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If you have any finger at all dipped in the vast ocean of blather that is social media, you can’t fail to have noticed yesterday’s flurry of hand-waving over some comments made by internet luminaries Will Wheaton and Matt (The Oatmeal) Inman. For those who aren’t mainlining Facebook and Twitter, and didn’t catch it, the whole thing revolved around the Huffington Post doing what it does – sucking content from anywhere it likes without paying for it, and then regurgitating it to the world – and Wheaton and Inman getting on the wrong end of that deal (the ‘without getting paid’ end).

In Wheaton’s case, the Huffington Post wanted to use a previous post from his blog, but declined to offer any compensation when he asked for them to actually fork out for it. Wheaton wrote about it, quite reasonably, in a piece entitled “You Can’t Pay Your Rent With “the unique platform and reach our site provides”” riffing on his earlier Twitter comments “Writers and bloggers: if you write something that an editor thinks is worth being published, you are worth being paid for it. Period.” and “This advice applies to designers, photographers, programmers, ANYONE who makes something. You. Deserve. Compensation. For. Your. Work.”

As for Inman, the HuffPo hotlinked one of his Oatmeal strips, and he then quickly link-spoofed them with an image that said “Dear Huffington Post. Please don’t hotlink images without permission. It costs me money to host these. Here’s my monthly bill”, with said bill attached. This morning, he followed it up with an amusing cartoon commentary.

At least they asked Wheaton whether they could use his stuff. They just pinched Inman’s. Well, the internet version of pinching, anyway.

Now, I’ll say right off the blocks, that I like and respect both these guys. I’ve been a fan for years. If the internet is about anything at all, it’s about the kinds of things they do: Inman amuses, makes admirable social commentary and raises money for good causes. Wheaton entertains, makes admirable social commentary and, well, entertains. And yes, he also uses his geek celebrity to aid worthwhile causes too.

In a general philosophical sense, I also agree with what they’re saying here; it’s reasonable to expect that if a money-making venture such as the Huffington Post wants to use your artistic content to help their advertising revenue, then it’s worth more than just their fond appreciation for your efforts.

In my opinion, there is, however, something of a problem with the high moral ground that both Wheaton and Inman are occupying here. They are being just a teensy bit disingenuous. It comes about because of the stature that each of them has gained from the currency that they are dismissing with such disdain. That currency is exposure.

From where I stand, the equation looks very different to what I expect it does to Will Wheaton or Matt Inman. If I was given the same deal as Wheaton, and the HuffPo asked if they could carry this very article, what am I going to do? If they offer me the ‘exposure’ deal, my options are to take it and get exposure or don’t take it and reach my usual two dozen readers. No-one doubts that the best outcome would be to get paid and get the exposure, but likewise, it should be obvious to pretty much anyone that the worst deal is to end up with no money and no exposure. It’s all very well for Wheaton and Inman to tell other people that they should accept nothing less than proper recompense for their efforts, but they are not other people.

As I said some years ago in my post The King is Dead! Long Live the King!, we are now in an age where creative content is worth – in monetary terms – exactly (and only) what people are prepared to pay for it. You can put whatever pecuniary value you like upon it, but that’s completely arbitrary in the eyes of anyone else.

The problem is not an easy one to parse. I’m a creator, and my stuff is indisputably worth a few coins. Isn’t it? But what? Is it worth as much as Will Wheaton’s stuff or Matt Inman’s stuff? No? Then why not? You see what’s going on here, don’t you? There’s a level of artistic value – and corresponding monetary value – assigned to the work of those guys, but how do you calculate the worth of that? I’m going to put it out there that it’s not just value based on the work itself, but rather a combination of things including how much exposure they get. Sure, they do good stuff, but without the exposure, the good stuff is only worth something to the two dozen loyal followers of their blog/band/comic/games-club newsletter. LOTS of people do good stuff.

And that’s the crux of it: with so much stuff being done – and so much good stuff being done – with so many artists and musicians and writers doing their thing, it’s very very hard to rise above the noise. Money is nice to have, but in the great big ocean that is the internet, without exposure, you’ve got nothing. Proper compensation depends a lot on where exactly you are in the food chain. Matt and Will can afford to say no to the HuffPo because it really doesn’t matter to them – they need neither money, nor exposure.

Now, I don’t want to sound like I’m defending the Huffington Post here – I’m really not. I think that they’re unprincipled opportunists (there goes my chance of HuffPo glory) and that they’re wrong to exploit the talents and hard work of others in order to line their own coffers. As long as people are willing to provide them free content, though, this exploitation is never going to go away. I think you can work out, without me putting it down in detail, that there are a lot of reasons that people will continue to provide their content – good content – for free. As I have said in the past, if you are an artist or a writer or a musician, the people doing that are your competition. It’s just entirely irrelevant insisting that your art is worth something if no-one wants to actually pay for it. Whether you like it or not, that’s the world in which we now exist, and it’s simply pointless raising a fist and shaking it at that fact.

