“We gave everyone’s opinion a genuine value and we turned that into a brand-new marketplace: people should thank us,” Tobias Plummkel declared last summer, as he announced his retirement from the Like business. The former CEO of OneLike, grinning behind the grey-blond hair of his topiary beard, claimed he didn’t want anything to do with “freakin’ ink jerkers.” But after spending five months harassing his secretary on the phone, he’d finally agreed to meet and tell me everything about his success story.
Appreciative Content Classification
Plummkel and I were sitting under the large veranda of his billion-dollar property, out in the Maldives. The garden furniture was designer shit, from the curvy white tables and chairs looking like space guano, to the minimalistic crystal mugs with ’T.P.’ laser-carved on the inside. Bad taste, but expensive bad taste.
“Are we good?” he asked.
The über-entrepreneur was picking guarana seeds out of a Chinese bowl, eating them one by one. “They’re good for you,” he said.
“Especially if you’re suffering from erectile dysfunction,” I almost added.
Plummkel looked older than his pictures, his beard shaggier and whiter. Omega on his wrist, shiny Italian leather sandals, sweat dripping down his forehead, playing with the collar of his brand new golf outfit — Mr. Everyman dressed as Mr. Rich Guy. Trying way too hard.
“Hello? Questions?”, still nibbling on guarana seeds.
I was almost certain you weren’t supposed to eat those like peanuts. His butler brought us a glass of lousy airport-grade whiskey, and I asked him about his obsession with Likes .
“See, there were Likes on my profile before I was even born,” he claimed as if it were some sort of achievement. “In school, among other children, we only talked about what we liked. It was a secret language between us, a code for stimulating other kids’ interest. Whatever we liked we wanted to share.”
In between diction and reminiscences of his childhood, accompanied by fresh-out-of-the-seminar gestures, he proudly admitted to some fascination for all kinds of social networks, and big fat data.
“Today this might seem weird, but all this web content was going to waste; it had to have some sort of filing system. ACC – Appreciative content classification – that was our number one goal,” he said, drawing the acronym in the air. “We saw a need and worked on it. People did the rest.”
“So it had nothing to do with Recon?”
“It was just… a revelation. I saw it happening. The Like was the thing, you know? I just followed my instincts. My guts. I didn’t even know what I was doing…”
“And now you do?”
“You don’t believe in karma, eh?”
“Can’t say that I do… But try me…”
He bursted out laughing.
“What got you so interested in me, anyway?”
The Summer of Likes
Ten years ago, I’d started working on this investigation for a local magazine in my hometown near Phoenix. The magazine, now dead and buried, was to be titled ‘Soft Spot,’ and my friend Shawn Scott was to be its editor-in-chief. He wanted Soft Spot to be literary, “like those magazines in which journalists are called ‘writers,’ and articles ‘pieces’.” Shawn was going for a thematic first issue loosely titled ‘Web & Politics,’ and I was asked to “discover why the fuck people cared so much about FireLikes “ in Shawn’s own words. I took the job without really knowing what it meant, mostly because I needed the money.
The only guy willing to take part in my investigation was a local libertarian and self-proclaimed economist whose name I can’t even remember. He welcomed me to his office, which also turned out to be his home: a two-story, poorly built imitation of a long-gone American dream — a Quonset utopia of a house— with a garden tailored for shady family barbecues, although the barbecue itself was more of a rust agglomerate crumbling down damp coal leftovers. The interior exhaled old dust and undone dishes. He mumbled an apology for the mess and slumped into a shoddy armchair, spilling its upholstery like entrails on the ground. The economist — though I must confess I was getting the impression he was no more than a bum hoping to make a quick buck — offered me a drink.
“I’ll just go for a soda or something.”
He poured me cheap carbonated lemonade, and made himself a gin and tonic in a plastic Super Bowl cup.
“So… Whatcha wanna know?”
Hesitant to go for the smart questions I had prepared the day before, I simply asked him what FireLikes were.
