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GiveWell, R.I.P.?

January 05, 2008

I've mentioned GiveWell in this blog before (here and here) and was surprised earlier in the week when I ran across this mea culpa posted by GiveWell co-founder Holden Karnoksky. At the time, I'd never heard of MetaFilter, only knew "AstroTurf" as a noun, and thought a sock puppet was something you used to sell pet food online. As for Holden's "lapse of judgment"? No big deal. The kid made a mistake but fessed up up to it almost immediately in a public forum. If only our politicians and business leaders were half as forthcoming.

A lot has changed in five days, and it's beginning to look as if Holden's fondness for questionable viral marketing techniques could cost him and GiveWell co-founder Ellie Hassenfeld their jobs and maybe result in the plug being pulled on GiveWell itself. To understand why, you should read through the 85 (!!) comments that have been made in response to Holden's original "I messed up" post.

So what is MetaFilter? And what did Holden do to incur the wrath of so many people who hang out there? Apparently, MF is a large online community (50,000+ paying members) built around a sort of blog-of-blogs concept. The site, which anyone can contribute a link or comment to, exists (in MF-speak) "to break down the barriers between people, to extend a weblog beyond just one person, and to foster discussion among its members." Fair enough.

And Holden's transgression? Here's how the MetaFilter wiki describes it: "Givewell is a charity organization that was called out in this metatalk thread for astroturfing in this AskMe thread. As the MetaTalk thread progressed, it was discovered that one of the directors of GiveWell, Holden Karnofsky, had participated in similar astroturfing on other sites and engaged in other unethical practices, by his own admission. The MetaTalk discussion also expanded from the specifics of the astroturfing episodes to include criticism about GiveWell's other practices and its model of philanthropic oversight." Oops.

I won't rehash the details of what happened next -- the MF wiki does a more than adequate job of that. I will note that within hours of Holden's post, Tim Ogden, managing editor of the Beyond Philanthropy blog, chief knowledge officer of philanthropic consulting firm Geneva Global Inc., and a GiveWell board member, had come to GiveWell's defense. (A fact that seemed to enrage more than a few contributors to the MetaTalk thread.) And by Thursday, Lucy Bernholz, author of the Philanthropy 2173  blog and also a GiveWell board member, had been ensared by the controversy.

As usual, Lucy handled herself admirably and responded to the comments left on her blog in response to this post asking for reader feedback about the situation with candor and equanimity.

And that's where things stand at the moment. According to Holden (in a comment under his Dec. 31 post), the GiveWell board plans to meet about the situation as soon as it can and will decide on the appropriate action to take regarding his astroturfing. The decision, along with an audio recording of the meeting will be posted to the GiveWell as soon as it becomes available.

In the meantime, I have a few observations of my own. Take them in the spirit in which they're intended -- and note that PhilanTopic has a moderated-comments policy.

  • Viral marketing (the point of which seems to be to deceive the gullible and unsuspecting) is an idea whose time has passed;
  • Online communities are a poor substitute for the real thing;
  • Unless you live in Myanmar or Zimbabwe, anonymity is the refuge of cowards;
  • Arrogance will always come back to bit you in the a**;
  • Self-righteousness, in any context, is a singularly unattractive quality.

-- Mitch Nauffts

Comments

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One thing has really disturbed me about this event. That is the near universal inability of the bloggers weighing in from the philanthropy sector to recognize or acknowledge the true nature of the offense. It is DISHONESTY. This is especially troubling in that trust is an essential component to the act of charitable giving.

"Viral" marketing does not imply deception. There are plenty of ways to entice people to pass on marketing materials without lying to them. It's just more challenging and generally requires providing something of value, such as entertainment or useful information.

If you read the metatalk thread intently, you will note that a good deal of the outrage was prompted by the fact that Holden's supposed apology was deceptive, and along with his offer of money seemed to be merely a desperate attempt to forestall further examination of his "astroturfing" activities.

"(A fact that seemed to enrage more than a few contributors to the MetaTalk thread.)"

Truthfully? Some people thanked Tim for contributing to the discussion and some disagreed strongly with the substance of his comments. But I can't seem to find even one who was simply enraged by Tim's having posted.

"anonymity is the refuge of cowards"

This has the faint ring of a schoolyard bully, "Meet me after school, or you're a coward!". My real name, whatever would you want it for? Truth is the currency of discourse, and deception is loathsome no matter the name you sign to it.

