Maggie Tsai from Diigo has commented here on a number of occasions, and she’s been very helpful.

When you look at the site itself. you see that the eLearning Society asks vendors to pay to be listed in their directory. The page asking for advertisers claims that “thousands of eLearning professionals” are using their site, but it looks to me like it’s just one guy who’s active. There’s only one profile listed in the “community.” There are no jobs or resumes posted in the career center. On several of the pages you can see “discussions” started by a nameless registered user. I’m not kidding–it says it’s a registered user making the comments, but shows up as “Your Name Here.”

Usually I just delete these sorts of comments, but this seemed like a “teachable moment.” Maybe I’ll save someone else some trouble researching this group themselves.

I’m curious–did anyone else get comments about this group recently, from sockpuppets or under a real name?

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Update: The owner of the site and I have had a long conversation; see the comments for the full text. Per his request, I have removed his name from the post. He’s new to Web 2.0 and made the following assumptions when he commented here:

  • He thought no one would read his comments other than the Google search bot.
  • He didn’t think it would matter that he posted under his wife’s name; he was trying to test Google Analytics and whether it would pick up differently under two names rather than one.
  • He assumed he didn’t need to disclose that it was his own site when he recommended it.
  • He didn’t realize that what he posted online could affect his professional reputation.

9 thoughts on “Astroturfing by the Elearning Society”

  1. This is just a note to recommend to anyone looking at getting involved in web 2.0 to talk to Christy first! She is very experienced and has a lot of good advice based on that experience to help you take the best advantage of the exciting opportunities web 2.0 presents. Based on her advice I am taking down the eLearning Society web 2.0 website until I have more time to learn about online communities and the technology and sociology that support them. At that point, hopefully it can make a difference and add to our field of learning.

    Based on my experience with the eLearning Society and through Christy’s patient mentoring here are my top 5 rules of engagement when looking to get involved in web 2.0.

    1. Transparency is everything! Even if you think you are being totally transparent, check yourself and ask, “how would other people view what I am doing at face value,” and “could other people innocently misinterpret what am I doing?” Be 200% transparent about everything.

    2. Take your time! Everyone is talking about the wonderful new realities web 2.0 presents, but don’t rush into it! You don’t just dump a kid into a swimming pool, you help them get used to water and then teach them to swim. There are things to know about the world of web 2.0 technically and socially you need to know so give yourself the chance to learn.

    3. If you get knocked down, get back up! Like any new experience, entering the world of web 2.0 can be rocky at times, but be patient with yourself and with others as together you learn and add your piece to the community. If mistakes happen be quick to forgive and forget, learn what you can and move on! The opportunities of web 2.0 are too valuable to be wasted by one tough learning experience.

    4. Today’s technology tracks everything, and everyone sees everything! Once you put something out on the web it is in the public view and it is there to stay. So make sure you feel comfortable putting yourself out in the open. If you are not, be comfortable as a bystander and just check in to some blogs and slowly make comments. Don’t feel like you have to have your own blog or wiki right away.

    5. Be meaningful! If you are going to contribute to the web 2.0 community be meaningful in your contributions, and be aware of sharing resources, even if they are your own, no matter how good you may think they are. If you do post your own work, be sure to tell people it is your own work. If you post or link to other work, be sure to be candid and give appropriate credit.

    Christy gave me this link to another site below that has some good info on web 2.0 rules of engagement. If anyone else has some more good rules to add to my list send them my way! Thanks, and thanks Christy for the time in coaching us rookies! Best of luck on your continued pursuit of your place in the world of web 2.0!

  2. Michael, you said, “I didn’t think people wouldn’t notice the postings on your blog…”

    Since you’re new to blogs, you may not have realized that many blogs get a lot of their traffic from search engines. A popular post might still get a lot of views months or years after it was originally published. My blog isn’t particularly high traffic in comparison to someone like Tony Karrer, but I do get a fair amount of traffic on certain older posts. For example, the top ten tools post where you commented has had 64 views in the last 90 days; the professional organizations post has had 226. So yes, people see your comments, even if it’s on an older post.

