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I just wanted to make sure you guys are aware this happens sometimes before I delete this user.

What is Astroturfing?

Astroturfing is a word in English describing ... advertising, or public relations campaigns seeking to create the impression of being spontaneous "grassroots" behavior, hence the reference to the artificial grass, AstroTurf.

User in question:

http://stackoverflow.com/users/96878/tom-lo

(Edit: sorry, Marc spoilt the fun by accident; not much to look at on this account now....)

Take a look.

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No links though...interesting. I wanna know what this LiquidTest is now. –  jjnguy Jul 23 '09 at 2:17
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I mean, he/she didn't post any links. Which is interesting. –  jjnguy Jul 23 '09 at 2:18
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Thanks for the info. –  jjnguy Jul 23 '09 at 2:19
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Maybe he just really, really likes LiquidTest. –  Paolo Bergantino Jul 23 '09 at 2:20
    
There was a link in the first answer he posted. –  Shog9 Jul 23 '09 at 2:20
    
@shog Right, of course I didn't look at that one... –  jjnguy Jul 23 '09 at 2:22
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Mind if I ask you how did you spot him? –  Gab Royer Jul 23 '09 at 2:22
    
@jjnguy: well, it was the most boring of the lot. Except for the two where he didn't mention LT at all... –  Shog9 Jul 23 '09 at 2:22
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Thanks Jeff! With your help I just discovered a great new product called LiquidTest which I now use in my day to day development! –  Ian Elliott Jul 23 '09 at 2:42
    
Maybe it sounded like a joke, but I'd really like to know what raised you a flag about this particular user in the thousands of registered SO users. –  Gab Royer Jul 23 '09 at 3:00
    
(too many moderators spoil the broth; many links no longer there; see below) –  Marc Gravell Jul 23 '09 at 8:55
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If there was only one "user", it's not astroturfing! Astroturfing would be if the guy hired a bunch of his union buddies to create SO accounts and post/vote-up the message. –  Awesome Poodles Jan 3 '11 at 8:32

11 Answers 11

Awww... Poor Selenium. They just couldn't match the inherent awesomeness of FluidTest!

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LiquidTest. If you are gonna subtly advertise, do it right. –  jjnguy Jul 23 '09 at 2:19
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Dammit, FluidTest offered me major $$$ to subtly diss both Selenium and LT - now you've screwed up my twofer! –  Shog9 Jul 23 '09 at 2:21
    
You don't know for sure who the guy (or gal or bot) works for. –  Tom Hawtin - tackline Jul 23 '09 at 2:32

Of course misrepresenting your affiliation is unacceptable, but what if each of the posts had a full disclosure at the bottom? Is that still disallowed?

On another note, how can you tell the difference between an enthusiastic user and genuine astroturfing? In this case it was pretty obvious because the user had little content otherwise, but I'm sure that there are some users on the site with as many or more answers that boil down to "use JQuery" in response to a JavaScript question. Is it OK because it's free/open source? Where's the line?

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Very relevant, +1 –  Gab Royer Jul 23 '09 at 2:26
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I'm sort of an Eclipse evangelist, but I post other things too. I feel it is pretty easy to tell this person's motives, at least in this case. –  jjnguy Jul 23 '09 at 2:29
    
I'd be pretty annoyed if someone did nothing beyond visit questions asking for help with Prototype, posting answers dissing that library and recommending jQuery... There's a fine line between astroturfing and just being a jerk. –  Shog9 Jul 23 '09 at 2:29
    
There is a pretty obvious line. - The user's motives. –  jjnguy Jul 23 '09 at 2:32
    
Well, unless you can find out who he really is, that's kinda hard to see... –  Shog9 Jul 23 '09 at 2:36
    
But would you find it okay if someone promoted something(without "dissing" something else) while giving full disclosure of their affiliations with the product/library/whatever they promote? That's the question I find very relevant. –  Gab Royer Jul 23 '09 at 2:37
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Yeah. We let John Resig and Miguel de Icaza and the fiddler guy hang out. As a matter of fact we encourage it. –  jjnguy Jul 23 '09 at 2:39
    
"In this case it was pretty obvious" -- it always is –  Jeff Atwood Jul 23 '09 at 2:39
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Oh, and Joel. They all have products that they fairly clearly represent. However, they are a very valuable resource to teh community. –  jjnguy Jul 23 '09 at 2:40
    
