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Last week, I wrote about Unvarnished, the 'Yelp for people' startup that has sparked a decent amount of controversy since publicly launching a private beta. In my post on the company, I echoed the sentiments of a good number of fellow bloggers and suggested that Unvarnished "may be 2010's worst startup."

Unvarnished's co-founder, Peter Kazanjy, left a comment on my post, which was shortly thereafter followed by an interesting comment from a fellow going by the name of "Mike."

The comment looked a little bit suspicious to me, especially given that it was posted less than 30 minutes after the co-founder's, so I checked and noticed that the email address "Mike" provided indicated that he shared Peter's last name. A little digging online appeared to confirm that Peter had a relative named Mike, so I figured one plus one probably equals two.

My suspicions were confirmed after Mike Kazanjy, Peter's brother, responded to me, apologizing for his "use of anonymous response earlier" but chastising me for spreading "inflammatory and baseless criticisms". It's worth pointing out that Mike did not use our anonymous response functionality, which is available to registered users; he simply didn't provide his last name.

According to Mike, the long and short of it is that there's nothing wrong with his comment. "The truth is that every single word of my comment is an undeniable fact" he proclaims. Unfortunately, anybody reading his initial comment can see that it was written to appear as an unbiased, non-conflicted statement from "Mike", a guy who just happened to think Unvarnished was a good idea and wondering aloud whether it could have been of use to his company in a particular situation.

From the first sentence ("I think this service could be very worthwhile") to the last ("Maybe this service could hedge out some of that risk?"), there's absolutely no indication that it was written by the brother of Unvarnished's co-founder or somebody who was in any way involved in the company. No legitimate excuse is given for the omission of Mike's last name, although Peter seems to believe that our comments system is to blame for his brother's apparent inability to say "By the way, I'm the brother of the company's co-founder" or even "I have a relationship to the company."

The comment left by "Mike", of course, has a name: astroturf. And astroturf serves one purpose: to mislead or deceive. Knowing that there's usually fire where there's smoke, I decided to take a look at some of the other blog posts that were written about Unvarnished, and based on a review of the comments left on them, it appears that Unvarnished's astroturfing may extend beyond Econsultancy.

On TECH.BLORGE.COM, a "Mike" chimes in to set the record straight about Unvarnished. He claims to be "a participant in the private beta." There are defensive comments from a "Mike" on Marketing Pilgrim and TechStartups.com too, and a quick survey of the comments left on TechCrunch's Unvarnished post reveals that people named "Mike" seem far more likely to support what Unvarnished is doing than those who don't go by "Mike". One comment from "Mike" on TechCrunch even says "I know the founders well". If you see some similarities in writing style and arguments across these comments and those left by Mike Kazanjy here, you share my company.

When faced with the evidence, Mike Kazanjy has confirmed that at least some of these comments were indeed written by him. The excuse: he failed to reveal his last name and relationship to the company because he wanted to avoid "personal attacks and threats". An especially revealing excuse given that Unvarnished -- the service Mike so staunchly defends -- doesn't provide individuals any ability to protect their profiles from the same sort of abuse.

Obviously, in the absence of other publishers looking at email and IP addresses, it's impossible to identify all of the astroturf comments left by Mike Kazanjy or people related to Unvarnished. But I would suggest that the odds Unvarnished astroturfed in only a few places are probably pretty slim. After all, if you astroturf on one site, what reason does anyone have to believe you're not doing everywhere else? Zebras don't change their stripes.

Astroturfing, of course, is something that goes on all the time on the internet. Companies hoping to create the impression that they're popular or on to something big will overlook the fact that astroturfing is usually pretty obvious to just about everyone. And they're willing to overlook the fact that glowing comments left by faceless people who go by "Mike" or "Melissa" or "Joe" or "Jane" usually carry little to no weight anyway, unless they're truly insightful, which they almost never are.