“FireLikes … Basically they allow you to like the same thing multiple times,” he explained. “It’s a cumulative Like you can send real fast… Chop, chop! That’s why it’s called Fire, y’see? The more you click, the more Likes you give. That’s all advertiser bullshit if you want my opinion — or big-ass companies thinking they aren’t getting enough love from their customers… I guess they’re scared there is going to be a point where everything, anything, would have the same amount of Likes . If not, earth’s population’s the limit, right ? Well, FireLikes are an attempt at suppressing that limit.”
This interview was a fiasco — don’t judge me, I was inexperienced and high on Lexapro at the time — but it stimulated my curiosity, so I kept digging. This ruthless competition machine was in fact the product of the brilliant minds at Recon, Inc., the social networking giant, following a tradition dating back to the early aughts — Facebook and Twitter and all that jazz. According to our economist, FireLikes were getting polarizing reactions: some were really angry that their Likes had become so casual and common, while others were enthused by the ability to over-like things, as if it restored the competition its true value.
Fact of the matter was, getting Likes now relied more heavily on speed than actual attention.
This new frenzy was followed by a just-as-frantic patent war. Jumping on a train driven by Recon’s FireLikes , new Likes were born every day — copies upon copies upon copies, with varying degrees of success. In just a few months, over 300 types of Likes were created by just as many startups. Back when Velcom, mother company of the eco-friendly Green Like, was in the middle of the infamous Starnet trials, I had the opportunity to exchange a few words off the record with an ex–marketing director at Velcom, who was claiming — not without pride — that “patents have always been the best way for Silicon Valley companies to make money.” Fighting over intellectual property was more lucrative than any new product they could release. Even our dear Plummkel, owner of a small but ambitious startup at the time, had already patented the Diamond and Golden Likes .
To convert Likes from a company to Likes from another, you had to go through intermediaries, businesses trading your Likes for a small fee — small, but still hard, solid dollars. Millions were spent by willing citizens, just to convert a blue Like into a Truelike, Pink Likes into a Thumbzup — whatever stupid names those things were given.
Best part: the ‘Summer of Likes .’ That’s when ‘liker’ became a job — people hired to spend entire days sending virtual TLC to their employers. The job was paid by the click or, for the luckiest ones, short-term contracts. One of the likers I met during my investigation confessed her job was “the best evaaaa,” and assured me that “no one in Arizona could like faster than her.” Unified Media became the first profile to get more than 100 billion Likes , followed by all major multinationals and popular figures. Thousands of folks left their jobs to become likers, and the race for appreciation took on an absurdly fast pace. Of course, mainstream media were drawn to this like flies to a bucket of horse shit: every day, on TV, on the web, you’d see dozens of reports with people tapping frantically on massive buttons, liking as fast as possible, as comfortably as possible, for the longest time possible. There were machines shaped like a stick which the likers shook all day long, with dumb and satisfied smiles on their faces, like amateur actors in a never-ending masturbation scene from a neon-lit Swedish movie.
But, as J. Kerouac once wrote, “the beauty of things must be that they end.” By the end of the summer that saw the emergence of this brand new job, high-frequency liking algorithms (‘liker ghosts’) had replaced almost all likers. Pieces of code that could do their jobs better, faster, and cheaper. We had all those people in the streets, in some parody of a revolution, who had given everything up for this, and were now losing their dream jobs to zeros and ones. The owner of iQuest, Steven Mylendonk, assured me, off the record again, that “the race was down to the distance between data centers and Like emitters, with ever-updating algorithms liking all sorts of content by the millisecond. Algorithms were simply better because they did something no human being could do. And they were damn cheaper.”
