In case this term is new to you, a sock puppet is an online identity used for purposes of deception within an Internet community.
When Authonomy launched its ranking system, I was hugely impressed. It was clever, subtle and entirely positive; it was not possible for ill-natured competitors to vote you down (and believe me, this happens on some sites). The newly unveiled top twenty was full of quirky, original, well proof-read books of all genres; and I'm not saying this just because my three books were in the top ten. I had the advantage of being on the site since day one, and there were only a few hundred books to choose from; but people voted for my novels because they read and liked them.
But a problem soon arose. In Authonomy's FAQ is a cheat's charter:
'Our really savvy members know that attracting external readership can really boost their visibility on the site. So if you already have champions from outside the authonomy community – whether that’s friends and family, or visitors to your blog, facebook profile or other website, you might also encourage them to join the site and give your book their support.'
How many friends, family and fans does an unpublished writer have, people who have actually read and liked his/her book? I've got five, and of those, only my daughter has joined Authonomy.
But some members appear to have many more. Dozens. Who join the site in batches of six or ten, back one book, and leave for good. One book in the top five has over eighty of these obliging 'friends and relations', all of whom joined in the last twelve days. It's difficult not to draw the conclusion that the author is backing his own book under multiple aliases.
(Ah, but the IP address would give him away, you say. No, not if he has a non-static IP address, which is different every time he signs in.)
As you'd expect, his is not the sort of book which will light up the eyes of a Harper Collins' editor, should it hit her desk at the end of the month.
And it's not just that one extreme example, either. A whole batch of lack-lustre novels (and the odd quite good one) has sprung to the top in very short order, while truly excellent books are pushed downwards in the chart.
Authonomy is aware there is an issue. They said;
'We are sorry to say that a handful of individuals are attempting to fraudulently manipulate the authonomy rankings. This is unfair to the vast majority of users to this site. We would like to make it absolutely clear that we will not tolerate cheating and will take appropriate action.'
But all they have done is quietly remove a few votes from some unlucky offenders, while others carry on.
This is discouraging, to say the least, for those of us on Authonomy who rely on votes from people who genuinely enjoy our writing. And if things go on this way, I can't see any agent being impressed by the top twenty - and if the books there are uninspiring, why would she look further down the rankings?
Will the problem disappear as thousands of people join the site, sweeping the cheats away? I'd love to think so, but it's so much easier to manufacture votes than earn them.
What would I do, if I ran Authonomy?
- Allow only three 'friends and family' per writer, who must declare themselves
- Rigorously check the backers of everyone in the top five
- At my total discretion, reduce cheats' scores to zero and make them start again