All that glitters
What are internet entrepreneurs really selling?

Image by Kate Millet (Flickr)

Someone wishing to know exactly how outrage might be monetised could look at this post on the website I Can Do It Later, from March 2014. The site is a “procrastination-enabling”, BuzzFeed-style viral hub and the post – by its founder, Australian Mathew Carpenter – presented a video game called ‘Flappy Boat’.

The game is a clone of the wildly popular ‘Flappy Bird’ – in which the player directs a bird between sets of pipes – and satirises the Australian government’s asylum-seeker policies. The player guides their boat along a route blighted by barbed wire, while the voice of Tony Abbott interjects with border-control slogans. Losers, naturally, are sent to Manus Island. Although the game never became a viral sensation, it was snappy enough for popular tech and gaming culture sites Gizmodo and Kotaku to cover it.

The 22-year-old Carpenter, who bills himself as a search engine optimisation expert, keeps a stable of low-maintenance online businesses, including Dick Pic of the Week (less raunchy than it sounds). He wrote about Flappy Boat on Sofa Moolah, a site devoted to “teaching you how to make money online”. The post explained how the game’s creation was a ploy to accumulate a greater quantity of “backlinks”, which help him outrank competitors in search engine results.

Having noted the charged discussion around the government’s processing of asylum seekers, Carpenter concluded that the topic was ripe for the picking: “the only issue was deciding how I was going to involve myself”. Seizing on the popularity of Flappy Bird, he bought the code for the game online for $5, paid an artist he found on Reddit $50 to create a new backdrop image, slapped it together and put it online.

Reflecting on the scheme’s relative success, Carpenter concluded that this sort of “creativity” would be the key to distinguishing himself from his competitors in the pursuit of backlinks.

In January this year, Carpenter was again in the news, this time as the creator of a two-week-old website that had just sold for $85,000. The site is called Ship Your Enemies Glitter, and it promises to perform exactly that service.

Shortly after its creation, word of its existence was spread by media organisations worldwide, including Time, Huffington Post and Mamamia. The business received $20,000 worth of sales, and had to halt new orders temporarily, as it was unable to keep up with demand. Carpenter subsequently put the site up on the web domain marketplace Flippa, where it sold on 22 January.

The reasons behind the site’s success – both as a media phenomenon and as a business model – are not hard to identify. The service offered is appealingly schadenfreude-cultivating. The cost is reasonable ($9.99 for an envelope of glitter shipped anywhere in the world), leaving the business owner plenty of room for profit. The website copy is amusingly truculent – “Is this for real?”, under FAQs, is answered, “Yes, you fucking idiot”– and Carpenter had no compunction about openly insulting his customers, and “pleading” with the public to stop availing itself of his service: thus precipitating a second and third round of media attention.

A post-mortem of the sale, published by the New York Observer, labels the entire episode a “stunt”. Writer Ryan Holiday published an email exchange with Carpenter: the two discuss the ease with which contemporary media organisations (Australian, in particular) can be coaxed into parroting the same story and, in the process, providing a marketing service for enterprising business makers.

Guardian commentator Alex Hern queried the term “stunt” – after all, a business can hardly be called a stunt when its service is real – but the word does get at something of the nature of Carpenter’s (and similar entrepreneurs’) business models.

The practical or emotional value of the products these businesses offer to the consumer is fundamentally immaterial. What matters most is that the idea behind the product is calculated in such a way as to maximise its ability to attract attention, because attention itself – calculated as clicks generating ad views, or as links generating search engine rank – is the monetisable function of the business.

Carpenter is not the only young Australian to get cashed up as a result of such online enterprises. In 2012, the Sydney Morning Herald profiled then 16-year-old Xavier Di Petta from Shepparton, who was said to be making $10–15,000 a month doing “social media marketing” – using a constellation of social media accounts posting pictures and trivia to drive traffic to co-operating websites.

Di Petta is now co-founder of Social Trends Media, a continuation of a Twitter scheme profiled in The Atlantic by Alexis Madrigal. STM uses ultra-popular Twitter accounts – such as @HistoryInPics – to push traffic to a company-owned website and take in the subsequent ad revenue. Of the 100-plus Twitter accounts that are networked as part of the scheme, the company owns only a few. The rest are farmed out to independent “entrepreneurs”, in exchange for a portion of their revenue. The current hub of this link activity is All Day, another I Can Do It Later-esque, BuzzFeed clone.

Carpenter may characterise his technique as “creative”, but the fundamental principle of these businesses is aggregation over creation: take what’s popular; spin it into a new incarnation and reap the rewards.

The distance between a product’s aesthetic or intellectual value and its commercial value has always been variable, but the information superhighway has borne these two poles light years away from each other. Where before a product may have had to meet basic standards to last in the marketplace, now it only has to survive the length of time it takes for a person (or 2000 people) to click.

In Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street, aspiring young stockbroker Jordan Belfort attends a multiple-martini lunch with an older mentor, Mark Hanna, who reveals to him the hidden principles of the stockbroking trade. Hanna asks Belfort whether he knows what “fugazi” is. Hanna explains: “It’s a wazi, it’s a woozi. It’s . . . fairy dust. It doesn’t exist, it’s never landed, it is no matter, it’s not on the elemental chart. It’s not fucking real.”

The client invests in intangible stocks, and assumes they have acquired something of value. But it is the broker alone (who creates and invents nothing) who exits the transaction with a tangible benefit.

This is the same enterprise that Carpenter, Di Petta and their entrepreneurial ilk are engaged in: the mark invests their attention in viral content (they may or may not be entertained or informed; it doesn’t matter), while the broker exits with the “cold, hard cash”. 

James Robert Douglas
James Robert Douglas is a Melbourne-based cultural critic and Interviews Editor at The Lifted Brow. @@jamesrobdouglas

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