It comes down to basic commonsense and survival strategies. Sure, your efforts have value, but the value might not necessarily be financial. If that value can be parlayed into money, great. If it can’t, then decide whether there is other opportunity to be had. If that opportunity is exposure, and you could use some exposure, then take it. If that opportunity is connection, and you need connections, then take it. If there is no advantage in making a deal, then don’t make the deal. The only bad exchange is one where you feel an inequality exists. But don’t let someone else tell you what that inequality is.

Matt Inman and Will Wheaton undoubtedly have your best interests at heart. They’ve just forgotten that as you’re attempting to get your head above the crowd, you sometimes don’t have the luxury of insisting on your principles.

I wanted to add one further post about the CieAura scam. I found out so many things while I was researching it, that I simply couldn’t fit them in the narrative without making it labyrinthine with detours. So this will be a kind of round up of CieAura ephemera and thoughts from me about it.

• One thing that I wanted to talk about was the large web presence of this racket. Searching the name brings up over 200,000 primary hits, and as you begin to spool through the highest ones, the first thing you notice is that very few of those hits are disparaging of the product. This might lead an undiscriminating researcher to conclude that any negativity against it – such as mine – is rare. It doesn’t take long to discover that CieAura is working the SEO like crazy – either through actively cross linking itself with itself, or getting other people (probably its reps) to do so. And make no mistake, CieAura is an internet whore. Wherever it can get its name mentioned, it does, sometimes numerous times in a paragraph. CieAura ‘comments’ are scattergunned through forums and user groups, often completely irrelevantly (trading on open and poor moderation). If you’re like me, the next thing you think to do is search ‘CieAura scam‘. You get many fewer results, and some of them are useful. The interesting thing, though, is that there is a significant proportion that look like they’re offering advice about being scammed, but turn out to be sales pitches – this demonstrates an active process of attempting to hoover up folks who might be doubtful about the product, and are sensible enough to do a search on it. It’s an eerie and creepy tactic and after I’d seen it a few times, my skin was really starting to crawl.

• When you do encounter users of CieAura on the forums, they are almost universally effusive about the product. If someone makes a comment like ‘it’s a scam, they don’t work’ you can bet there’ll be a chorus of others who dispute that. The likelihood is very high that the original comment came from someone who used the chips, and the rebuttals from people selling them.

• CieAura makes a big deal about the chips ‘not putting any drugs in your body’. This paranoid fear-mongering squares with Melissa Rogers’ and Kathy Heiney’s persistent mantra about ShooTag ‘not using any chemicals’. This is plainly an attempt to leverage prospective customers’ distrust of modern medicine as part of the sales pitch.(i) They really have all the angles on pushing people’s buttons.

• You can’t buy CieAura in any other way than from a sales representative. The CieAura website (and others I found) makes it seem that you can, but you just can’t. Try it if you like. You’ll always end up getting directed to a sales rep of one kind or another. At the very least this is another example of completely dishonest behaviour; why make it appear that you have a store and shopping cart on your site when you don’t? If the product is a completely legitimate one, and efficacious as it’s made out to be, why can’t I just order some, like I can do with anything else I want to buy? This speaks once again to the real mechanism in operation here: CieAura doesn’t care about selling the product as much as it does about recruiting chumps to sell it. That, there can be no doubt by now, is where the bulk of the money generation lies (see below to how relevantly this speaks to CieAura being a pyramid scheme).

• There are numerous CieAura ‘training’ videos on YouTube and elsewhere. If you’ve ever had someone attempt to ensnare you in a scheme like Amway or Herbalife, these whitebread airbrushed zombies with their lame xeroxed script will be quite familiar to you.

Once you take care of your family, then you can help others…” says Mr Less-Charisma-Than-A-Dog-Turd. That’s right folks, make sure you screw your family first, because they’re the least likely to go to the cops. This tactic has the additional advantage that it will make you feel like you’re getting somewhere if you get a few ‘sympathy purchases’ out of the starting gate. But after you’ve worked your way through your mum & dad & siblings, and alienated what are probably the last of your friends, you’ll find out mighty quickly that the Law of Large Numbers has taken care of any other suckers that might give you the time of day. By then, Paul Rogers has already spent your money on another of his awful suits.

And this idea that you’re ‘helping’ people is loathsome. How are you helping them? By foisting off on them some stupid twinkly little stickers that do nothing that’s even vaguely rooted in reality? Or by lumbering them with a business ‘opportunity’ that they’ll chip away at for a month or two before realising that, as always, a real job requires either some experience or a level of honest toil doing something useful. There is only one way to get easy money in this world, and that’s to piss all over other people.

