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.

Joshua Schachter


Wherever there are ways to direct people’s attention, people will seek to misdirect them. So on delicious, a bookmark tends to mean “I liked …” or similar, and to other people that’s a suggestion. A link from someone promoting something, instead, means “Please go look at …” and while they take the same form, they are very directly subverting the meaning of the system. Even though the normal bookmarks are a sort of promotion, it’s not for things people are affiliated with directly.

Publishers of content tend to be mis-incentivized as to where they would like their content to be categorized, and what parts of it they think are good. Both of these cause misdirected use of delicious, either through bookmarking things that some person doesn’t actually like (but wants traffic to) as well as over-tagging (to make a wider audience than is appropriate see the item).

Ideally, people would identify “their” sites, and those bookmarks would be marked (and be filterable) as such.

Jason Calacanis

Founder, Mahalo

Generally, how do you guys feel about undisclosed mass self-promotion?

It’s bad form to talk about yourself all the time — it’s obnoxious. But our position is go ahead and promote it if it’s relevant and we’ll do the work to determine whether it’s good or not. If it’s high quality, submit every bit of content you produce. If you’re Engadget or the New York Times and you want to submit every article you write, we’d be okay with that.

We might not accept every link, though. We’re designed to look at every incoming link. We want people to do that, so we can create a trust score on them. And if it’s undisclosed, it doesn’t really matter too much because we’re going to figure that out.

Is it in great form? It’s debatable. I submit Mahalo links to services all the time, but it’s under my name and it says Mahalo. I think people should disclose where they’re coming from.

How do you typically handle cases like Sitelynx?

In this case, it was interesting because he submitted a bunch of links and eight of them were accepted. He added one low-quality link to his gems site and it was denied. So the system works.

If people continue to abuse the system, they put themselves on their blacklist. We can ban the link or the domain name and their trust score goes down.

Matt Haughey

Founder, Metafilter

MetaFilter has no editorial review before posts go up, so we have a rule (one of the only hard and fast rules on the site) that you don’t use the site to self-promote. Since there’s no editors to vet whether something’s good enough before going up, we trust that people can judge themselves and post the best stuff.

The problem of undisclosed promotion is that it’s almost always not good enough by the normal filters of something being “good” because the people behind it just want to get it in front of everyone. And then when people are found out as self-promoting, the community is angered because the goodwill of a bunch of people sharing stuff they truly thought was good was hijacked by one selfish jackass that was just trying to goose their search rankings.

Larry Halff

Founder, Magnolia

We operate on a reverse NIPSA sort of system. Only whitelisted members appear in public search areas. We do flag blatant self-promotion as spam, but it doesn’t really do anything other than block their access to some functionality.

I hate hate hate spamming. It costs us real money in time and resources. But this is the best way we’ve found to absorb it without accidentally causing harm to a mistakenly identified legitimate user.

We suspected this dude was actually using Times articles to make his account look legit. That’s how we got fooled by him.

(Ed. Note: Don’t miss Larry’s great article about dealing with spammers on Magnolia.)

You were aware of him beforehand?

He had been whitelisted. Of course, I’ve gone back and blacklisted him.

Eliot Phillips

Editor, Propeller

Any form of mass self-promotion is frowned upon. We encourage everyone that is submitting their own content to also take the time to participate in the community. If a member complains about another site member flooding a channel with submissions, we investigate on a per member basis. If the content is good despite the member’s behavior we’ll usually warn them and give them advice on how to participate. If the content is spammy we usually end up removing both the user and the content from the site.

Thanks, everyone. I’m still waiting for responses from Digg and StumbleUpon’s founder, and will update if they come in.


    Thanks for pulling this together; it’s great to read what some of my colleagues think about link spam. As you could probably tell, it’s a real issue for Ma.gnolia, enough of one that you inspired me to expand on my brief comments and write a blog post on the subject.

    Does this make me a link spammer? 🙂

    I am totally with Jason on his heroic efforts to turn the tide of what he calls bad information, but on this story he has to take this position because he passed stories from this guy. Wishing Jason every success.

    Debbie: Our position is the same… go crazy! it doesn’t really matter because we are spam proof! If you abuse the system you get tossed and you risk your URL being banned–for life!

    The only reason this is an issue is, frankly, because people don’t police their systems. Now, sometimes they don’t police them because they don’t have the resources so I sympathize with them. However, many times folks don’t seem to groom their user suggestions because of some “open” philosophy. That open philosophy is why the internet is filled with so much spam in my mind.

