West Collects Suspects Voting Fraud, Ends Online Competition
For those of you who haven’t heard of the West Collection of the West Prize, here is the long and the short of it:
“The foremost goal of the West Collection is to meet young artists who are creating challenging and inventive work and to present an experience of this new art to the public. Since the mid-90’s, the West family has loaned most of the collection to SEI Investments, which Al West founded in the late 60’s and runs today. Curator Paige West has actively grown the collection to extend beyond SEI, to include loans to museums and university galleries. A major goal in collecting has been to visit artists in the studio and to understand their reasons for making art. In presenting the artwork to the public, our goal is to impart an experience of the artist’s studio to the viewer through our installations and accessible traveling exhibitions.”
In a bold move, this year West Collects made the decision to develop an iPhone (iPod, iPad)-exclusive app for the public vote for its $25,000 prize. Get the most amount of public votes via the application, and you got yourself 25k!
Sounds cool and cutting edge right?
In theory it was a good idea, but often times with new technology, there are unforeseen glitches in the system, and as a result, the West Collects art competition was abruptly ended on March 16, 2012, with only 60 days of competition remaining. It was clear to anyone watching the competition, which began in December, that over the last two months either the app had been compromised, or the voting system itself was broken.
News that the app-based voting portion of the competition had been cancelled was a surprise to some, and to others a relief.
If you have not already read the West Collects statement, here it is:
The public voting portion of West Collects 2012 has been canceled.
Yes, we noticed something fishy going on, too. We spent months analyzing data and tweaking things on the backend. We finally came to the realization that the app and the competition had been compromised. We shut down the public voting portion of West Collects 2012 in fairness to all of the participating artists.
The $25,000 earmarked for the winner of the public vote will be folded into the larger West Collects 2012 acquisition budget. All of the artists participating in the public vote will still be considered for acquisition into the West Collection. The artists whose work is acquired through West Collects 2012 will be announced, as planned, on May 15th, 2012.
We launched the West Collects voting app in the spirit of promoting artists and their work. We saw it as an opportunity to try something new. We have learned from this experience and through feedback from many of you. We look forward to continuing to embrace new technologies, bettering the experience for everyone, and finding ways to introduce new audiences to great artists.
Here’s what happened.
As you know, West Collects made the decision to develop an iPhone (iPod, iPad)-exclusive app for the public vote for its $25,000 prize this year. A number of people initially voiced concerns about the exclusivity of the app and the questionably democratic nature of having to route the vote exclusively through Apple products. Others were having a tough time explaining to friends, family and fans that any supporting votes would have to be through the iPhone/iPad/iPod.It was probably a complicated decision by West Collects, but really, who cares? They are buying $300,000 worth of art every year. How bad can that be, however they choose to experiment awarding the $25,000 prize? On the matter of the app, West Collects states:
We choose the iPhone [app] based on user statistics and the fact that visual and creative people tend towards Apple products. If this year's test goes well, next year there will be more choices for voting. Within the first four days of its release over 2,000 people have downloaded the app, so we are off to a good test-case scenario.
It is important to embrace new technologies, and the fact is that Apple makes some very good --and very relevant-- products. I'm sure many artists would agree. However, considering the subsequent developments in standings, and the apparent vulnerability of the process, I'm also sure that WC is revisiting the role of an app in their collecting process. This situation, too, should serve as an important example to other entities considering app-based voting schemes. Clearly improvements need to be made. For West Collects, or anyone considering app-based voting, one of the most important considerations is that these systems are very easy to manipulate, and they should not be relied upon for awarding prize money. I'll explain why.
Watchers of the competition will recall the extraordinarily rapid pace of *name of artist removed* which seemingly came from nowhere after weeks of absence in the competition. This image did not simply creep up t he ranks, mind you, but it displayed a veritable blitzkrieg to the number one position. Of course, this was to be expected at some point: many of the artists who submitted are absolute unknowns, and at some point in the competition it was inevitable that bigger names were sure to enter, like *name of artist removed*
Some people did absolutely everything they could think of to drum up press coverage, rattle the social media circles, and contact as many iPhone-owning friends with hopes of collecting as many early votes as possible, in anticipation of this situation. To me, it was simply astounding to witness such a rapid ascension, and at the same time find little past --or emergent press-- on that particular artist or entry. *name of artist removed* entry was collecting somewhere around 80-90 votes every day at the peak of his rise. It was impressive!
