Ungrouply Thoughts

February 18, 2008

[Posted here by permission of the author, who asked not to be identified.]

This is not the first time this kind of thing has been done by people trying to cash in on YG message traffic (through back doors, of course, knowing that if they asked Yahoo for permission it would be denied), and it will not be the last.

So far it seems Yahoo is saying that it’s the local moderator’s problem, not theirs.  That stinks, from a user’s or moderator’s perspective.

Still, I have a hunch that if we give Yahoo really solid evidence of a blatant and ongoing TOS violation, especially a broad-scale one that could hurt their reputation if publicized heavily, they may yet act on it, if they don’t see any financial advantage to themselves in Grouply’s success.

From my experience with Yahoo, to get them to act on an abuse complaint, it must be accompanied by detailed specifics of exactly who did what and how it was done, in technical terms.  Sad that they won’t investigate and develop the evidence of it for themselves once tipped off to it, but then ask the FDA why they inspect so little of our food.  Enforcement is expensive, even when it’s relatively easy to do.

There is only one reason for Grouply’s existence: for them to make money when they turn on the data-mining to scour message content so they can target inline message advertisements (inserted at the bottom of every message posted by a Grouply user, riding the forwarding network as messages tend to do) and to target online context-sensitive ads for display to Grouply users while at their site.

It amazes me that advertisers invest so much in online and inline ads, but I guess it really does make money, considering the billions that Google and Yahoo have made over the years.  A penny here and there off each of billions of messages and millions of page views … well, it’s a nice chunk of change.

Consider how Waste Management, Inc., the biggest garbage company in North America, displays online ads in YG … especially in groups having anything even remotely to do with ecology.  One would think, now what do they need an ad there for?  There must be money in it.  If nothing else, just public relations value, which means money, too.

Grouply’s argument that they are providing a useful service to YG users is typical corporate propaganda.  I can see where some very tiny minority of YG users (1 or 2% at the outside over a long time) would like some of the features Grouply offers, but for the other 99%, it’s a pain in the ass and does nothing to improve their experience of YG (and excludes support for anything but YG message archives, I guess because there’s no money in mirroring the photos, files, links and calendars).

But Barnum & Bailey knew what Grouply knows … a sucker is born every minute.  They can be duped by enticements into trying it.  If Grouply can make one dollar per year off each of ten million people (10% of YG users), that’s ten million dollars per year.  That doesn’t count Google Groups users they are also pursuing.  And who knows?  They may be able to secure revenues more like $100 per year off only one million users.  That’s $100 million per year.

Being such a lame product, I really do expect them to fall flat on their faces and go out of business (these days $1.3 million in venture capital is not so “big” relative to the scale of things in their industry) … IF Yahoo or Google doesn’t decide to buy them and make it a “feature.”  Often the best thing that can happen to a startup is to get bought out by a bigger company, and that often means VP desks in the bigger company for the principals of the smaller one bought out.

(The fact that Mark Robins engages directly with us small fry users tells me that he doesn’t have very big guns behind him.  If he did, he would just ignore us.)

The Federal Trade Commission is tasked with enforcing the CAN-SPAM Act.  Unfortunately, under the Bush administration, the FTC is hobbled by understaffing (hard to fund some things while spending a trillion on a war).  I doubt they ever do much prosecuting of spammers unless they are really doing it big-time and make front-page news, or phishers making real progress in stealing credit card or bank account data.  As always, follow the money.  Enforcement activity is probably geared primarily toward situations where real money is at stake, or other kinds of severe criminality.

From things I’ve read here and there it appears that some of the avid Grouply fans are hoping against hope that their being chummy with Grouply CEO Mark Robins will help them get a foot in the door with a startup they think will “go big.”

Every minute of every day all sorts of untoward behavior gets rationalized under the notion that if it means making money, then it’s good, in a world where moral relativism is not just the norm, but the core of the worldview of the dominant belief system … one that many people live by, even though they don’t consciously choose it.  Most core beliefs come from conditioning, not choice.

Highly vocal Grouply fans seem to think that they have hitched their wagons to a rising star.  They see the rest of us as dupes and tools, while they alone see the light.  But it’s a red light, in my view, or at least an orange one, a warning about the possible future for things like YG, and the Internet in general, in a world where Money is God for so many.


Grouply Talk 2

February 18, 2008

[Posted here by permission of the author, who asked not to be identified.  Another part of a conversation between two moderators.]

… just some follow-up thoughts.

Almost certainly you have only a few Grouply users who might be affected if you use Grouply’s opt-out/disable access routine just released a couple days ago.  Even in massive groups with over 20k members they had less than one tenth of a percent Grouply users each, as of yesterday.  Most groups with 1k-3k members have only one or two Grouply users in them, so far, if any.

