Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Internet Entrepreneurs or Unfairly Gaming the System?

There's been a lot of activity lately on some of the microblogging sites like Twitter and Friendfeed. Every day, people are posting messages and links to scientifically test those websites in order to learn how their search algorithms work. Are these scientific experiments the sign of a hacker entrepreneurial spirit, or are they just spamming the rest of us in order to unfairly game the system?

Take two examples. Yesterday, self-proclaimed "social and viral marketing scientist", Dan Zarrella, conducted a Viral Tweet Test. The point was to learn how messages travel in the Twitter-verse by encouraging people to re-tweet to their followers a link to his blog. Zarrella says he will post the results soon, but within 24 hours - just going based on what's clearly visible on his site - he had accumulated 243 comments and 100 Diggs.

For a second example, consider that this morning one of the hottest "trending topics" on Twitter was the tag, "APsvxbkwbQyQqvZw". Such jibberish naturally arose my curiosity, and upon reading the thread - mostly filled with comments like, "What the heck is "APsvxbkwbQyQqvZw"??? - I eventually tracked down its origin... A very spam-like website titled "Adregate Support" which appears to be an online pharmacy huckstering Viagra.

What can we make of this?

As social networking and microblogging websites continue to gain in popularity, and as a result become more potentially powerful marketing tools, there is a growing demand for understanding how these systems function and how to use that knowledge of their algorithm to one's advantage. This is nothing new, or even necessarily subversive. People have been gaming Google's search algorithm for years, and indeed an entire industry known as SEO (Search Engine Optimization) has sprouted up in response.

That's just a fact of life. But what really stands out is that social and viral marketing scientists like Zarrella can so easily hack these algorithms with very basic experiments, and are then so willing to share the results with the world. It's hard to even call him a hacktivist when he's using such simple methods just to learn how something works. Finally, the spamming case of "APsvxbkwbQyQqvZw" has revealed a pretty ridiculous characteristic about Twitter's search algorithm - that you can become a hot "trending topic" with as few as 15 messages. And that's quite disturbing when you think about its potential for abuse.


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