When giving workshops about how to start an online community, I often suggest that sites "seed" their online discussions before public launch. There’s nothing wrong with doing a bit of seeding. When users arrive immediately following launch it ensures that your community is being used, that the first users have discussions to get involved in, and that users have behaviour to model their own participation upon. Opening an online community to the public without conversations is a bit like opening a new nightclub without music, design, or people – and as anyone who has ever arrived at a nightclub before anyone else, it’s not exactly the way to entice people to come back. So the idea of seeding, as advocated by myself and other online community managers I know, is to invite friends, family, and other potentially interested parties to participate if they want to. That way you get users you can trust to help you start the community whilst, at the same time, not damaging your credibility with the public.
Thankfully, I’ve never personally sunk to the level of community owners pretending to be punters although I know it happens and have seen it happen. Pretending to be a user whilst interacting with other users is deceitful and potentially harmful, not just to the trust a user has in you and your brand, but potentially harmful to them as a person. Imagine building a relationship with someone, thinking that they’re your friend, then realising that the person had actually been "pretending" all along and is in fact a paid employee of the website. Not a nice feeling, is it?
That was part of the issue with the whole Match.com Autumn Marzec date bait story a few months back. Now it’s alleged that technology company, Nvidia, has been caught paying "message board sock puppets" to befriend message board users and then talk up the brand. The story, spotted on Consumerist.com by Boing Boing is that:
Nvidia stands accused of hiring online actors to create dozens of personae in online forums, where they won gamers’ trust by talking about subjects unrelated to Nvidia’s products, and then splurged in an orgy of sock-puppet boosterism of Nvidia’s stuff.
(sock monkey image from here)