    You should also assume that bloggers on all but the very biggest blogs actually read every comment on their blogs. On blogs where hundreds of comments are made each day, a single person might not read everything, but someone is reading and responding to comments. There are exceptions; if you see a blog where most comments go without replies, that blogger might not be monitoring what happens. On any blog where you see conversations around comments, assume that what you write is going to be read.

    A good rule of thumb for posting online is that you should always assume that people will see what you write, even if you think it’s private. Your online identity and reputation are built around what you say and do, and that can stick around for a long time.

    Let me clarify what I mean by adding value to the conversations. For example, read some of the comments on Tony Karrer’s blog. How many of those comments seem to be there just to promote a site, and how many of them seem to be more about sharing information? You add value when you answer someone’s question, ask a question of your own, or share your experiences. When you provide valuable information, people start to recognize you as an expert. While you’re doing that, you can put your site as the URL in your comments, as you’ve done here with your personal portfolio site. Then if people like what you’re saying, they’ll click your name and learn more. Commenting on other blogs and joining in the conversation can bring readers to your site.

    That’s different from saying “check out this site,” especially when you aren’t transparent about the fact that it’s your own site. Do you see the difference? When you link your name to your portfolio site, it’s obvious that it’s a site you control. When you put the link in the body of the comment without identifying it as such (e.g., hey, check out this new site I set up), it’s not as valuable. The lack of transparency isn’t just using your wife’s name, but also in not disclosing your role in the eLearning Society site. It’s like disclosing a conflict of interest–better to be upfront about your connections.

    I think people can look at your site and our conversation here and draw their own conclusions. You’ve had the opportunity to explain yourself, so people can see your justification. Part of transparency is being open about your mistakes and showing the process of learning, even when it’s messy.

    People do make mistakes, but I think you’ve misunderstood this teachable moment. This was never just about you. This is also about teaching others to recognize astroturfing. I’m keeping this conversation in comments rather than email or phone specifically so it can be public and people can learn from it–I don’t need to hide behind closed doors. I never take posts down; you’ll find most people committed to transparency won’t either.

    Besides, even if I did take the post down, that would hardly erase the content. It’s been cached by Google and probably archived by the Wayback Machine. The RSS feed keeps the archive of the posts, so it’s still available there. This post has been viewed on this site over 40 times and in feed readers about 100. I just heard from someone today about how interesting this information was. I’m not sure why you think this learning isn’t serving me or the broader community well.

    However, I would be happy to remove your cell phone number and the link to your email address from your comment if you’d like. I don’t want you to get hammered with spam, and I know the last person who left her email address publicly in a comment like you did got hundreds of junk emails.

    I wish you luck in learning more how to navigate the Web 2.0 environment and build your online identity.

  3. Hey Christy,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings. Your final conclusion is right, and that is all I am trying to say. This is very much my first plunge into this whole web 2.0 thing and I had nothing but pure intentions. I didn’t think people wouldn’t notice the postings on your blog, that is why I tried to make them real, otherwise I just would have posted the URL? I tried to make a real viable comment to add some value and specifically let people know this was a “new thing” mean to fill some gaps I have seen in the resources available to our community. Again I sincerely apologize, I had no idea posting those two postings would be so offensive to you. As far as your concern about “If you really just wanted to test it out, why not just look for places on multiple blogs and communities where you could comment and add value,” isn’t that what I did? That was my intention the whole time. But I didn’t see the use in doing a lot of blogs, because I wasn’t trying to advertise and draw attention, I just wanted to try out the goolge functionality. I hope that is clear to see.

