Transparency or FAIL

I’ve long been proponent of transparency in search engines and recommendation systems, on the grounds that transparency cultivates trust even in the face of the inevitable fallibility of algorithmic models. Perhaps my stance has an ideological tinge. But, as we’ve seen from recent events, transparency isn’t just an academic concern. I’d like to touch on three sets of recent incidents that highlight the need to take transparency more seriously.

Review Sites

Many of us may have had a good laugh to discover that a Belkin employee was using Mechanical Turk to pay reviewers $0.65 per positive review. In contrast, people were less amused by the allegations that Yelp was blackmailing the merchants reviewed on its site. And some question whether the business model of Get Satisfaction is inherently deceptive.

If there is a moral, it is that user-generated content assumes a social contract that the users and their opinions are sincere. We may all claim to be skeptical and cynical, but the repeated outrage at violations of trust suggests otherwise. Let’s not feign shock to discover that human beings are corruptible. But our systems should be less easily manipulated. A movement against excessive online anonymity would be a good start. There’s a trade-off between privacy and information accountability, and we should expect publishers to err toward the latter.

Social Media

Some might say I’m a bit overzealous on the subject of transparency in social media. But, as it turns out, I’m not the only one. Netezza, a data warehousing appliance company, operates a delightfully funny blog called Data Liberators. I commend them for a very perky social media marketing campaign. Except…they don’t make it especially clear that the site is operated by Netezza, and someone slammed them for it. I don’t think Netezza was trying to be sneaky. But transparency is a burden that falls squarely on content producers, not consumers–especially on marketers who aim to persuade. To his credit, Netezza’s VP of Marketing says that he intends to (but has not yet) put an About page on the blog, clearly indicating who runs it.

As it turns out, even the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is taking an interest in transparency in social media. They’d like paid endorsers to disclose their sponsors, and for both to be accountable for adhering truth in advertising. Legally enforced or not, that strikes me as a good principle for companies that have a long-term interest in their brand equity.

Site Search

I almost feel sorry for Amazon, given the PR fires they’ve had to fight in the past weeks. First, there was the simulated rape game that they briefly carried in their catalog. Then there was the girl-scout-cookie-gate, which still isn’t quite resolved. But this past weekend was a true PR inferno: even now, #AmazonFail remains the top trending topic on Twitter because Amazon apparently started excluding LGBT books from “some searches and best seller lists” on the grounds of their being “adult” materials. (Just learned: Owen Thomas at Gawker claims “well-known hacker has come forward and claimed the whole thing was his prank” and that he exploited the feature that lets Amazon users flag books as “inappropriate.”)

I actually don’t have strong feelings about what Amazon chooses to sell on its site, or how it chooses to present it. If Amazon offends me enough, I’ll shop elsewhere. If they break the law, I trust the authorities to step in.

But surely their marketing department cares about the damage that recent incidents have been inflicting on their brand. Moreover, it seems that they are a victim of their lack of transparency–possibly even to themselves!  If they could clearly and convincingly explain what appears on their site and why, consumers would surely cut them a lot more slack.

In short, be transparent…or FAIL.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

4 replies on “Transparency or FAIL”

For once a term in common use, “social media,” is apt. We all understand that there’s a huge variation in *actual* behavior in human societies and an almost-as-large variation in what is considered acceptable or ethical.

Deconstructing the term “social media,” we simply have a channel or locus (“medium”) for inter-personal interaction. We should not expect social media to be any cleaner or clearer than any other media or channel, which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t work toward acceptable-use conventions.

Required transparency sounds great, but a) it’s not systematically going to happen, b) there will always be cheaters, the folks who knowingly sell tainted peanuts, and c) there will always be gullible, apathetic, and/or busy people who won’t or don’t or couldn’t care.


Full transparency is aspirational, but there there are systematic steps we can take on the way there.

For example, blogs could require site registration or authentication through OpenID, TypePad, etc. That isn’t perfect, but it at least makes it harder to impersonate someone without an audit trail–as opposed to the current situation, where I have no particular evidence as a reader–or a blogger–that you are who you say you are.

Similarly, the FTC regulation may not be perfect, but it would establish penalties for passing off paid endorsements as sincere reviews. While I lean libertarian, I do see some merit in disclosure laws. Indeed, what the FTC is trying to do for media is along the lines of what the FDA is supposed to do for food–ensure that what we buy is properly labeled. It’s still up to us to decide if we want to consume what’s good for us.


Daniel, you are indirectly lauding what’s best about juried or edited publication: that there’s some form of editorial process in play that involves vetting and filtering and perhaps even, if not fact checking, verification.


I see a lot of merit in editorial process, but I think there are middle grounds. For example, major conferences (in academia and industry) invite speakers to give non-juried papers, relying on the speakers being incented to protect their own reputations by delivering good talks. If you don’t already have such a reputation, then you face a more arduous editorial gauntlet.

But all of the above take for granted that you know who the author is, and that an author’s reputation is persistent. That, in my view, is a major missing piece in so much online social media–most notably, comments on blogs.


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