Astroturfing revisited.

by William Grosso

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A little over a month ago, the JBoss Astroturfing controversy erupted. It quickly died down, especially after Marc Fleury banned astroturfing by JBoss Employees.

At the time, I didn't pay much attention, for a variety of reasons. Among them were:

  • I don't find JBoss all that interesting. They make a good cheap J2EE appserver. Useful stuff, but not the sort of thing I think about on a daily basis.
  • Rightly or wrongly, it didn't surprise me at all. "JBoss caught astroturfing" struck me as having all the news value of "Bear shits in woods."
  • I had a few beers with Bela Ban about a week after the news broke. Bela's the author of JGroups and a member of JBoss. And he was mortified by it; he thought it should never have been going on. That reassured me quite a bit.
  • Marc Fleury, the CEO of JBoss "banned" it.

But now, I'm feeling more disturbed. For one thing, the ban is a model of not admitting anything. In fact, some of it ("I personally don't need a mask to speak my mind and one thing I can't stand is two faced hypocrisy.") sounds more like a denial than anything else..

For another, there's Rickard Oberg's weblog. In which he points out some very disturbing things. The least important of which is that in the comments on the note "banning" astroturfing at JBoss, there's some obvious "astroturfing" going on.

More importantly, some of the astroturfing comments were very personal. I don't know a lot of the history, and I might be being naive here, but I think there's a big difference between anonymously puffing your product (or dissing your competitor's product) and anonymously attacking people. I, for one, hadn't realized what was being said in some of the anonymous comments.

But what bothers me more than anything else is the following comment, also excerpted from Rickard's blog.

It only took Marc a week to resume his behaviour as he began posting as "Race Condition" over at TSS.

Has anyone else verified this? It strikes me that astroturfing was amazingly juvenile and unprofessional in ways that boggle me completely. But it's also the sort of thing that I can see happening by slippery slope, especially at a company that is hypercompetitive and trying to rise above the noise.

But claiming to have banned it, and then surreptitiously resuming the practice? That's quite a different level of dishonesty. If I were an investor, that's the sort of thing that would cause me to wonder if I had the right CEO.

Of course, it also causes me to wonder about the state of our profession. The reason astroturfing is so tempting for so many people is that we don't really have independent testing labs. What's the best database for a particular task? What's the best application server? What are the benefits and disadvantages of various pieces of technology? In an atmosphere where there are very few concrete and verifiable facts, the temptation to astroturf, and the reward for doing so, is much stronger.

Can anyone shed some light on this? Did JBoss really resume astroturfing?