Is it fair to win a contest’s grand prize by exploiting an obscure loophole and cut-throat competition?
November 26, 2010 2:39 PM   Subscribe

Is it fair to win a contest’s grand prize by exploiting an obscure loophole and cut-throat competition?

Dear Hive Mind,

A friend of mine has a scheme to win an online contest which is fundamentally a kind of popularity contest. He had requested my help and I am trying to resolve how I feel about it. He is likely to win with or without my assistance, but the issue has to do with the morality of his plan.

The contest consists of placing an entry on a website consisting of a brief story with an accompanying photo. Visitors to the site may vote daily but not more than once a day for a month for the entry of their choosing. Since there is no great volume of traffic to the site, it is essentially a popularity contest. At the end of the month, the entry with the most votes is a monthly winner, gets a prize, and is entered in the grand prize contest. After 11 months, the 11 monthly prize winners compete for a much larger year-end prize, with the same rules. Though it is never explicitly stated in the online contest rules, he has inquired by email of the contest holders whether voting by proxy is allowed; they said it is. So he has marshaled his friends to give him their proxy to vote, and he visits the site daily to vote each of the many proxies he has collected. As he is recovering from serious illness, he has plenty of time on his hands to do this. In this way, he became the monthly winner in January. He crushed his opposition. No one else seems to have thought of this or at least not to have researched and executed it so diligently.

What seems to be borderline in terms of ethics is that he has chosen a friend to enter and win each of the monthly contests for all the following months by this method (successfully, it seems), so that by December when the final year-end competition rolls around, he will essentially have no competition for a rather substantial grand-prize (thousands of dollars of stated value). While falling within the letter of the rules, it seems to violate the spirit of the competition, which has the “stated” purpose of choosing the most appealing or deserving (or "popular") entry.

In actuality, the contest probably is meant to serve the purpose of drawing unique new visitors and publicity to the sponsoring website. This is not served by their allowing proxy voting, but perhaps not much harmed by it either, since each new voter has to visit the site at least once in person in order to register. The only way in which my friend’s scheme defeats this is by pulling so far ahead of his competitors in the vote count that he may discourage them and reduce their likelihood of enlisting additional friends.

With or without my help, he will win; the contest is thinly attended. Yet it just feels kind of sleazy for him to beat out his competitors by using the rules to compete so fiercely, creating an unbeatable advantage for himself by exploiting an obscure loophole.

Hive mind, what do you think?
posted by SamFrancisco to Religion & Philosophy (40 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Is it fair to win a contest’s grand prize by exploiting an obscure loophole and cut-throat competition?

It appears from your description that any one else could use this approach. He's not using an inside connection, falsifying data, pressuring the contest organizers, or using information others do not have access to. This seems entirely fair to me.
posted by jedicus at 2:43 PM on November 26, 2010 [3 favorites]

I can't really answer ethics questions, but "voting by proxy" is not an obscure loophole in online popularity contests - there's little difference in my mind between having 100 friends register an account that 1 person controls, and 1 person registering 100 accounts; the second of these is incredibly common. Anyone who sets up such a contest should be aware that sock-puppetry will occur unless it is discouraged via IP monitoring and other methods.
posted by muddgirl at 2:44 PM on November 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

This is 21st century America. This is how this shit works. He's not BREAKING the rules; he's winning by aggressiely playing by poorly thought out rules (c.f., Palin, Bristol, and Dancing with the (celebutantes)). So long as he's not asking YOU to participate, it's really none of your concern, is it?
posted by OneMonkeysUncle at 2:47 PM on November 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

He's not using an inside connection, falsifying data, pressuring the contest organizers, or using information others do not have access to.

