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How Reddit's cofounders built Reddit with an army of fake accounts (dailydot.com)
192 points by hornokplease 1768 days ago | hide | past | web | 85 comments | favorite

I'm surprised that this behaviour seems to be tolerated. Yes, it works, but so do a lot of other slimy subterfuges and shady business practices. I'm steadfastly of the opinion that if you can't be honest about how you are doing it, it shouldn't be done, and shouldn't be condoned. I do not believe that ends justify means. Lies and deceit make for a lousy foundation.

Would the site really have been worse off if the same posts had been submitted under the founders' real names? Instead of starting out with false pretenses, could they have encouraged their friends to contribute? I think once one goes down this path, the success of the whole endeavor is tainted. Yes, crime frequently pays and cheaters often win, but that's something that we as a community should work to change.

Kevin Rose first mentioned Digg as being a site that belonged to one of his friend's instead of saying "Check out my new site Digg!" Both Reddit & Digg would have been worse off if the founders didn't do what they did.

These are social sites and subject to the same kind of first impression biases that we all face in person.

Imagine showing up at a party with 2 guys sitting on a couch talking to each other compared to a party with people out front talking, people inside dancing and a small group in the back yard sharing a laugh. Social proof matters & I'd hardly consider this cheating or slimy.

But it is. People will look at a site like HN, say, "Ah, there are lots of really smart people on here: this guy has done this, that guy has done that, etc.", only to find out it's really just pg arguing with himself. It's deceptive because people believe they are getting 500 independent evaluations when really they're getting 5 original responses times 100 falsifications of what those five people think someone else might say. It's not a fair way to represent the site to its readership or participants.

If you say, "Ah, my party will probably only be three of us, I better pay 100 people to stand around so that I don't look bad", do people normally think this is an honest practice? You're still perpetrating a deception that could have real consequences.

find out it's really just pg arguing with himself

Sounds fascinating to me

For me, the distinction is that the site was just starting out. Personally, I feel they're entitled to some leeway to get the conversation/momentum going. If this was happening 2 years down the road then I'd agree it's a problem.

If it were a dating site and the founders filled it with a bunch of fake profiles with pictures of models, then I would have an issue with it because I'd feel the user is being taken advantage of. If there's a fake profile submitting links to news stories, there isn't much of a victim.

As they say "in business there is no morality"

ADD: sure it's unpleasant, so let's just downvote and stay happy.

That's simply not true.

I tend to think it's true. With the exception of when business means something bigger, ie when it actually has been defined by moral principles, like wikipedia, which more of a charity than business anyway.

It's not a prerequisite. There are people that can businesses ruthlessly and without moral regard for the choices they make. I think more often the morality of most businesses is misrepresented as absent for the convenience of those who want to evoke sympathy within the proletariat.

"Heavy weighs the head that wears the crown"; when you lead a large entity, there are always going to be people that are unhappy with your choices. I think by and large the great majority of businesspersons attempt to conduct business morally in general.

>Would the site really have been worse off if the same posts had been submitted under the founders' real names?

I can only speculate, but a site ostensibly where "all readers are editors" full of posts from only "kn0thing" and "spez" doesn't make for the best first impression of a community. Something to also remember is that in 2005, it was MUCH harder for buzz to spread online; I saw this firsthand launching hipmunk in 2010 and what a difference just 5 yrs made in producing all those 'social media' websites.

>Instead of starting out with false pretenses, could they have encouraged their friends to contribute?

Believe me, I did. Maybe 3 of them became regular submitters: Morgan, Connor, and Steve's girlfriend. Perhaps I'm not persuasive enough, but the 1% rule applies -- 1% or less of the traffic that visits a user-gen site actually creates content. So even if you had 100 friends who became regular visitors, you could only count on a few of them to become submitters.

>I think once one goes down this path, the success of the whole endeavor is tainted. Yes, crime frequently pays and cheaters often win, but that's something that we as a community should work to change.

Wow. That's quite the charge. I'm sorry you feel that way. I agree we should work to fight cheating, which is something we to this day take very seriously when it comes to trying to game reddit -- one of the reasons why reddit triumphed over digg.