But the astroturfing confirmed here is particularly problematic and worth pointing out given the nature of the Unvarnished service and the arguments Peter Kazanjy makes defending it. Peter has spent a lot of time in the blogosphere responding to the criticisms his startup has received. A common thread: he would have everyone believe that anonymous users can be trusted to review co-workers and associates with integrity, and that the over-ambitious won't be dishonest and try to game the system. In other words, you can trust the reviews on Unvarnished, even if you don't know who is behind them.

Yet if Peter Kazanjy's brother is going to post supportive comments about Unvarnished on multiple sites without disclosing his identity and relationship to the company, all the while pretending that he is just some guy named "Mike" who thinks Unvarnished is a great idea, and Peter doesn't see the sad irony in this, what does that say about Unvarnished? In my opinion, one can only come to a single conclusion: Unvarnished talks a good game, but at the end of the day, the people behind it are willing to engage in precisely the type of behavior they say Unvarnished's users won't.

Photo credit: griffithchris via Flickr.

Patricio Robles

Published 6 April, 2010 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2377 more posts from this author

Comments (15)

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Dan

This comes across as mean from you Patricio; lest I accidentally engage you in a comment war of epic proportions myself, I'll just say that this isn't news, or a review, or even poignant, but a blatant display of oneupmanship from someone who has the platform to do it.

Dan

over 6 years ago

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Anon

Hi Patricia

I don't know much about Unvarnished (but you're kinda writing about them like they are a ponzi scheme or something!) - but haven't you just (albeit with reasonable intentions) just released a load of information about 'Mike' which was supposed to be 'not published' - or at the very least violated the spirit of what was supposed to be known about the identity of him? You may be right, but you kinda broke the rules to establish that.

Otherwise keep up the good work - i totally respect most of your output!

over 6 years ago

Stephen Logan

Stephen Logan, Senior Copywriter at Koozai

Astroturfing is probably one of the most irrational and irritating things about commenting on posts. It's not so much the reputation management aspect, what Peter (under his own name) wrote on the original post wasn't out of place in my opinions. For me it is those sneaky ones. The anonymous or 'one name' responses that glow with praise, leap to the chastised party's defence or provide 'impartial' advice. It is so transparent that I'm surprised that 1) people still do it and 2) anybody is ever duped by it. I think by outing Unvarnished you give a very good example of how widespread and underhanded it all can be. That said, I think it is perhaps a little heavy handed - devil's advocate and all that. Astroturfers should retire the alter-ego and just be honest. Say 'hey, we're having some problems to begin with but we welcome your views and would be happy to discuss it further.' Or 'we actually do this, this and this, although, as you say, we could develop a,b and c'. As I say, I think it was good that Peter responded and so fully to the criticisms in your first article. But that should have been it. Maybe a couple of updates as other responses came in, but to take the pseudo name route, big no-no. Sneaking around pretending to be somebody else, hiding behind an alias, is not good professional business in my books. That's something that a reputation management company should certainly be aware of. I'll be interested to see what responses you get to this one Patricio, a great read (and lesson to be learnt I think), even if I did want to look away at times.

over 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Dan,

  • Controversial reputation startup receives a lot of press for creating an anonymous "Yelp for people".
  • CO-founder's defense: people won't abuse the system. You can trust anonymous reviews.
  • Blogger named Patricio is one of many who writes a review critical of it.
  • Co-founder responds.
  • Co-founder's brother responds ~30 minutes later without disclosing who he is and pretending he's just a guy who likes the idea.
  • Co-founder's brother caught astroturfing, when confronted with evidence later admits to astroturfing on other sites.
  • Co-founder doesn't see anything wrong with brother's actions.

Given how many people have been concerned (and even outraged) about what Unvarnished is doing, I think the irony of what was discovered here is well worth pointing out.

As I said in my post, Unvarnished is engaging in precisely the type of behavior it says its users won't. The nature of Unvarnished's service makes that well worth highlighting, especially given the fact that anyone who is profiled on Unvarnished will have little ability to defend themselves against abuse.

