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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 5
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Auroville 11
by Srajan Ebaen

One penny for your thoughts, one shilling for your praise or blame. Or should I call you a shill? Let me "shpill" the beans on the audio shill, a new kind of decoy who secretly acts on behalf of manufacturers or their bitter competitors.

There's the case of a Canadian firm who—eventually, and after losing innumerable sales—tracked down the perpetrator's true identity behind a veritable forest of e-mail aliases. They sued and won. The crime? The shill was guilty of malicious libel, publishing false but extremely negative and damaging posts about the manufacturer, his conduct and his products. This criminal (and make no mistake, slander and libel are criminal acts) did so behind a variety of guises so as to inflate these bogus claims and statements through sheer—and apparently corroborating—numbers.

There are industrial spy type shills. A manufacturer learns that his nemesis has new product under development. He wants details to strategize a countermove. Time to call his shills. They'll impersonate customers on fire, ready to place advance orders for this new product, which gives them every reason in the book to press the manufacturer for emerging details and release dates. Depending on the executed finesse of their act, they'll ferret out what this forthcoming product's feature set will be, how it'll be priced—the extent of their subterfuge is subject only to the shills' ingenuity for getting the other manufacturer to talk.

Upon delivery of said information, perhaps all their "employer" sees fit to do—or is capable of at the time—is to generate a savvy blocking announcement. "Shortly to be released, our new xyz will feature performance and features for an impossibly low price…" Certain pseudo-salient points are slyly positioned to undermine interest urgency in the competitor's pending product. Doesn't prudence dictate to prospective shoppers to wait until both firms have debuted their new wares, then compare, evaluate and commit to a purchase?

Your pipeline needn't even have any real new product coming down—at least not for a long while. "Coming soon" can turn interminable eternity. All you're doing is hamstringing your erstwhile competitor. You're sowing doubts—about exclusivity, true novelty, about the possible appearance of the next big thing just ‘round the corner. You may even attach a fictitious "patent-pending" mention. Even if never granted, it always raises consumer expectations. It's of course utterly non-specific but does raise the promise of federally validated uniqueness. Terrific bait to add credence to vaporware.

There's the manufacturer whose new release, based on prior hits, is eagerly anticipated by the professional and private sectors alike. Alas, the first consumer posts on the cyber waves are inexplicably negative. Disturbed cross queries now elicit detailed owner feedback from the original poster. He goes into extravagantly selfless specifics—about what's wrong with said product—to protect the innocent. What a hero. Except the product in question hasn't shipped yet. Not a single production model has left the factory; nobody outside of tradeshow attendees has heard anything other than prototype yet.

Our over-eager shill mistimed his lies, cocked his gun too early. Never mind—its echoes ricochet off the Internet's walls to inflict the intended damage regardless.

After all, most readers won't know the exact details of a pending release that's been publicly announced and anticipated ever since. The mere "fact" that said individual shelled out hard-earned greenbacks on a disappointing purchase creates instant credibility about his opinion. He clearly wasn't influenced by conflicts of interest. The poor bastard just got burned—let's feel sorry for him while we thank him profusely for his early-alert warning. Clearly our chase must continue. This product must be stricken from our short list of contenders. For the secretly benefiting manufacturer, even a premature jerk-off shill can be surprisingly—er, satisfying.

Some shills do it for friendship, other are paid, the latter often in trade with goods from the manufacturer on whose behalf they act. Some possible employs? Ethically questionable marketeers will actively target dealers that a competitor is deeply entrenched with. But how to unseat said relationships, turn the otherwise committed guys towards one's own products?

You dispatch fake customers who make friends with bored, loose-mouthed salesmen. Your canaries own your product, know it inside out and can impersonate come-to-Jesus conviction with alacrity. They can plant seeds or raise the possibility of big-ticket purchases. Commissioned salesmen are easy targets when hefty sales seem in the air. Meanwhile, our devious shills ask questions. Does the competitor's product still sell strongly? Does he have backorder problems, quality control issues, recurring shipping damage? Is the sales force spiffed in kickbacks? If so, by how much? What are the product's salient hot buttons that clinch a transaction during a demo? What are its weak points? What is said dealer's greatest concern about the product? Are any of the sales guys getting bored? Is the other manufacturer liked as a person? How could this sentiment be turned? Who can influence the owner's purchasing decision?

And so on and so forth. Anything that could boycott, poison, slow down or derail the competitor's sales is worth collecting to prepare for the arrival of the knight in shining armor who shall deliver deeper margins, prettier packaging, more lucrative spiff programs - whatever it takes to break the remotely diagnosed camel's back.

Shills too come in handy to purchase competitor's products for reverse engineering. Why risk leaks from dealers when your solitary buddy can cover his tracks perfectly? Just send him a check to reimburse his credit card.

Shills can work both sides of the fence—actively discredit another's product or falsely praise your own through the roof. The anonymity of the Internet makes it all possible. It's not the access to information that's the problem; it's the inability of the reader to assess the information's relative merit and accuracy. A loser today, an expert tomorrow—Internet chat rooms facilitate instant transformations, including sex, nationality, income, job and name changes. A certifiable nobody can become a certified somebody, multiple personalities no longer a frowned-upon psych defect but purchasable assets.

