The very popular blog aggregator The Hype Machine has a ‘Popular Page‘ that shows the tracks that have been most favorited in the last 3 days. This is a great way to find out what the music zeitgeist is. However, Anthony (Mr. Hype Machine) recently discovered that a number of highly favorited artists seemed to have reached the popular page by nefarious means. According to Anthony, it appears that a number of artists became popular when many presumably fake accounts, created from the same IP address in a very short period of time all favorited a single artist in an apparent effort to get the artist to appear on the popular page. This type of hacking is not too surprising – whenever you have a chart or poll that relies on ‘the wisdom of crowds’ you are susceptible to the shill who will try to manipulate the chart in order to promote their interests. We see this in online polls, social news sites and popular music sites.
When Anthony became aware of how the Hype Machine was being manipulated, he and the rest of the Hype machine team fought back, instituting a Captcha mechanism to prevent automated account creation, ignoring favoriting activity for new accounts, and keeping a much closer eye on new account activity.
But Anthony didn’t stop there, he went one step further. He named names. He posted on his blog a list of all the artists that, according to Anthony have “attempted to manipulate the charts on the Hype Machine”. Anthony says he published the list to “let everyone make their own judgments about quality, integrity and marketing strategies:”. But really, I suspect that Anthony’s real motivation was to shame those that would attempt to try to enlist the Hype Machine to promote their band.
A commenter on that blog post that claims membership in one of the outed shilling bands protests that they absolutely did not create fake accounts and they had been unfairly defamed (literally) by the Hype Machine. But Anthony responds with a list 4 tracks by the band that had each been favorited from a single IP address by over 40 separate, newly created accounts. Anthony says “Given that this is a time-consuming activity that primarily benefits you, you can see how it appears likely that you or your team may have been involved”.
Should Anthony have outed these artists? Surely the excessive favoriting could have been an overzealous fan that decided to try out a new way to hype their favorite band (to put the ‘hype’ in Hype Machine, if you will), and the band is blameless. But from Anthony’s point of view it doesn’t really matter. Anthony is going to protect the integrity of the Hype Machine and he’s going to do it by pointing to any band that has benefited from ‘unnatural’ enthusiasm. Even if it means public humiliation for the blameless.
I suspect Anthony’s next problem will occur when some pranksters realize that they can get any band blacklisted at the Hype Machine by a bit of nefarious activity. By simply creating a set of sham accounts and favoriting tracks by the vicitim band from those sham acounts, the Hype Machine can be manipulated into blacklisting and humilating the band. Is your ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend in a band? Get your dorm floor to create 50 Hype Machine accounts, favorite his tracks and watch the fun as he gets outed and shamed as a shill.
The lesson here is that charts that show popularity are hard to get right – they can be easily manipulated for fun or for profit. Anthony should be prepared to fight an escalating war against those that want to manipulate his charts. And the more popular the Hype Machine becomes, the bigger the target it will be for the hackers and the shills.