"Online communities are a poor substitute for the real thing;"

If by this you mean to criticize MetaFilter, as I member I feel a need to defend it (it should be noted that "paying member" means having paid five U.S. dollars, once - it isn't a subscription site). MetaFilter as an online community seems to do self-policing better than the "real" philanthropy community, at least in terms of honesty, and appears to have higher ethical standards, which I never would have expected. In speaking of Lucy Bernholz's involvement, you regard her as "ensnared", as in this isn't something that even merits the attention of GiveWell's board?

This entire experience has been shocking and eye-opening about the world of philanthropy and almost makes me never want to donate anywhere ever again. I just can't believe how many philanthropy people have been utterly dismissive about this. I would hope that if, say, a presidential candidate had done something like this you would at least find it a little bit unethical, even if you're willing to turn a blind eye to the director of a philanthropic foundation doing it.

I'd like to ask you the same question I've asked in a couple of other places, since you're followed them in employing the "real" / "not real" verbiage: if Holden had done the equivalent things in person or in print would you consider that to be unremarkable too?

And wait just a second, re-reading your list there... your objection to viral marketing is not that it's unethical or deceptive, but that it's out of fashion or no longer effective or something? You realize that viral marketing *includes* doing this kind of thing in person don't you? I guess perhaps I didn't really need to ask the above question. I give up.

Let's just get one thing straight:

The point of viral marketing is not to deceive the gullible and unsuspecting. Viral Marketing is defined at marketingterms.com as "Marketing phenomenon that facilitates and encourages people to pass along a marketing message."

Holden Karnofsky engaged in what is commonly known as "Astroturfing" which is defined at Wikipedia as "a neologism for formal public relations campaigns in politics and advertising that seek to create the impression of being spontaneous, grassroots behavior, hence the reference to the artificial grass AstroTurf" He posed a question at Ask MetaFilter (AskMe) along the lines of "Is there a good website that evaluates charities?" under the anonymous nickname "geremiah". Then, under a different nickname, "Holden0", he dismissed the two previous legitimate answers to the question and suggested his own website, givewell.net without disclosing his affiliation with the organization (Executive Director!).

This was not a one-time occurrence. He perpetrated similar opaque deceptions at numerous other blogs and websites to drum up traffic to his own website. It is left as an exercise to the reader whether these actions are good or bad for the philanthropic sphere in general and GiveWell.net specifically.

Here's another one: "Self-righteousness, in any context, is a singularly unattractive quality", but not quite unattractive enough to prevent you from saying "anonymity is the refuge of cowards", eh?

Thanks for the comments. I'd like to respond, briefly, to a few of the points made.

"DN" questioned my characterization of some MF members being "enraged" by Tim Ogden's defense of GiveWell and the sincerity of Holden and Ellie. I don't have time this morning to re-review the entire MF thread, but I do recall Tim being personally attacked by multiple (?) posters; it was hard to tell whether it was one person or more than one because the posts were submitted anonymously.

Nowhere in my post did I defend Holden's astroturfing.

I find that a lot of advertising and marketing either targets the gullible or is outright deceptive. Most of the viral marketing campaigns I've been exposed to, whether online or off, begin with a plug that is planted by the company or individual charged with getting the campaign started. In many cases (the majority?), whether the plugger likes/believes in the product is immaterial; the point of the plug is to launch the virus.

I wasn't "calling" anyone out when I suggested that anonymity is the refuge of cowards. I will say that the vast majority of the slanderous, scurrilous, insulting, and/or juvenile things said in the MF thread were posted to the thread anonymously. And over the years, I've observed the same phenomenon on dozens of sites or blogs with a public comments section.

Again, thanks for the comments.

Carson, wouldn't the definition that you use of viral marketing make any advertisement that ends in "and go tell your friends!" a form of viral marketing? I'm not in marketing myself but I don't think that's what the term refers to in popular usage. All of the examples of viral marketing I've heard cited have involved some form of deception in encouraging people to pass on the marketing message, in presenting the source of the message as one of their peers instead of a standard advertising outlet.

And things like product placement in movies or television would fit your definition too but I don't think are included in the category of viral marketing conventionally. Of course, Mitch could tell us what he meant when he said that.

Mitch, You may not defend Holden's actions but as I pointed out you and many other people in the marketing world are extremely dismissive of their significance. You said "As for Holden's 'lapse of judgment'? No big deal."

I didn't question anything you said about Tim Ogden or Holden and Elie's sincerity, I think you're referring to A Nonny Mouse's comment.