It can be hard to determine intent from a post, since successful astroturfing appears to be legitimate. There are a few cases, like this one, where it's blatant (and I would say poor) astroturfing, but I suspect there are many more that fly under the radar. –  Kyle Cronin Jul 23 '09 at 3:07
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(I don't have any examples, and I realize that it's circular logic to say that I don't have any examples because they're that good, and they wouldn't be that good if I could identify them. I guess that makes this more of a hypothetical example, but you do have to recognize there is at least theoretical grey area here) –  Kyle Cronin Jul 23 '09 at 3:09
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@Kyle Your whole comment was just a parenthetical...fabulous! –  jjnguy Jul 23 '09 at 3:10
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@kyle I theoretically agree with you. In theory. –  Jeff Atwood Jul 23 '09 at 3:12
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As Kyle said, a post with a disclaimer seems ok. Once you are affiliated with a particular product/library/etc, you should probably disclaim that fact. The recommendation however should still push the product based on its technical merits and not based on ones affiliation. –  Laz Jul 23 '09 at 8:37
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Since I plan to delete this user, some sample "answers" for permanent reference.

Answer

We got tired of how badly Selenium handled XPaths, and the fact that XPaths were the main cause of us having to maintain scripts every time there was a minor layout change from the coders. We successfully trialled and then purchased several licences of a product called LiquidTest. We no longer have to combine multiple tools like Firebug and Python scripts together to create a test that will actually run.

The teams finishing projects with Selenium are jealous of the teams on the newer projects using LiquidTest, and they can't wait to get involved or be on the next new project. That's a good sign in my books

Answer

I have found XPaths to be more trouble than they are worth. They're ok if you're not changing the pages your testing, but if you're not changing them, why not spend less effort testing them.

When my CTO factored in the cost of the man hours editing the Selenium scripts to work every few builds, we realised that it provided us with a poor return on investment. We've spent some R&D time hunting alternative tools. The latest is a trial version of a a tool called LiquidTest. It seems less brittle so far, using other references to objects before resorting to XPaths. It runs in Eclipse, records tests through the browser UI and can write JUnit, Ruby, C#, etc. so all the Java coders here picked it up almost immediately. So far so good.

Answer

The problem with Selenium RC as far as I can tell is that it was created by a third party. Even Jason Huggins has trouble making RC work - http://clearspace.openqa.org/message/48380

We trialled and purchased a product called LiquidTest that lives up to their claim that it makes test record and replay as easy as it was meant to be. It handles dragging splitters in our ExtJS framework pages, and replay works just fine without hacking or adding python.

There are a few answers that could be construed as valid, but the overall pattern is very strong and consistent -- astroturfing.

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I wonder if there are smarter austroturfers. Even to spot this one I would have to combine a few answers to detect unusual pattern reliably. –  Sergey Jul 23 '09 at 9:23
    
Oh, I see. There were much more posts. –  Sergey Jul 23 '09 at 9:24
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yes there were about ~10 like the above, this is just a sampling –  Jeff Atwood Jul 23 '09 at 9:43
    
If there was only one "user", it's not astroturfing! Astroturfing would be if the guy hired a bunch of his union buddies to create SO accounts and post/vote-up the message. –  Awesome Poodles Jan 3 '11 at 8:31

I have a gold badge in one of my employer's trademarks. Should I delete all my posts?

Seriously, my employer has an anti-astroturf policy. I feel the need to insert the occasional disclosure statement. I guess it's a matter of common sense rather than something that can be automated. Though perhaps I could insert a TM symbol every time I mention an affected trademark, such as JavaScriptTM.

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So, you work on Java? –  jjnguy Jul 23 '09 at 2:43
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My user info might give it away. –  Tom Hawtin - tackline Jul 23 '09 at 2:44
    
Or it could be lying to me... –  jjnguy Jul 23 '09 at 2:44
    
My new goal is to pass you in 'Questions tagged Java' ranking. No hard feelings...But I need a new goal now that I hit 10k. –  jjnguy Jul 23 '09 at 2:46
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Excellent. There's +1 for you. –  Tom Hawtin - tackline Jul 23 '09 at 2:57
    
Well, don't make it too easy now :P Thanks! –  jjnguy Jul 23 '09 at 2:59
    
Yup, gotta make you work for it. :) –  Tom Hawtin - tackline Jul 23 '09 at 3:37

They should really know better than to try that on a site by programmers for programmers.

We're more likely to notice when something isn't quite right. We also like exploring inconsistencies. Which makes it significantly more difficult to sneak something behind our backs.

If they really wanted people to use their stuff, there is this little thing called advertisements.

