It’s time to punish terrible viral marketing

When D.C.-based developer Joel Housman spotted that he had a profile page on new “time exchange” site Allthis, he was a little confused. He’d never heard of the site, let alone signed up to offer people a chance to bid for 10 minutes of his time.

So he called them out:

It quickly emerged that he wasn’t alone: dozens, perhaps hundreds or even thousands of people, had profile details pulled from Twitter and added to the site without their knowledge. Sure, there was a small button allowing non-users to “claim your profile,” but on the surface, it looked like people could bid for people’s time when in truth, they weren’t even aware the service existed.

As the concerns spread wider — Instapaper creator Marco Arment protested, then Rob Beschizza at BoingBoing noticed he had one, and it turned out even GigaOM had a profile there — Allthis responded.

First they argued it wasn’t their fault these profile pages appeared: it was other users, who had simply recommended these profile pages should be added because they belonged to people whose time was worth bidding for. Then they made some poor jokes and said they were having their best day ever.

Eventually, they recanted by deleting non-user profiles and reaching out to a writer at VentureBeat (who had previously written a glowing review of the site for Mashable) to explain themselves publicly.

“The users on our site misunderstood how the system worked,” said founder Christopher Poseley. “Nonetheless, some changes must be made.”

Note however, they never actually said sorry. And the takeaway?

“We have literally seen our traffic increase 100x,” he said.

The rise of the shadow profile

Poseley wasn’t exactly contrite, but then again why would he be? While what Allthis did was dumb and invasive, it’s a kind of behavior that has become increasingly normal — even as users complain or get fooled.

Take Klout, the reputation ranking site which stirred up a similar controversy when critics started attacking its “shadow profiles” earlier this year.

Again, people were concerned they appeared to have a presence on a website they had never chosen to use — and one that was potentially illegal in some countries.

And again the site’s creators ignored that they were potentially misleading users in favor of an argument they could win. Klout founder Joe Fernandez, responding to GigaOM’s story on the issue, chose to focus on the narrow issue of shadow profiles that had been created for minors. The company, he said, has “taken steps above and beyond what Facebook does to make sure this doesn’t happen again” and “privacy is a top concern for us.”

The bigger problem went unaddressed, thanks to an excuse couched in the letter of the law but not the spirit. “We work really closely with the platforms (twitter/fb/etc),” he said, “and with our legal counsel to make sure we are on the right side of these issues.”

Sure, there’s always a legal get-out: some little button or line supposed to make it clear that these people aren’t actually using the service. That lets websites put the blame elsewhere, whether it’s the fault of their users, the fault of Facebook or Twitter for letting this data be collected, or — most worryingly — your fault for putting information out in a public place online in the first place.

But even if there’s a legal loophole, shadow profiles are a new form of spam — and from the outside, they do little more than make websites look bigger than they really are. Still, these examples are just the tip of the iceberg.

Viral marketing now means ‘social spam’

Zynga CEO Mark Pincus and his wife Alison ringing the NASDAQ opening bell

The bigger problem is much larger than just perceived infringements by the likes of Allthis or Klout.

Truth is, we’re rewarding this sort of spammy behavior at the highest levels — and we can hardly be surprised it trickles down to smaller startups desperate to puff their chests and look important.

Take Zynga(s znga), a company that has faced many concerns over spamming users. I am not a fan of the company’s approach to inserting viral elements into its games, but it has been massively successful in propelling the growth of the business. And regardless of the widespread feelings of irritation at its methods, money talks: that Zynga can launch on the stock market and raise $1 billion trumps any of our concerns about ethics or unfriendly behavior.

Then of course there’s Facebook, which takes an approach to privacy that largely seems to involve overstepping the boundaries, creeping everybody out, attracting the odd lawsuit and then retreating slightly. It’s the sort of inverse carrot and stick approach to progress that only a masochist would enjoy.

Facebook is even making arguments in court that everyone — including celebrities — waive their right-to-publicity by using its service, as Derrick detailed yesterday in his post asking whether we are all public figures now.

And rather than call out this as bad for users, investors looking to make money are tripping over themselves to strap themselves to these startup rockets.

I think what jars me the most is that these companies almost all claim to be “social”, but they are in fact employing marketing techniques that are uniquely anti-social. They use our images and our identities to fluff up their services and boost their bank accounts. They do all the things you or I would be pilloried for.

In the grand scheme of things, shadow profiles are just a tiny part of this encroachment. But they are still bad behavior that help no one except the companies involved (and even then, they probably don’t help them in the long run). Shadow profiles are precisely the sort of marketing method that has been rewarded — rather than punished — over the last few years.

Perhaps it’s about time we really held them to account for it.