DN --

A quick point. As I tried to make clear in my post, my first reaction on hearing about the astroturfing incident was "As for Holden's 'lapse of judgment'? No big deal." (The quotation marks around "lapse of judgment" were meant to signal that the phrase was Holden's characterization of his actions, not mine.) The fact that the MF incident turned out to be one in a series of such incidents (as was subseqently revealed) makes it a much bigger deal.

DN says, "wouldn't the definition that you use of viral marketing make any advertisement that ends in "and go tell your friends!" a form of viral marketing?"

No, because viral campaigns don't need to say that. The audience feels compelled to share without placement or prompting. Yeah, here in the cold light of morning the marketingterms.com definition of VM is rather vague. It was just the first one I pulled up. Consider the traditional meaning of virus, and how it spreads, and I think it's clearer that VM isn't necessarily deceptive.

From the blog post: "As for Holden's "lapse of judgment"? No big deal. The kid made a mistake but fessed up up to it almost immediately in a public forum. If only our politicians and business leaders were half as forthcoming."

Shouldn't you be standing up for the humans on the other end of this chain of charity? Holden has plenty of powerful friends to mealy-mouth in his favor, but I haven't seen a single blog post on this issue that said "The people we work for, the ones that need our help and are our raison d'etre, deserve better than deception, dishonesty, 50/50 overhead, and Holden Karnofsky."

DN, I'd say that "viral marketing" generally refers to anything that catches on to the point where the corporation who creates it just sort of releases it to the wild, where it is then distributed by virtue of its being entertaining rather than to spread the word about a particular product or brand. The first example that springs to mind is the "subservient chicken" ad, where a man in a chicken suit seemed to obey commands you typed in real time.

Originally, this just sort of happened. Now, agencies have caught on and are playing to the idea, so some not-so-aboveboard things have started to go on, but no...there really wasn't any sort of dishonesty meme about it.

What Holden did at Metafilter, though, was the equivalent of a snake oil salesman or televangelist, who stands onstage extolling the virtues of his product and then "cures" a "random" person pulled from the crowd, but doesn't disclose that the person is actually an agent of the salesman. A big no-no. If what Givewell was doing was truly viral, Holden would never have had to astroturf, the thing would have spread naturally and organically on its merits.

Mitch, Allow me to reiterate here a bit of what I said in the MetaFilter discussion. GiveWell's appeal was based on the idea that the charitable sector was full of airy-fairy cretins and frauds, whose work could best be evaluated by transparency and hard-headed metrics imported from the for-profit sector. What's surprising is not that the MetaFilter community became enraged at discovering the fraud was on the side of the evaluator; what's surprising is that the nonprofit community hadn't become enraged long before at the assumptions contained in this latest effort to place obstacles between charities and the resources they need and then blame the charities because the problems left to them haven't been solved cost-free. Nonprofits' readiness to lend an ear to anyone who deigns to check in from another sector with a cleverly-worded slogan is a variant of the Stockholm Syndrome, in which prisoners identify with the goals of their captors.

I do think that disguising your voice before saying "Hey, there's a resource over here that might help!" is not a method of advertising your product, in any sector: it's the role of a shill in a three-card monte game. The Securities Exchange Commission has very strict and clear rules about this kind of manipulation of public opinion in the corporate sector; and if we're going to genuflect before our corporate colleagues, the very least we can do is adopt their entire catechism.

And -- in case this needs stating -- I'm not in slightest pseudonymous. I work in the sector and write about it on my own blog, nonprofiteer.typepad.com.

"I will say that the vast majority of the slanderous, scurrilous, insulting, and/or juvenile things said in the MF thread were posted to the thread anonymously."

And the vast majority of calm, reasonable critiques were also made "anonymously."

There seem to be at least two definitions of "anonymous" running around; both on this blog, and on Phil Cubeta's Gifthub, I've noted that "anonymous" comments are treated with disdain. But in Metafilter, comments are not viewed as "anonymous" simply because they're posted by someone using a handle, or nickname. After all, Mitch, you've used your real name here, but that in and of itself doesn't tell me anything about you. If I were to read through your past posts, I would learn about you, how you think, what your opinions are about things, and so on - regardless of what you call yourself.

Handles on Metafilter are often used as a way to express more about the poster than could be known if they used their given name. My handle, for instance, is rtha - which is a four-letter code for "red-tailed hawk". Now you know that I have a thing for birds, specifically raptors. You wouldn't have known this from my legal, given name.

