Failed flashmobs, gumballs and a Visit from the Goon Squad

Here’s how today’s #GumballSA debacle reminds me of an excellent novel I just read.

Today a scandal broke on Twitter. Again. This time, videos were circulated of people doing odd things at Cresta Shopping Centre in Johannesburg. At first people thought these were failed and embarrassing flash mobs. Then, a couple of hours later, some other people started tweeting links to their blogs with the hashtag #GumballSA … and the ugly truth was revealed.

All of the blogs posted had sections with exactly the same wording, and they were promoting something with no apparent connection to the blogs themselves. Yes, that’s right, bloggers had been paid for their posts.

The Amazing World of Gumball is some kind of new kids’ TV show, by the way. I couldn’t see any link between the show and the “weird” things that happened at Cresta either. Repeated verbatim in most of the posts:

synchronised swimmers sunbathing in the middle of the mall, plants shaking unexpectedly, dustbins moving around, runaway trolleys and people bouncing around on pogo’s.

Some people corrected the punctuation on pogos, some didn’t. I would have said ‘pogo sticks’ to clear up the confusion. Where’s my money?!?

Here how people reacted when they found out they were being betrayed by fellow denizens of the World Wide Web. Six guilty tweeters can be found towards the bottom of the feed.

The guilty blogs I could find, and I did think twice about naming and shaming but fuck it, were shebee.co.za, littleandbunny.blogspot.com, ontheradio.za.net, exmi.co.za, oneoftheboys.co.za and livinglionheart.co.za, who managed to delete their post before I could get a screenshot, the sneaky buggers. (Their tweet to the post still hasn’t been deleted, however. Even got a favourite.) The rest of you, yep I have screenshots of your crimes. I’m going to file that shit away.

Anyway, this was quite a spooky echo from a book I recently read, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and I felt the need to write it up, if only to inspire you to read it.

I got the book my birthday, and it’s really excellent, like a cross between Jonathan Franzen and Cloud Atlas. I should write a review of it. But in the meanwhile there’s this …

In a part of the novel set in the not too distant future, a has-been record producer called Bennie Salazar is trying to convince a young father called Alex to sell some of his online ‘friends’ to give the record company some ‘authentic reach’ for an upcoming concert.

Incidentally, Alex’s wife Rebecca is an academic who has written a book on “the phenomenon of word casings” – words that no longer have meaning outside quotation marks.

English was full of these empty words – ‘friend’ and ‘real’ and ‘story’ and ‘change’ – words that had been shucked of their meanings and reduced to husks. Some, like ‘identity,’ ‘search,’ and ‘cloud,’ had clearly been drained of life by their Web usage. With others, the reasons were more complex; how had ‘American’ become an ironic term? How had ‘democracy’ come to be used in an arch, mocking way?

Thought-provoking stuff. No time to go into it now. Anyway, Alex agrees to sell the details of some of his ‘friends’, who are then contacted by a third party to see whether they will agree to take part in the deception, and promote the concert as if they really cared. The novel alludes to a past scandal in which a number bloggers were exposed as ‘parrots’, which has led to ubiquitous suspicion in the blogosphere, as well as a generally held incredulity that anyone would be so stupid now as to let themselves be bought.

Alex devises a system to choose 50 suitable potential parrots from among his 15,896 friends:

He used three variables: how much they needed money (‘Need’), how connected and respected they were (‘Reach’), and how open they might be to selling that influence (‘Corruptibility’). He chose a few people at random and ranked them in each category on a scale from 10 to 0, then graphed the results on his handset in three dimensions, looking for a cluster of dots where the three lines intersected. But in every case, scoring well in two categories meant a terrible score in the third: poor and highly corruptible people – his friend Finn, for example, a failed actor and quasi–drug addict who’d posted a recipe for speedballs on his page and lived mostly off the goodwill of his former Wesleyan classmates (Need: 9; Corruptibility: 10) had no reach (1). Poor, influential people like Rose, a stripper/cellist whose hairstyle changes were instantly copied in certain parts of the East Village (Need: 9; Reach: 10) were incorruptible (0) […] There were influential and corruptible people like his friend Max, onetime singer for the Pink Buttons, now a wind-power potentate who owned a Soho triplex and threw a caviar-strewn Christmas party each year that had people kissing his ass from August onward in hopes of being invited (Reach: 10; Corruptibility: 8). But Max was popular because he was rich (Need: 0) and had no incentive to sell.
Alex stared goggle-eyed at his handset screen. Would anyone agree to do this? And then it came to him that someone already had: himself.

Alex is a generally moral person. Despite working in the music industry for years he has steered clear of sleazy bosses, regularly repels come-ons from women “drawn to the sight of a man caring for his baby daughter during business hours”. He met his wife after trying to catch a thief who had snatched her purse. He is in a bit of trouble, financially and personally but, even so, by caving in so easily so Salazar’s request he astounds himself.

[…] he never could quite forget that every byte of information he’d posted online (favourite colour, vegetable, sexual position) was stored in the databases of multinationals who swore they would never, ever use it – that he was owned, in other words, having sold himself unthinkingly at the very point in his life when he’d felt most subversive? […] Alex didn’t know. He didn’t need to know. What he needed was to find 50 more people like him, who had stopped being themselves without realising it.

We can only hope that these recurring predictions of cyber identity-catastrophes mean they are less likely to happen. Today’s awkward moment is unlikely to prevent brands from using social networks and false virality in a sneaky way, but we can only hope the humiliation the Gumball people experienced will ensure at least that it’s done with a little more class in future. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go and copy and paste a privacy notice into my Facebook status.

Author: ProjectJennifer

Project Jennifer was one of the most complex, expensive, and secretive intelligence operations of the Cold War at a cost of about $800 million ($3.6 billion in 2012 dollars).

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