Thursday, August 23, 2012

Signs of Unraveling

This morning a story in the New York Times informs me that services exist that sell the eager buyer Twitter followers, Facebook likes, and YouTube views. The story (“Buying Their Way To Twitter Fame”) suggests that we can prove this to ourselves by doing a Google search on the phrase “buy Twitter followers.” Celebrity for Sale.

It seems to me that the rapid spread of social media—with just about every corporation with some meaningful footprint on the web attempting to create its own—arose from a false premise—namely that the Internet had revealed a hidden human proclivity for forming networks. But there was nothing hidden about it. We’re social animals. The convulsive attempts I’d noted, two or three years ago already, reminded me of the years leading up to the dot.com bust when people talked about a new paradigms in business (“profits do not matter”) and with hyped excitement that “the new price is Free.” We used to collect such statements at our own enterprise in anticipation of what would come later. And it’s not over yet. In today’s issue of the Wall Street Journal comes a story titled “When Freemium Falls Short.” It points to cases where the strategy of building a business by giving the product away is the straight road to bankruptcy.

Such careless thought on the positive side had its parallel in the massive growth of spamming on the negative side of the Internet’s development. Free and easy access, praised to the skies, has its heavy downside. The numbers can’t be trusted. It used to interest me to know how many people read my blogs—until I discovered that the numbers are diluted by masses of people hoping to garner visits by causing bots to click on my site. Visitors are recorded by Google. At first I was amazed by having ninety visits, say, from some to me obscure url—and would follow it home. Only to discover that it was really spam—wanting me to do just that—so that its site would gain “hits.” This is yet another version of a little known method of faking followers, interest, and lifting numbers entirely illegitimately. Knowing that my numbers are “cooked,” I no longer have an interest. But some people publicize these numbers for self-glorification or use them to attract advertisers.

A third aspect of the Internet mirage is the belief that the number of eager advertisers out there is infinite. With “freemium” still the accepted model for new enterprises (at least for now), the only hope of getting revenue is by advertising. But some advertisers are now beginning to realize that they may be looking at a bridge to their customers built mostly of vapor.

This subject has its parallel in another institution of much greater age—but going in the same direction. That institution is Democracy. In that case the mirage arises from thinking that the ignorant and careless deserve the same power as the responsible and thoughtful. Over time the coherence of the commonwealth is lost as Truth becomes what the majority favors. Or the majority, in effect, disappears in deadlock.

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