The Greatest Like of Them All
The end of Patent Wars and the international legislation of Likes at the first ever World Like Summit flew so far under the media’s radar it felt suspicious. I guess it had to be done swiftly, and the best way to do so was to sign a bunch of papers behind closed doors, in a three-day meeting between politicians and Silicon Valley figures. During WLS, authorities agreed upon a Universal Like Declaration that each citizen would have to file twice a year, for governments to distinguish fraudulent Likes from genuine affection. Each and every Like was tracked, and identified by its emitter’s IP address. If those declarations didn’t match the numbers, colossal fines applied. This system was consensually disagreed with, but, people being people, they nevertheless filed their declarations.
The summit was also where we first saw the Diamond Like come to life. Onelike’s first truly innovative concept.
‘THE GREATEST LIKE OF THEM ALL,” read the tagline.
You’d only get one at the end of November, and you could spend it on your favorite thing.
Nobel Prize winner Felix G. Spanmayer argued the New Economic Revolution — buzzword alert — was on the verge of happening, and he took the Like as an example for what he called “the virtualization of economy.” I had tried to set-up an interview with him, but gave up trying after his office’s fifth rejection. I took it personally at the time, but it turns out the guy was tragically ill. He died of stomach cancer later the same year, and never saw his prophecy come true.
I did get to talk to Aoife O’Hara-Jones, though. Author of New York Times bestseller The Day the Earth Started Liking, spammer of Spanmayer-style buzzwords, and globetrotter devoted to preaching the Good Like to every living soul, O’Hara-Jones was a businesswoman with a heart of stone. She had the balls to make pro-Like speeches in sub-Saharan Africa, taking selfies with starving kids and asking her followers to “like if they cared.” In the end it worked: she got billions of fans and followers, while the kids from the pictures are most likely dead by now.
A friend of mine who knew her owed me one—he gave me her number and put in a good word. She reluctantly agreed to an interview, and gave me an appointment in New York’s most expensive bistro. The place was filled with yuppies sporting fake tans and thousand-dollar suits, drinking cocktails named after finance celebrities. I ordered a Madoff and waited, overhearing conversations about how one company’s Likes were a better investment than another’s, and blah, blah, blah…
She showed up late and in a hurry.
“I’ve got two conferences tonight, so make it quick.”
I asked her about the Diamond Like straight away.
“The Diamond Like ? Let me put it this way: no other Like ever managed to give appreciation its true value before that one. It was a precious and meaningful cultural symbol — a company with a hundred billion FireLikes and not a single Diamond Like was worth nothing.”
According to her, not only was it answering a need for premium Likes , it was also the first one to become a traditional end-of-year ritual. Months ahead, people talked about whom they were going to give their Diamond to.
“And there was this stupid reactionary response to the Like society – we had to deal with waves and waves of Turd Likes, open-source dislikes, left-wing jokes from activists. We never caught those little punks.”
I still had a lot of questions but she didn’t have time to talk anymore. I said the drinks were on me, and she giggled, pulling out her Amex from her purse.
“I don’t think you can afford it,” she said, leaving a tip that exceeded my current balance, all savings included.
Her golden smartphone rang. She mimed an “excuse me,” answered it, and disappeared, never to come back again. I finished her drink and gave an embarrassed smile to the bartender, who kept looking at me like I didn’t belong. I didn’t. We agreed on that one.
“Thanks fam,” I said. “Have a good one.”
“Next time try to put actual vodka in those,” I added as I turned the glass upside down to get the last drop.
We Made the World a Shittier Place
I asked Plummkel to tell me more about Likoin , another one of his company’s inventions, which followed the Diamond Like as another attempt to create luxury Likes . The Likoin could be exchanged, traded, speculated on, like a real monetary unit with its very own market.
“When all Silicon Valley companies were certain of the futility of Likes , I decided to take them seriously,” he laughed with satisfaction as we wandered around his private golf course. “That’s pretty much all I did my entire life and I’ve been quite successful.”
I asked him about Philip Brandt, ex-hacker turned cryptographer for the U.S. government, and Plummkel’s original partner on the Likoin.
“I already told you I wouldn’t answer any questions about him.”