I don't actually think the situation the OP describes is a big deal in reality, but while we are having the discussion on matters of principle — if I understand correctly, isn't it somewhat similar to a participant in a sports game agreeing in advance to lose? That's generally considered an unethical approach in competition. (Mainly where gambling is involved, to be fair, but still...)
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 2:48 PM on November 26, 2010

I think it's fine- it's allowed within the rules, and he's recruiting friends and (if I'm understanding correctly) they still have to visit the site at least once. It's not like he's fabricating names and email addresses. If someone else cares as much about the contest as your friend, then they could easily do the same thing. This is just an example of how competitive people win...they care more to make extra effort and will use every advantage to do so. Besides, you say they guy's recovering from a serious illness- cut him some slack and be happy for him if he does indeed win!
posted by emd3737 at 2:49 PM on November 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Sketchy" techniques are so common with internet voting contests that whoever is running or participating must know what they are getting into. If I were another contestant, I'd shrug and chalk it up to the nature of internet voting. Those things are never very legitimate.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:50 PM on November 26, 2010

Nothing about this sounds like he is cheating, and the contest's purpose -- bringing more people to the site -- is for the host to control and enforce, not the people in the contest. I don't see it as cheating or unfairness any more than what Michael Larson did on Press Your Luck. Just ingenuity in action.
posted by griphus at 2:51 PM on November 26, 2010

I don't think he's "exploiting a loophole," I think he's flat-out gaming the system. In other words, he's not doing this by being clever, he's doing this by brute force; he's willing to exert more effort to influence people to vote for him than others are.

If this web site is so obscure that he's able to exploit it by making use of people he knows in real life, and is owning it so hard he's even able to manipulate who won the other 11 times, I find it hard to believe that this "victory" really matters. It's interesting that the prize is actually worth something, though, and that does sorta make it cross the line from odd to outright appalling.

I wouldn't participate in his scheme, if that's what you're wondering; if a friend of mine proposed this, I wouldn't make a grand lecture; I'd just laugh at him and say I didn't have time. And I think it would make me lose respect for someone, but I wouldn't feel any duty to "blow the whistle," like I would if I saw someone shoplifting. If the site owners can't anticipate this happening and can't see the pattern as it is happening, they sorta deserve what they get.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:51 PM on November 26, 2010 [4 favorites]

I've won $15,000 in online contests through exploiting loopholes or outright sloppiness in the published rules. From your description, I don't really see any ethical issues with what he's doing. The contest organizers are trying to profit off him, and he's trying to profit off them. That he seems to be better at it than they are doesn't make any real difference.

And it's not an unbeatable advantage once another person figures out the loophole. If the contest organizers aren't getting enough entrants to attract more than one person who reads the rules looking for loopholes, that's on them, not on your friend.

It's not up to you or him to determine the "spirit" of the competition--that's something only the organizers know. Most likely, the spirit of the competition is "get more traffic for our site", which isn't something your friend has any obligation to honor unless the welfare of the site is more important to him than whatever prizes they're offering are.
posted by hades at 2:53 PM on November 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oog. Spending several hours a day for a year submitting proxy votes seems unfair to him (because it's boring and will crush him if the contest holders don't pay up) and unfair to the world (because he's not adding value to anyone else). I don't know whether it's legal. I suspect it's unfair to the organizers because I assume they're having this contest to get unique daily page-views, so if it's only one person with all the accounts, then I suspect the site won't make enough money to pay for the prize (not enough people will actually buy stuff from the site).

If your friend wants to make money online while bedridden for a year, I'd encourage him to create his own website and content and actually give value to people, or do what he normally does for work remotely if possible.
posted by sninctown at 2:56 PM on November 26, 2010

what muddgirl said - IP monitoring is the usual method for webmasters to discourage ballot-box stuffing of various sorts in contests.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:58 PM on November 26, 2010

sninctown's comment reminded me of this, for some reason:
posted by randomkeystrike at 3:01 PM on November 26, 2010

Speaking of stupidity:

Basic Laws of Human Stupidity
posted by randomkeystrike at 3:02 PM on November 26, 2010

What seems to be borderline in terms of ethics is that he has chosen a friend to enter and win each of the monthly contests for all the following months by this method (successfully, it seems), so that by December when the final year-end competition rolls around, he will essentially have no competition for a rather substantial grand-prize (thousands of dollars of stated value).