Grouply is still in beta, so it hasn’t caught fire yet … and they have enough problems that it may be some time before they do catch on, if ever.  They’re taking a bit of a beating from vocal opponents to their methods.

Meanwhile, I’m not thrilled about the fact that if even just one group member signs up with them, Grouply.com starts mirroring the group’s entire archive and keeps it indefinitely.  Even if you disable access, they still have not installed a means to purge what they had already captured of your archive.  I ran a test with a group that had only one message posted, and it did not get deleted after I disabled access.  They say they are still working on that.

Now I find also that even if a Y! group has its archive access set to mods-only or no access or even no archive at all, Grouply still starts mirroring postings as soon as one member joins them, and makes it available to any/all members of the same group within their site.  That’s an override of moderator control of access to their message archive.  The only way to stop it is for the moderator to use Grouply’s new disable access routine.

Without announcing it to the whole group, you could just quietly disable Grouply’s access, and send a private email to those few Grouply members saying that they can certainly continue as members of your group, just not with their grouply.com email address.

To find them, search for “grouply” in Management | Memberships.  As it stands now, every Grouply subscriber gets their email address for all their groups changed to @grouply.com when they first subscribe to Grouply.  They can change it back later for any group they want, or it will be changed for them by Grouply’s bot if they unsub from Grouply.com, but that search will tell you how many members at least tried it.  I’m sure it won’t be more than a handful in a group your size.

To block Grouply’s access to your group, see:

http://www.grouply.com/owner_controls.php

That also turns off their spam gun for your group (their “Tell Your Groups about Grouply” feature, which sends an advertisement to the group posting address).

Later, if Grouply turns out to be a safe product some day, and becomes popular among YG users (I doubt it), you can go to that link to re-enable access, too.
 


Grouply Talk 1

February 18, 2008
[Posted here by permission of the author, part of a conversation between two moderators]Before I say anything else, you can probably guess that if you open this topic on-list, it may become very hot and flood the board with OT traffic for a long time.  However, if you feel, as I do, that members should be aware of what’s going on, maybe you could post an announcement but restrict dialog on it, referring people instead to the group links below.  Then again, maybe you’ll like Grouply, too, and welcome their hosting a duplicate of your group’s restricted message archive (which they may already have)!

The message I sent you is a copy of the special notice that I sent the members of my groups.  Actually I first sent a notice just saying we will not permit Grouply users, no explanation.  One person asked why.  So I followed up with what I sent you, just for the record, knowing most of my members are not especially tech savvy and don’t care.  None of my co-mods had heard of Grouply until I told them they could not be mods with a Grouply-subscribed YID (before I decided to abolish Grouply users altogether).  But in the past they have given me nice positive feedback when I did things to protect the group’s integrity, privacy and security, so I know they appreciate the effort.  I have not lost any members over this matter, and would not care if a few left because they like Grouply.  Besides, they can be Grouply subscribers and just not use it to connect to my groups.

It seems to me that the way Grouply gained notoriety and public awareness was through spamming.  When you subscribe, by default you are offered a “tell a friend” box to insert the email addresses of others to receive a Grouply advertisement.  Some people have been using that to enter group -owner addies or group posting addies.  Then they also prompt you to say no to a default list of all the groups you belong to, offering a spamming gun to send an advertisement to the group message board of every group where you hold membership.  Then they also had a contest (not sure if that’s still running … see

http://theprizeblog.com/2007/12/01/featured-contest-the-grouply-nintendo-wii-and-ipod-touch-competition/
for existing Grouply subscribers where they gave away toys like an iPod and Nintendo Wii to members who recruited the most new subscribers.  These tactics generated a mass spamming effort among Y! groups, which aroused lots of interest, of course, though not good PR for iGroup Network, Inc. and its Grouply “service” (apparently incarnated at least partly by the principals of linkedin.com, from what I read in trade reports).On the advice of a friend with more experience in Grouplyfication, I planted a lurking account in Grouply temporarily just to see for sure how many people are using Grouply.  None were in my groups.  In the EmailList-Managers group, with 3322 members, less than 1% were using it, including two Grouply staff and, I believe, two moderators who are Grouply fans.

If you run a search on the word grouply in Management | Memberships, you’ll see address changes to @ grouply.com if any members signed up with them.  That happens instantly as soon as someone subscribes to Grouply.  (Sets them up like Freecycle Finder did … Indy Emails going to their Grouply address, and Grouply archives the “take” indefinitely.  Grouply’s bot — they prefer the word “application” or “service” — does the Yahoo email address verification in the background.)  They can switch to Grouply’s new “web connection” mode once they are signed up, where Grouply’s bot uses their YID and password to simply scrape the group archive instead of getting only new postings by email.  And they DO take the whole archive.  Supposedly their mirroring will eventually keep up to date by removing deleted posts, too, if you trust Grouply to do that.  I don’t.

