“The only way to have a friend,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “is to be one.”
This was pre-Internet.
These days, friends, fans, followers, likes and other signs of affection are available for purchase, and they’re dirt cheap. On a recent balmy afternoon, we whipped out a credit card and used it to purchase 250 Facebook fans for our tech site, Betabeat, from the Uruguay-based Bulkfans.com. The price? $30. Better, the site guaranteed they were “targeted USA citizens.” We were initially wary of giving this company our credit card number, but the order page linked to a prominent ecommerce site, so we went for it.
A few days later, BulkFans delivered on its promise and the Betabeat Facebook page was feeling the love.
Bulkfans is just one of the many sites eager to sate our hunger for online affection. SocialJump, FansGalore and SocialKik also offer social shortcuts for increasing Facebook fans, as well as options for buying Twitter followers, Google +1’s and YouTube video views. (Tumblr and Pinterest followers are somewhat harder to come by.)
On most of these sites, you can choose to pay a premium for “100% English speaking and reading fans guarantee[d],” as FBFansMarket.com puts it, but the profiles often seem a little dicey: stock photos, strangely-constructed names and suspiciously similar backstories. The majority of our new Betabeat fans, for instance, hail from “North Lake Tahoe.”
They don’t have photo albums or public wall posts, and they offer scant information about themselves. Many claim to be “self-employed.” A few claim to have graduated from NYU and the University of Washington, and at least one went to Ohio State University. They also have few friends of their own—generally fewer than 30, despite the fact that Facebook reports the average friend count is 190, but they all seem to know each other. They also all like the same pages—many are small businesses, like the New York-based marketing firm Q Arts and Media, and various newbie musicians and artists.
And note to Donette Morency: Did anyone ever mention you bear an uncanny resemblance to Lindsay Lohan, circa Mean Girls?
Another one of Betabeat’s new fans, Kallie Hoots, lives in Newark and is a student at Rutgers. She only has five Facebook friends, all attractive young women whose photos look as though they were professionally shot. One of Ms. Hoots’s friends is Joette Bashir, another BulkFans habitue, who also lives in Newark and apparently works at CNN. She has three profile pictures, all of different women. Among their many convergent interests, Ms. Hoots and Ms. Bashir both like Devlan James, a musician who lives on a houseboat in Seattle; Cult of Individuality, a Los Angeles-based denim brand; and of course, Betabeat.
When we came across the profile for another new Facebook fan named Trinidad Fransen, the weird moniker was enough to make us wary. We ran Ms. Fransen’s profile photo through the reverse image search engine TinEye, and our suspicions were confirmed: TinEye traced the original photo back to the Digg profile of Anne Holden, a San Francisco-based science writer. “Yes that photo is of me but that is NOT my profile,” Ms. Holden told us over email. “I had no idea it was being used.”
“That’s weird and annoying,” she added. “I don’t even look like a Trinidad!”
Social media agency SocialCode has pegged the value of a Facebook like at $10—probably a bit high—but perhaps more important than the monetary gain a fan can provide is a factor called “social proof,” the validation that comes from multiple admirers.
“When you buy 1,000 Facebook fans, you’re not going to be buying clients—if you could do that everyone would do that,” noted Matthew Prepis, director of client management at SocialJump. “But you are buying this number where, say I’m a customer and I go to your page, whether it be your business website or your Facebook page, and I see that you have [only] 10 people who like your page, I’m less likely to take your business seriously.”
SocialJump, which sells Facebook fans, YouTube views, Twitter followers and Google +1’s, was launched a little over a year ago in Little Ferry, New Jersey, by twenty-something brothers Alex and Michael Melen. In the ’90s, Alex founded a website hosting company called T35 Hosting before he even entered college, earning a spot on a 2006 Businessweek list that named him one of the top 25 best entrepreneurs under 25.
But he only has 435 friends on Facebook.
Though it may seem unethical, the actual practice of buying and selling fans isn’t illegal, or even necessarily a violation of Facebook’s Terms of Service, which forbids only adding likes or fans by “automated means (such as harvesting bots, robots, spiders, or scrapers) without our permission.”
SocialJump insists that it does not violate the TOS. “We have this worldwide network of users that we pay for liking pages,” Mr. Prepis told The Observer. “They’re people looking to do anything for a little bit of money. You’ve seen those things like, ‘Fill out this form to make $5 in five minutes.’ But there are proprietary networks where you can subscribe to do this for a living. It’s a lot of just random people.”
According to Alex Melen, the CEO of SocialJump, “They’re kind of the wholesale suppliers, and we pay them. It’s not that the people are forced to like or subscribe. The networks try to recommend things to people who might be interested. It’s up to them whether they want to like it or subscribe to it, and then if they do they would incentivize it.”
Mr. Prepis was asked how many of the company’s 10,275 fans were paid for.
“Oh, the majority,” he said with a laugh.