You're right, this is where it gets dodgy. The proxy voting thing is the organisers fault, they could have said no when he asked if it was OK and they could have written it inot the rules from the start. That really is just playing the game.

But he's got 11 other people to enter all with the intention of taking a fall at the end, effectively not competing properly for the final prize, and that sounds like match fixing to me. Personally, if this was my friend, I'd email the organisers and ask if they know about this and see what they think. If it's within the rules and they don't mind then no problem (and I wouldn't make it an accusation, just a request for clarification). But match fixing can be a kind of fraud, and possibly even illegal, and the organisers should have the opportunity to decide what they want to do about it. But then I'm not friends with the kind of people who would do this (possibly because they would not want to remain friends with me) so YMMV.
posted by shelleycat at 3:15 PM on November 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Fair? Maybe not, but then nothing is. Unethical? Definitely not. He basically asked the people who are running the thing whether or not he could do what he is doing. They said yes, and he's doing it.
posted by cmoj at 3:32 PM on November 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

that sounds like match fixing to me

I've thought some more about this. I think we can mostly agree here that the contest organizers get what they deserve; the ethical issue relates to other participants and potential winners of the contest.

If I understand the structure of the contest correctly, then at each stage, anyone else was free to win a monthly contest using the proxy voting system explicitly endorsed by the organizers. At the final stage of the contest, anyone else is presumably free to organize a similar proxy vote to try to cause someone other than the OP's friend to win (though that winner would be in on the scheme too). Therefore, strictly on the matter of fair competition, nobody is being denied an equal chance to compete, or to try to elevate whomever they wish to the top spot.

However, if one of the other monthly winners did win the annual prize as a result of such an unexpected intervention, would they give the cash to the OP's friend, the architect of the scheme? If so, there is something ethically repellent about creating a situation where ordinary people are voting for one of several people, unaware that their votes are actually irrelevant, since the same person will pocket the cash however they vote.

Like I say, this is a discussion on principles. In reality I think I would find it hard to get very worked up about the scheme as described.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 3:35 PM on November 26, 2010

If I understand the structure of the contest correctly, then at each stage, anyone else was free to win a monthly contest using the proxy voting system explicitly endorsed by the organizers.

I agree with this. I just think that when the other people signing up specifically and intentionally try to not win the final competition that it crosses the line. The organisers may disagree with me and decide that it's their fault for opening the proxy voting can of worms in the first place. I just think they should be given the chance to figure that out for themselves.
posted by shelleycat at 3:39 PM on November 26, 2010

Just because something is easy, anyone could do it, and the organizers could have prevented it, doesn't mean it's ethical. I'm a little surprised that so many prior comments here aren't making the distinction. This is similar to (although I'm not sure whether it's identical to) the principle of the Tragedy of the commons, in which "multiple individuals, acting independently, and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen."

Somebody made this web site and wants it to grow. They wanted to bring more people to the site to support their efforts financially, perhaps, and also psychologically -- most people are more likely to keep making stuff if they believe other people are using it and appreciating it.

I would argue that, unless the organizers are 100% clear on the implications of proxy voting for their contest, anyone abusing that technique is in fact acting unethically. Not as unethically, perhaps, as staging dog fights, but if one is interested in whether it's ethical or not, I'd vote not.

And registering some of these proxies as cardboard contestants, then voting for them, is even more unethical.

Maybe he really really needs the money. Maybe he'll die without something he's going to spend the money on. Maybe he has a child who really needs for him to live. All that would be part of a different sort of question, though.

Illegal? No. Likely to be punished? No. But he's not doing society any favors. If he, in his bedridden state, enjoys the abundance of free and interesting stuff to see on the internet, then he might want to consider whether what he's doing undermines all that, subtly and gently, like water lapping at the base of a stone wall.
posted by amtho at 3:41 PM on November 26, 2010 [7 favorites]

If one person registering sock puppet voters in the names of all his friends is enough to game a competition, the site has a worse problem than that one person. I guess I'm arguing from a strictly utilitarian standpoint, but here are the ways I see this playing out:

1 - The competition doesn't succeed as a marketing tool; your friend's strategy works. Your friend wins, the site loses.