When reviewers or manufacturers get attacked for subjectivity, implied industry ties, questionable conduct or inferior products, such attacks are levied against well-known individuals with actual stakes in livelihoods and reputations. The virtual attackers meanwhile hide behind screen handles: hothead3@wuss.com and disruptor@2assholesis.us

Such faceless vigilantes don't have families, social security numbers or job histories attached to their virtual alter egos. They don't have future job interviews that might investigate their on-line track record for inflammatory or otherwise unsavory statements. They're nameless Internet cowboys who could be dysfunctional cretins with nothing better on their Lilliputian minds than to spew poison and make hard-workin' people's lives just a little bit more miserable.

The published word makes it possible. It's simple. Say what you want, engage spell-check if you're smart enough, hit send/post. Done. Next. It no longer matters who said it. Leaving it on the web is like living a stink bomb in a public place—everyone gets "obnoxicated". Self-proclaimed experts and pseudo-owners can sow discontent or phony praise to impact real-world sales. And this happens behind the scenes far more often than you may think. The brave new world of the Internet!

Variations on the theme exist as well. Manufacturers invent people for their testimonial sections. Most of them are never fully signed to begin with—even real people love hiding behind anonymity to protect against Internet stalkers. So attaching a John S. below a made-up rave is child's play. Need more credibility? Add Carefree/Arizona. Who'd possibly make stuff like this up? See. Add another one, or two.

A more palatable wrinkle in this game is to allow rebates if new owners hit the cyber waves after a purchase to wax lyrical about their latest acquisition. This isn't all that unethical since people who paid with hard honest cash are bonafide end users. They're less likely to sing praises if they don't really mean ‘em. Call this "solicited incentivized feedback". It's a clever offspring from other, far more dubious practices and mentioned only to remind us that just because it's in print shouldn't lend anything instant gravitas or validity, present company included.

This whole subject is yet another liability of the instant information age. Communication is easier than ever, access to data and the creation of multiple virtual identities child's play. Am I who you think I am? Should my opinion carry any weight whatsoever? If so, more so than another guy's? Are my motives pure? What's in it for me? How can you ascertain any of this on the web if even your significant other can successfully hide personal bank accounts or romantic affairs from you?

Next time you grant a spare degree of credence to chatroom data just because their participants seem such selflessly motivated enthusiasts; next time you assume all such posters freely share their experiences with one and all, without any apparent benefit to themselves save to combat boredom and collect paid-for time on their employer's computer—remember that this implied harmlessness makes chat rooms the perfect hunting ground also for the cyber shill. Incognito, even savvy moderators can't identify their motives, especially if the shill eschews outright flame wars, hides behind a façade of reasonableness and jumps forums on a regular basis.

When in doubt about a manufacturer or reviewer, pick up the phone and express your concerns directly. Or send a note to the person's published e-mail rather than assuming he or she has the time to find your questioning or accusatory posts on the web.

Remember, a manufacturer or reviewer is a public persona, the former always also with a published address of business. Their stakes are high, their need for ongoing credibility the stuff of late night agonizing and many sacrifices. They have far more to lose than casual web flamethrowers who merely move on to the next target without ever risking their own careers.

I wish I'd just made up this whole shill thing. I didn't. It's alive, it's active, it's troublesome and it's deeply disturbing. The manufacturers thus attacked simply don't have the time to spend on the Web to discredit the discreditors. They're busy trying to make a living, something that gets harder to do in this industry as the days go by. One way you can level the playing field? Don't hide behind screen names. Say whatever you need to say as long as you make yourself accountable. State your legal name and e-mail address. Take a stand for your opinions. Take a risk. Declaring your identity means you too can now be shot at, questioned or ridiculed, i.e. personally hurt just as any of the other public figures in our industry who wouldn't dream of signing any of their posts with anything other but their full names—if they even bother to attend chat rooms in the first place.

Being verbally irresponsible while hiding behind anonymity is easy, isn't it?

It's cowardly to be honest. This is no indictment of Audio Asylum or any of the other interactive web forums that condone or encourage the use of aliases. It's an indictment of those users who abuse this privilege, and a call to all others to make the wrongdoers stand out by no longer hiding behind screen names themselves. What's the big deal anyways to let the world know that you're Tom S. James or Dolores Hathaway rather than youngguy@attbi.net and hifininja@aol.com?

In closing, it's probably good advice to view negative posts hiding behind an alias with a goodly amount of grave suspicion, said suspicion rising in fierceness as the apparent rancor and negativity of the posts increase. A consumer is expected to perform due diligence on any kind of substantial investment, expensive audio included. But if you angle for feedback in the Internet pond and hook what clearly are rotten specimens of fish, ask for the poster's phone number to inquire about such details one-on-one. If, as a fellow end user, he's honestly in the business of warning you about real problems, he or she will gladly divulge their number. If it's a shill spreading misinformation instead, he'll likely move on to a new target.

In fact, it might be a good idea for these forums to educate their readers about the existence of shills—both the praise-doling and poison-spewing kind. The very collegial atmosphere of most discussion forums doesn't make it as obvious as necessary that not every poster is a good-natured, trustworthy hobbyist looking out for the welfare of his fellow hobbyists. Yes, foul-mouthed and habitually angry posters are easily spotted and in some cases eventually banned. But identifying or isolating them isn't the problem at hand. Informing participants that shills are active in their midst and cannot be readily identified is.

Hence today's column also is a call to the forums. Embed clearly visible shill warning on your sites. This clearly doesn't solve the problem but at least confesses to and reminds about its existence—and that's always the very important first step to solving any issues.

Visit Srajan at his site www.6moons.com

 

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