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click farm

noun [countable]

an organized group of low-paid workers employed to click on particular parts of web pages, especially approval buttons in social media as a way of making businesses seem popular

click farming

noun [uncountable]

'Celebrities, businesses and even the U.S. State Department have bought bogus Facebook likes, Twitter followers or YouTube viewers from offshore click farms, where workers tap, tap, tap the thumbs up button, view videos or retweet comments to inflate social media numbers.'

USA Today 5th January 2014

'Could click farming ever become a sector on the scale of simple textiles, which have gravitated to countries that can produce them the cheapest?'

Washington Post 6th January 2014

Have you ever looked at a web page and, in the process of making a decision about whether to do the related something (e.g. buy a particular product or service, pursue a particular leisure activity, accept particular advice, etc), been persuaded to go ahead because the online community seems to have given it the thumbs-up? If so, then consider that the ubiquitous 'likes', 'stars' or other visible representations of approval may not be the product of real people, but rather the output of a click farm.

the particularly unpleasant thing about click farms is that they are rapidly becoming 21st century sweatshops, employing people for long hours in poor conditions and for very low pay

Research suggests that over a third of consumers regularly check ratings and reviews before they choose to buy something online. The growing significance of this virtual seal of approval for enhancing sales has, it seems, unleashed a rather unscrupulous business activity. Rather than having to wait for users to register their approval of your products and services, why not simply buy a whole shed-load of 'likes' and instantly demonstrate your popularity? To do this, you employ the services of a click farm – an organized group of low-paid workers who toil day and night to click away at the relevant links.

Hundreds of companies have sprung up in the last couple of years specializing in click farming, delivering bundles of online approval to businesses requiring a quick and dirty way to boost their popularity. The broader concept can apply in a variety of other contexts too, such as repeated plays of particular sound tracks or videos to influence music/movie label interest, or artificially boosting Twitter followings or LinkedIn contacts to make someone appear more employable.

In addition to misleading web users with phoney information, the particularly unpleasant thing about click farms is that they are rapidly becoming 21st century sweat shops, employing people for long hours in poor conditions and for very low pay – workers often earn as little as one US dollar for generating 1000 'likes', for example. Predictably, click farms predominate in poorer Asian countries where workers are needy enough to tolerate such conditions. The expression click farmer is now sometimes used as a pejorative reference to the individuals who run such enterprises.

Social media companies are beginning to fight back against click farms, employing auditing teams to sniff out fake approval. However the concept seems unlikely to be stamped out quickly – though unethical, clicks do in principle involve actual human interaction and so are trickier to discredit than those generated by automated devices.

Background – click farm

The term click farm first began to appear in the wake of the wider concept of click fraud, an expression used since the early 2000s to refer to the activity of clicking on website links for dishonest purposes. In its early days, click fraud related almost exclusively to the exploitation of pay-per-click advertising links, but now has other manifestations, such as the manipulation of popularity information as described above.

The expression click farm makes use of a secondary sense of the word farm as a place involved in mass production to maximize profit at the expense of quality or other ethical considerations (c.f. battery/puppy/factory farm etc). This sense has popped up in other web-based contexts too, such as in the expressions content farm and gold farm.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 6th May 2014.

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