Posting on Branch, Geoff Stearns started a discussion titled “Seeding a new online community.” In his post, Stearns asks for ideas and practices for getting a new online community started.

He specifically references the video embedded at the bottom of this article. In this clip, Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman says that he, and the other co-founder Alexis Ohanian, grew Reddit by submitting content under many different usernames.

He explains that, when he or Ohanian visited the submission page, they would see an additional field that other users wouldn’t: a user field. In this field, they could enter whatever username they wanted and, if it was available, it would then be registered and the content would be submitted under that name.

“So, you would go to Reddit in the early days – the first couple of months – and there would be tons of content,” he says. “It was, I shouldn’t say ‘fake content,’ but it was fake users. It was really all just Alexis and I.”

Wow. We all know this happens. It’s not just registered members on communities, but all sorts of numbers, online and off. There is a temptation by some to beef up numbers related to their efforts in a dishonest way to make themselves more attractive to investors, subscribers, customers, potential members, whatever. About a year after Reddit was founded, they sold the site to Condé Nast and Huffman became a millionaire. If you can get an edge by tricking people and lying to them, there will always be people that take advantage of it. That’s not really my concern.

This is Not an Accepted, Respectable Practice

My concern is that Huffman is presenting this as a legitimate strategy, as something to be emulated. He has an influential opinion, but even beyond that, he is actually teaching this method to students as part of a Web Application Engineering course he is leading for Udacity. People may think “oh, it worked for him, he’s a millionaire – let’s do it!” That is troubling.

When students take courses like this, they believe they are being taught best practices, which they will then take out into the field and actually use. But, if you were to talk to veteran community management professionals, I believe that the vast majority would roundly criticize this practice. For good reason.

“My Number One Rule for Community Building is: Do Not Lie”

One such veteran is Derek Powazek, who commented on this topic. His thoughts are a must read (emphasis mine).

“People make their first impressions quickly and hold them forever,” he writes, referencing new visitors to a community. “This is no surprise and there’s all kinds of social science to back it up. What this means for a virtual community space is that the first “content” the user sees will form the user’s definition of the place forevermore. This first-viewed content will do more to drive future behavior than any interface decision, any set of rules. Starting off with excellent example content is the single biggest factor in predicting the quality of future contributions (at least, that you can control).”

“At the same time, my number one rule for community building is: Do Not Lie. The internet is very good at ferreting out liars. Community building is all about trust, and once you lose trust, it’s gone forever. Do not lie to your community. Ever.”

The Danger of Lying to Your Community and Playing With Their Emotions

I feel that this desire to lie comes from a bad place. It comes from a place where you forget that your community is made up of people, not of algorithms you are trying to trick. There is a simple scenario that is very real that should help you understand why this bad (if you don’t already).

You join an online community. You post, share and engage, and, specifically, you enjoy the contributions of one person in particular. You even interact with them in the comments or replies. (It’s unclear if Reddit did this, but honestly, it’s beside the point). They are one of your favorite people on the community. Then, you find out they aren’t real. Worse yet, the person who  manages the community knew they weren’t real and allowed it to happen. They allowed you to be deceived. What would you think of that person and that community? Hurt? Confused? Angry? No matter what, it can’t be a good emotion, right? It’s not going to be, “oh, haha, you sly dog. You got me!”

When you lie to your members, you are playing with their emotions. That is so dangerous. Putting aside community management, and how bad it is for you as a community manager, it is a pretty terrible way to treat another human being.

In the End, We All Must Pick a Side

If you just don’t believe that you’ll actually hurt people or don’t see anything wrong with it, here’s a selfish reason not to do this: the expectation that you will be caught. You should expect that, one day, your actions will come to light and your reputation will suffer. How much, is hard to say. But, why risk the skeleton in your closet?

There are a lot of unethical things that you can do to boost the activity on your community – for the short term, at least. Long term, these tactics may cause damage. You can deceive your members by creating fake accounts. You can sneakily spam other communities and try to poach members away. There is black hat and then there is white hat.

Pick a side. But, be prepared to live with it. Lie to your community at your own peril.