I run a reddit clone (conceptually; I wrote my own codebase after struggling with reddit OSS for about a year) and I have decided not to astroturf. It is deceptive, and while the deception may not harm every participant, it can harm some of them. As the saying goes, "there is no such thing as a point of view from nowhere"; even if your fake accounts attempt to take on different arguments, they are always tainted by your experience and the value of the contribution suffers. If a person makes a decision based on the consensus among 20 contributors, but they are actually 2 contributors, I believe that an immoral deception has occurred, especially if that decision is major or important.

I suppose if all your comments were things like, "Cool story, I'm glad you posted it", there's not much of a problem, but that doesn't seem like it would really drive engagement.

I have been a member of sites that grow organically with [almost] no activity. You just have to find a group of people that don't necessarily mind a slower pace; it really only takes a relatively small base of active users to get a snowball going. I don't think resorting to astroturfing is a necessity and I do think there is a permanent taint on sites that gain success by dubious methodology like this instead of slower, truer organic growth.

We did not have a commenting system back then.

I appreciate your response, and appreciate that Reddit existed at the time it did. I'm willing to believe that this level of deception was necessary to allow that existence, and thus the net result was positive. I'm not trying to be holier-than-thou: I'm sure I've done worse, and in your position, I might have done the same. Still, I do view this as cheating, as deception.

I worry that if people "bend the rules" in cases like this, they are likely to bend other rules that will cause harm to me and others. I'm very leery to do business with anyone who appears to boast of prior deceptions, as I have to presume they will attempt to deceive me in the future. I probably shouldn't have used the word "crime", but as with attracting subscribers with false profiles on a dating site, I'm not certain that it shouldn't be one.

I don't mean to single you out in particular. Talking about what's necessary to get a site like that going is better than everyone doing it in silence. I guess my real worry is that it's all a downward spiral, with ever more egregious tactics necessary to make a site stand out from the crowd. Maybe it's just a convenient excuse for my personal relative lack of success, but I've never been comfortable with the moral compromises that being in business seems to require.

Do you know that we didn't have comments back then?

Based on similar comments it appears most HN commenters assume we astroturfed discussions when in fact we had no commenting system; the only user generated content on reddit was only a username and submissions (there are no 'profiles' to speak of either).

I didn't know that you started without comments. They were there (and high quality) when I arrived. I'm 'nkurz' there as well, never have been an active commenter, and lurked for at least a year before signing up so as to be able to vote.

But I've been presuming we're talking about submissions rather than comments. I'd be even harsher (and more incredulous that you are defending your behaviour) if I thought you were using shill accounts to falsely attribute comments!

It's clear that we have different value systems that we use to evaluate this. It's also clear that you've thought this through and decided you are OK with it. I'll keep trying to understand how this is, but for now I'm still baffled.

IMHO, this attitude is equivalent the guys who lie to pick up girls. It affects everyone indirectly and justifies a bunch of douchebags to do the same (specially here on HN). And now some of us a a bit more cynical after discovering this. I don't understand how you are proud of it. It's very disappointing.

crime frequently pays and cheaters often win

That is a severe judgement. I see it more as a clever hack. Building a community site or a marketplace is the age old chicken and egg problem. Without an existing community, you cant get users. And without users you cant build a community.

That's an extremely naive attitude. It's next to impossible (won't say completely) to start an online community without seeding it first. Forums in particular - you cannot get a forum going without seeding it with made up posts and comments, it simply won't happen. Nobody will comment on an empty forum or discussion board - nobody.

I have never figured out how to build a community from scratch. But I have belonged to several communities over the years which were built from scratch, without "seeding" it. I also have a track record of tremendously increasing traffic and membership for established sites. Since I have done that, both as a moderator and as a member, I suspect that statements like yours fall in the category of "I do not know how, therefore I think no one knows how and I also think it cannot be figured out by anyone." Maybe you can't figure it out. But since forums do exist which were developed from scratch, I don't think that means no one can figure it out.

This is entirely wrong. From personal experience, I've seen one of our forums for a utility app, grow a nice little community with not so much as a single false post. Users started appearing by themselves after having tried out the app, and we ended up with a decent, albeit small community on the forum. There's plenty of other forums as well, that grows from a small group of real users. Hell, every subreddit starts like that, except apparently for the first ones populated only by the reddit founders.