2 - The competition doesn't succeed as a marketing tool but your friend has an attack of conscience and stops playing. Your friend loses, the site loses.

3 - The competition does succeed as a marketing tool; your friend's strategy is no longer effective. Your friend loses (although since he already won for January, there's a chance he still wins), the site wins.

In 1 and 2, the maximum good comes from your friend continuing with his strategy. In 3, it doesn't matter whether he continues it or not. So, from a purely theoretical standpoint, your friend's strategy may be iffy, but in the real world I don't see it being that much of a problem.

Maybe what you should do is bring the competition to 4chan's attention.
posted by hades at 4:38 PM on November 26, 2010

He's not BREAKING the rules; he's winning by aggressiely playing by poorly thought out rules (c.f., Palin, Bristol, and Dancing with the (celebutantes)). So long as he's not asking YOU to participate, it's really none of your concern, is it?

But you don't play against the rules, you play against the other competitors.

Does the site have a message board? What's the tone there regarding this?
posted by gjc at 4:52 PM on November 26, 2010

I think he's working within the rules given to him. The organizers are probably kicking themselves now over the proxy vote decision—they probably hadn't even thought about that before he asked them. There's a difference between being popular enough for people to register and then sign over their vote to you and popular enough to actually drive people to actively go to the site and vote for you every day. It would depend to me on whether or not it seemed like the contest was a fun throwaway thing, or if the site was "betting the farm" on driving some traffic and providing a prize they could barely afford.

<hmm>Is the scale of this contest small enough that a popular online community known for online poll shenanigans could crush his chances forever in one day while giving the site tons of new unique page views?</hmm>
posted by ctmf at 4:59 PM on November 26, 2010

The OP didn't ask about ethical, s/he asked about fair, which IMO is a much harder question to answer.

Is online voting sockpuppetry and fixing matches ethical? Almost certainly not. Is it fair? This depends on a lot more factors, such as the nature of the website being promoted and their web-savvy.
posted by muddgirl at 5:14 PM on November 26, 2010

Good point, muddgirl. I concede I wasn't addressing "fairness", and didn't really distinguish that from ethics until just now when I looked up the latter on

Still, while the title uses "fair", the question does mention "borderline in terms of ethics". Also, I think it's fair to use ethicalness as a standard, in general.
posted by amtho at 5:23 PM on November 26, 2010

I'm trying to fidure out what sort of website would have a small enough user base to make it gamable in this way and still give away thousands in prizes...unless the thousands were of its own service (web hosting, etc.), with an actual real-world value of not much.

I think the monthly strategy is reasonable, ethically. He asked and they answered. I think the grand-prize strategy is pretty cheesy and quite probably NOT what the site was thinking. He asked about the monthly, have him ask about the grand prize.
posted by maxwelton at 6:29 PM on November 26, 2010

Make a throw-away G-mail account and let the website organizers know about the situation. If they don't ban him, then they are clearly OK with the technique and your conscience should be clear.

I'd say that he's engaging in unsporting behavior, but I'd not say that he crosses the line into unethical or unfair behavior.
posted by oddman at 6:39 PM on November 26, 2010

It's not unethical. But it's also not classy.
posted by Murray M at 7:27 PM on November 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Could some of the people who are saying it's ethical go into a bit more detail? I'm interested in ethical justifications for match fixing, beyond "It's not against the letter of the rules".
posted by muddgirl at 10:12 PM on November 26, 2010

Online contest? Ethics....hahahahaha!

The way this stuff works is that when someone finds an exploit, the contest people usually update the rules. If they don't...then its fair game. Its totally fair game here since he specifically asked them about it.