Quick heads-up. Philip Brandt was the most discrete person on the web — no profiles on any social network, no photos, and just a short Wikipedia article with lots of . Every journalist who had tried to approach him had faced immediate refusal, and all you could find were speculative pieces seeking to unveil the mystery behind Silicon Valley’s invisible wunderkind.
The closest I got to an interview with him was in San Francisco, sitting at a bar called Metropolis, which looked as if a microbrewery had sex with an old-fashioned arcade center. This place had been the unofficial headquarters to many startups and was still a convergence point for young companies rife with revolutionary ideas for Apps or life-changing gizmos. I was alone at the bar, sipping on a cold beer, when a guy sat next to me and started the conversation. We chatted for a few hours, exchanging opinions about almost everything tech related. I eventually told him about my article, and he said he could probably give me a tip or two about Brandt, mentioning that he’d been working with the famous developer back in OneLike’s early years. Immediately, I took out my notebook. Among less important details about the OneLike campus, he insisted that Autocrypt, the system behind Likoins, was extremely secure and encoded pieces of information on a billion different servers before they could be decoded by dedicated applications. He also told me that people weren’t ready to entrust machines with such valuable tokens of appreciation, and that on the first attack by inventive hackers, all Likoins’ credibility had been blown to smithereens.
“Whatever you do, hackers are always one step ahead. With the media emphasizing on the Likoin ’s dysfunctional side, and without any help from officials, it was impossible to make Likoin a stable currency. Since the FireLikes , people had gotten leery of new Likes , and both state and federal authorities were very careful when it came to their involvement in this field of research.”
Those were probably the reasons this monetized take on the Like never really panned out, despite the efforts of a very devoted community. Remember the Time cover? “9 Out of 10 Americans Don’t Believe in Likoins.”
I asked if he’d also worked on the Golden Like .
“No,” he said, “I didn’t want to have anything to do with that. In the end, Likoin was a theoretical joke, a critique of the Like economy. The Golden Like , on the other hand, embraced this economy. It made it real. If you want me to be honest with you, Likoin was a mistake. The whole thing was a mistake. We made the world a shittier place.”
He finished his soda, gave me his card, and left. I looked at the card. It read “Philip Brandt,” on thick white paper. With no other information whatsoever.
We’re Not a Fucking Humanitarian Company
“Likoin,” claimed Plummkel. “was a necessary failure. It was the ground we built the success of the Golden Like on. When we introduced it, people were already craving for a way to endear intangible appreciation. But this time we had the blessing of political and financial authorities. It was a global thing.”
Unlike Likoins, Golden Likes were a hit the moment they were released. They were a type of Like with limited supply, given directly by the liker to the recipient, bypassing all social platforms. You could spend your Like on others, and incite others to spend theirs on you. It was all a game of earnings, and according to surveys that popped all around the country, citizens were now spending “more time earning Likes than actual money.”
This made way for a Like -exchange marketplace, a ”Wall Street of Likes ,” aswarm with traders, opportunists, and con artists, mostly trying to swindle away some Goldens for themselves in the process of making their companies Like -trillionaires. The currency had a value (that was a first) but retroactively gave value to all types of Likes . A Golden Like was worth 10 Diamond Likes , 100 FireLikes , or 1000 Blue Likes . One by one, smaller companies and their patents were absorbed by OneLike, which was building a gargantuan empire of appreciation from the ashes of previous fads. Even liker ghosts had re-emerged, but this time in the hands of trading companies competing to influence the market in their favor.
“The real surprise was the level of servitude people were willing to achieve for a few Likes ,” says Plummkel, pronouncing “servitude” with a hint of bourgeois disdain.