I think a forum for an app is a bit different because it has a specific topic that makes people seek it out. No one is going to stay on a new discussion forum if it has no users and there are more options. Also, subreddits may start out like that, but have you seen how many are completely deserted?

You can seed a community without engaging in deceptive practices. At least you could, it may be harder now that some people are doing it. As usual...

I founded the largest discussion forum in Africa. I seeded it by posting good topics, responding to every topic posted by a newbie, and begging my friends to get active on the site. I believe deceptive practices are not required.

That post seems to corroborate what the grandparent says, not contradict it as you claim/imply.

It's hard, but doable.

Reddit doesn't lock people into 1 account. They're free to register multiple times.

It's common practice to use throwaway accounts when writing personally.

Any successful social media or community site has some bodies buried somewhere. The problem of getting a nucleus of 10,000 people or so engaged in some activity requires you to do something pretty aggressive to get their attention.

I don't think their lied, were dishonest or deceitful. Both founders will say in interviews that they used fake accounts, not try to hide the fact that they did.

For me there's a difference between cheating and hurting someone by doing so and cheating without hurting anybody.

Yes you could say cheating always causes damage in some shape or form and you would probably be right, but I'm not a good enough person myself to judge anyone on a such nuances of morality.

Of all not quite morally flawless sales practices this one is on the harmless end of the scale in my view.

> I'm surprised that this behaviour seems to be tolerated. Yes, it works, but so do a lot of other slimy subterfuges and shady business practices

I think this is not a fair comparison. Shady businesses try to rip you off and somehow give you less for your money - while they tried to set the tone and really submit legit content or as he put it "high quality content". So while the traffic in general was staged at least the content was in fact real and you had the real benefits of reddit.

I see nothing wrong with it.

As someone just starting out, you need to bend the rules once-in-awhile to succeed.

The problem with any forum is the chicken and the egg problem. You won't get people posting/coming back unless it seems like there are lots of people posting (the forum isn't dead).

You either need to fake the content yourself or pay people to do it for you. Most forums do this. There are many other types of sites that most likely need to do this as well (dating sites, for example)

Agreed. It is one thing to falsify customer reviews, for example, but something completely different to have several aliases to promote an active community. The information and links that were posted obviously provided value to readers. Who posted it is not quite as important. The same thing with Kevin Rose saying that digg was a friends site. People are naturally guarded against being sold to - even if the said item acutally does provide true value. People just want to decide on their own without the sales pressure.

The important bit here is

"...the type of articles they wanted read. This 'set the tone' for the site as whole."

The first few hundred users of your site will determine what kind of users the site will attract, so "being" many of the first few hundred users yourself makes perfect sense, if you want to be guiding your project and not just "hoping for the best".

One of the unusual experiences I had growing up in LA was a high school club fundraiser where we all went to a sitcom. Yes, we were hired as a studio audience for an evening.

This was clever because they gave us a reason, not just an individual reason but a collective reason, to be there. We felt more engaged with the experience, even when it dragged into the late evening. We actually ended up laughing, at jokes that were not that funny when they ended up on TV.

Ultimately, what they did to get us there enhanced the enjoyment of the later users... I mean viewers. I wouldn't hesitate to get early users the same way, for the same reason.

Getting people to sit in a seat in a studio and laugh for an evening is basically a solved problem. But getting a sharper-than-average, engaged group of early app or site users is still tough. And it's desperately needed.

As others mention, Mechanical Turk is a pretty bad fit. You're probably better off getting a few friends to be sockpuppets (be sure to pick less silly names than "Nutshapio" though). Maybe a startup founder could try taking inspiration from this story to turn their public beta into a fundraiser. Oh, and I can't miss this opportunity to mention the BetaArmy subreddit:


That's about it as far as resources I've run across for getting a great first hundred users. So what are the best ways everyone else has found (apart from being in YC)? Does anyone run a service to satisfy this need?

It set the tone for the first few months. It used to be about startups, tech, etc in the early days.

Now it's all lolpics, atheism, LGBT issues, drugs, anti-corporation/government etc etc.

The people who have most time to participate (Out of work, college students, etc) may not necessarily be the people you want...

If you are looking at the default front-page, then that can often seem the case.

