Like most slang terms, no one is entirely sure how the word “grifter” came into common usage, but it has been fairly common since the start of the last century. Researchers claim it was carnival slang that crossed over into common usage in the late 19th century and early 20th century. It was possibly a corruption of the word “graft”, another slang term that loosely meant financial crime. Either way, a look at Google Ngram shows it took off in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
One interesting fact about that graph is the usage of the word seems to track with the rise and fall of social trust. In the run up to World War Two, social trust began to decline for a number of reasons. One big one was the financial collapse and the subsequent economic depression in the 1930’s. The fact that the word is increasingly common today, starting in the 1980’s with the digital revolution, suggests a correlation. People are more exposed to corruption now than 30 years ago.
Putting that aside, the microprocessor revolution has changed many things in our culture, one of which is the nature of the confidence man. Before the internet, running a con was an intimate affair. The con man had to personally interact with the mark in order to earn his trust. That meant the con man had to be able to read people and control his own emotions and body language. He also had to understand his mark, so he could say and do things that played on the mark’s vanity.
The life of the analog con man was a dangerous one. Having to operate in close proximity with the mark meant physical risk. If the mark got wise, it could mean a beating or maybe worse. The analog con man therefore had to be highly skilled, but also possess some courage. Often, he was operating in a world with other criminals, maybe even targeting criminals. One mistake, knocking on the wrong door or targeting the wrong old lady, could mean physical harm.
That’s the first thing that has changed about grifting in the digital age. The con man can operate from a great distance, often in anonymity. He can put up a false website that lures people in, based on certain known characteristics. Alternatively, he can create a false persona on-line that ticks the boxes needed to appeal to a class of people the con man is targeting. The confidence game and marketing are often indistinguishable from one another on-line. It’s easier to be a con man now.
Unlike the analog con man, the digital con man no longer has to possess the personal skills to work a mark or a group of marks. They also have a much lower risk of being caught and they don’t have to worry about physical harm. The result is a lower barrier to entry, which means many more con men. In the depression of the 1930’s, money was scarcer so people were more aware of swindlers. Today, the number of swindlers is much higher, so the word “grifter” is more common.
Another difference between the analog and digital grifter is the former operated on a small scale. He had to work a small number of marks at any one time. The latter can work in volume. In fact, the digital con game works better when scaled up as it can then rely on social proof to draw in suckers. While analog grifting was a retail operation, often a bespoke business, the digital con man works wholesale. He skims a little from many people, who often do not notice the con.
One main way the digital grifter works is through front running. They find a fad that is building up steam on-line and rush to the front of it. This helps them get attention from the sorts of people who get caught up in fads. These are people that like being led and need social proof. Once the con establishes himself as a prominent person in the fad, he either asks for support or has something to sell. Think about all the Tea Party sites that offered merchandise ten years ago.
A great example of this is Mike Cernovich. He has jumped from one fad to the next, almost exclusively operating on Twitter. He jumped from fad to fad on-line until he struck pay dirt with his goofy self-help book. He then re-titled it for the Trump era and became a leader of the MAGA cult on-line. When Trump got into office, he then started claiming to be a White House insider. His front-running of Trump allowed him to move a lot of merchandise and establish his brand.
That’s the other aspect of the digital grift. In addition to front running, the digital grifter is always looking to free ride. They look for a movement or fad forming up on-line and then come in with something to sell. It may be a book targeted at the vanity of the people in the movement. E-books are a popular item, because they are cheap to produce and don’t require a lot of work. Video is another, as it can monetize the front-running aspect with just the cost of a webcam.
The real pros in this segment were on display when it looked like Trump was contemplating war with Iran. The cable chat shows were littered with people ready to sell a book on their alleged inside knowledge of Trump, the war planning or the Iranian regime. The same people who peddled books for or against Trump three years ago were going to selling war books. Cable news was a grifter’s ball for a few nights, until Trump pulled the plug on the ear machine.
One similarity between the analog and digital grifter is that the mark builds what he thinks is a strong personal bond with the con man. In an atomized world of deracinated bugmen, there are tens of millions of people willing to follow a guy on-line. Just as lonely old shut-ins were easy marks for the analog grifter, the intensely on-line, who lack the normal personal connections in the physical world, are easy targets for the digital confidence man.
The low barrier to entry means we are Carny Town. The question that remains unanswered is that of cause and effect. Is the proliferation of con men on-line driving down social trust? Is the decline in social trust opening the flood gates for the con men to pour into our lives? Another possibility is that both are driven by the breakdown of white community. A world of atomized strangers is a fertile hunting ground for sociopaths, serial killers and confidence men.
Note: Some have asked why comments end up in moderation. This is the doings of the spam filter I’m using. It is often triggered by epithets, certain links and mysterious word combinations. These messages get flagged as possible spam. Now, in half a dozen years it has blocked over 3.5 million spam messages, so it is trade-off I accept. It means I check the moderation queue once an hour or so. I approve the real comments and trash the spam. Otherwise, there is no moderation.
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