This jaw-dropping documentary reveals how nearly a third of all the information stored on social networking sites is fake. Let’s just take that in for a moment. Over 30% of all wall postings, photos, tags, friend lists, followers and all the rest of it – simple works of fiction. More shockingly still, they’re the work of one company, Sellurself Inc, which in less than 4 years has grossed over a billion dollars selling consumers virtual upgrades to their social status. Second Life this ain’t. Welcome to the world of lying to order.
For those of you not in the know – and I have to say I was blissfully unaware until I watched the advance copy – Sellurself, put simply, peddles the pretence of popularity. When our online presence became at least as important as our physical self, a new marketplace emerged. Not everyone can cobble together a long friend list and regular public exchanges of wall postings and messages. And it’s difficult to upload pictures of foreign trips, parties and everything else that sells the idea of a person living a full and interesting life – if you don’t actually live that so-called full and interesting life.
“I first had the idea when a good friend of mine made a drunken confession to me,” Reveals founder and CEO, James Grenton, in a surprisingly candid interview that forms the basis of tonight’s broadcast. “He told me that when his family moved cities and he started a new high school, he had no friends and had real trouble dating. His solution was to strike a deal with a popular chick. They’d hang out – or more importantly – be seen hanging out, at the mall, the movies, whatever, and he’d pay for her ticket, lunch, perhaps a new pair of shoes. His social status lifted real quick and within months he had a bunch of buddies and plenty of dates.” As Grenton goes on to explain, his friend was lucky, he was fairly confident and likeable and the girl with whom he struck his ‘deal’ enjoyed his company anyway. And she was discreet. Without those ingredients their arrangement would have probably ended in exposure, resulting in humiliation and ridicule from his peers, which in high school is a fate worse than death. But when online social networking came along, here was somewhere the principle could be applied just as effectively and with a vastly reduced risk of exposure and failure. And Grenton and his cronies leapt at the opportunity.
So how does it work? Sellurself’s complex suite of algorithms sidesteps the various firewalls of all the known social networking sites and creates a whole host of fake users. These are then sold to clients as connections, fattening up their friend and follower lists. For a higher premium package these connections can ‘speak’ – posting on clients’ network sites, responding to messages and ‘tagging’ images of the client (garnered from the client’s own photos and the latest image repositories as used by the cutting edge news sites). It’s both shockingly sophisticated and surprisingly simple. There’s a whole lot more to it, but the team of analysts and developers are sworn to secrecy.
Of course there were glitches, particularly in those early months when the software was less sophisticated. Grenton: “We had a few people get rumbled because we posted them the exact same photo of the exact same event with the exact same comment as someone else. But we fixed all that, and we have got better and better since. Our coders have built what we call ‘a cyber society’ – countless individuals who are indistinguishable from their human counterparts. An army of online automatons, hooking up with people to give them that nudge up the social ladder.” The users have their part to play too. If date-stamped pictures of you at a Rolling Stones concert appear on the walls of people who can see that you’re in a shopping centre in Luton then you’re going to look a bit daft, or maybe not as much as you might think…
Aside from the revelation of such widespread deceit, perhaps the most shocking thing about tonight’s broadcast is that it’s not the result of any whistleblowing or undercover journalism; it’s been made with the blessing of Sellurself itself. As the CEO points out, “When we hit the 25% (of all social network traffic) mark we knew it was a matter of time before word got out, but we thought – you know what? Screw it. People will still buy our stuff.” And the focus groups apparently back up this seemingly bizarre theory. Consumer research giant Real-Con, have persuasive statistics suggesting that the perceived shame of buying-in fake material and presenting it as real is far less of a problem today than it would have been even 2 years ago. Moreover, if branded in the right way, fake online material will actually become a must-have product. A Real-Con analyst points out: “Girls wear perfume. Guys know they don’t really smell like that. How much perfume gets sold each year?”
So is this what we’ve become? A society where perception is all that matters? Watch the show and decide for yourself. But in the meantime, God help us all.