Tuesday, November 19, 2013

How did Blackberry manage to get tens of thousands of people to write bogus reviews for them, presumably for free?

“There is much to be said in favour of modern journalism. By giving us the opinion of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.” Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism

There was a lot of fuss surrounding the launch of BBM for Android on October 21st. The number of downloads the app from the troubled company was able to amass was surprising to most. 20 million downloads may be a far cry from the 350 million monthly WhatsApp users, but achieving that number in a single week is still impressive.

Another sensational thing that made the rounds around the interwebs was the accusations of astroturfing that comes from the thousands of comments and 5 star reviews that appeared to have been faked. Many sites noticed the repetition of a number of phrases, grammatical errors and weird collocations (what is the Blackberry team, exactly? Is it a team within a company of the same name?). Raveesh Bhalla from Phandroid came up with a clever way to sample these suspect reviews and he found out that at least 40% of the (then) 60.000 5 star reviews on the PlayStore for BBM contained these repetitions and thus, probably fake. He contrasted the numbers with one of the world’s leading chat app, WhatsApp. He found that there were only 15% of reviews for WhatsApp on the PlayStore containing the three phrases, and exactly none contained them in a single review.  

Of course, Blackberry’s PR promptly denied accusations that they had purposefully paid people to write these bogus reviews for them. Indeed, even Bhalla mentioned a number of reasons on his piece why Blackberry is unlikely to have paid for such a blatant cheating exercise.

A quick glance over these reviews showed that the majority of these reviews came from people with Indonesian and Indian names. Now, I can’t say much about Indian users, but for the tens of thousands of Indonesians who wrote the reviews, I can give you some insight.

The question that seemed to have baffled most people is, how did a company that has been bleeding in public for the past 3 to 5 years, managed to get thousands upon thousands of people to do dirty work for them for free? Their devices have been so far behind the curve for the past few years that their market share had gone from 50% to less than 4% in three short years. How can a company like this still have a strong group of followers willing to do dirty work for them for free?

This question stands upon the assumption that this group of people is aware of the company's mishaps. It also relies on the assumption that those people know that Blackberry devices had been obsolete, 3 to 4 years ago. The reality is, most of them are blissfully unaware of the aforementioned facts.

If you have been to Indonesia recently, you'd know that 9 out of 10 people there still think that Blackberry is the biggest smartphone company in the world. If you show the following chart to the average Indonesian or point them to this list, I guarentee most of them would drop their jaws to the floor.

But how is this possible? We live in this hyper connected world and news about Blackberry’s string of failures had been made public all over the media in the past few years. How could such a large number of people be unaware of the failings of Blackberry and shortcomings of their devices?

There are two factors in play.

Firstly, 3G and HSPA+ connection had only started to become widespread in the last 18 -24 months. Until as late as 2011 most residents of large cities in Indonesia still have to deal with spending most of their time on slow EDGE (2G) connection. Anyone who has been on a high end or midrange smart mobile device, either running Android or iOS would know that it is almost impossible to do anything on 2G connection. Blackberry devices, on the other hand, can work reasonably well even on such slow connection. BBM chats, the most important feature of Blackberry devices for most Indonesians, will get through just fine on 2G network speeds.

Furthermore, even today, data connectivity is still seen as expensive by most. For reference, I personally spend around US$ 60 a month for data on my single connected device, the Galaxy Note 8. If we factor in the data used by my immediate family, we easily spend more than US$100 on data every month and that's not including the amount I have to pay for the wifi connection in the house. If you have read this previous piece of mine, you'd know that 100 USD is around half of the minimum monthly wage of the nation or approximately a fifth of what the average mid management people are making. Obviously not many people are willing to invest as much for their monthly data connection.

For years, Blackberry devices had been providing a way for people to stay connected (ie, able to chat on BBM and occasionally browse mobile web pages) on the cheap. Indonesian Telcos offer a variety of Blackberry only data plans, with some going as low as $3 for 6 months! Of course these super low cost plans won't give users full internet connectivity, but for those people whose sole reason to use Blackberries was to curb their SMS spending, it is perfectly adequate. Besides no one expects to open the desktop version of websites such as The Verge on Blackberries, right? This is one of the reason why BB10 devices have not really taken off in Indonesia, because those needs a full blows data plan like Android and iOS devices.

