“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.
SocialJump declined to name its networks, but examples are not hard to find. Fiverr, an Israel-based company that recently raised $15 million in venture funding from Accel Partners and Bessemer Venture Partners, allows users to post gigs they’re willing to complete for $5. Numerous posts on the site offer Facebook likes, among them one by Eric11, a user in Canada, who promises to net your page 700 likes in less than a day, through a slew of fake accounts that he manages. “Fans are just to boost your page and are not real humans but look 100% real,” he wrote on Fiverr, promising, “They will stay forever.”
“Fiverr doesn’t actively support this type of a service or message,” said Fiverr spokesperson Alia Dudum. “Because it’s a global marketplace, we don’t like to inhibit behavior unless it’s something that’s completely outlandish, but it doesn’t go against our policy.”
She added, “In any marketplace you’re going to get the good and the bad.”
So who’s buying these fans, aside from us? Reality TV shows do it. Authors, artists and restaurants do it. Julia Allison, the once-reigning Internet queen and Wired covergirl has been accused of the practice, though she vehemently denies it.
Mr. Prepis, SocialJump’s director of client management, demurred when we asked him who the company’s clients were. Mr. Melen, however, was forthright. He told us that most of the clients who use SocialJump are artists or musicians looking to build a following.
“We also have a major TV show,” he added.
He was asked which one.
“That J.Lo one, where she tries to find a Latin superstar.”
Mr. Melen was then cut off by Mr. Prepis, who scolded him for revealing the name of a client.
The show in question is called Q’Viva: The Chosen, a modest hit on Spanish-language channel Univision that had a more tepid reception on Fox, where it ran for just six episodes. The show stars singer Jennifer Lopez and her ex-husband Marc Anthony, who travel the globe looking for the next Latin American superstar. The show is produced by XIX Entertainment, a company founded by ex-American Idol creator Simon Fuller.
Aric Kurzman, a marketing representative at XIX Entertainment who runs the Q’Viva Facebook page, denied that the page had ever bought fans. “I didn’t spend any money,” he said. “It’s all organic. We only have about 135,000 likes, so clearly it’s organic, because if we were buying likes there would be more.” Furthermore, Mr. Kurzman denied having ever heard of SocialJump, though he did stress that his lack of knowledge about the company did not necessarily mean they’d never done work for the Q’Viva page.
What makes these scams work, of course, is social proof—our own belief, based on thousands of years of human history, that the affection of others is likely evidence of a person’s worth. In his highly-critiqued New York Times op-ed published last year, author Jonathan Franzen noted that “liking” has transformed “from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice. And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving.”
Interestingly, he didn’t mention blurbing.
A source pointed us to Section IV 4 C of Facebook’s Developers Policy, which states, “You must not incentivize users to Like any Page other than your own site or application, and any incentive you provide must be available to new and existing users who Like your Page.” Therefore, the core business model of like stores inherently violates Facebook’s Terms of Service.