INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana. It’s 10:30 p.m., and Linda Scribner has just finished “Love’s Tender Thrall,” a romantic novel of the type referred to in the trade as a “bodice ripper.” “Well,” she says with a satisfied tone in her voice, “time to go to work.”
She logs on to her computer and, with a few mouse clicks, arrives at “RoundTable,” a so-called “social content” web site. After refilling her glass of white wine, she types a headline that reads “Sure ISIS Is Bad, But So Are People Who Leave Their Cats Alone All Weekend!” and is off to the races, cranking out an 800-word article that will be read, picked apart and commented on by over 100 fellow members within an hour.
“You are so right! I can’t imagine leaving my Fluffy alone for a minute more than I absolutely have to!” a reader named “CatLover” writes.
“You are the sort of unpatriotic scum that is ruining this country!” replies another who goes by the screen name “DogLovingPostman.” Within a nanosecond after he clicks “Post a Comment” a barrage of “second responders” jumps all over him. “Terrorism is what happens when people stop talking to each other! There is no reason for you to be uncivil!” says one, and “I’ll bet your dog’s ugly!” adds another.
Scribner sits back and enjoys the fray, sometimes laughing, other times slipping in a zinger of her own; “Yes Hilary was the best candidate for President,” she writes at approximately 10:55 Central Time. “Because she’s a WOMAN!” She then checks her “Rewards” account, the site’s built-in payment system based on page views, ratings and comments.
“Eighty-five cents–not a bad night’s work. I’ll have a new romance novel in just a couple of days,” she says with confidence as she turns out the light.
Linda is one of a growing number of “blogwhores” working cyberstreets to pick up promotional rewards, and she has refined her style to the point where she can keep herself in best sellers merely by turning a few high-point “tricks” each week.
“Generally, I like to stake out an indefensible position on a hot political issue,” she says. “Everybody’s a closet pundit, and they jump all over you right away. Throw in something about cats, Hitler or a ‘How do I upload a picture of our family reunion?’ and you’re guaranteed to rake in a ‘bill,’” street slang for a $1 post.
Others turn to blog-whoring out of sheer necessity. Velma Lou Ritter, a single mother of two who lives in a mobile home near Knob Noster, Missouri and goes by the user name “TrailerParkQueen,” says the Rewards system helps her put food on the table. “Because of my kids I can’t go down to the All-Nite Truck Stop to work like the other girls,” she says. “I put them ratings into soup, oatmeal and Sloppy Joes to s-t-r-e-t-c-h my grocery money.”
Velma Lou has re-posted her “Cheesy Meat Loaf Squares” recipe twelve times in the past four months, in each case eliciting enthusiastic responses from other house-bound women desperate for human contact. “Yum!” says one member who calls herself “Homemaker Deluxe.” “Can’t wait to try them out at our next potluck dinner!” gushes another who signs on as “MoBaptistSynod,” although she will in fact wait for several weeks before trying and failing to achieve the desired consistency.
The increase in members who post solely for compensation rather than to receive input from others on their writing has persuaded social media executives to call in law enforcement, and local police are now encouraged to participate in “Rating Scam.” “The soundness of our payment system is integral to the robust realization of the business model of the space we occupy,” said RoundTable President Jerry Flauerman, cramming as many business buzz words into a sentence as time and space permit. “Also, people could get viruses from an insincere, cynical article.”
Under the program, police dispatchers will be encouraged to read sites such as RoundTable during idle hours when they would otherwise be making fantasy football trades or playing solitaire on their computers. Where probable cause exists to believe a user is posting fraudulent content in order to inflate ratings or rewards, a search warrant is obtained and RoundTable presses charges.
Under what legal theory would RoundTable proceed, Flauerman is asked. “Obtaining money or property under false pretences,” he said. How will individual police officers be motivated to participate? “We were thinking of giving them some kind of promotional incentive, like a cool t-shirt or mouse pad.”
The program swings into action as Sergeant Jim Hampy and Officer Brian Moynihan of the Boston Police Vice Squad take seats in the bar at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, a watering hole where the lonely well-to-do meet for companionship, many of them widows with significant RoundTable Rewards balances they inherited from their late husbands.
The two policemen are working undercover, looking for Lucien de Groot IV, a RoundTable member who has been attracting high ratings for his musings on art and fashion by spreading excessive praise for the efforts of neophyte poets such as Millicent Minot, heir to the Minot fish oil fortune.
“Simply very exquisite!” de Groot will type late at night using a “macro” he created on his computer so that all he has to do is hold down the “Alt” and the “x” keys to crank out praise by the megabyte.
“Look at that fruitcake over there,” says Hampy as he spots a man wearing an ascot who appears to be in his thirties. “I think we got our man.”
de Groot scans the room looking for Minot, a widow he has drawn into a relationship by an “open call” to which she has submitted poems. “I especially like the lines
A kitten asleep
can make you weep,
They are so cute
and furry to boot!”
he told her and she, in an unguarded moment, revealed that she hadn’t figured out how to transfer her $3.45 Rewards balance to her bank account.
Minot is holding two roses, their agreed-upon symbol of identification. “Millicent–it’s Lucien! How good to finally meet you!” he says as the two exchange an air-kiss.
“Nice to meet you, too,” the older woman says without tipping her hand. She’s wearing a wire, having been alerted to de Groot’s motives through the Rewards Scam program. “I hope you brought me some new poems!” de Groot gushes. She’s keen to impress the younger man, and replies in verse.
Glad that you asked–
I certainly did.
I knew you were young–
but you’re just a kid!
de Groot laughs at her impromptu riposte in rhyme. “You!” he says as he wags a finger at her. “Always with the couplets!”
The May-December couple sits down at a table for two, and Millicent spreads some of her latest work–all written in longhand on scented lavendar paper–out on the table.
de Groot checks his watch–the upscale menswear store where he likes to shop closes in an hour. He’ll have to hurry if he’s going to pick up a marked-down Ralph Lauren cable knit sweater tonight. “These look lovely, Millicent, but to properly appreciate them, I should take them back to my apartment and read them without distraction.”
“But I thought we were going to have a real date!” Millicent says with a disappointed tone.
“Really, dear, I want to experience the full impact of your poetic powers while I’m lying in my own bed,” he says. “Now about those Rewards–”
Faster than you can say “Paul Verlaine” the two vice cops have de Groot hog-tied and are reading him his “RoundTable Rights.”
“You have the right to remain silent,” Moynihan says through gritted teeth. “You shoulda used it instead of sending out a blast email about that god-awful ‘Rainy Day Thoughts on Men’s Fashions’ post to everybody on the site.”