Recently, I received the following email from a friend:
Dear iphone/ipod wielding friends,
I need a 99 cent favor. I just published my new app and I need a little help getting noticed. Unfortunately, the app store has a popularity driven system. To do well, you need to get into the top 100 list. Would you guys buy the app? I will generously reimburse you! If you can do it today, that would be great! You can use this link …
While I removed some information from the email so as to protect the identity of the sender, I have to tell you that my friend is a smart man and well-versed in online economic systems. Perhaps this is why he sent out the email.
The gaming of rating services is not new. An analysis of Amazon.com revealed that hundreds of product reviews are merely copied in part (or in whole) from other product reviews. Sellers and buyers using eBay’s reputation system are constantly under scrutiny against manipulating their own ratings.
Nor are academics immune from ratings manipulation. University administrators often engage in behavior designed to increase their institution’s ranking in US News & World Report, and professors are known boost their own ratings on the online website, RateMyProfessors.com, by posing as students.
The effects of early promotion are clear to those in business as well as academia: downloads encourage further downloads, readership begets more readership, and citations beget more citations. In social environments where users see traces of peer behavior, small early advantages can grow to become large successes, which is why glowing reviews, stellar ratings, and top listings are so important early on.
In writing this piece, I contacted my friend to reflect on his own email request. Would he be brazen, bashful, remorseful? He responded:
I see my email as a piece of shameless self-promotion with friends, like sending an article to colleagues, or telling someone you just published a book (and of course implying that buying it would be a good idea) … trying to get friends to buy the app is a common practice, but scarcely new to the online marketplace. Nor is getting your product in the best seller list new. Publishers of books and music have been trying to do it for decades.
Postscript: If you like this blog post, forward it to as many friends as possible!