Buying Internet Fame: You Get What You Pay For

Photograph by Alen Popov/Getty Images

In a couple of hours on a Sunday afternoon, Kevin Ashton, co-founder of the Auto-ID Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, created a fake Internet person and made him famous (blue verified checkmark! 85,480 followers!) for a grand total of $68. It wasn’t hard, as he details in a piece for Quartz: He set up a Gmail account, which enabled him to sign up for Twitter; he Photoshopped an image and auto-generated a name; he ginned up a blog and wrote a Wikipedia entry. Then—and this is the crux of his experiment—he went to Fiverr and paid $50 for 90,000 Twitter followers.

Et voilà: Fame!

Or at least the perception of it, which is what interests Ashton. Most of the Twitter followers he bought are fakes—they’re generated by bots, and any following and retweeting is automatic. Buy cheap, get cheap. The problem, he says, is that these days we look to a person’s Internet presence, including the size of their Twitter audience, for clues of their offline credibility and legitimacy. And because we who use social media also know this, the business of fakery is booming: Seven of the top 10 services on Fiverr are offers to add Twitter followers, Facebook “Likes,” and blog links. Voice-overs are also popular, but I’m going to assume that’s unrelated. Obviously, we all want to appear more popular—more influential—than we are in hopes the appearance will beget the thing itself. Fake it ’til you make it, indeed.

Ashton is upset about all this dissembling on the principle that it screws things up for the legitimately famous and influential and the real people of the Internet who would follow them. That’s more than a little naïve. By giving everyone a publishing platform, we have turned everyone into publishers; this particular brand of distortion is nothing more than a new way to juice the numbers, something traditional publishers and broadcasters have been accused of doing for years. USA Today is the biggest daily newspaper in America, with a circulation of 1.8 million—about half of which comes from hotel distribution, the not-exactly-free paper that’s slipped under your door or available in the lobby. TV networks have their own bag of tricks. So do magazines, and movies, and on and on.

Fame has always been lucrative. The only thing that’s different here is that it’s easier than ever to affect the trappings of fame—namely, to appear as if you have a devoted following hanging on your every word. But when anyone can become a media company, we shouldn’t be surprised when the less seemly parts of media company behavior float to the surface. Still, I’m guessing this is an unsustainable phenomenon, at least for those who hope their artificial fame will bring them real riches. No one ever said the media business model was sound.

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