The second reason is linguistic barrier. Looking at Indonesia’s neighboring countries like Malaysia, the Phillipines, and Singapore, it is easy to assume that Indonesia have the same general level of command over the English language. However, the reality is, for the majority of Indonesians, English is still a significant barrier.

The reason behind this is the fact that Indonesia was not a former British Colony, and had never been under an English speaking ruler for long periods. According to the history books, Indonesia spent at least 350 years under Dutch authorities and 3.5 years under Japan during World War II before declaring its independence in 1945. Following the independence, nationalism took center stage and the use of foreign language was generally seen as unpatriotic for decades. In fact, as recent as 1995, the then totalitarian regime conducted a purge of the use of foreign language in public. Billboards containing English phrases were banned and taken down, TV shows were encouraged to be dubbed into Indonesian instead of being subtitled like they had been for decades. Hence, although the country is surrounded by countries whose populations use English as second or even first language, for the majority of Indonesians, English is almost as big a challenge as one might observe in countries that do not use the alphabet script, like Korea or Japan.

With that said, it does not mean that Indonesians are technologically illiterate. A few days ago, TechInAsia noted that among the 190 million internet users in South East Asia, 74.6 million of them comes from Indonesia although internet penetration in the country is still merely 30%, far lower than that of Malaysia (67%) and the region’s leader in internet connectivity, Singapore (104%).

A market research firm found that only half of Indonesian internet users are still reading newspapers, with more than 90% of the country’s internet users rely on the internet for news. The island nation is also the world’s second largest Twitter user at 20%, far ahead of India whose population is four times larger (300 million vs 1.2 billion).
In September this year, GameSaku, a year old Indonesian mobile gaming blog was acquired by Tech In Asia after the blog reached more than 800,000 monthly hits. PicMix, a photo editing app from an Indonesian start up reached 15 million users this month. Earlier this year, EBay acquired an Indonesian e-commerce site to provide localized service. Clearly, Indonesians are a bunch of internet savvy folks. However, the linguistic challenge means that most Indonesians are reliant upon their local media for news. This is where the problem lies.

Take a look at this piece on “BBM astroturfing gate” published by the country’s number one newspaper, Kompas. Since Blackberry is so popular in the country and a large majority of the alleged bogus reviews were written by people with Indonesian sounding names, one would think that the respected newspaper would have attempted to offer their own insight or investigate the matter further. Yet if you clicked on the link, and hit the “translate” button, you’d see that the piece is nothing but a direct rip off of Android Police’s Ryan Whitwam’s entry on October 22nd. If I were Artem Russakovskii, I wouldn’t know whether I should be honored or appalled by this.

If Kompas was the Indonesian equivalent of The New York Times, “Tempo” , for decades, has been the country’s version of Times magazine. In July they released a news article announcing that Blackberry’s Z10 just had a price cut and were then being sold for $99 in the US, without any mention that the quote was for on-contract devices. Apparently, neither the writer, nor the editor were aware of how phones are normally sold in the States.

These examples were taken from two of the nation’s most respected news sources. It is not hard to extrapolate the state of the country’s tech journalism. Yet, due to the linguistic barrier mentioned above, the average Indonesian has no choice but to rely on them for news. Thus, for years, they have deprived of quality tech journalism. This is why Blackberry’s oh-so-public series of troubles had managed to stay under the radar for so long and explains how  the ailing company was able to maintain a strong cult like status and get tens of thousands of individuals to submit bogus reviews for their product, presumably for free.

This spells an opportunity for international media sites to provide much needed quality tech journalism to the world’s fourth most populous country. The key here, as has been previously implied, is localization. The Indonesian market simply cannot be treated like India or Malaysia. Many international companies understood this, including eBay, Melon, WeChat and Google. The question is, which one of the world’s tech media is going to crack this market first?

If you’re interested, let me know, I’m willing to help.