But if you create an account (no personal details needed, just a username and password and there is no "no fake names" rule so there is no personal information needed) you can change the default selection of sub-groups and you end up with a rather useful (if still somewhat random) aggregator of interesting stuff. Those things you liked from the first few months are still there and if you select just those sub-reddits you care about. Some of the other stuff will still leak in, but not overly so.

Reddit is very large: there are almost certainly subreddits for that sort of stuff. As an example, /r/Haskell[1] is fairly technical (it is frequented by people such as dons[2] and gwern[3], and presumably they would've moved on from r/haskell if it became overly banal).

(Also, a brief googling turns up /r/startups[4], but I've got no idea of its standard of discourse.)

[1]: http://www.reddit.com/r/haskell [2]: http://donsbot.wordpress.com/ [3]: http://www.gwern.net/ [3]: http://www.reddit.com/r/startups

Alexis has posted about this before, a few years ago I think. He has lots of similar things on his blog about how reddit started, eg: http://alexisohanian.com/how-reddit-became-reddit-the-smalle...

The video is worth watching though, it has more insights than just fake users.

Aye, more in my GA class, Making Something People Love: http://generalassemb.ly/start/fundamentals-of-entrepreneursh...

I have a social travel product (http://wherescool.com) that I launched in 2009 with a team composed of 65+ "writer interns" I found off of the NYC Craigslist jobs section. We filled up the site with so much quality content it was written up by the NY Times within a few weeks.

Pretty sure I was inspired by Reddit at the time, and also Yelp which actually was mostly seeded by paid writers in the early days.

There's an art to seeding communities that I wish I had more opportunity to dabble in...

It seems difficult to get such a large team of quality writers. Did you pay them?

Nope. Everyone was an aspiring writer so the quality was significantly better than most user generated content

But after you get (or got already?) substantial income, I think you should buy them a beer, at least.

I have bought more than a few of them lunch / dinner when they're in town, some of the top writers I've written recommendations for and helped them find jobs.

But it wasn't because of any substantial income, those nice lunches & dinners probably got me a net operating loss for the year...

How did you pitch it to them?

They were interns looking to fill out their resume and clips with writing samples. There wasn't much of a pitch, some of them started contributing before they even responded to the ad

Cue up the "how dare they fool me!" comments.

I probably over-think things way too much, but every app or project I've created from scratch has caused me to ask myself questions about ethics and morality. Should I put that bogus badge on the site that says it's virus free? I know that it is, but does the fake badge turn me into somebody who's trying to "get one over" on the reader? Should I ask friends to participate in a discussion they normally wouldn't? Is it okay to pay somebody to write an article on my blog? And so on. Some of these questions I've answered yes, some no. Many answers depend on the circumstances.

There's a reason you'd be an idiot to listen too closely to the HN crowd when forming your startup. If you did, you'd end up writing something everybody thought was the latest hot app and doing it in such a way as that it would never work. You end up chasing peer approval and executing in ways that you remain sure that people can't attack you. You do this instead of actually making something that people want and executing in the way that ends up helping the biggest number of people.

I am not getting into the reddit thing. I've made my peace with it -- if I ever launch a social site I plan on using/hiring accounts to make the place look busy. This is exactly the same as launching a new night-club and paying to have famous people drop by (and then paying for stories about them dropping by appear in the local press). Nobody wants to visit an empty site. So they won't. This is part of the normal operations of running a nightclub, and to me it looks like part of the normal operations of running a social site in the initial stages. (Side note: I can tell you something really weird is going on with Pinterest. I am not sure what -- whether it's just lots of marketers trying to game the system or Pinterest itself that tries to manipulate notifications to elevate engagement, but something's not right there. This kind of thing is par for the course and will continue to be.)

I once listened to a tape series on negotiation techniques. The guy made a very appropriate point: there exist these techniques in the world. It's up to you to choose whether to use them or not, however they continue to exist and be used no matter which decision you make.

It used to be I would ask myself questions about these techniques and then worry over what the community might think. Any more I still ask myself, and I think long and hard about the answer, but once I've answered them I could care less what the community thinks. Whether that's personal progress or not is open to interpretation. :)

I am fairly certain they still use "fake" submissions (and paid users) to great effect.