Not classy...but who the hell says "well at least Sanjaya was classy".

Classy is overrated. Working through loopholes to win a contest is totally underrated.

Congrats to your buddy.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:12 PM on November 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Furthermore, if it's not too much of a derail, is there an ethical difference between "numerous votes by proxy" (100 people register, after which their accounts are controlled by 1 person) and "ballot stuffing" (1 person creates 100 accounts and controls them all)? If this were a "real" election with a 1-person 1-vote ethic, both of these schemes would be problematic for somewhat-similar reasons, but does the anonymity of the internet change the justifications?
posted by muddgirl at 10:15 PM on November 26, 2010

seems to be borderline in terms of ethics is that he has chosen a friend to enter and win each of the monthly contests for all the following months by this method (successfully, it seems), so that by December when the final year-end competition rolls around, he will essentially have no competition

At best this is misrepresentation, if not a form of outright lying, and thus unethical.

is there an ethical difference between "numerous votes by proxy" ...and "ballot stuffing"?

The latter adds an extra degree of unethical behaviour -- adding forgery to controlling other peoples votes.

does the anonymity of the internet change the justifications?

The question should be: why would anonymity change the justifications?. This puts it in a clearer light -- there is nothing to suppose that anonymity should or would change the ethics of the situation. Broadly speaking ethics are considered with someones actions: virtue ethics emphasizes the character of the actor, consequentialism the outcome of their action while deontology looks at an actions coherence to moral rules. We could only make that claim that anonymity changes things (to permit things that would not otherwise be ethical) if we can show it affects someones character, the consequences of their actions or the rules that apply. This is hardly the case.

On rules: While behaving ethically requires following the rules it is a fallacy (Affirming the Consequent) to believe that therefore as long as the rules are followed the behaviour must be ethical.
posted by tallus at 11:51 PM on November 26, 2010

The way this stuff works is that when someone finds an exploit, the contest people usually update the rules. If they don't...then its fair game. Its totally fair game here since he specifically asked them about it.

But he did not ask them 'by the way, is it OK for 11 of my friends to sign up specifically so they can throw the final competition so I'm guaranteed to win?'. How can the organisers update the rules if they don't know someone is doing this? If it's so not a big deal then there's no reason why someone can't email them and ask.

I'd be interested to know what the friends are getting for throwing the final game. Do they get a cut of the final winnings? Or is their monthly prize bribe enough? They're pre-determining the outcome of a competition by refusing to compete in exchange for monetary gain, sports people get prosecuted for behaving like that.
posted by shelleycat at 12:56 AM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Be aware that the site may simply choose to dishonour his "winning" entry. There's probably a catch-all clause somewhere in the rules of the contest that allows that sort of discretion; or, even if there is no such rule, it's pretty hard to enforce these sort of things. I did something similar (I exploited the lax rules of an online betting agency to earn about $1200) and the online betting agency proceeded to freeze my account and withdraw most of my actual winnings. There was absolutely nothing in the T&C's that authorised the agency to do what they did, but what was I to do? I'm not going to resort to legal action to recover a few hundred bucks - it's not worth it. The same thing applies here. Don't count your chickens before they hatch.
posted by kid A at 1:44 AM on November 27, 2010


This was a good crack at laying out a structure in which to consider this problem.
However, the one mistake I think you make is treating the "success of the competition as a marketing tool" as too independent from the friend cheating.

The point of the competition is that hundreds of people turn up on the site to vote for their friends. This means lots of people who wouldn't have otherwise seen the site make a habit out of visiting it. If the friend is visiting himself, instead, he is denying the website the extra traffic which they are paying for, but still taking their money.

Hence, you should at least have a 4th option: "The competition doesn't succeed because your friend's strategy works'.

In this case, I don't see the "maximum good" that you describe for number 1. Utilitarianism is a little more sophisticated than that in my book.

