Faking It in Cyperspace
Who do you trust?
What do you trust in?
Those are two questions people have asked themselves since people with sufficiently large brains evolved enough to ask questions. Our social fabric and political institutions rely largely on trust. If you need to verify every statement, word, intention, motive for reliability, truthfulness, and integrity, you will need to get up much earlier every day and be prepared to accomplish much less even though you have more time.
The problem is our brains are large enough to ask the right questions, but not large enough from getting fooled a great deal of the time. The gap between asking the right questions and relying on the wrong information has grown in cyberspace.
There’s no need to pretend that the analogue world was a fortress of trust, integrity, and honesty. Our species has a long history of cheats, free riders, charlatans, and con men.
Holden Caulfield, J.D. Salinger’s immortal teenager in The Catcher in the Rye, hated ‘phonies’ who were ‘fakes’ by another name. Holden was a product of the 1940s and 1950s. Fakes are sometimes good. Like in an American style football game, the quarterback who fakes handing off the football to the full back, pulls back and throws to the wide receiver for a winning touchdown. That quarterback is a hero. The football hero’s use of the fake is celebrated, rewarded and glorified.
Mostly thought, we understand that ‘fakes’ like in antiques, smiles, and Gucci handbags carry disapproval, social punishment, and possible criminal charges. Like Holden, we think of these people and their fakes as phonies. We don’t much like phonies anymore than Holden did.
So what is behind the ‘fake’ in cyberspace? The beauty of capitalism is the ability of wily entrepreneurs to spot and exploit market demands. The New York Times has an article on how entertainers, actors, musicians, politicians and authors who wish for others to judge them as successful and popular have been into the marketplace to buy fake Twitter followers.
Has there ever been a time when the demand for status has suffered a recession or depression? If you find such a time and place, please get back to me. Otherwise, I am proceeding in this essay on the assumption that the graph for status demand shows a universal upward trend. What makes entrepreneurs rich is, they don’t fight this flaw in human nature, they find a way to make money from it.
It is a rough and tough digital and analogue marketplace where everyone wants to be ‘liked’ and everyone is looking for an edge or shortcut to stardom, election, or a bestseller. There is the hard way—luck plays a factor—where the person relies on achieving recognition and success through talent, creativity, hard work, and timing. We live in the big easy. Why not leap over the others trying to do exactly what you are doing but seem to be gaining more recognition and buy a couple of plane loads of new passengers who arrive at your personal airport.
Watch them file off the plane, smiling, waving, telling the world how much they love and admire you and hang on your every 140-word plug of your latest gig, sale, book, blog, appearance, or that nice salad you had for lunch.
All of those Twitter followers—the statistics are there in public for all to see— admire you. They want to support you as a special, talented genius. They can’t wait to buy what you have to offer, tell their friends about how they bought everything you produce, and write glowing reviews and tweets about you as if every day is Oscar night and you won in five separate categories but couldn’t accept as you were in Stockholm receiving a Nobel Prize.
If you want to increase the number of people who follow you on Twitter, you can go to a place and buy new followers. At fiverr you can shell out $5 for 1,000. There are according to the NYT article many such sites. Cyberspace has evolved an entire market based on fakery. The ecology of Cyberspace has always been swimming with sharks. Until recently no one knew how many of the sharks were fake. In the case of many ‘celebrity’ personalities, it seems the aquarium they’ve created, if the fakes are stripped out, reveals a couple of minnows hugging the glass at the far end, hiding behind a fake rock. You can now check out that aquarium by going to a website called Faker Status People to expose the empty aquarium—or so it claims.
Holden Caulfield, that perpetual teenager warned us about the phonies. We need to update Holden’s world, our world, with the idea that digital worlds are filled with those who wish to ‘game’ the system; they see a zero sum game, and will pay any amount, do anything, write or say anything, that builds the illusory aquarium and invites you in to see the glory of their achievement.
Cyberspace has made every one of us a private detective. You need to search and verify claims. Your default should be skeptical and leery of big claims and numbers. Routinely use and update tools online to verify claims and numbers before you believe the number of fans online are real fans.
Assume there is a vast digital cemetery of ghost fans who haunt you screen and urge you to see a film, buy a book, watch a comic, or listen to a singer or band. We live in the land of ghosts in the machine (Arthur Koestler died too soon to witness his prediction). Only with one difference: ghosts were, by tradition, once people. Online large numbers of the fake followers were more likely bots than real people. Bots, zombies or ghosts, the fake Twitter followers are marching across your screen, and pretending to be alive.
Don’t believe it.
You are Vincent Calvino. Look out for the ambush. Watch out for the conmen. Finding what is popular and good has never been easy as it is often lost in the haze and noise of a busy marketplace. There are no shortcuts. No one will look out for you online.
The same applies to status—those who seek shortcuts are ultimately exposed for their fakery. The peacock having lost its feathers is a strangely lonely, pathetic, naked bird. No one wants to mate with a loser. That is the message. Peacock feathers fall in a cyberspace rainstorm as we call the bluff. All eyes turn to watch the sky turn colorful, thick with beautiful fake feathers, like a good Gabriel García Márquez’s novel, knowing we will never look at the sky quite the same way again.