They claim we should trust them because they have TrustE certification.  Yadda, yadda, yadda.

If a member’s address changed to grouply and back again, there’s no way you’ll know if it’s because they just switched their Grouply account to web connection mode for your group, or they quit Grouply, unless you create a dummy YID and sub it to Grouply to monitor your group.  That exposes your group to whatever risks may be involved, but within Grouply you can turn off the connection to your group for your dummy ID, and turn off visibility of your Grouply profile to other Grouply subscribers.  (It takes them a while to scrape an entire archive … in my testing I found that even for a tiny test group archive with only three postings, they did not pick it up within 15 minutes.)  Then, when you want to check on your group, you can temporarily turn on the connection for a couple minutes just to see how many of your members are using Grouply.  If you’re not inclined to block Grouply access (see below), this dummy lurker method would at least tell you how popular Grouply is among your members.  I doubt you have more than 1% Grouply subscribers right now, and I don’t see it ever having potential to go higher than 10% anywhere.  Not enough advantage in the product for the average YG user.  No doubt attractive only to a very specialized nitch, but its fans think it’s going to be the next Google or Microsoft, of course.

But it only takes ONE member to give them access to mirror your message archive to their server.

I guess you could also issue a poll to see how many of your members want to allow Grouply access, but I think it would be a waste of time.

Grouply claims not to let non-members of your group access your archive, but already they were caught with their pants down (admitted publicly by their CEO Mark Robins) letting a member pending approval in a group see its members-only restricted message archive … not hard to do when you have already scraped the archive using other members’ passwords.  They say they have fixed that problem.  What other problems may arise you can guess.

Another somewhat creepy thing is that Grouply subscribers BY DEFAULT (unless they turn it off) display to other Grouply subscribers a hotlinked list of the home pages of all the groups where they hold membership.  Nice spying tool.

Someone reported that they learned some rather private things about other Grouply subscribers in their group, like membership in a certain type of mental health peer support group, membership in a group for a certain sexual orientation, the member’s non-Grouply email address (because it was not turned off in their Grouply profile privacy settings), their real full name, etc.  People are notoriously careless about combing through all the privacy settings and fine print in “services” like this.  Sharing such things should be defaulted OFF, but Grouply defaults many of them ON.  It’s only a matter of time before a criminal stalker makes use of it.

It was interesting to see some Grouply subscribers belonging to as many as 500 groups, and people holding memberships in scores of Freecycle groups all over the country.  I guess they are doing research?  Stalkers, scammers, con artists, spammers, phishers and pedophiles are known to do research, too.  Grouply may become popular among that crowd.

And then there are those using Grouply’s subscriber spamming tools just to irritate people against Grouply!  Nothing like hurting someone from within their own system, anonymously under an alias.

Due to an uproar among mods/owners, Grouply just came out with a scheme to let group owners “opt out” (gotta love it) of allowing Grouply access to their groups.  It’s pretty simple.  Go to:

http://www.grouply.com/owner_controls.php

… and punch in your group name.  They email your group -owner addy an authorization code.  Go back to that page and paste in the code.  It lets you disable Grouply access, and you can go back and enable it later if you decide Grouply is a good thing after all.  Their “disablement” is not an absolute abolishment of the appearance of your group name in Grouply subscriber profiles, but reportedly they are still working on that.  They say they are going to come up with some other tools for group owners to control Grouply subscriber access, even offer a newsletter to owners with group stats and such.

Of course you have no contractual commitment from them that they won’t change their minds later about letting you opt-out of being invaded, or that a new owner of their company won’t change its rules.  I have not seen it added to their TOS.  Maybe they will get around to that.

If you use that blocking tool, Grouply subscribers in your group will have their email address set back automatically by Grouply’s bot to pre-grouply default (and they screw that up every time by setting the member to their junk free yahoo email address, not the non-yahoo one they had previously set as their primary, but the member can fix than manually … oh, and they don’t remove their grouply address as an alternate posting address in YG “myprefs”), and they’ll still be a member of your group, just won’t be able to access it via the Grouply.com site.

I used my temporary lurking account in Grouply to verify that the block works.  (BTW, I never subscribed that lurker to your group!)