“Do tasks for others — get a good rank as a trustworthy person (someone who “has earned his or her Likes ”) — and then do more tasks for others (and hope to make some money on the way). Obviously, getting as many Likes as you could was the only way to get a good rank. Walking on the lines of Airbnb, TaskRabbit, and other networks for cheap and illegal labour was like modern slavery for people seeking virtual appreciation. And there were stars of these networks. Elite members. People dedicating their lives to their rank. If more Likes meant more money, maybe Likes meant money after all! It could be converted, it could have a market, it could be exchanged, given, taken, stolen… Long story short, you give people an entire virtual space on which they could build anything they wants, and they build the same shit over and over again,” complained rock-star evangelist Arthur Paingrove during the fifth WLS in the only kind-of-viral talk of this boring convention.
“We only created the offer, not the need,” Plummkel replied when asked about this re-creation of a flawed economic model. “Besides, we’re not a fucking humanitarian company.”
Walking me back out of his property, puffing on his oversized Cuban cigar, and apologizing for not having the time to let me try the jet skis, he added: “Look, I can’t deny that our goal was to make money. There is no company in this world whose primary goal isn’t to make tons of cash. The ones who claim otherwise are just lying sacks of shit.”
He gave me a fatherly tap on the shoulder, and dissolved into laughter behind thick scrolls of smoke.
“The supremacy of the virtual over reality is taking alarming proportions. Nothing can stop this circus anymore,” wrote critical thinker Ivan Pirivgin, PhD. “If you add to the equation a dying manufacturing industry having a hard time virtualizing its products, you get complete chaos. That’s the state of transition in which we are right now. But if we manage to sustain a state of abundance, we might pave the way to a complete dematerialization of currency, with money becoming as virtual as the goods it can buy. And, sadly, this might be the only way to get out of the limbo we’re currently trapped in.”
This is You. Computer 136.
I left Plummkel confused. I had been obsessing over Silicon Valley figures, politics, and academic warfare, but it occurred to me I never got close to the people who were, directly or indirectly, supporting this economy. On the surface, there was a war on whether Likes were genuine or not, if they meant something or not, fueling a spectacle that seemed futile. But under the water…
I heard about click-farms in Central America, where people spent the whole day liking, trading fraudulent affection to make numbers on major company homepages grow beyond reason, bypassing the overwhelming legislation we had in the US. Through C., a film student at Berkeley I had met during a trip to California, I found the opportunity to enlist in a Guatemalan Like -farm he had been to a couple of times.
“I’m doing it to pay for my studies, and, honestly, it’s not a very complicated job. Just try it, go there for a few weeks, see if you like it. Trust me, if you're good, you'll get good pay. Here, call this number and ask for Guillermo.”
I called from a burner phone, and without much of a job interview, I got hired for one test week. When he asked for my name I realized I hadn’t thought of one, so I grabbed the copy of “A Farewell To Arms” standing on my coffee table, browsed through it quickly and said “Henry. Frederick Henry.” I pulled my “undercover” outfit out of the closet—Hawaiian shirt, worn-up shorts branded with some long-forgotten tobacco company logo, and a D‑backs cap—and hopped on the first plane to La Aurora airport.
The first thing I saw when I walked out of the gate were dozens of guys with brushy mustaches holding dozens of signs reading 'Señor this' or “Señor that'. Not many Señoritas. I casually walked towards the one who held a “Señor F. Henry” sign, holding tightly to my luggage whose lock had been forced by security for a reason the girl at the counter couldn’t disclose. Along with a bunch of people, I boarded a fake “Los Compañeros” tour bus, the whole vehicle bulging with anxious folks from all across north America. While driving through the dense traffic, the guy sitting next to me, a white Rastafarian with dreadlocks looking like blonde and smelly turds, asked me where we were going.
To kill time, I asked him about his life story.
"Got married too soon… Made a livin' selling weed for a while… But, man, getting weed has become so easy in California nowadays," our sad entrepreneur regretted. "Like the entire Cali’s depressive now… Ha!”
“And now I’m broke, and my wife left with our two kids,” he said while nervously twisting his dreadlocks. "Last I heard they were living in some hippie community 'tween Sanfran and somewhere up north."
