An old expression in the collectibles world is that anything that has value will eventually be faked or stolen. Art is faked so often that certain types of art have lost all value, because no one can tell the fakes from the genuine items. It’s not just crooks trying to beat the rules of the game. The people responsible for policing the fraud are often the people perpetrating the fraud. The truth is, anything that does not have objective value, but relies on insiders, will be subject to fraud and theft.
It is something to keep mind when thinking about the future of internet properties like the big socials and media sites. They rely on traffic to generate revenues from advertisers and those interested in their traffic data. Twitter does not make much from actual ads on the platform, but they sell user information to those interested in tracking your whereabouts on-line and in the real world. That traffic data is essentially what makes it possible for internet properties to thrive.
That brings up that old maxim of the collectibles business. Who is authenticating the data and appraising its value? There are sites that claim to measure web traffic. Like the ratings services for radio and television, they claim to have a secret way to sample traffic and then estimate over all traffic. Obviously, the sites themselves have their traffic, which they use to pitch advertisers, investors and in the case of politics, the donors that keep these operations running.
Of course, the ratings systems for radio and television have been subject to shenanigans for the same reason art is faked. Those ratings have value, so if you can fake those ratings, it’s like having free access to the bank vault. The ratings themselves are published so the unscrupulous can make bold claims. “We’re number one among left-handed Korean midgets” becomes “we’re number one in our segment.” It is a bandit market and the ratings help facilitate it.
In the internet world, capturing web traffic is a bit more complex. That’s where services like SimilarWeb and Alexa step in to provide hard data. Well, it is supposed to be hard data, but where they get their data is not easy to know. They are a bit cagey about how they arrive at their numbers. Alexa claims to rely on a browser plugin and site owners installing their script. SimilarWeb claims to get data from a panel of hundreds of millions of web users, as well as a sample of websites.
How accurate is the data? Probably not very accurate at all. Consider the British political site Unherd. The Alexa rankings don’t give us overall traffic, but the SimilarWeb ratings tell us they get 1.6 million visitors per month. Is that real? There’s no way to know based on the data provided. It looks like a lot of their traffic comes from aggregators, rather than real people. Then again, how many of their readers would install an Alexa browser plugin? Probably very few.
For small sites that deal in politics, traffic is not that big of an issue, as their donors are not targeting a mass audience. What about other types of data like YouTube views or Twitter followers? If that data real? It’s clear that Twitter is loaded with fake accounts, but how many are their fake accounts? It could be millions by now. How many are used by Twitter to boost users they like? No one can know, but it is not hard to see how that would be something they do for public relations reasons.
Think about it. Twitter is the preferred social media platform of the establishment media, so it is Twitter’s interest to make them happy. That is, in part, why they are feverishly scrubbing anything that vexes the gentle souls in the press corps. How hard would it be for them to ramp up the follower counts and likes on those same media accounts with their army of robot user accounts? Follower counts have value, so it is a safe bet those follower counts are being faked by all interested parties.
It is not just fraud, which is probably rampant in all of these measures of internet activity, but incompetence plays a role. YouTube views will go backwards, because thousands of accounts have been purged. This happens on Twitter as well. Of course, Google breaking its own search algorithm to prevent you from seeing what you like has probably crippled the view counts on YouTube. In other words, One type of deception is colliding with another type of deception.
The big players who make up the bulk of ad buying are starting to figure out that web traffic is not all it is claimed to be. Placing ads on a social media platform is worse than a waste of money. If a company made a video of the executive burning piles of their cash and then posted it on YouTube, they would get more sales from that video than running a regular YouTube ad. Eventually, this becomes obvious to everyone and the ad market on-line begins to dry up for these sites.
The real value in these internet properties, obviously, is in the data they steal from users and sell to governments and corporations. Like the ad business, the fraud in this data will eventually become an issue. We very well may be seeing the high water point for the big social media players. Like the market for certain types of art, the inability to tell the real thing from the fakes will collapse the market. In the end, it will not be public contempt but their own shenanigans that ends their reign of terror.
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