To offer a comparison/example: during the few opening months of the competition, one could Google "West Collects" and the first result was Chromatic Typewriter by artist Tyree Callahan.
Callahan (sadly no longer in the competition) used the power of social media exposure and wholeheartedly credits Tumblr with a large part of the piece’s success. The photo of the typewriter was -reblogged over 10,000 times during the first month of competition. (Because of keywords in the blog, that post altered the Google algorithm to post the typewriter first when the term “West Collects” or “West Prize” was entered.) But those efforts did not translate into more than a dozen of votes a day at the peak of his own press blitz.Yet, votes kept piling on at an astounding rate for *name of artist removed*
Initially, I did chalk it up to *name of artist removed* prior establishment in the photography world (leading me to question whether or not this was truly a competition for 'emerging' artists, but that's another issue), but day after day of being outvoted by such huge margins, another competitor, Joseph Spangler, began the conversation about the rapid rise of *name of artist removed* mysterious doctor, and began to wonder: is it possible to game the system?
*name of artist removed*, Mr. Spangler and others, if you're reading this, in the absence of a smoking gun I have to give you all the benefit of doubt. Please accept my apologies in advance for advancing my suspicions, should they have no merit. And if they do have merit, well, I can’t speak on behalf of WC or other artists, but I will personally extend a very hearty fuck you to anyone who collected dishonest votes with the intention of winning the prize. Thanks for ruining what had been an otherwise exciting competition.**
It Pays To DiscoverMr. Spangler did some inquiring with West Collects in an attempt to discover if the votes were indeed legitimate. Mr. Spangler is tech savvy enough to understand the possibility that votes might be generated illicitly and that there might (if not should) be a way to find out if that was indeed going on. Not necessarily to accuse, mind you, but to discover. I hope I can safely assume that when WC states that “we spent months analyzing data and tweaking things on the backend” this action was initiated by Mr. Spangler’s concern.
As those months rolled by, *name of artist removed* entry kept amassing votes and became veritably unbeatable. There was no way anyone would catch up. This proved to be enormously frustrating for Mr. Spangler, who began his own investigation into whether or not the app could be compromised. The findings: Yes. There are indeed ways to get around an app’s ability to register a vote. Once they were discovered, Mr. Spangler forwarded the findings to WC, so that they would be aware of the possibility of the vote being compromised.
Mr. Spangler's research uncovered an app that can change the unique ID of any i-device. This app is available only to jailbroken devices, and available through an app store called, Cydia which specializes in apps for jailbroken iDevices. The app is called " UDID faker" Basically, it randomizes the phone's unique id number, which subsequently tricks any installed app into thinking it is on a new device. So when used with the West Collects app, the UDID Faker essentially tricked the West Collects app into thinking it was on another device, thus allowing an individual to collect an indefinite number of votes almost automatically. Mr. Spangler immediately forwarded this information to WC.
Now, I have to pause for a moment to provide a character study that should preface what happened next. Earlier in the competition, in a generous act of fairness, Mr. Spangler pulled a number of his paintings--all were in the top ten at the time--to make room for other artists in the top spots, a generous thing to do when he had $25,000 at stake and every possible advantage in keeping them listed. Other artists, too, can confirm Mr. Spangler's move and his subsequent email encouraging other multiple entrants who were clogging up the top 25 to do the same. (I don't think any of them did, but again, I can could stand to be corrected on that item.) Mr. Spangler strikes me as an honest man.
Enter: "Spangler's Gambit."
|Faith (Copyright Joe Spangler)|
To anyone watching the competition, one way to have described the vote during the waning days of February was to say that, sure enough, 'some shit is going down!' On the first of March, I took a peek at the "top dogs" page (which listed the top 25 vote-getters) for the first time in a couple of weeks) when I opened the app, I was awed to find that Mr. Spangler--who was also a very large margin behind *name of artist removed* the last I checked-- had suddenly jumped to the number one position by an order of a few thousand votes, with his painting! Incredible!