    As an industry we need to fight the people pissing in the town well… we need to make examples of them. So, to Waxy I say thank you for following up on this important story.

    best j

    I want to ask Matt a question: I was banned from Metafilter, quite correctly. I was posting under false pretences, and I deliberately ignored the terms of service. I’d have liked to apologise for that, but I didn’t get a chance, because I was banned.

    Anyway, of the 15 or so posts I put up, the majority got significant numbers of positive comments, a handful of favourites and in a few cases compliments in the comments. I posted them because I read Metafilter, and I thought that people would enjoy the stories.

    Is that so bad?

    Tom, you violated the #1 Rule of Metafilter. It was there, in big white-on-blue type, every time you hit the “New Post” page:

    Note: You read the guidelines, right? Because linking to your own site or a project you worked on in this space will result in a deletion and your account will be banned. Post it to MetaFilter Projects to announce your work instead, which was designed especially for this purpose.

    Whether you think your posts were interesting or not, it’s against the rules of the site which you agreed to when you signed up.

    And keep in mind, Metafilter is very different from any of these other sites… What if every Digg user’s submissions instantly showed showed up on the Digg homepage? With Metafilter, that’s exactly how it works. If everyone posted even one self-link on Metafilter a week, the site would fall apart. That’s not what it’s for, the dynamics are completely different, and that’s why the rule’s in place.

    Frankly, I can’t believe you’re defending it, especially after the events of the last two days.

    Good luck getting a response from Digg, I failed to do so 1 out of (exactly) 10 times.

    Andy, while Metafilter has clear guidelines, they sometimes send you from their projects section to their public main section even when you don’t click it (try going to projects section and entering your password correct only the second time, you’ll end up on the main site). This once almost made me self-submit into their main section, but luckily I checked the help text again (even though I entered through the projects section).

    The number one rule of Metafilter is you don’t get to post your own shit. It doesn’t matter if people like it – you don’t get to post your own shit. No exceptions.

    Tom, let’s imagine that the situation were reversed. Say that over the course of a year, you submitted 15 stories to The Times plumping a business that was paying “consultancy fees” without ever disclosing your relationship. Then your bosses find out. Would you then say to them, “We got a lot of mail praising those pieces. I thought people would enjoy the stories. Is that so bad?”

    It’s unethical and deserves so much more than your non-apology.

    Tom, I won’t presume to put words in Matt’s mouth, but as the admin who actually banned your account I’m comfortable answering.

    I’d have liked to apologise for that, but I didn’t get a chance, because I was banned.

    Did you send Matt an email to apologize? If so, cool: you got your chance to apologize. If you didn’t do that, it’s on you, not Matt—and if you’ve mistaken being denied a Metafilter-sized pulpit to spin your astroturfing for being denied the right to actually apologize to the guy whose site you were abusing, I don’t know what to tell you.

    Anyway, of the 15 or so posts I put up, the majority got significant numbers of positive comments, a handful of favourites and in a few cases compliments in the comments. I posted them because I read Metafilter, and I thought that people would enjoy the stories.

    Is that so bad?

    Tom, an apology is when you express sincere regret for something that you recognize was wrong—not when you explain why you didn’t do really do anything wrong.

    The rules about self-links and self-promotion on Metafilter are clear as glass, trumpeted on the posting page you made your posts from and gone over in the new user message you saw when you signed up. Claiming to not notice those, or the standing site-culture objection to self-linking and spamming and turfing, suggests either willful misrepresentation or a complete lack of attention to the community you’re trying to paint yourself as having in fact been serving.

    It’s an old line, trotted out on a regular basis by self-linkers and spammers once they’ve been caught. It’s not convincing—either you’re justifying through your teeth to save face after willfully violating the one golden rule of the site, or you weren’t paying any attention at all to the place whose guidelines you were violating. It’s not a flattering dualism, I know.

    That’s an interesting roundup.

    I’ve often quipped to friends and colleagues that the main difference between the modern link sharing social network site (Digg, etc.) and the original link sharing social network sites (Slashdot, Metafilter, etc.) is a willingness to open themselves to marketers in a way that ran counter to the ethos of the older sites.

    In other words, Metafilter will beat you senseless for self-promotion, Digg heartily encourages it.

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