Recently a user "karmanaut" was exposed as systematically taking the highest-ranking comment of a previous picture submission and adding it to the picture when it was resubmitted (resubmissions on reddit are fairly common, yet they do make the frontpage again and again). It was clearly done with the help of a bot. The moderators initially deleted the thread that pointed to his shenanigans.

A lot of front page submissions originate from the same dozen-or-so people who are apparently on reddit all day long. I would not be surprised if - just like owners of YouTube channels - there are content creators in reddit that get paid as such.

If it works, it works.

You often have to seed a social site in order for it to be compelling for people to consume. Once they're hooked, then they start submitting.

As long as the quality is good, I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing.

I've built a number of social sites for broadcasting companies and this is indeed common practice.

No-one's attracted to a forum filled with void. All you need is a few carefully constructed, interesting personas as a nucleus to kickstart, then gradually remove them once the community has formed around them and becomes self-sustaining.

This sounds pretty similar to the plenty of fish story.

Casinos have been doing it for years: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shill#Gambling

I say good job boys.

The take away here is not that they start social sites with fake content, but that in all probability, they never stop faking content and filtering the real input.

Boiler-room astro-turfing operations are SOP now for marketing operatives in both the commercial and the political venues.

The basic architecture of social sites is so wide open to miss-representation and gaming, its a marketers wet dream.

I'm sorry for saying no more than this because it certainly doesn't contribute much to the discussion, but this wasn't really a secret.

Fake it until you make it...

I'm in a situation where a user-submitted content driven site I'm about to launch is going to be in need of a lot of content to get it kick-started. Has anyone had any experience using services like Mechanical Turk (https://www.mturk.com/mturk/welcome) to do this?

Creating an army of fake accounts and doing all the initial seeding would be quite a heavy burden in my case.

The problem with Mechanical Turk is that you tend to get a lot of low-quality content. If people don't have an emotional investment in the site's success, they'll usually just write drivel and collect their fee. That sets a whole tone for the site which isn't really sustainable.

Common approaches I've seen for seeding a UGC site:

1.) Create lots of sock-puppets yourself and write/find the content that you yourself would want to read. Or get your friends to help. Example: Reddit.

2.) Write for your community. Don't worry about being big, just build something you and your friends would want to use. Once they start using it, they'll tell their friends, and you can get big later. Example: LiveJournal, HotOrNot, Fark, many niche sites.

3.) Scrape the hell out of your best competitor and then either provide a better user experience or SEO your site so you rank higher than them. Note that this is almost certainly against their TOS, is probably copyright infringement, and will get you on Google's shit-list, so you're in for a fair amount of pain if you're caught. Examples: Facebook, About.com, YouTube.

4.) Contact a couple celebrities in your field and see if they're willing to let you host their works, or if you can license their works with a revshare/partnership/whatever. All it takes is one really popular author to endorse you, and you'll get the halo effect of lots of less popular authors signing up because they want to be that one. Alternatively, be that celebrity yourself, so that people want to contribute to your site to bask in your reflected glow. Examples: JoelOnSoftware, Hacker News, StackOverflow.

5.) Be an aggregator first, nail your user-experience, and then once you have the visitors coming in, start adding your own hosting as a value-add. Examples: FriendFeed, many Google products.

6.) Throw money at the problem. Examples: Google+, Bing.

Speaking of #5:

A few days ago imgur announced they now have a host of extra (proper) "social" features, comments and the like. It made me realise that #5 is exactly what imgur has done, started out as a simple hosting service fuelled by the rising success of reddit and now they're branching out into their own community and removing the reliance on reddit one bit at a time. This definitely seems like the best approach.

I thought facebook seeded by selling itself as a service to be the directory++ for colleges et al, for a long time you needed a .edu email to sign up, and many colleges just signed people up as part of enrollment. Only later did they change to everyone, all the time (ca 2007 iirc).

Facebook initially started by downloading the photos off the individual house websites at Harvard. They were banned pretty quickly, but it got them attention. I think they switched to user-uploaded photos fairly soon afterwards (though I think a coworker told me that they were still scraping photos while they were Harvard-only); they'd definitely stopped by the time they got to Amherst in Oct 2004.