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But if they have a product for programmers, advertising on a site for programmers makes the most sense. –  jjnguy Jul 23 '09 at 3:09
    
Well, i guess they could advertise on a site for CTOs... –  Shog9 Jul 23 '09 at 3:17
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@shog9: but then it should be migrated to scheduleoverrun.com –  Tadeusz A. Kadłubowski Jul 23 '09 at 8:50
    
@tkadlubo: this thread is currently second for the search scheduleoverrun.com Somebody gotta register that site! –  perbert Sep 22 '09 at 23:58

I really don't see the problem. Sure, those answers are annyoing and when I read them I get a little angry. I sympathize when the owner of stackoverflow gets even more angry.

But usually, we do rely on voting. Don't we? If this liquid test stuff is any good and better than selenium (which I kind of doubt, but that's not the issue here), his answers will be voted up because they really are helpful. And if he's advertizing crappy stuff, he'll be downvoted pretty soon.

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I agree. This negativity towards astroturfing is driving me back to ExpertsExchange. ExpertsExchange.com - Where experts come together (tm). –  mackenir Jul 23 '09 at 10:03
    
Check it out. –  mackenir Jul 23 '09 at 10:04

I have a few examples of what I did on Super User:

It's a slippery slope, some rules that are important to live by:

  • Don't bad mouth the competition, even if it sucks.
  • Don't answer every question with "just use my software"
  • Always disclose your affiliation

I find it incredibly difficult to deal with this issue.

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ASTROTURFER!!!! BUUURRN HIM! –  Jeff Atwood Jul 23 '09 at 9:12
    
@Jeff - OK, account deleted as per request... that is what you intended? no? Oops ;-p –  Marc Gravell Jul 23 '09 at 9:58
    
Isn't why there is 'Caveat' or 'bias-warning' ? –  Steve Schnepp Jul 23 '09 at 10:04
    
: ) –  waffles Jul 23 '09 at 22:33

Ooopsssiiieee... Jeff: I didn't look at MSO first, but was looking at this user separately due to some spam flags. I too noticed the behaviour, and deleted all but the 3 posts that didn't do any of this. So there isn't much left to look at on this account now.

Sorry to spoil the fun, guys.

Jeff: if you want to do a public show-and-tell again, perhaps add a moderator annotation to the account so that other moderators don't delete it out from under you ;-p

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I would say there's nothing wrong with promoting a product if that's what the question was about, e.g. "is there any better alternative to Selenium?". But if the question is "how do I do X in Selenium?", referring to other products is irrelevant. In this case, half the time his posts were half relevant, the other half they were irrelevant advertising that did not answer the question.

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The problem is when somebody exists on the site purely to do this. –  Marc Gravell Jul 23 '09 at 9:57

When discussing or linking to your own or affiliated products, a caveat and full disclosure is always appropriate, if not required.

For example, I like the tool Balsalmiq Mockups.

Caveat: I have no affiliation with Balsalmiq, and I'm not nearly as fond of ponies as this guy, but I love my new iPhone.

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With regards to the accounts that only exist to astroturf... I know you're not a huge fan, but I wonder whether a "hellban" approach would work. Note that I'm not suggesting this approach for the "exist to aggravate" accounts, since they tend to be throwaway accounts; but 'turfers tend to keep their account.

The problem with deleting the account is that we know very well (from experience) that these accounts tend to see more resurrections than the Vatican film festival. At least with a hellban we know where they are. Presumably only mods and the user would see them.

The system would also probably need to throw them random up/down votes, just to keep things interesting. Not sure what to do if they attempt to edit somebody else's post... perhaps just tiddles?

Turf wars

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Not sure what to do if they attempt to edit somebody else's post... I don't think an astroturfer would get enough reputation to get edit previleges... but maybe I'm just optimistic. –  perbert Sep 9 '09 at 18:39
    
The image was broken, hope I wasn't wrong with finding a replacement? :) –  Shadow Wizard Jun 4 '12 at 6:41
    
@ShaDowWizArd danged if I can remember back 3 years ;p –  Marc Gravell Jun 4 '12 at 6:50
    
Good point, don't you have archive of the deleted server files? It was located on some server of yours originally. (before the era of imgur! :)) –  Shadow Wizard Jun 4 '12 at 8:10
    
@ShaDowWizArd ah, right - didn't realise it was an internal link. Sure, I could probably look that up. But your image will almost certainly suffice. –  Marc Gravell Jun 4 '12 at 8:23

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