Everyone knows that the market for products can be very competitive, and that the competition can often take on a distinctly shady character. What seems to be less appreciated is that the “marketplace of ideas” can be just as competitive, and often just as shady. The battles for “mind share” between one project and another, or even between one approach and another, can be fierce. At the more obviously commercial end of this spectrum are debates like NAS vs. SAN, 10GbE vs. IB, iSCSI vs. FCOE, end-to-end vs. embedded functionality. Often the commercial interests and biases of the participants are obvious, but other times less so. When Joe Random Blogger weighs in on one of these debates, finding out that Joe spent months and thousands of dollars to become a CCIE might shed some light on their vested interest. Other times, there’s no such obvious marker but the vested interest is just as real. This is why Stephen Foskett and others have called for explicit disclosure of such interests by bloggers. Full disclosure: I’ve met Stephen, I like Stephen, we’ve done an Infosmack podcast together and he invited me to drop by at a Tech Field Day where I got to enjoy some free food at EMC’s expense. See how easy that was?

Where things get a little murkier is where there’s not an obvious product involved, or where some of the projects are non-commercial. Some of the participants in the fierce SQL vs. NoSQL debates have a commercial stake, some have a personal stake, and some really have no stake at all beyond a desire to see open discussion advance the state of the art. Quick: which category do I fit into? I’m not even sure myself. I like to think I fit into the last category, but this stuff is not entirely unrelated to the job that puts food on my family’s table so arguments that I belong in one of the other categories have plenty of merit. It’s funny that in my day job I rarely get exposed to such conflicts of interest but as a blogger I do. I’ve been asked to write “objectively” about certain products or projects, or sometimes to refrain from writing about them. I’ve tried to ignore those requests as much as possible, and just write about what interests me . . . but I digress. What are we to make of sniping e.g. between Cassandra and HBase advocates, for example, when both are open source? At an even more abstract level, what about centralized metadata vs. “floating master” vs. peer-to-peer distribution, or using the same vs. separate algorithms for wide-area and local replication? What about public cloud vs. private cloud and the people who claim one or another is beneath contempt? The resolutions of such debates have clear implications for certain projects, and the participants are hardly unaware of that, but the debates are not directly about the projects.

All of this creates an environment ripe for manipulation by the less ethical. Here on this blog I’ve often posted about apparent instances of FUD and astroturf, which are two forms of such manipulation. Bloggers or Twitterers with undisclosed interests in one side of the debate are everywhere. I’ve seen one fellow with a vested interest in certain NoSQL projects repeatedly bash other projects quite savagely, more than once, for faults that his own pet projects still have or had until only a week before, without disclosing his direct involvement in the alternatives that remain after the bashing is done. One of the dark sides of open source is the practice of mining competitors’ code for flaws not so they can be fixed but so that they can be used as ammunition in the war of ideas. Perhaps the most effective technique I’m aware of in this area, though, is the wooing of converts. As much as we all like to pride ourselves on being completely rational and empirical, technology is still a social enterprise and nothing can help one side of a debate more than winning over a prominent member of the other team. “I used to believe in SAN/embedded/centralized but I’ve seen the error of my ways” can be very powerful. It strongly implies that the evolution from novice to expert and that from one position to the other are somehow linked. Novices are fooled into believing X, but experts have figured out Y. Sometimes I’m sure the change in heart is legitimate and sincere, driven by increased knowledge just as it seems or perhaps by the ever-changing tradeoffs we all have to make. (I’ve done this myself, with regard to storage vs. processing networks and the balance of traffic between the two in a distributed filesystem.) Other times, I’m just as sure that someone’s change of heart is the result of deliberate persuasion. Contact might have been deliberately made, perhaps through a mutual friend. The strongest features, situations, and (perhaps non-obvious) future plans/directions for one alternative might have been shared, all deliberately planned but presented as innocent exchange of ideas between colleagues. Sometimes a convert can be won this way, and since nobody is ever as zealous as a new convert the result can often be advocacy of the new preference even in situations where the old preference remains objectively better. Yes, you can buy publicity like that. What you can also do is create “moles” who gain some level of notoriety within a community – it’s really not that hard with emerging technologies – and then very noisily “defect” to an opposing camp.

I don’t know for sure how prevalent this sort of manipulation is. I’ve certainly seen plenty of astroturf and FUD, I’ve seen some of the attempts to persuade “thought leaders” one way or another, but I don’t know for sure if I’ve ever actually seen a mole. What I do know is that I don’t see everything, and I’d be a fool to believe these things don’t happen. The means, motive, and opportunity are all there. There are “social media experts” who are paid – and paid quite well – to do almost exactly what I’ve described; I’m sure not all of them have 100% clean hands. I’ve yet to meet a VP of marketing at a startup who would have any qualms, who would hesitate one second, over paying someone to do these things if they thought that person had the capability. I’m not saying we should all start jumping at shadows, but if you see a prominent advocate of low-cost open-source scale-out solutions suddenly start singing the praises of a vendor who is notoriously opposed to all three features, maybe you should at least consider the possibility that their change of position is something other than a total accident.