It's no secret that just about every pore of the Web that can be filled with bogus links and endorsements has already been equipped with astroturf content, stuff that's meant to seem like it's been posted by "just plain ol' folks" but which has been generated in fact by public relations firms or corporate hirelings. Astroturfing has long been associated with politicians and major PR firms trying to build the appearance of grass roots sentiment for products and people, but increasingly it's becoming a rallying cry for the censure of online publishers who are trying to build up traffic and revenues.
A spate of recent blog posts, for example, highlighted alleged astroturfing and social spamming by Shelfari, an online book discussion community. Posts on Gawker, O'Reilly Radar , competitor LibraryThing, Book Patrol and others detail how a Shelfari intern was pumping out synthetic kudos on blog comments and how a feature that enabled members to invite friends to Shelfari was rather ambitious in its use of their address books (you wanted to invite everyone, right?). Shelfari apologized for the astroturf comments on the Book Patrol blog and has announced a quick redesign of their signup process - as well as additional staff to help them with this and other growing pains.
It's not easy being an up-and-comer against established players, so perhaps a little benign neglect on Shelfari's part can be excused in passing. But if your product's whole rationale is to be a leading social media gathering place you'd think that you'd be extra-careful to make sure that you were playing by the unwritten law of social media: thou shalt not abuse personal trust for the sake of of commerce or ulterior motives. The "why" of this maxim is clear when you look at research from Faves.com, which indicates that at least weekly visits to social media sites jump to 90 percent when someone has at least moderate trust for a site's members, compared to about 34 percent for people with less trust. The formula for social media demands trustworthy intentions in order to scale effectively for advertisers.
While social media's growth is impressive the continuing challenge for social media outlets is to rein in the temptation to build traffic volume via less-than-genuine social contributions. It's not too different than the ongoing battles that search engines face with "link farms" that some publishes have used to simulate interest in content to play with page ranking algorithms, except that with these social media ploys the deception is much more direct in its abuse of people's personal endorsement power. In some ways what we're seeing is a generation of Web developers who have been trained on building "clicks" needing to adjust to a social media personal networking environment in which the power of personal endorsement amongst trusted peers carries a weight that is built one relationship at a time. Facebook's new ad and marketing services begin to rectify this trend somewhat by making it easier for commercial relationships to be defined in social networking environments in a way that honors the value of one's personal network while also honoring the value of commercial content and relationships.
Maintaining the boundaries of personal and commercial online relationships effectively is still a new science and art form. The good news is that social media has enormous power to build public relations, but the bad news is that people still think that good PR in social media is based on manipulation rather than constructive and authentic relationship building. While traditional PR by third-party firms will continue to thrive via mass media and single-voiced social media outlets such as weblogs, in social media outlets that rely on networks and conversations are going to require a different kind of PR investment - an investment based on authenticity and real relationships. There are different kinds of knobs to twist in social media to create amplification; hopefully traditional PR firms can learn how to do this more effectively as new firms learn how to master the art of social media PR.