The Unethical Contest

An article by David Brooks on June 17, 2010


Contests always seem to walk a narrow line, somewhere between scam and legitimate. Usually you can spot a scam a mile away… but they’ve gotten tricky over the last little while.

Maybe it has been more than a little while, but I just wasn’t in a position to deal with them….

The setup looks like this:

“Enter your work of art, music or other interesting thing that you’ve spent time creating for a chance to win something cool and get noticed. (And pay us money to enter!)”

So people enter on the grounds that their stuff will be recognized according to quality. But somewhere along the lines theres another part to it wherein popularity gets a vote.

So everyone and their brother votes for their favorite while browsing the submitted work. And while it’s not my favorite form of competition, as long as you know the field for which you’re competing it comes down to artist preference whether or not they want to enter a popularity contest.

What’s Wrong With That?

Where I have a problem with that type of competition is that sometimes, unbeknownst to the people submitting work, the voting process opens earlier than the submission deadline.

So if I manage to hear about the contest in early March, and the deadline for entries is in June, I have about four months to encourage people to vote. If the next person who enters finds out about the contest in June, they have one month to tell their friends.

I once received an invitation to a remix contest where the judging was based only on popular vote. I checked out the competition on the day I received the notice and the top place already had 35,000 votes. With a week remaining I could have pulled together the most epic song ever written and still lost by a very large margin.

Insult to Injury

What makes it worse is if the works are clearly not on display to encourage you to look at all entries. The contest that comes to my mind is one that displays a collection of photos that may or may not actually be in the competition. If you find one that is in the competition you can vote for it, but with a thousand photos entered into the competition because of bulk submissions… good luck getting people to your entry.

Furthermore, it becomes a stuffed ballot by bringing in a different and highly biased audience to vote than the regular site viewers. Sometimes, there isn’t anything to stop me from creating a bot to vote on my behalf.

In my opinion, contests like this aren’t just silly, they’re unethical. There isn’t a level playing field, and the playing field that exists is deceptive. They aren’t actually about “finding the best work”, as one suggests, they’re simply a way to gain popularity for the host organization and recover the lost money from the winning prizes with entry fees. …Assuming the prizes aren’t donated in the first place.

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About David Brooks

David Brooks is the owner of the small creative studio, Northward Compass, based out of Orlando, Florida. He writes electronic and ambient music as Light The Deep, and fantasy stories about a place called Elerien.

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