Was he just profiled in Life Magazine? Or, better yet, perhaps some trade-specific magazine published by Apple? Not that I could find!
After watching *name of artist removed* piece continue to rocket forward, and with no evident outward action on the part of WC, Mr. Spangler bravely --and rather brazenly-- employed some curious, if not suspicious, means of collecting votes. I will stress again at this point that I have no proof of anyone employing those methods with the prize in mind, but surely anyone watching will agree that it seemed explicit in more than a few cases, for there were suddenly a handful of other artists who immediately ran up into the top positions. Most of us were no doubt left skeptical and wondering when the referee was going to step in.
And here was Mr. Spangler's entry, garnishing what? several thousand votes in short order!
But $25,000 Is A LOT OF FUCKING MONEY...
This was all fine on one level: the experimental one. After all, there were no rules posted to forbid app-cracking, or collecting votes by alternate means or jail-broken devices. It is even possible WC had not considered the use/risk of jailbroken devices. I’m not a programmer, but can the next version of the app somehow query the phone and disallow votes on a jailbroken device? Perhaps. But there’s an equal probability that an app exists to thwart such a query. The trouble is, when you set out to develop an app specifically for creative people you have to expect the advent of "creative" strategies for winning. It is naive to think otherwise.
A warning to anyone: If you are considering an app-based vote, be sure to draft policies to discourage these situations. If there is money involved, and statutory authority, consider warning would-be cheaters that fraudulent activities will be prosecuted. Had those types of things been drafted in this case, I think otherwise honest people might have behaved differently and subsequently kept the contest a lot more interesting.
$25,000 is a lot of money, though, and it is definitely a fraud-triggering figure.Words alone may not be enough. That much money would buy a great many entrants an entire year to create and advance our art, in some cases (mine, for example) without the stress of having to hold down a shitty job that otherwise robs time from that Noble Pursuit. That example is a huge--I mean HUGE-- incentive for anyone to manipulate the numbers.
The app was a wonderful way for WC to embrace emerging technology. The lesson learned is that the same technology creates a disadvantage, if not by limiting a majority of the voting public, than worse: by being compromised via hacking/cracking or illegitimate methods. (For the record, I count among the latter the theoretical possibility of having a friend who works at an retail apple store load the app and vote on dozens of devices once a day for a specific artist/piece.) Of course, I inherently understand that participation in any competition is neither a guarantee of winning a prize or --much less-- of being noticed, so I'm not laying blame on the idea of the app: It is what it is. But in a competition, a measure of fairness is expected. That's the crux of the issue here.
Then again: WC, as an aside, please take note: The app and the current web design make it extraordinary cumbersome to browse the art and discover favorites. The app, I understand: you are working with a very small piece of real estate for images! The main website, however, should display a far greater number of thumbnails, both for ease of initial filtering, and to get a better sense of the sheer scope of this competition.
Had I entered the compeition this year, obviously it would have been great to win, but obviously there's no telling which way the aesthetic winds will blow in this, or any other public vote. That reality was exciting. And, especially considering the exclusivity of the app, in the future it would be interesting to watch the results from an Apple iDevice crowd versus those of non-apple users, as an experiment in ‘creative class’ aesthetics -vs- others. The app is a good way to have input from the 'creative class' to help to choose potential pieces for the collection -- to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak-- but it seems that until it can be more certainly fraud-proofed (and how can any e-vote accomplish that, really?), the app is a risky means of rewarding a $25,000 prize.
No one wants to see that kind of money awarded to a cheater.
On that note, I don’t think anyone can criticize West Collects for ending the experiment. It was the best outcome for the credibility of the competition at this point. I think "Spangler's Gambit" deserves some kudos, too. Thanks, Joseph, for the illumination. Whether or not this sort of thing was going on before is hardly the point. It is nice to know, with authority, that it can happen, and that it needs to be fixed for the future. You ought to get a prize for that.
Special thanks to Tyree Callahan and Joe Spangler for contributing to this blog post.
To check out the competition and view some killer art, visit West Collects.