Should Forum Administrators Use Multiple Accounts to Boost Activity?
Several weeks ago, I asked our community about their thoughts on using multiple accounts to falsely boost activity in a new online community. Today, we'll be looking over all of the responses to my questions and breaking down the pros and cons of using fake member accounts on an online forum to make a website appear more popular.
I have witnessed the practice of using multiple accounts to falsify forum popularity for years, but sometimes it can go undetected. Plenty of community owners are turning to this method because it can be extremely difficult to start a new forum, especially in 2019. It usually starts with an administrator creating one other account. It may be because they simply want to participate in their community without the stigma of being a staff member, or perhaps they are nefariously trying to trick newcomers into believing the site is much more active.
They begin by replying to threads that they have already replied to on their original, primary administrator account. Then they can toggle between both accounts to keep threads active, by literally talking to themselves. There have even been cases of administrators using and creating custom plugins to allow them to swap what account they are posting from on the new thread / reply pages, to make it even easier for them to do this. I even saw one such plugin that falsified the publish time to make it hard for anyone to detect.
Detecting Multiple Accounts
Before we jump into some of the responses and statistics of this behavior, I want to share how easy it is to discover a forum staff member or owner is using multiple accounts to add content to their site. Perhaps these facts will help you deceive your own community with multiple accounts, but hopefully most of you will use this information to feel discouraged due to how hard it is to trick a community, or use it to discover the bad behavior on a forum you already belong to.
For one, we can look at the time of each thread/reply, which is why an administrator may be interested in faking the post times when they are on a fake account. If a user is always online from 8am-10am and never online from 10am-2pm, we can sometimes figure it out by noticing that two (or more) members are all following the same online time. Sometimes this is near impossible to do without randomly discovering it... For example, one time I figured it out (but not for many months) just by being a regular member who slowly realized that three key members were never online when I was online, but always online at around 8pm EST - most likely when the owner was back from work or something.
Another way we can detect multiple accounts being used by a community manager is by looking at the language used. Here's some things to consider...
- Punctuation, or lack thereof
- Slang and abbreviations (ex: y'all vs. you all, they're vs. they are, hbu? vs. how about you?)
- Frequency / types of mistakes (everyone makes mistakes, but if a few members are all making the same types of mistakes or at the same estimated frequency, it's entirely possible they are the same person)
- Keyboard or sticky-key errors (A certain letter being missed from several words suggests their key board is not registering the key press, or sticky keys making it be held down for longer)
- Paragraph breaks, run on sentence habits, etc
- General formatting - ex: lists, header text, etc
Elli, a member of the FP community, highlights the difficulties of maintaining multiple accounts...
I can see the benefit of this, but wouldn't it be obvious that those accounts are the same person? People have a "voice" that they use in their writing, and if that same voice is used throughout the forum under different usernames, an observant visitor would likely pick up on that. Would an admin want to try to change their voice, or just hope no one notices?
A lot of this comes down to general awareness. There will be very little times where you find yourself actively trying to figure out if an administrator is managing multiple accounts on their own forum... But if you know what to look for, you might end up discovering it without trying to like I have so many times. Or, if you disagree with my reasoning for not trying this in your own community, perhaps you can use this to do it better than the administrators who were caught red-handed in the past.
What Does Our Community Think?
When I asked the honest and website-loving community of Forum Promotion about their thoughts on this practice, there was an overwhelming number of people against it. Simply put, if your community discovers your deceit, be prepared to do a lot of explaining and perhaps even lose some members over the whole ordeal.
Over 64% of polled users claimed, "I do not support this idea." I am sure this majority can vary, but I wouldn't be surprised if some communities (that are made up of less forum owners and webmasters) saw a percentage as high as 80-95% of users voting this way. Even in our community of users starting new forums all the time, only 21% of respondents said they have used multiple accounts to deceptively boost forum activity in the past. There were absolutely no users that said they would still be willing to try it for the first time, and only 14% of respondents said they currently do it on their website. Respondents were allowed to choose multiple responses in the poll, so it's possible that some users have voted for doing it in the past and currently doing it which would cause some statistical overlap. With only 14 total users responding to the poll, we must be careful to not look too much into the raw numbers. We can however see that it is a problem that most users find off-putting. 21% of the respondents say they know someone who has done this, and only 14% of the users claim to never have experienced this type of behavior.
All of these statistics combined show us that a large majority of users are against the practice, don't want to try it and have never tried it in the past, and are clearly aware of the behavior. This tells me that webmasters are simply against it. It's not as if they have never considered it and are hearing about it for the first time. It seems very clear that using multiple accounts to boost activity in a misleading way is not a good idea for a new forum webmaster.
The Unpopular Opinion
However, there are always a few users who disagree with these thoughts, and we can't hate them for their opinion. In fact, our very own FP member 'dojo', brings up some good points that even I can find logical...
I have done it in the past and recommend doing so. Creating few members at first and doing some paid posting gives a brand new community that initial boost it needs. This way you can start some interesting threads, provide some content and get others interested.
So, while they do recommend creating some new members and sharing content from the other accounts, they also mention paying other users to participate in your new community. That makes more sense in my opinion, and I can even see where they are coming from. If users are joining your website for the quality content being shared and not because of an almost trivial statistic (number of members), then perhaps it's not the worst idea! After all, the content you share can be helpful and interesting, so does it truly matter if you share it from your own administrator account or another member account?
Personally, I love what John has to say on the matter. He brings up a great point that focuses on an alternative for boosting content.
If you're broke and 12 years old it's a good idea. If you have $5 going through that much trouble to spam the hell out of your forum is just a waste of your time.
It's true that with as little as $5, you can pay for people to share content and reply to your discussions. In fact, you can pay as little as $0.10 (yeah, 10 cents!) for 1 reply or new discussion. Unless you are broke, you can spend your time advertising, improving your website, and sharing content from your single account, and get some new content from real members (not fake accounts) with just a few bucks! It's a great alternative to deceiving your community. However, as John points out, spending money for content like this is not possible for everyone, so it's good to acknowledge that not everyone has the same opportunities and perhaps that makes it acceptable to create fake member accounts.
Healthy Ways to Grow Your Forum Community
Whether you want to try using separate accounts to make your forum look more active, or you're against it, you should definitely try out a variety of different methods for boosting traffic and growing your community.
Here's how to get started...
- Sign up at our official webmaster and promotion forum to learn from experienced community administrators, or share your own advice!
- Purchase deluxe posting packages from our dedicated content team, or check out marketplace offers from other members.
- Request some reviews from experienced webmasters who can help you change your forum for the better!
You can also try some of the following to improve your site's traffic and activity...
- Use social sharing buttons and sign up methods to make it easy to participate
- Install notification or newsletter plugin(s) to keep your members and site visitors informed
- Create unique content such as reviews, top 10 lists, tutorials, and opinion articles to stand out from your competition
- Start a bunch of new discussions so new members always have topics they can reply to
And don't forget, check out our recent article 10 Quick Tips for Growing Your Forum Community!