That was Facemash, rather than Facebook. Facemash was a 'hot or not' style site that Zuckerberg put together. I don't think Facebook ever actually scraped content for seeding purposes.

To be honest, the rate stuff spreads over campus list-servs I really don't think it was required at that point.

6.) Throw money at the problem. Examples: Google+, Bing.

5,4,3,2,1 all offer good advice.

6 could (will?) be a bottomless pit

"Creating an army of fake accounts and doing all the initial seeding would be quite a heavy burden in my case."

You don't need to actually create the accounts by hand, you just need some sort of admin mode that lets you submit content and then attributes it to a different account each time.

this, I did that for my website.

    generate a random username from a dictionary (what I did was combining two words from a dictionary of words (english.txt) and then shorting it if was too long).
    register the user
    post from his account

Mturk is great for menial tasks in my experience. ie. Click here, look at this page, and write summary. Even then a portion of users dont follow the instructions properly. I cant imagine using mturk to seed a site with quality content that other real visitors will be looking for. Your better off seeding the content yourself imho.

Oh god do not use mturk. Post about what it is and what sort of submissions you're looking for.

Not Mechanical Turk, specifically, but I've used other forum posting services in the past, and the quality was quite low. If your site is targeted at anyone but the most general audiences, I doubt it would be very useful.

For example, I think Reddit could have benefitted somewhat initially from random, paid people posting content, but I doubt a site like HN could.

I've worked with a number of large forums with several million users before, and this is often viewed as the best practice thing to do when starting out. Sites like Reddit are more sophisticated than your average vBulletin forum, but I imagine the principles are fairly similar.

Large forums with several million users are, by definition, NOT just starting out, so I'm not sure this experience is relevant.

My mistake. I should have stressed that these forums started out with no user base, and some of them without an original site.

And now Alexis wants to move Congress?

Also in Italy is a common strategy to fill of "paid content" such kind of sites (and also blog & forums) right after launch. It makes sense, indeed.... Who wants to partecipate to an empty reddit?

PG probably did the same things with HN. :-)

No but there was a user called nickb that was responsible for a disproportionate amount of content (excellent content) back in the day. There was a lot of speculation that nickb and pg were one in the same. Here are some posts for context:



Thanks! I had completely forgotten about nickb!

nickb...as in Nicholas Bourbaki, perhaps?


Edit: someone else who thought about this (much) earlier:


And this would seem to prove it:


A guy named Roth wrote a post, that got posted to HN, about pg's essay on how to disagree. pg responds. Husafan starts a dialog with pg. There's a response back, clearly continuing the dialog, saying "I felt like I gave that aspect of his post the reply it deserved", referring to "my essay", etc. but instead of being posted under pg's handle, the response is posted by nickb.

A little further down the thread, user ncart makes the connection:

holy sh*t!!! nickb = pg ????

I don't think he did. It started with a built in community, the people in the YC program. In fact at first it was Startup News not HN.

One self is not enough.

This rings true to me. Because one of the things that's shocked me about Reddit, on many occasions, is the great level of comedy, and sometimes just writing in general, in the comment threads. Not all the time, everywhere, of course. But many times I'd be reading threads and thinking, "There are some really talented folks in this thread, comedy/writing-wise, I wonder if any of them are sock puppets? Or moonlighting professionals?" Far above the average quality level you'd see in most other websites. Threads would just scream, "comment ring". Indeed the whole Reddit tradition of novelty accounts (eg. EverythingISayIsALie, InappropriateRemark) feels like something bootstrapped internally before taking off among real endusers.

This was just always a sense I've gotten about the site. Nice to hear some evidence that, at last early on, they were doing precisely this kind of thing. Perhaps it's still happening.

Pretty sure they didn't start almost any of the memes. I think they mostly did the fakery in the very early days, even before there were comments.

Yep, reddit is 4chan for soccer moms. There's not much real creativity going on there.

On that note, did you know that Trapped_In_Reddit scavenges the top comments from earlier postings and reposts them? This was a big thing just a few days ago. http://www.reddit.com/r/funny/comments/v6wz7/worst_hunting_d...

The concept of novelty accounts goes back to the earliest days of electronic text-based communication, and probably back to newspaper letter columns and whatnot before that.

Community building 101. If you want to start a forum you have to fill it with content first to attract real users.

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