Fighting Spam With Neighborhood Watch

I thought I’d update folks on the progress of Neighborhood Watch and the state of spam on 43 Things. A little history is likely in order.

Neighborhood Watch was born when we realized that the vibrant internet community of 43 Things users working on goals and communing with one another in a non-commerical, non-spammy way was in jeopardy. Todd and I were spending our weekends closing hundreds of spam and commercial accounts. It started as a few per day and ended up being over a hundred a day and was on an ever increasing growth pattern. This became an unmanageable task and threatened to erode the spirit and community of the site. We even found a search engine optimization company (aimed at gaming internet search results) selling reports on how to spam 43 Things. This clearly had to stop.

In attacking a problem of this scale, we knew we’d have to turn to our community of users and a few automated tools. Enter Neighborhood Watch and automated spam-catching scripts such as Robotcop and Robotscout. Since Neighborhood Watch debuted, we’ve defeated more than 3,000 spam accounts set up to prey on 43 Things. We’ve also nuked a few dozen creeps and miscreants. Along the way, we’ve had just 2 errors – which happened to the same account. This problem was a result of another user misusing the tools, not a problem with the system itself. Since then, we’ve added additional controls to avoid user abuse of the tool.

Yesterday we ran into another error in the Robotcop and Robotscout spam-catching scripts. This error mistakenly flagged lots of good, long standing users. We fixed the bug this morning (although we do expect false positives to continue). But that error seems to have raised a number of questions, so here are some more details about Neighborhood Watch:

  • When a user is flagged in Neighborhood Watch, it is not a guilty sentence. Instead, Neighborhood Watch is designed to let the community vote on these things. So while upsetting that this bug flagged good users, the system worked in that not a single good account was suspended. Go team!
  • The system is not a simple thumbs up or down vote. It uses a voting algorithm coupled with voter reputation to determine whether or not to suspend accounts. Again, we’ve now suspended over 3,000 accounts with a very low error rate (1 account, wrongly suspended by another user).
  • The Neighborhood Watch tool allows a mistakenly suspended account to be quickly revived.

Hopefully this background frames how we arrived here and the overall benefit of Neighborhood Watch. Rolling out any new feature has some bumps and in this case we realize that these bumps were felt by many established users of the site. Sorry about that folks! I’d also like to thank everyone for helping make 43 Things a great place to improve your life and thanks for keeping the spam and creeps away from the site. We appreciate all your feedback.

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19 responses to “Fighting Spam With Neighborhood Watch

  1. Thanks for posting this, Daniel – this is the sort of transparency we’d like to see more of in the future!

  2. ToddSchoonover

    Thank you Daniel for your informative explanation. I agree with Dwlt that having communications like this one helps the user community understand what is going on. We don’t need to know the algorithms behind things (though I’m still curious about the cheer algorithm) and they really shouldn’t be public to prevent people from being able to abuse the system. But knowing that there was a bug in the system responsible for flagging many of the well established users of this system helps all of us feel more comfortable with this new system.

    Thank you for taking the time to explain it in a friendly and informative way. This is why you’re my favorite Robot.

  3. Thanks, Daniel, and all the Robots, for all the hard work — especially getting rid of the evil spammers AND fixing the Robotcop bug!!!

    CHEERS!!!

  4. Thank you. I think it can be frustrating for long-time users to discover they’ve been flagged. It is in the entire community’s best interest to first, not take anything for granted. I’ve been on this site for nearly 2 years now and can honestly say I have not had an issue with spam. That is a kudos to all the good work the robots do.

    Second, not to assume that someone is out to get you. I can’t imagine the robots wanting to piss off long standing users like Todd, Flirt and SEGSID. It is certainly not in anyone’s best interest if they left.

    I greatly appreciate the robots openness on this and willingness to admit problems and well darnit, fix them. Yay!

    Of course, I could get flagged tomorrow and get pissed off myself. But for now, thanks :)

  5. Thank you. I think it can be frustrating for long-time users to discover they’ve been flagged. It is in the entire community’s best interest to first, not take anything for granted. I’ve been on this site for nearly 2 years now and can honestly say I have not had an issue with spam. That is a kudos to all the good work the robots do.