My two cents:

- I agree that if the site's own rules allow this to happen, your friend is not doing anything that is outright wrong. But ethical behaviour is about more than just sticking to the published terms and conditions. Imagine a society where the measure of what is moral is whether it was included in the contract, or the small print. Thanks, but no thanks.

- Describing it as a "popularity contest", while tapping into a whole load of feelings about how much I hated secondary school, is unfairly colouring the situation. Running a competition of this sort doesn't automatically mean the website is owned by the mean , bitchy girls from when you were fifteen.

- In fact, we don't even know if this is a big competition run by a corporation, or a small competition run by a small company. If I had a badly financed internet start-up and my future was running on a competition like this, I would feel pretty sore if people online told me 'Sorry, should have been better at IP monitoring. Oh, and the market will eliminate the weak.' [This strikes me as a very American outlook!!! But I completely recognise that this bit of my argument is awash with sentiment]

- My solution: in this situation, I would politely and jokily turn down the friend without in any way being judgemental or questioning his morals. That's his business, and it's not worth making life difficult between you. I think the fact that he is recovering from a a serious illness should be your priority. If he is in financial difficulty as a result of his illness, and is depending on this money, I would look to see if their are other ways to find support for him first, before he screws over this website. If the bills are mounting and he can't find another way out... Well, that changes things.

If you feel obliged to do more to stop this, I would email the organisers to point out the obvious flaws in their system, without grassing your friend up directly. From then on, it is their problem to solve as they see fit.
posted by marmaduke_yaverland at 2:13 AM on November 27, 2010

does the anonymity of the internet change the justifications?

It changes the way we justify things in our own minds- we wouldn't behave that way at a work contest where such behavior would forever label us as skeevy. But since the internet is anonymous and "if I don't do it someone else will", it makes it easier to justify it in our minds. We take a behavior that we know is not quite right, assume that someone else is going to do it, and we transfer our guilt to that guy. He is the bad guy, he was the one with the creepy idea, and we therefore aren't damaging the contest by doing what we do. The contest was already damaged by that other imaginary guy, we are stealing from him, not the contest.

These are the same people who believe it is the other guy's job to stop them from doing wrong things. "Hey, they should have password protected it if they wanted it private" is the same concept as "hey, if that bank wanted to keep their money, they should have made their vault harder to break into," just on a different scale.

However, the one mistake I think you make is treating the "success of the competition as a marketing tool" as too independent from the friend cheating.

This is one of those logical fallacies (or cognitive distortions? both?) where we decide we know better how to accomplish someone else's aims than they do. "I'm helping them do what I imagine they are trying to do, so the fact that my behavior is selfish is irrelevant." It's like the bully who pulls down some nerd's pants in the middle of the lunch room, and then says "hey, you were the one who said you wanted to be more popular."
posted by gjc at 5:47 AM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for your thoughtful considerations and honest opinions. Marmaduke, your compassionate thoughts especially touched me.

I want to clarify a few details and unspoken assumptions in the hope of stimulating thoughts even more relevant to the actual situation:

This is my oldest and very dear friend, whom I have known since High School, and with whom I have shared much of my growing up, and whom I love dearly, despite having some habits that distress me. Our orientations to life have diverged somewhat. My friend is not in any immediate financial distress. Most people would regard him as wealthy. But since his childhood marked by financial anxiety, obtaining enough money to secure a comfortable future has been an important concern, and figuring out how to benefit financially has been an occupation and a subject of considerable interest to him. I imagine that deep down a part of him fears becoming ill and poor and medically dependent when he is old, despite this now no longer being particularly likely. This is not to say he is merely a miser. His life has been shaped as a skilled professional, and he has helped many people generously and compassionately. He has risen in his field to positions of considerable power where he has instituted policies that have benefited people in ways far more consequentially than I could hope to achieve. Along the way he has always aggressively struggled to be well compensated for his good work. One might say he has done well by doing good.

His recent illness was life threatening, then threatened to be crippling, and only recently does it appear that he will survive after long rehab relatively unscathed. I have tried to support him with compassionate and diverting contact through his illness. The contest was more of a diversion while bed-ridden than based on any financial need. A way of making lemonade from lemons, if you will.

