Who is Santiago Swallow?

A fascinating post by Kevin Ashton at Quartz on how easy it is to create a fake profile and website and become “Internet famous.” His price tag in creating an account and web site under the alias of Santiago Swallow cost $68:

Creating Santiago and the online proof of his existence took two hours on the afternoon of April 14 and cost $68. He was conjured out of keystrokes in a matter of minutes. I generated his name on “Scrivener,” a word processor for writers and authors. I turned the “obscurity level” of its name generator up to high, checked the box for “attempt alliteration,” and asked for 500 male names. My choices included Alonzo Arbuckle, Leon Ling, Phil Portlock and Judson Jackman, but “Santiago Swallow” just leapt out as perfect. I gave Santiago a Gmail account, which was enough to get him a Twitter account.

Then I went to the web site fiverr.com, the online equivalent of a dollar store, and searched for people selling Twitter followers. I bought Santiago 90,000 followers for $50, all of whom would, he was assured, appear on his Twitter profile within 48 hours. Next I gave him a face by mashing up three portraits from Google images using a free trial copy of Adobe’s “Lightroom” image manipulation software. I gave Santiago his “Twitter verified account” check box by putting it onto his cover image right where his name would appear. It will not fool many people, but might give him a little extra credibility with some. By the time I uploaded these images to Twitter, Santiago had developed a large “following,” even though he did not have a profile and had never tweeted anything.

So that’s one way to become Internet famous. (I don’t encourage or endorse this method, of course.)

The Downside of Being Internet Famous

Gina Trapani, the founder of Lifehacker, has recently surpassed 200,000 followers on Twitter. In her post “The Flip Side of a Big Audience,” she mentions the benefits of having a large audience:

If I want a lot of people to see something, I can make that happen in a few keystrokes without any help from a PR firm or media outlet. I’ve mentioned my follower counts and blog stats in book deal and paycheck negotiations, because people who hire me are often buying my ability to market my book or project.

But the focus of her post is on the negatives of being/becoming internet famous:

You field a weekly flood of pitches. Having a big audience means you’re a commodity, and you get to constantly field pitches from strangers, acquaintances, former co-workers, and distant family members who you never hear from otherwise asking you to mention their new app, book, Kickstarter project, or MySpace page. People decide how important you are by your Klout score and treat you accordingly. Ad agencies look up how much your tweets are worth and recruit you to tweet on behalf of their clients for money. It’s a bizarre and sometimes awkward crash course in saying “sorry, no” to the requests that just don’t feel right (and most of them don’t).

People who don’t know you make wildly inaccurate assumptions about things you say. If you crack a joke, use sarcasm, or don’t fully explain your 140-character statement, you will be misunderstood, because most of your followers barely know you. Last week I said I have mixed feelings about lesbian contestants in a beauty pageant. A handful of people tried to explain why lesbians are just as worthy of beauty pageants as heterosexual women. Having to explain stinks.

You forget how to share with people who do know you. To avoid misunderstandings, you start dumbing down your posts and only writing things which are literal and mostly non-controversial. (At least I do.) But that means your friends don’t enjoy the connection that comes with hearing you be you, instead of edited-you. In an attempt to fix this problem, I set my Facebook user profile to friends-only access. But by now I’m so ruined by my addiction to the flood of retweets, favorites, and replies I get from public posts to my big audience, I spend less time sharing privately.

You get addicted to the approval of strangers. The addiction to the attention you get from a crowd of strangers turns you into a performer instead of a sharer. You look for cheap laughs, stars, retweets, and replies, instead of meaningful conversation with people you actually care about.

Your view of the world gets skewed. An outsized audience presents problems like the ones listed here that no one else has. When you have a big audience, you’re the 1% of the web, and that means your view of the world is skewed. You get paranoid about privacy, cynical about requests from friends, and impatient about misunderstandings.

I would argue that anyone who is on Twitter and is gaining popularity in the blogosphere can get addicted to the approval of strangers. It’s an odd behavior — we seek reassurance from people we’ve never met rather than the ones close to us.

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(Hat Tip: @cherilucas)