I trust I can rely on your dopes

One of the things that really bugs me is when street teams fill the internet with promotional crap while pretending to be Just Another Punter. It’s something I was going to be talking about on Radio Scotland this morning, but unfortunately time constraints meant we didn’t get to the problem of vested interests editing Wikipedia entries. Never mind, I can blog about it instead.

Stealth Marketing: Penny Arcade has been covering how it works in the games industry, while over at Metafilter they’ve spotted this ad by Epic records:

Do you blog, have lots of friends at your MySpace page, and love music?

Epic Records is looking for skilled, motivated interns to promote artists on social networking sites like MySpace, purevolume, Facebook & others.

This isn’t a new thing: since the initial success of Christina Aguilera – arguably the first artist who owes her career to street teams – everyone from unsigned indie bands to stadium bands has an army of (usually unpaid) marketing shills. As I wrote last year in .net:

A typical street team will lobby radio stations to play the new single, vote in every conceivable internet poll, and spread the word in chat rooms, message boards and weblogs. It’s very successful, but it’s also very controversial. Speaking to The Guardian about record companies’ teenybopper teams, John Bangs of the National Union of Teachers fumed: “It exploits children for the benefit of the record company alone. There are many ways of marketing to children, but these methods are unacceptable.”

Xavier Adam agrees. The md of the Adam Media Consultancy (www.xavieradam.com) says: “Using children is not ethical… These tactics can and do backfire. They are seen as unethical by the public at large, despite what the industry may think.” He continues: “It’s a form of spam, although it is more targeted than general email spam.”

It’s not just record companies, though. One of the things I like about the net – one of its most important features – is its ability to let you see real opinions rather than corporate spin. Street teams put the spin back in, whether they’re fixing online polls, rewriting Wikis or reviewing books they haven’t read on Amazon.

On the subject of which, MetaFilter user NailsTheCat points to a very sensible suggestion for fixing Amazon’s reviews, which are prone to PR puffery and fanboy crap:

There is, in my opinion, only one solution to Amazon.com’s fraud-ridden book review system: Only customers who purchased the book from Amazon.com should be able to post a review on that book.

It all comes down to my favourite subject, the tragedy of the commons: whenever you’ve got something open to the public, a small minority will do their best to ruin things for everyone else.

Shills’ activities are self-defeating. For example, when I first used Amazon I used the reviews to help me find things I might be interested in; now, I assume every single one of them is written by an idiot or someone with a vested interest (unless it’s a review of a game or console that isn’t out for six months, in which case I *know* the review’s by an idiot). When I see an online vote for new bands, I assume the winner is the one who mobilised the most people, or who hit reload most often. And when I see a post praising some hitherto-unheard-of band, I assume it’s the singer’s girlfriend. I’m usually right.

There’s an irony here. Thanks to review sites, blogs, newsgroups and forums, I can get a wider range of opinion than ever before – but because corporate shills, fanboys and nut-jobs are doing a fine job of turning the wisdom of crowds into the mooing of herds, I rarely make buying decisions on the basis of strangers’ opinions. If anything, street teams and shills are turning back the clock for me: if I want to know about a game I’ll see what Edge and Eurogamer think, or ask my brother; if I want to know about gadgets, music, movies or TV I’ll again turn to reviewers and the people I know (both in real life and via this blog). While I do use the net, the sites I turn to are the ones that resemble traditional magazines: engadget, eurogamer and so on.

Put it this way: you’re considering a PlayStation 3. Here’s the verdict from “W from England” on Amazon.co.uk:

This beast of a console is nearly as powerful or as powerful as some computers. This shows the amount of effort that Sony have put into this Super console. From the disgin of the the look of the console to the smallist micro chip no expense has been spared and no short cuts have been taken. This Consle will more than likly blow away all the comption. The playstion 3 when speaking off the graphics and power is in a different league to microsofts X-box 360.

The games that i have seen are so life like that it will feel as thought you are in the game.

I can not what until the day the console comes out because ill be waiting at the door for the postman. Just order yours so you are no disappointed. You may have to book time off work or school that how important this console is!

I think I’ll wait for Edge’s verdict.