I don't wish to give away details that will allow 4chan to pwn his winnings, nor do I wish the company to confiscate his grand prize when he wins it. He has worked hard to win, in his customary fashion. He has suffered greatly in his illness precipitated by a horrifying accident, and probably feels he deserves to be compensated for his misfortunes by winning, as much as any of the other contestants. I wish him well and in fact, I allowed him to enter me as one of the monthly contestants. There is no way that I or any of the other monthly choices could compete with his diligent voting, nor would I want to. I am not throwing the contest, there never was one.

Neither do I want to try to express my disapproval to him. He is relatively impervious to the kind of discussion we are having here. If I did suggest that he could benefit from a review of his attitudes, he would probably jokingly offer to relieve my moral qualms by offering to take my monthly prize off my hands. I have long ago given up trying to raise his awareness of his psychological limitations. My asking for guidance is because of the monthly gift prize [current retail cost is $99] I won as a monthly winner, which is turning into a spiritual albatross around my neck. Should I give it away or what is a creative way to dispose of it? Am I being pompous for trying to judge my friend's life choices or continuing to fantasize that I could teach him something here?

In summary, I harbor no ill will towards him. The company is a large one, with a considerable capitalization and a fumbling effort at a web presence that will not significantly affect its bottom line. The website is a very modest marketing tool, and daily the content changes in only the daily vote tallies. Once a month a new batch of stories appear. I used to visit it to see what's up; now, rarely, only to observe my friend's total dominance. I thank you for all the thoughtful responses and look forward to whatever the community may want to add to this new information.
posted by SamFrancisco at 7:52 AM on November 27, 2010

Popularity contests are silly. Online popularity contests are silly. If the organizers want to give free money away, well, whatever.
I view the ethical dimension here as trivial in the scheme of things, but others may see it otherwise.
posted by ovvl at 9:50 AM on November 27, 2010

A popularity contest, and he's popular enough to pull off this scheme involving a lot of other people's willing cooperation plus hard-working enough to organize it. Sounds like he should win.

I think you should see it as HIM winning ALL the prizes, and enjoy the one he gave you (by design, via the mechanics of the scheme) as a token of his appreciation for your help.
posted by ctmf at 10:46 AM on November 27, 2010

I am not throwing the contest, there never was one.

This is the same thing. Your prize feels like an albatross because it's a bribe for acting unethically. You've put your friend's financial hangups before anything else, and are screwing over the company in the process. So they've got lots of money, so does your friend. He's using you for his own gain and the whole thing feels icky.

I hope the company notices what he's doing, it's going to be pretty obvious from their side by the end, and decides what they want to do about it. Because if you'd been upfront with them from the start then this would be an entirely different situation, and as far as I can tell the only reason you're not pointing it out to them is you know they won't like it and will pull the plug on his winnings.
posted by shelleycat at 11:25 AM on November 27, 2010

marmaduke_yaverland: On further reflection, I agree that I left out a fourth consideration, but it's not the one you propose.

The competition doesn't succeed because your friend's strategy works.

The only way this happens is if you treat the contest as a contract between the web site and the friend, where the site is paying the friend to bring in new members. If that's what you think is going on here, then sure, the friend is acting unethically by breaking the contract. I don't happen to think that entering a contest like this binds you to such a contract, though, any more than buying a raffle ticket compels you to tell all your friends to also buy raffle tickets. The friend isn't preventing anybody new from visiting the site, even his friends whose proxy votes he's using. They're still free to visit the site, as is anyone else in the world. If the competition is so compelling, his friends are free to rescind their proxy vote and enter themselves.

Now, it could be that visitors to the site see that the friend is dominating the competition and decide that it's not worth entering the competition themselves. But it's not clear to me that that's a negative outcome. Is the site all about the competition, or is the competition a marketing campaign of a larger site? If the point of the competition is to draw visitors to the larger site, then any new visitors at all, even ones who are discouraged from entering the competition, are a win for the site.

