Popularity for Purchase

Social Media Iceberg

Image by Intersection Consulting via Flickr

Popularity is everything to adolescents. Their lives are a round of constant comparison of looks, friends, contacts. Having the “right” clothes, phone, backpack, sneakers is of utmost importance.  Social rejection and scorn come to those who don’t fit it. More than schoolwork or family life, building and maintaining one’s popularity takes priority for so many teens.

Adults remember those days, but say we’ve grown out of it.  But have we?

Social media and popularity

Social media and blogs began as a way to increase communication.

They quickly became a high-tech popularity contest: How many Friends do you have on Facebook, how many Followers, how many Like what your write in your blog or post on your Wall?  The SEO industry sprang up, primarily for businesses, to get them to the top of the list when someone searches a particular term.  Until recently, though, you had to develop a network of real people to Like your page or comment on your blog posting.

Screenshot of MicroWorkers web page

microWorkers website

Now, for a few pennies, you can hire someone through microWorkers or other similar services to comment enthusiastically, click on your links (repeatedly) or Like your post.

The Simulacra of Social Interaction

Society in the post-modern era, according to Jean Baudrillard, has replaced meaningful reality with symbols and signs.  These are not symbols of that reality, or even signs of some other reality (i.e., a false reality).  They are signs and symbols that hide the fact that there is in fact no reality behind it.  This is the end of a sneaky sequence:

  • signs and symbols did indicate something real – a message from a friend or family member whom you see and care about
  • signs and symbols indicate a false reality – the early stages of Facebook, when people would beef up their friend count with casual acquaintances and friends of friends, and use Like and Follow to build up a “social network
  • Signs that are not backed up by any reality.  One hires ad hoc workers to write posts for one’s Facebook page, blog, Twitter feed.  One appears to be a prolific writer, well versed on news and culture. One’s friends (the real ones!) are impressed, and notice one’s growing social circle. Then one hires other ad hoc Workers to Like, Follow, and Comment on the material written by the first lot.  Your Google Analytics look great; you rank high in the search engines because you hired writers who are good at SEO. Many people leave comments on your site
  • One day you wake up to find that (a) no one is interacting on your site except your paid workers and (b) the content you paid for was scraped to other sites and is being used by your new paid workers to write new-old material.

I didn’t fully appreciate Baudrillard’s theory until I began to explore the world of very short term ad hoc work.  On any given day, hundreds of people around the world write thousands of genuine-seeming questions for various online forums. “What can I do with an online management degree?”  or “How can I remove raspberry stains from a linen tablecloth?”  Then microworkers – sometimes the same people – write answers based on information found by Google search.  The pair are posted somewhere, with the appearance of a real conversation.  Others join in, not realizing that the conversation was not real.

I have seen almost any type of information found on the internet listed in one or another ad hoc worker location. Book reviews. Health advice.  Mechanical instructions. Relationship advice. Employment and educational information. Recipes.  Recently, one source was soliciting people to write a variety of male and female dating profiles: even the “people” you meet on Singles’ sites are artificial.

A New Internet Bubble

People are pleased to find themselves with a high page rank in Google, to count the number of people visiting their site or liking their writing. Some may not even know that that interesting-if-off-target comment was really an excuse for recommending a book or website, paid for by another person.   Eventually, readers will figure out that a big percentage of all this internet traffic consists of paid traffic designed to drive other traffic to one’s site.  In the end, it’s driving itself, with very little that’s new.  As people begin to wake up to the fact that much of the Web is scraped from other parts of the Web, they change their behavior: only considering a few sites, distrusting what they read. Eventually, the intense activity to gain the popularity system may bring it all crashing down.  “Search as king” only works so long as most of what can be searched is valuable material.

“Like” this post

Why, then, you might ask, do I offer those little thumbs-up like buttons at the foot of every blog post?  Do I plan to hire people at $0.01 apiece to Like this post, or expect to write something that goes viral?  No – but the strength of the simulacra is this:  the system is designed to make “Likes” seem normal, hiding them abnormal. I’d hate to deprive a reader of the chance to say “Thumbs up.”  Or to miss that tiny frisson of surprise if someone actually does hit the “Like” button.

Go ahead – I dare you.  But I’m not going to pay a penny.

About Sister Edith

Benedictine sister of St. Scholastica Monastery in Duluth, Minnesota, serving in vocation and oblate ministry. Also a social scientist, reader, lover of nature and travel, and dabbler in many things. +UIOGD
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One Response to Popularity for Purchase

  1. Well, I know you “IRL,” and you have been a friend, a mentor, and a guide for me for a lot of years. I know that when I read about something here it’s because you’ve noticed it and given it some thought. Thank you for keeping it real.

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