Anon,

How did I break any rules? When confronted, Mike came out and admitted who he was. He even started posting with his name linked to his employer's website. A bit strange for someone who claims that he had gone incognito because he was trying to avoid "personal attacks and threats". As I said in my post, "An especially revealing excuse given that Unvarnished -- the service Mike so staunchly defends -- doesn't provide individuals any ability to protect their profiles from the same sort of abuse."

If Mike can go around posting anonymously pretending to be an unbiased supporter of Unvarnished but Unvarnished claims that this sort of astroturfing won't happen on its service, doesn't the public have a right to know this?

over 6 years ago

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ben

Sounds like a site that will turn into host for flame wars. I wonder if negative comments about the founders and their families would be removed from unvarnished while they refuse to remove damaging comments about others... anon posters are always going to be overly aggressive.

over 6 years ago

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Mike Kazanjy

Patricio, 

You still don't have a full grasp of how the site actually works. Like your readers have stated, this isn't news, and you are really just utilizing your platform to engage in poor professional behavior.  Further, you, the blogger, "outed" my identification in your first comment back, which violates your own site's anonymity protocol.  

The truth is that Unvarnished does incorporate a systematic way of moderating and attributing the strength (or weakness) of reviews to individual reviewers.  This is why a reviewer's identity on Unvarnished is not truly "anonymous" so much as the reviewer's name is "obscured".  You have yet to comment on this, so I assume you are unaware of or do not understand it.  

Your site, on the other hand,  has no way for readers to determine the credibility of comments...short of the blogger outing his commenter's identity, by email address, and then developing a personal vendetta against them.  

By the responses here, I think people are a little confused as to what "astroturfing" is.  For example, Chris believes that dirtyphonebook spamming all the articles re: unvarnished is the "same sort of behavior" and Stephen thinks that all the comment responses that I made were actually written by someone else (which would be a more accurate example of astroturfing).  Lets look at the definition:

Wikipedia defines "Astroturfing" as politicaladvertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but designed to mask its origins to create the impression of being spontaneous, popular "grassroots" behavior.

My comments regarding Unvarnished were not in any planned by Unvarnished members.  I work in a completely separate industry, and have no monetary interest in Unvarnished.  I was not even aware of their launch until Tuesday morning, with the techcrunch article.  You can even go onto my facebook account and see my, and my friends, reactions to the launch.  Knowing a bit about how the site works, as an alpha participant, I lent my insider knowledge in comments responding to non-factual and off-base claims by both bloggers and blog commenters.  This is not "astroturfing" as the definition would have it.  

No one cares about your desire to "get even", Patricio.  They are only worried about their own reputations, which seemingly might be at risk.  Again, this is not news, and you really just need to get over it.  People are likely to post your propensity for personal vendettas and avoiding logical and reasoned debate on your Unvarnished profile.

Good luck in the future,

-Mike Kazanjy 

over 6 years ago

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andrew

hay Patricio can you please help me out with a question i just bought a keyword domain to use for and affiliate program, and my question is can i just forward the domain to the my affiliate link or should a build a little website for it and have some kind of text link to the my affiliate link.  if you could help me out it would be great Thank You

over 6 years ago

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Red Rotor

I think it's unfortunate what has unfolded here, and I mean you Patricio.  You wrote a commentary about Unvarnished.  The head of Unvarnished provided a very cogent response.  Someone familiar with the matter also responded.  Both responses brought up valid points that deserve response.  Instead, I get to read through multiple responses and now an entire blog post about your claim of them astroturfing.  They're not, and some unknown portion of your audience (to include me) is waiting for you to move on.  Enough about the astroturfing; it's your opinion, and some of us don't agree, but it's all beside the point of the topic at hand.

over 6 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Mike,

"Your site, on the other hand, has no way for readers to determine the credibility of comments."

You're right, Mike. People are dumb. There's absolutely no way for an individual to assess the credibility of a comment without a secret algorithm running in the background spitting out some sort of reputation score for them. I mean, why would anyone ever read the actual text of a comment or try to determine the intelligence of the person behind it, right?

I'm still trying to figure out whether the comment posted by Stephen Logan, for instance, is more or less credible than the intriguing comment posted by an unknown someone going by the name of Red Rotor.