    Second, not to assume that someone is out to get you. I can’t imagine the robots wanting to piss off long standing users like Todd, Flirt and SEGSID. It is certainly not in anyone’s best interest if they left.

    I greatly appreciate the robots openness on this and willingness to admit problems and well darnit, fix them. Yay!

    Of course, I could get flagged tomorrow and get pissed off myself. But for now, thanks :)

  6. Thanks for the explanation.

    I think we all agree that the spammers and other sleazeballs are a problem on the site and want them to be cut off.

    It might be nice though if you all could post to the blog about new doings like the city hall and the robot scout and all before we all get panicked. Preventative measures and so on.

    But thanks for the quick response.

  7. Thanks Daniel. I’ll second (third?) dwlt and Todd S.’s comment about our appreciation for you opening the kimono a little bit on this issue. Things were getting a little tizzy last night and I’m glad to see things are being fixed.

    Maybe a little more info on the City Hall page would be helpful too. It seems rather draconian to be able to click a big red button that says “Suspend this User.” And like the firing squad, we all have the guilt that our bullet may be the live round. And worse, when it is our account on the chopping block, it is scary thinking it could all be taken away.

    Thanks so much for all the information. I have been consistently been impressed by you living robots and this beautiful ‘home’ you’ve built for us all.

  8. I also must thank you Daniel for posting this. As I said in a few posts last night, I seriously felt like we were dealing with a rogue program that reminded me of those wierd snake hair guys from the second Matrix movie.
    And also as I pointed out last night, I was confident that since what it was doing was so radical, that you guys would definitely do something about it. I’m glad you came through and didn’t make me out to be a liar.

    Imagine my surprise when I went to Neighborhood watch to do my civic duty, and saw my own face up there. Yikes! Last night most of us spent all our time there just defending users. We sure did a heavy dose of civic duty last night.

    Thanks again for getting on this so quickly. Respectfully, Iron_Man.

  9. OK, I like it now. Thank you very much for the explanation and repair. I know this decision was necessary, but when I saw innocents were being targeted, I was a bit worried. You guys and gals have created and wonderful spot for us. Thanks.

  10. I’m just repeating what everyone else has said, but…

    THANK YOU.

  11. Celtic_Christian

    Thanks for the explaining everything and working to keep 43T a safe neighborhood free of creeps and out of control spam. Also thanks for explaining that account suspension != account deletion, as I’m sure that lot of the panic was caused by people who falsely assumed that was the case.

  12. Thanks for the ‘heads-up’, Daniel.

  13. Thanks for the ‘heads-up’, Daniel.

  14. Nthing what dwlt and others wrote about transparency. For example, I (as a member of 43T since 2005!) would really like to know what factors influence the votes, or, in other words, how is our “voter reputation” calculated. Whenever I try to vote for suspending, I just get redirected to the main page. Defending other seems to work, but retracting my defense doesn’t. Are those bugs, or are they related to my voter reputation?

    Please do try to give out more info about the changes in the future! Lots of us love this site and get upset by sudden changes when we have no idea what’s happening! :)

  15. traci_and_don@yahoo.com

    Daniel – You & the rest of the robots are top notch! I’m jumping on the thank you band wagon!! =)

  16. I’m glad you are getting rid of spammers and such, however, no one has been able to get back to me about my inability to log on and my account seemingly being deleted. I can’t log on, and I can’t view my page, and I don’t believe I have done anything wrong. I’ve been on 43things for quite awhile, and haven’t broken any guidelines that I know of. Please, I would like help fixing this problem.

    Nora (nsbartel@snet.net)
    Account: megamelfina

  17. Good job, guys. It felt for a little while like you sent out the bomb squad robot who went all HAL on us in a 43 Odysseys kinda way… And it would have been nice to know what was going on before being duped into commiting to the physical challenges to save my bacon…

    But I digress.

    Again, tks for the explanation and the quick corrective action. You guy rock in a very nonlithified way.

  18. Hi Nora – Your account was reported for posting spam, and upon investigation, it does look pretty spammy. I’ll send you email with the details and you can get back to me directly if you have questions.

    - Josh

  19. And you know, it wouldn’t kill you to answer more of users’ questions. :P

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