« UCC search arrives...manipulation and pollution to follow soon | Main | All user-contributed, all the time (almost) »

January 08, 2008

MetaFilter manipulated by nonprofit that reports on honesty and reliability of nonprofits

The New York Times today reported that the Executive Director of a nonprofit research organization manipulated the Ask MetaFilter question service to steer users to his organization's site.

This is particularly piquant because the manipulator founded his organization (GiveWell) as a nonprofit to help people evaluate the quality (presumably, including reliability!) of nonprofit charitable organizations, and GiveWell itself is supported by charitable donations.

The manipulation was simple, and reminiscent of the well-publicized book reviews by authors and their friends on Amazon: the executive pseudonymously posted a question asking where he could go to get good information about charities, and then under his own name (but without identifying his affiliation) answered his own question by pointing to his own organization.

When discovered, the GiveWell board invoked old-fashioned incentives: they demoted the Executive Director (and founder), docked his salary, and required him to attend a professional development training program. Of course, the expected cost of being caught and punished was not, apparently, a sufficient incentive ex ante, but the organization apparently hopes by imposing the ex post punishment he will be motivated to behave in the future, and by publicizing it other employees will be similarly motivated. The publicity provides an additional incentive: the ED's reputation has been severely devalued, presumably reducing his expected future income and sense of well-being as well.

Posted by jmm at January 8, 2008 08:23 AM