    Just to hopefully clarify two other concerns it seems you have. Fist, in regards to paying to list on the site, I don’t feel I contradicted myself at all. If you remember as I previously explained, the whole purpose of this site was to help other people who are new to the field to learn about the top tools. So if you look on each tools page there is a listing of the top tools on that page, and then underneath there is a tools directory where OTHER companies, perhaps smaller ones, can jumpstart their business. They are two separate things. So if I started a rapid elearning tool for example, and was looking for a way to advertise it, even though I am not a top tool that is already listed, I could pay a small fee to get in front of people in this other directory, below the top tools. As you know it takes time to do this stuff, and I don’t have a ton of it, so the small fee is to justify the time away from my wife and four children if a small company does want to post on the site, that’s all. It says directly in that directory for people to know that even though thosedirectory tools aren’t the best tools, in some cases they might be a better fit than the top ones due to cost etc. So I don’t believe there is a lack of transparency there, and definitely not deception. I tried to make it clear as possible that there is a distinction between the directory and the top tools listings. Hopefully that clears up some confusion there.

    Also, in regards to your concerns about not being transparent, my confusion is this. Didn’t I put the first post under my real name and link it to my personal web address and website? If I was trying to be deceptive, why would I use my own name, and especially why would I list my own website and email? Can I be any more authentic than listing under my own name? So how was I not being transparent about who I was? And if I was trying to hide my identity why would I so clearly say on the website that I was the one running it? The second posting I put under the name of Sheri, who is be my beautiful wife of 7 years, and I also used her authentic email address. If I was trying to be deceptive again, wouldn’t I have used a fake name and a fake email if I was only looking for some astroturf marketing? Wouldn’t I have used a sock puppet as you call it? I just don’t understand how using my real name and my real email and website, and my wife’s real name and email is being deceptive. Again I apologize if it was, but I don’t know how to be more authentic than that. I hope that answers some of your questions. I don’t blame you for not knowing Sheri is my wife, how could you, but I am just trying to clear the waters a little. My integrity is my number one priority, and it is never my intentions to drift from that.

    I am not trying to make a ton of money off of this. My intentions were as I said before, are just to put a new resource out there to help people that are new to the field in a friendly and engaging web 2.0 environment where they can discuss and interact through discussion boards etc. about the top tools in the industry. I am very active in eLeanring Guild and they offer great resources. I am not trying to replace them. That is why I link to them and talk about them in the site. But many of the people I have talked to at that ASTD Techknowledge conference talked about how un user friendly it was and how it didn’t meet their needs when it came to learning about new tools. So I don’t think I am at fault for trying to be innovative and offer the community another collaboration resource to help them make the best decisions and learn about what is available to them. Without innovation we wouldn’t even have this new web 2.0 world. And I was having fun expanding my knowledge and skills doing it. All I can do is admit to being stung as a new guy and not understanding how this whole web 2.0 world works, and what the expectations are etc. and I hate to be punished openly for honest rookie mistakes. No advertiser would miss what you so quickly saw, that the website isn’t complete, and would make the mistake of putting ads up, so I think that logic is enough to prove that I wasn’t trying to go live with it or anything for selfish or greedy reasons, or trying to trick someone into forking over money. The site isn’t even done.

    Anyway Christy, I don’t want to keep going back and forth on this forever. I know that as much as I explain or do, it is your choice to believe.As you can imagine it has been a pretty tough intro into this whole web 2.0 world. But please know that I am not holding any feelings of animosity or anything, life is too short for that. Like I said before, I can see how you could have perceived things differently than they really are and so I don’t fault you for trying to maintain the integrity of the community. I am just trying to let you know and everyone else that I was never trying to be deceptive or shady, and I hope I have made that clear. You have my phone number that I sent in an email and as I said please just call me and let’s take the chance to get to know each other and I can introduce you to my wife. And then if you have any other questions or if there are other things I can explain to you we can clear it all up. I don’t think this Web 2.0 stuff can ever effectively replace person to person contact. Just as the eLearning Society will never really be as effective as that ASTD Techknowledge round table was. Then maybe I can offer you a personal apology and maybe pick your brain for some of these other expectations that new people to the web 2.0 world wouldn’t know about, and could learn from someone like you.