Red Rotor not only echoes your sentiments, but just happens to leave multiple spaces between each sentence and uses commas before every 'and' in the middle of a sentence (even when it's not gramatically necessary). Just like you. What are the odds of that?!

I suppose this is where we agree to disagree. I believe that people are generally pretty smart; you seem to believe the opposite.

over 6 years ago

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Mike Kazanjy

Well, Patricio, you could go ahead and check Red Rotor's email and IP address.  And perhaps out him, as well.  You could even cross-check the IP address with all other comments ever made on your board.  

But, you'll find that it wasn't me.

Wait, you mean that out of over 1 billion english-speaking internet users, many of whom's grammar was informed by United States public school curriculum, those grammatical coincidences couldn't be just that....coincidences?  Do you really find it so hard to believe that someone disagrees with you?  Or, to be more accurate, a few people (out of your small, yet captive, audience) disagree with you?

Stop insinuating things you can't prove.  You're losing readership over it.  

over 6 years ago

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Mike Kazanjy

Oh, and on the topic of grammar, you'll notice Red Rotor used the ever illusive semi-colon, which I won't claim to know how or even attempt to use correctly.

over 6 years ago

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andy

Hay Patricio can you please help me out with a question so i can stop posting this!!

 I just bought a keyword domain to use for and affiliate program, and my question is can i just forward the domain to the my affiliate link or should a build a little website for it and have some kind of text link to the my affiliate link.  if you could help me out it would be great Thank You

over 6 years ago

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Ashley

So let me get this straight.

Mike Kazanjy has nothing to do with the site that his brother, Peter Kazanjy, launched and knew nothing of it until the launch date.  ARE YOU KIDDING ME??

If you're going to lie, at least make it believable.  The whole unvarnished crew seems shady at best and evil at worst.  Their back-paddling and lies are starting to come thru into the open.

A site like http://www.dirtyphonebook.com doesn't pretend to be good.  It is what it is.  It's not trying to hide behind anything.  They provide a platform for people to use how they want to use it and don't moderate it and ban people left and right. And I RESPECT that.

Varnished on the other hand MODERATES and CONTROLS and MONITORS EVERYTHING you say, so you better watch what you say or get exposed or banned.  How is it truly anonymous if they require you to login in with your Facebook profile??  They're obviously data-mining and collecting data and trying to ruin people.

Ashley

over 6 years ago

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Anonymous

Look, I think there's a definite smoke and mirrors going on here. Undoubtedly 'Mike' should have disclosed the relationship and not pretended that he was a 'beta tester' or whatever. He may well say 'ah, but it is true I was a beta tester'... Yes, Mike, but what's the Elephant in the Room? What is the REAL reason you posted... were you wearing your 'completely impartial beta tester hat' as you fired off carefully worded posts which seemed to offer independent support to your brother? And the irony remains that a site which allegedly aims to reveal the truth is using the same techniques it would like to ban in order to 'manage' it's own reputation elsewhere on the web. So that's also double-minded. And they seem to also be hung up about 'DirtyPhoneBook' as if because this is the kind of thing this other supplier gets up to, then they feel justified. Yet, that's all a bit confusing because most of the readers will never have heard of DPB - nor were they mentioned in the OP. I'm a regular contributor and I've only made this anon because I don't want to be the next target in line. However econsultancy know who I am.

over 6 years ago

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Anon

Hi Patricio

When you initially started questioning Mikes comment (and it's legitimacy), you basically revealed his surname - which violates the spirit (and technicality?) of the privacy your comment system implies. Hey you are right his comment was illegitimate, and disingenuous, but you are supposed to be the journalist and above reproach. If you can't see how that was a bit wrong (despite what then transpired) then you need to take a look at your own standards. 

The more i read about Unvarnished the worse they sound, but we are supposed to be able to trust econsultancy and the anonymity the comments system offers. 

BTW the reCAPTCHA system on the comments system always fails me the first time i use it - all the time i think it is broken...

over 6 years ago

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