Yahoo has been silent on the matter so far, but plenty of people have griped to them, and got standard “we’re looking into it” form letters.  I assume it’s just a matter of time before they pronounce a decision on it in their Yahoogroups Blog, as they eventually did on the Freecycle Finder issue …
http://www.ygroupsblog.com/blog/

I just don’t like the smell of the whole thing, and my group’s restricted, members-only message traffic is not on the market for them to use to generate targeted and context-based advertising (which they will do when they get out of beta).  I’m never fond of being told, as someone described it, “Guess what?  You’ve been hijacked.  If you don’t want to fly where we’re going, here’s a parachute!”

Besides, in my exploration of the product, I was not impressed, and did not find it gave me any advantage or “improved my experience of YG,” their pitch for why you should give them your password.  And they only grab your message archive, not files, links, databases, or photos.  Grouply CEO Mark Robins announced publicly that they have no interest in those YG features.  No money in it, I guess.

See also:
Anti-Grouply:
http://tech.groups..yahoo.com/group/ungrouply/

http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/grouplycomplaints/

Pro-Grouply (including Grouply’s CEO and another Grouply exec posting here):
http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/grouplyimprovements/
Even here, where the aim of the group is to help Grouply improve their beta,
less than 10% of the members are actually Grouply subscribers (I checked
from within Grouply), and even far fewer post via the Grouply service.  Most
of the members seem to be there just to keep tabs on what’s going on.

http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/yahoo_group_of_groups/

http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/EmailList-Managers/
Same moderator as the GrouplyImprovements group above.


Backfire in Grouply Spam Engine

February 18, 2008

Spam example received from grouply.com by a friend …

—————–
[Grouply graphic logo here]
Presented by Grouply.com

This announcement is sent via the “Invite to Grouply” feature at Grouply.com.

Grouply is offering new tools for freecyclers to improve their experience of Yahoo! Groups.

You can join our discussion group to help with developments, and to talk directly with Grouply CEO Mark Robins and other Grouply staff about your interests and concerns.  Visit the Grouply Improvements group at:
http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/GrouplyImprovements/

For another perspective, see:
http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/ungrouply/
———————-


Trust me, please?

February 18, 2008
[Posted here by permission of the author.]
Let’s see, so far we have at least these major screw-ups:
– Putting a loaded spam gun into the hands of fans with the enticement of a recruitment contest awarding Nintendo Wii and iPod, and refusing to turn off the spam machine fun-gun, under the silly notion that spam only once per group is not still spam.
– Sending spam with the “tell-a-friend” feature that delivers a message with a corrupted return address.  The “friend” receives not just an advertisement for Grouply, with Grouply’s corporate logo in it, emphasizing that it is commercial email, but also a hotlink to “become my friend” in grouply.com, and the return address is truncated and contains data corruption that makes it unidentifiable and unusable as a valid email address.  I have proof of this happening, courtesy of an actual, real, true friend who received it.  So that spam doesn’t have an identifiable source as being from a “friend.”
– Granting message archive access to non-members while they sit in the pending member queue.  I remember when they “fixed” that security breach, people asked things like, “How do we know you haven’t or won’t create more problems like this with your back door access caused by an irresponsibly premature public beta release promoted by spam?”  Sure enough, there are more …
– Granting message archive access to members in groups where the archive is set to mods only or is even turned off altogether.

– Failing to immediately purge archives of groups that have used their wobbly trial release of an opt-out owner blocking scheme.  This has been verified as fact.  Even a tiny test group that had only ONE message in it did not get purged after the block was turned on.  This was verified by turning the block off and going back in to see what Grouply had in its archive.  A message deleted from the YG archive (the only message in that archive) eight days earlier still existed in Grouply’s mirror archive.  Grouply members in the group are able to edit the subject line of the old message inside Grouply’s archive, comment on it, and send it off to other people both inside and outside of Grouply’s system, even repost it back to the group if they wanted to.

– Rationalizing away the obvious intrusion perpetrated on owner control of their groups by saying it’s just an email aggregator providing members another way to see data they already had access to.

“Trust me, I have TrustE certification.”
“Trust me, my lawyer told me you could.”


Last Spammed By

February 18, 2008

This is interesting.

When a Grouply user goes to their Invite Groups “feature” (spam gun), they are shown a list of all the groups where they hold membership.  Next to each one it says whether the group has been spammed yet.  For those already hit, it says:

“Last told about Grouply by [subscriber personal name] at [time] on [date]”

Too bad it doesn’t provide the sender’s email address.  But that usually can be found on their Grouply profile.


Grouply Recruitment Spam Contest

February 18, 2008

Ever wondered why there was so much Grouply-related spam flying around?

http://theprizeblog.com/2007/12/01/featured-contest-the-grouply-nintendo-wii-and-ipod-touch-competition/

or

http://tinyurl.com/3cxfo5

Nothing like enticing spammers with a Nintendo Wii and an iPod as prizes.