No, what I forgot to take into account is the other competitors. Is his strategy fair to them? Well, there was nothing stopping any of them from adopting the same strategy. And if any of them had, it wouldn't have worked for either of them. So, I'm going to say that it's at least as fair as playing a full-court press for the entire game, or Driscoll Middle School's trick play, or swimming in a LZR Razer suit, or Francis Faure's record-breaking ride.

Is it unfair to use a strategy that's available to any other contestant? I still say no. But I see that the OP has gotten and flagged the answer he was looking for, so... *shrug*

It sounds like this contest has been running for 11 months, and the friend has already won 10 or 11 of the monthly prizes. What this says to me is that the parent site was asleep at the wheel. There's no way a single person manually voting on behalf of his friends should be able to win a contest like that---if the organizers were doing anything like a decent job promoting the contest, they would have attracted at least two people who play by that strategy, rendering it less effective. So, their marketing strategy has been a failure, but not necessarily because of anything the OP's friend did. Their failed business model is not his problem.

Am I being pompous for trying to judge my friend's life choices or continuing to fantasize that I could teach him something here?

... kind of, yeah. Do you eat meat from CAFOs, drive a car, buy consumer goods made using child labor, or participate in any other way in today's culture? None of us is untainted. What standing does anyone have to teach someone else a lesson in ethics? I mean, go ahead and judge away; knowing I'm a hypocrite certainly doesn't stop me from doing it. But in the grand scheme of things, accepting a $99 item for letting your friend use your name in an online contest is barely even a blip on the radar. If it makes you feel so bad, give it to someone who could use it but can't afford it, or sell it on ebay and give the cash to the next homeless person you see.
posted by hades at 12:40 PM on November 27, 2010

I think you've got this one the wrong way round. I don't think you've got quite the right question here, and it's worth thinking about why this has been the way you want to formulate the problem.

It sounds to me like you had two ethical impulses of your own that clashed. Those might be something like, "Be loyal and helpful to friends, especially friends in need," and, "Don't take what you don't know to be freely given." Your friend's request put those in tension. You took what looked like the easier way out and chose the impulse that wasn't going to risk getting you in trouble with your friend. But now you're in trouble with yourself instead, and you have your "spiritual albatross".

Now, one way to relieve the tension is to construct a great big Unified Theory of Ethics in which your friend was wrong to try this in the first place, and was therefore wrong to ask you to help him, and so none of this discomfort is really your fault. You can protect your self-image as a spiritually and psychologically enlightened person that way. But I don't think that's such a hot idea. And if you can hear the pomposity in wanting to teach your friend something here, I'd bet that at least a part of you has figured that out too.

I strongly suspect what you're really after is not so much the Unified Theory of Ethics as it is just plain old living in accordance with your values. (Ethicists don't seem to be particularly great at right living, by the way.) So constructing a big grand pile o' universalizing philosophy is not necessary. You know already that this was not okay for you. With that understanding, you can ignore the whole problem of whether your friend's strategy is universally understood to be sleazy (and hey look, it isn't) and start working more vigorously on the problem of honoring your own values.

An alternate way to approach the problem is to really open yourself to the understanding that you screwed this one up. Your problem here is not your friend's behavior. Your problem is that you did not take a stronger stand on behalf of your own ethics when you allowed him to enter you as one of the monthly contestants.

For the price of a $99 prize and no serious harm done to anybody, you've just taught yourself a good lesson in ethical predicaments. (I congratulate you on your sensitivity -- plenty of people would have pushed away that nagging feeling that something wasn't right.) You sound interestingly upset about this albatross. It may be that you've been needing just that kind of impetus to prompt you to look at whether you're honoring your values as well as you could be. If that's the case, I think that once you make some more values-driven changes in your own life, the prize won't bother you so much. You might even consider keeping it around as a reminder.
posted by sculpin at 8:13 PM on November 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

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