Social Media Founders on Undisclosed Mass Promotion

As I was writing up yesterday’s article on The Times, I realized that there’s a wide range of opinions from social media founders about undisclosed mass promotion on their communities. (Mahalo’s Jason Calacanis doesn’t mind, while Matt Haughey drops the banhammer on any Metafilter user who tries it.)

I contacted several founders affected by Sitelynx’s activity to see their official (and personal) stance on this questionable practice.

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The Times (UK) Spamming Social Media Sites

Yesterday, I discovered that The Times (UK), a well-respected newspaper owned by News Corp., is involved in an extensive campaign to spam social media websites with links to Timesonline.co.uk articles.

Since 2004, The Times retained the established SEO consulting firm Sitelynx to handle their search engine marketing. Working on behalf of The Times, a Sitelynx employee posted thousands of links to community and social news websites, including Mahalo, Del.icio.us, StumbleUpon, Metafilter, Yahoo! Answers, Ma.gnolia, and Netscape’s Propeller. His actions were done without any disclosure of his affiliation to Sitelynx or The Times and were, in some cases, posted under the assumed identity of his wife. Update: The Times didn’t know what Sitelynx was doing, the Sitelynx employee was fired suspended, and The Sun is also involved. See the updates at the bottom of this entry.

What do the creators of Del.icio.us, Metafilter, and Mahalo think of this? I asked them!

The accounts were all created by Piotr (or Peter) Wyspianski, an SEO Manager at Sitelynx since June 2007. (Though his LinkedIn resume says “Executive.”)

Before coming to Sitelynx, Piotr had a history of promoting his own business, an online jewelry store called Signature Gems, by using his profiles on sites like Myspace, Flickr, and Yahoo 360 to manipulate his search engine rankings. After coming to Sitelynx, he continued to use this technique to promote The Times. (A full breakdown of his accounts on each site is below.)

For me, it’s disappointing to see a well regarded, legitimate newspaper using these tactics to gain headway against their online competitors. Founded in 1785, The Times is one of the world’s longest-running papers, the namesake for the New York Times and the paper that originally commissioned Times New Roman. I’m sincerely hoping that The Times didn’t authorize undisclosed, deceptive spamming in their partnership with Sitelynx. It’s even possible that Wyspianski is a rogue SEO working autonomously, and Sitelynx isn’t even aware of his actions.

To find out, I contacted Graham Hansell yesterday, the founder of Sitelynx and head of strategy, but he didn’t respond. I’m not having any luck finding an appropriate contact at The Times either, but if you know someone there who can help address these questions, please get in contact with me immediately by email or IM. (Update: The Times contacted me, see more in the updates below.) This quote from a 2004 article, which seems to be The Times’ only public statement on working with Sitelynx:

Simon Christy, marketing manager at Times Online, which has just signed up Sitelynx to improve its search visibility, agrees. “In the past it has been down to the techies to get their heads around SEO, but it’s now moved into the remit of marketers,” he says. “I see it as the fundamental building block or starting point for any search marketing strategy. Once you have the natural side sorted, then you can start spending money on the PPC side.”

Each of the accounts below is used exclusively for posting links to Timesonline.co.uk, his jewelry business, or a combination of both. (In case the accounts get removed, I’ve included the date he began posting and a rough count of the number of Times links.)

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Personal Ads of the Digerati

Yesterday, I saw the Richard Stallman personal ad on Craigslist for the first time. While the text is authentic, the free software activist almost certainly didn’t post it to Craigslist himself, since he doesn’t really use the web. (Instead, he reads web pages by sending an email to a daemon, which retrieves the URL with wget and emails it back to him. Yes, this is not a joke.)

Stallman’s ad immediately reminded me of Dave Winer and his very first post on The WELL, a personal ad from 1994 that shows another side of the tech pioneer.

From: Dave Winer (dwiner)

Date: 1994-08-17 17:52:00

Conference: singles

Topic: Personal Ad experiences

Well, here goes -- my first message on The Well. I've just been lurking for the last few days, trying to figure out what's going on. It's pretty daunting, but maybe I'm getting the hang of it... You all seem like VERY nice people.

Photo by Kris Krüg on Flickr

Anyway, I wrote a personal ad last week, and sent it via email to a bunch of friends, most of them women, for their reaction. Here's the ad:

SWM 39, 6'2", athletic build, Bay Area, software entrepreneur turned massage therapist, gentle hands, romantic, emotionally developed, born-again hippie. Loves gardening, road trips, walking, skiing, writing. Looking for a great gal who's ready to create a safe space for love and lots and lots of play. Send email to: mailbox12@aol.com.

One of my friends had a pretty animated response:

"You're going to find a nurse or a chiropractor. Why? The self-description sounds too needy, as if you're looking for succor. Anyway, i never describe you that way to anyone i know. Your description entirely omits your shining INTELLIGENCE -- you're a genius; you assimilate new ideas like most people consume their morning cereal. You see shapes when there are only nebulae. You're also kinetic, always soul-searching. grounded and yet ready to leap. You're body's pretty irrelevant, but obviously you want to be of athletic build (for what sport, exactly, would your body be considered athletic? no offense, but REALLY). As long as you've got some hair left and your sexual organs, your body's functioning, or do you really want to be a combination of Yogi Berra and Albert Einstein? -- Love, Sylvia"

Of course I liked Sylvia's version of the ad better. ;->

Dave

PS: I'm a great skier. Definitely athletic.

I finally understand why John Brockman dubbed him The Lover in Digerati! Even in the age of Netscape 1.0, Dave was using technology to connect with people. I emailed him to find out the story behind his WELL posting and follow up on his current relationship status. No response yet, but his Facebook profile says he’s still single and looking for a relationship.

I find the personal side of these technology giants to be fascinating. In just a few words, it shows a warmer, more human side to an often-controversial man. If you can think of any other examples, leave them in the comments!

February 7 Update: Surprisingly, the only people that seemed to care about Dave’s personal ad were Valleywag, Eye on Winer (the newest in a long line of Dave Winer watchdog sites), and Dave Winer himself. He commented on it a few times on his Twitter account, but that was about it. (Related, Eye on Winer posted this Knight-Ridder article from 1986 about American bachelors, with Dave Winer in the lead story.)

Many more people took note of the bit about Richard Stallman’s extremely unusual web browsing habits, culled from this post I dug up from a discussion list late last year. That link ended up on Zawodny’s blog and, later, the top of Reddit. I emailed RMS some questions, to ask him more about this, leading to the shortest interview ever:

I’m fascinated with a message I read about how you read the web with a wget demon. Could you elaborate on it?

It is a program that runs wget and mails me back the result.

Do you then convert the HTML to plain text and read it by email, or do you load the retrieved file in a browser? (If so, which browser?)

I can do either one.

Finally, is it free software, or something that you’d be willing to release?

I did not write it, but our sysadmins say it is kludgy.

Thanks for that elaborate explanation, Richard! As Philipp told me, “He answers like a programmer. If you stopped him on the street to ask, ‘Do you know the time?’ he’d say ‘Yes’ and leave.”

Arcade at the Movies — screen caps of real and fictional arcade game cameos from the last four decades of film (via)
White Whine — first-world problems; e.g. “$20 to upgrade my iPod touch? screw you, Apple!” (via)