Saturday, 7 February 2015

I, I, I, I, I like you very much

 One of the best passages from Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities comes when bond-trading Master of the Universe, Sherman McCoy, tries and utterly fails to explain the complex and abstract things he does for a living to his own young daughter. Humiliated, he tries to salvage some status by mocking his his wife, Judy's, interior design job as useless and frivolous, involving nothing more than feathering her spoiled, affluent clients' nests with designer pouffes and chintz. Judy's defence anticipates the wider post-global-financial-crash realisation that much of what the financial sector does is so far removed from real life as to be socially useless:
Well, at least you're able to point to something you've done, something tangible, something clear cut...
Even if it's for people who are shallow and vain, it's something real, something describable, something contributing to simple human satisfaction, no matter how meretricious and temporary, something you can at least explain to your children. I mean at Pierce & Pierce, what on earth do you tell each other you do every day?
Are the social media giants now marching down the same road of opaque, complex abstraction that the financial sector has been treading for years? Heaven knows, I'm no expert, but when I keep hearing stories about businesses and politicians 'buying Facebook likes', it sure sounds like the inner workings of another weird bubble that's become wholly disconnected from the real world.

As it's been explained to me, the legitimate way to pay for likes is to buy them from Facebook. Facebook then promotes your page, people notice and like it until it attains the x amounts of likes you've paid for. The resulting testimonials can hardly claim to be unsolicited but, hey, nobody's forcing anybody to click the "like" button. What happens if, despite having your page pushed into millions of faces, the requisite number of users fail to like it, I don't know. I guess you get (some of?) your money back.

There's also an unofficial, illegitimate market for likes, where you pay a third party company which pays other people to like its clients' pages, or directly employs a clickfarm full of people in a whose job is to like their employers' clients' pages, or uses bots to like clients' pages.

Apparently, even the "legitimate" paid-for likes appear to generate a lot of fake likes that seem to come from bots, clickfarms or at the very least, a source that doesn't seem likely to be engaged with the content being liked.

Why would an uninterested third party or its bots like pages where the client was paying Facebook itself for "legitimate" likes? Have they found some abstruse way of monetising this process? I have no idea, although others have theories.

This also embeds huge a disincentive for real Facebook users, who want to use the network to connect with friends and family, to like anything, since the more things you like, the more you clog up your newsfeed with irrelevant noise.

As corporate clients and politicians pour money into buying likes that might not even turn out to be from real human beings, is social media, like banking, turning into an obscure, financial-services-style money-go-round of bizarre transactions that nobody really understands?

Will the bubble pop when enough people realise they've paid for worthless likes? At least a global social media crash wouldn't take the rest of the economy down the way the bankers' crash did, although the buyers and sellers of likes must find it almost as hard as the financial Masters of the Universe to explain what they're doing to their kids.