He had become so unemployable he had to take this Like job. “Just like everyone else here, I guess…”
I scanned my surroundings: the bus looked as if it were driving the entire cast of “Oz” to some remote south American set.
This was the new crime.
The bus stopped on a dusty parking lot in the middle of nowhere, and the driver gave us a quick heads-up.
"Now we change car."
We got out of the bus and lined-up in font of some big guy with a blueish eight ball tattooed on his bald skull. He whispered something to his lieutenant, a short guy with an angry gaze tottering on torn flip-flops. One by one, they sent us to cars parked in the area. Rasta boy got in the blue pick-up, while I got asked to jump in the back of the red one.
After a bumpy ride on what I would have a hard time describing as “roads,” we made it to the farm, a three building complex held together by dangerous-looking scaffoldings. I was introduced to a guy called Guillermo, my mentor, who had been in the company for two years. He guided me to a hangar filled with dusty people and busy computers, and we made a stop in front of an already turned-on old PC, the low resolution display all jittery and blurred.
"This is you. Computer 136. You work here, do this."
He pointed at a printed piece of paper, written in Spanglish and listing all the ads to click and protocols to follow for the day. It was impossible to understand what you were doing; you were just forging profile after profile, clicking on things, exchanging Golden Likes . An encrypted treasure map except, well, you don't get a share of the treasure.
With no Universal Like Declaration here, it wasn’t an issue to over-click any passing hyperlink on various social networks, as long as you went unnoticed. The key was to switch identities to hide suspicious activity. But even then, Guillermo assured me that, although companies hunted the counterfeit accounts recklessly, none of them would actually dare removing the Likes themselves.
"So same thing for clients."
I thanked him for the details, and asked him if he was happy to work here.
"Yeah… sure… happy!" he said with a loose thumb up.
Strumming on my keyboard all day, I barely had time to exchange words with my neighbor, so at the end of the shift I asked him to show me the dormitory. I introduced myself. Waving at me, he said "I’m Jesus." I followed him to the sleeping quarters: another hangar, filled with squeaky metal beds, and reeking of sweat and cold tobacco.
The work conditions were terrible, the life conditions even worse, and the wages sucked. We clicked twelve hours a day, and were paid $0.005 per click, day or night, holiday or not. With a poor connection to the Internet and computers from the Stone Age, I did five thousand clicks on my best days, working twelve hours in a row. That’s 25 bucks. Jesus confessed this was the shittiest job he'd ever worked in, but the entire area's economy now relied on buying and selling virtual appreciation, and there weren't many other opportunities in here.
The worst were the supervisors, who acted like narcos. Jesus once told me a story about three guys who hadn't earned enough Likes and got shot in the forest. “You do what you want, but you should not trust Guillermo,” he said. That’s not the kind of thing one should tell me. This turned my paranoid side on, and for the next few days I became obsessed with Guillermo’s behavior. The guy kept yelling at me. I began to think he had somehow seen me take notes, and had started to get suspicious. By the end of the week Jesus had been "relocated" to some other part of the farm, and his computer was assigned to a balding Chinese guy who didn’t speak a word of English. I was somewhere between anxious and bored. And my fingertips were sore.
They offered me to stay after the first week, but I turned the offer down. They paid me in cash, put me on a plane, and I flew back to NYC unharmed.
As soon as I got home, I took a long shower, poured myself a glass of bourbon, and committed to finish writing this paper. I didn’t care if it was going to be published or not. I knew it had to be written.
For nearly ten years now, I had chased intangible tokens of appreciation, and in this masquerade beyond borders the only common trait I found in each and every person I met along the way was a blind trust in technology, as if we were only a few clicks away from our little utopia, where we compete for trivial things while automatons and algorithms take care of earthly matters. Our spectacle machine, fulfilling our shallow and empty dream.
Well, just make sure you like this article.
It would mean a lot…