    When I have interns work for me I always give them the benefit of the doubt when they make honest mistakes, even if they cost our projects dollars, time or credibility. People are just people, and mistakes are what we as people do. Nothing is as important as the person. Your initial motivation it seems was to teach about astroturfing and I can assure you that at least I have learned a thing or two these past couple days, but I would ask for the benefit of doubt on this and ask that you consider your lesson received by a rookie and show the courtesy of removing this blog posting from your site. I think it is clear that it isn’t serving either of us well. Again, if you have more concerns, just call me and let’s talk about it as eLearning colleagues, both interested in making a difference in our field. There isn’t anything more transparent I can offer than that. You seem to know your stuff and I am sure there is a ton I can learn from you, and I certainly don’t want us to be in bad standing with each other. Again, life is just too short for that stuff. In case you lost my number you can reach my cell phone at [number removed per MS’ request–CT], or email me at [email removed per MS’ request–CT]. We live in Utah. Thanks Christy, and I hope you have a great weekend!

  4. Web 2.0 is all about your relationships, connections, and reputation–of course you’re putting your reputation on the line. Every time you post something about yourself online where it can be searched, that can potentially either improve or hurt your reputation. That’s part of the deal. You should expect that every time you apply for a job that your potential employer will Google you. Blogging can be a great way to make connections in the field and to become more visible, but it matters how you interact with people. If you come across as deceptive in your interactions, whether it’s deliberate or not, that will affect your reputation.

    Did you really expect that you could do postings on other sites and no one would notice? My blog isn’t a testing environment that’s closed off; everything here can be searched by Google.

    If you’d come here and done comments and said specifically that you were testing out how Google Analytics tracks things, I might not have minded. At least then you would have been open about what you were doing. Instead of being transparent about who you were and why you took those actions, you chose to disguise your identity instead.

    If you really just wanted to test it out, why not just look for places on multiple blogs and communities where you could comment and add value? If you add value to the conversations, no one will care whether you link to your own site and make money.

    If you aren’t ready for people to look at it yet, why advertise it on a live site? Once again, blogs aren’t closed test environments–there’s no walled garden here. It’s live and searchable. Linking to it in comments is a form of marketing. Your comments certainly didn’t imply that the site was still under construction; they implied that people should go look at it now. I’m glad that you put the notice up that the site isn’t ready yet though. I think that’s a step in the right direction; you’re being transparent and open.

    In your comment, you say this:
    “So anyone can post any tool, they don’t have to pay for it, even vendors, so this isn’t a site to make money a fortune or anything.”

    However, your site says this (emphasis added): “Within each TOP AWARD TOOLS and TOP AWARD RESOURCES category there is a directory associated with that product or resource category. You can pay a small annual listing fee to include your product or service in those directories.”

    Your statement here and what the site says directly contradict each other. This is another instance of, at minimum, a lack of transparency, if not an actual deliberate attempt at deception.

    I’ll agree that there’s interest for thousands of people for these types of resources, but that interest is being served pretty well by the eLearning Guild. They have a directory of resources, discussion forums, and a job board. In addition to what you’re offering, they also offer substantial research and live events. Other than condensing the tool directory into ranked lists, it seems like everything you’re doing is a duplication of what they’ve had established for years.

    I’ll admit that it’s possible that you really are simply clueless about what you’re doing and that this wasn’t deliberate. If you want to learn more, I suggest that you start participating in the broader e-learning community yourself though. Comment on blogs, post in the eLearning Guild forums, and join the conversations. If you want to build a positive reputation for yourself, putting yourself out there in the community–your real, authentic self, without any pretense or ulterior motive–is the best way to do so.