Most of the regulars at Metafilter have a stake in their online reputations; they don't use a handle to hide, but rather to express more, and while I may not know the given names of most folks there, I can go back through their previous posts and comments and come to know them quite well. This, to me, is the antithesis of anonymity.

Thanks to Carson, Nevercalm, the Nonprofiteer, and rtha for the comments. You've raised some interesting questions -- and I have some questions for you in turn.

Unfortunately, I have to go offline and take care of some errands. I'll be back online in a few hours. Until then, all new posts in the thread will be held in the queue.

Mitch-

I was going to email you directly rather than post here, as what I have to say is separate from the GiveWell issue... but I can't for the life of me find an email address for you on this blog.

You said: "I will say that the vast majority of the slanderous, scurrilous, insulting, and/or juvenile things said in the MF thread were posted to the thread anonymously."

First off, I think "slanderous" is going a bit far.

My main point is that MetaFilter is far from anonymous, although it may appear so to non-members. People may not be using their full legal names at all times, but the vast majority post using one account. Their comment history is linked to this account profile. Some (I have no idea what percentage) include their actual names in their profiles, and external email and IM info, as well as links of their accounts on other popular websites. There's also an internal email system by which they can be contacted. Failing all of those options, they can always be replied to in-thread. There is only one true Anonymous on MetaFilter, which is an account that the moderators have set aside so that users can ask sensitive questions which they would not otherwise want to have linked to them. This Anonymous account is only used by the moderators to post questions which have been submitted to a queue for anonymous posting; ordinary users cannot access it directly.

In short, the postings you complain about aren't hit-and-run, ghost-in-the-night, Deep Throat anonymous postings. They are merely done under a username whose direct contact info is usually not made available to non-member readers as a guard against spam.

In closing, I'll repost a comment on anonymity that was made in the course of this GiveWell debacle. It was in response to the same spirit of antagonism against anonymity as you've displayed. Perhaps it will make you rethink the 'cowardice' angle:

"Not everyone has a Harvard degree, a few hundred thou in the bank, and a powerful, well-connected charitable board - lawyers, accountants, captains of industry - to back them up. Folks like us - Leona's "little people" - are well aware that even just a little negative attention from folks like you - a phone call to our employer, maybe, or some other way of using social capital that you know about but we don't - could crush the little hopes and dreams of our miserable little lives with great speed and finality.

We think GiveWell and the issues it raises are important, and we are flattered and pleased that you have chosen to listen to us. But your class of people terrifies us because we know you have all the wealth, all the connections, all the power; and at the end of the day, if we know anything at all, we know that what you say, goes.

If you truly want to dialog with us, stop asking for our real names; leave us the one pitiful shield we have against your terrible wrath."

Re: Nonprofiteer's comment

".. The Securities Exchange Commission has very strict and clear rules about this kind of manipulation of public opinion in the corporate sector; and if we're going to genuflect before our corporate colleagues, the very least we can do is adopt their entire catechism."

Sadly, in the most public case of astroturfing yet to take place in the corporate sector - the case of John Mackey CEO of Whole Foods - no one has resigned or been demoted, Whole Foods has proceeded apace with its purchase of Wild Oats Markets, the SEC and FTC have signed off on the deal (though FTC investigation of Mackey may still be underway, I'm not sure).

Taking your comments to be sardonic, it doesn't seem to me that you want to encourage GiveWell to go that way, as the overseeing orgs (SEC and FTC) didn't enforce any "strict and clear rules about this kind of manipulation of public opinion in the corporate sector." Instead they allowed the astroturfer to buy the astroturfee(?!) - what would the GiveWell analog be - giving Holden a raise and a promotion?!

Maybe the rules aren't so clear?

Maybe the nonprofit involved will show greater ethical standards than those enforced in corporate sector? Will you laud GiveWell then?

Maybe just none of it as black or white as we'd like to pretend it is, while writing from a distance.

Good point nevercalm, the subservient chicken is a good counterexample to the kind of viral marketing I've been talking about. But there's definitely a significant subset of viral marketing techniques that pretty much exclusively involve making the transmission of the marketing message appear to be a normal communication between peers or a normal communication from something that isn't regarded as a standard marketing outlet. I would point out that the subservient chicken example does not involve the transmission of the marketing message itself in a virus-like manner, it's more like product placement within a medium of entertainment. (That is, the spread of interest in the subservient chicken web site is much more comparable to the spread of interest in a good movie containing product placements than it is to what Mr. Karnovsky was doing.)

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