  5. Hi Christy,

    I saw your blog post today, I do drop in on your blog, and I was surprised to see a post on me! I just wanted to clear up any confusion that I think there may have been, because from reading you post you didn’t sound too pleased. I have never heard the term “astroturfing,” and if that is what I did I am sorry. I am an eLearning developer and have nothing but positive intentions from trying to start the eLearning Society, and certainly meant no harm by posting on your website. This is brand new ground for me, and I have never used google analytics or anything before, this is my first time trying to run a site meatn to do anything more than be on the web to refer people to and I was curious to see if google analytics really did pick up links from other sites. Someone had told me it did, but I wanted to see how it worked. I can promise you that was the extent of my postings. That is why I used different names and emails etc., to see if google analytics tracked that type of stuff. So I was not trying to fake my identity, but I am sorry for any confusion or harm it might have cost you. The eLearning Society website isn’t even finished yet, if you noticed, so it is not like we are launching and marketing it or even want people to see it right now, or are even close to doing so. That is why I am the only one listed on the site, there are no job posts or resumes or discussions, it is because I am just learning the SquareSpace technology and ‘storyboarding’ and ‘concepting’ the whole thing. I haven’t even completed all of the tool categories yet! I actually don’t want people to see it yet! It isn’t done! I don’t even know how or if I will get it going, it is really just more of an experiment right now that I have been brainstorming and passing by other professionals in the field to see if it would be useful to them, and the feedback I have gotten so far has been positive. That is why it says “thousands of professionals” etc. I am just in the middle of dummying the whole thing, so I am sorry that you got the impression that I am an aggressive organization cunningly trying to market so I could just sell advertising listings and make a lot of money, as it sounded from your email. I am not a company representative trying to deceviously market a site undercover. I am just trying to figure out how all of this web technology works, and my intentions are actually quite the opposite. Sorry it came accross as just the opposite. And I am hoping I can clear things up.

    The eLearning Society was a brain storm idea I had a couple of months ago after attending ASTD Techknowledge where I was in a roundtable discussion and heard about 50 instructional designers and trainers talking about how when you get into eLearning it is so hard to know which are the best tools, what the right resources are, where they can go for help etc. Having had those same challenges myself, yet being an experienced eLearning designer, I thought of creating a website that could help these people by listing the top 5-10 tools within each tool category, listing the top websites, books, blogs and other resources etc. And then using web 2.0 technology to make it so that others could share their top tools and resources for free in the discussion forums for each tool and resource category. So anyone can post any tool, they don’t have to pay for it, even vendors, so this isn’t a site to make money a fortune or anything. So the vision is that it would kind of be a place where people new to the profession could go to get started, get their questions answered and network with others in an engaging website. That was the idea, and I have just been playing with it for the past three weeks or so, using SquareSpace to try and build a decent looking site with web 2.0 capabilities. So believe it or not, those were my intentions, and I hope your blog post didn’t dismay too many people or give them the wrong idea, because I do think it will and can be a good resource for other people. And I certainly don’t want them out there thinking I am a dirty guy when they see me presenting at eLearning conferences later in the year. So the idea was to list the best products, let other professionals share their top tools and resources, allow them to collaborate, and then give smaller companies the opportunity to advertise for a nominal fee on the website to maybe boost their business to help cover the costs associated with running the site and my time to build, update etc. which has turned out to be more significant than I thought. I certainly didn’t know I would be putting my reputation on the line.

    So, no hard feelings, but I hope this puts things in perspective for you and answers any questions you might have had. I don’t blame you for the confusion, as I am sure this really does happen to you quite often. I am wondering what we can do though to clear up my name a little bit so when others hear of me they don’t think crook 🙂 Feel free to email me at [email removed per MS’ request–CT]. I am going to keep moving forward with my concepting and see if I can create something that will be useful to somebody some day, because I am having a lot of fun doing it and learning a lot! Like what “astroturfing” is! Have a great day, and I will keep checking in on the blog. Keep up the good work!

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