I really detest the way that this whole thing is vaunted as decent business. This is not business, it’s out-and-out screwage. This is what people who are assholes think business means. I’ve run several successful businesses in my time and I have never found the need to treat anyone I work with, work for, or employ, like these people do. If you’re considering opting into the CieAura marketing scheme, take it from me, the people on the top of the pyramid don’t give a flying fuck about you or whether you succeed, no matter how heavily they peddle that message. Once you’ve put down your first few hundred, they’ve got what they want. Anything else they can string you along for is a bonus. If someone tells you they’ve made money out of CieAura – and that person is not Paul Rogers, because he certainly has – then you can bet your ass that person is another CieAura rep trying to recover a few dollars of the debt she’s no doubt carrying. To reiterate from last post: whatever CieAura might present this whole deal as, it’s a pyramid scheme. Go here and read this carefully so you understand why it can never work for you.

It’s mathematically impossible for everyone to make money in a pyramid scheme. For example, if each recruit needs to find 10 more people to recoup the cost of his or her initial investment, the eighth level of the pyramid would have to recruit a billion people to make back their money. And the next level would need 10 billion, nearly twice the population of the Earth. ~How Pyramid Schemes Work

• CieAura, no doubt, would object to being called a pyramid scheme. They would probably define themselves as a Multi Level Marketing program. They do this for a very, very good reason: in 1979, the US Federal Trade Commission ruled that Amway, a huge company that runs on this kind of system, was NOT a pyramid scheme. The fine points of exactly why not, are almost impossible to fathom, really, but in any case you can go here and determine for yourself how CieAura would fare if called to account by the FTC.

Here are a few points the FTC gives (from many) for differentiating a pyramid scheme from a ‘genuine’ MLM.(ii)

• Avoid any MLM that puts much more emphasis on recruiting salespeople than selling the actual product.
• Make sure that the products being sold have real value and a competitive price.
• Avoid signing up for an MLM as part of a high-pressure motivational event.
• Bottom line: If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

Any of that sound like CieAura? You see how they’re attempting to navigate around the strict definition of a pyramid scheme by selling a ‘product’? But the value of that product is completely fabricated, so having a ‘competitive’ price is a meaningless concept. They just put on any price they can get away with, because the thing is not ‘competing’ against anything but fairy dust. It’s lies wrapped up in deceit and tied with a bow of bullshit.

And it might not hurt to keep in mind that the people at the top of that CieAura pyramid are closely related to entities like BurnLounge who have been found criminally culpable of defrauding consumers via a pyramid scheme masquerading as a Multi Level Marketing opportunity (this does not, I hasten to add, make them criminals merely by association. But it does speak to the kind of company they keep, and the kinds of companies they keep, if you get my drift).

That’s all on CieAura for now, but I have a feeling we’ve not spoken the last words about them…

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Footnotes:

  1. A distrust that, while having a modicum of legitimacy, is blown way out of proportion by so-called CAM modalities. Yes, pharmaceutical companies are sometimes not the most honourable people in the world, but there’s a lot of pot-calling-the-kettle-black going on. Particularly when we consider the likes of CieAura, PowerBalance, Sensa Slim et al []
  2. I still think MLMs are dangerous swindles too, but apparently in the US, where money is the only thing important to a lot of people, the FTC has been swayed on that point. []

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I thought it might be time to look once again at the kinds of searches that bring people to The Cow. I am relieved to see that there is something of a de-emphasis of the ‘gay penis’ searches, and interested to observe that ‘famous mirrors’ is still in the top ten, along with ‘shoo tag scam’. We’re also seeing some visits by people skeptical of the ridiculous ‘Trinfinity 8′ (hi there!), which is encouraging, and quite a few who have not bookmarked The Cow and need to keep looking it up on Google. Silly people. You should not only have it bookmarked, it should be on a key macro.

I hope you’re all having a nice day.

The more observant among you – OK, everyone, I guess, since Malach isn’t visiting anymore – will have noticed the new Twitter feed to the right there. Yes, I have succumbed. Well, for a while anyway, until I get sick of it. But I’ll try to keep it entertaining, so those of you who are in the Twitterati, please link up to Follow.

I’m also hoping that new ideas and fun will pop out of the Twittersphere, and that it will make the Cow experience a little more interactive. So if you want the Cow to scrutinize anything in more detail – tweet me!

I really love a good mystery! In my last post Desperate? I talked about the apparent spamming of my (and others’) blog comments by Microsoft. Cow reader Damned Skeptic took me to task about this conclusion, and I defended my logic in the Comments of that post.

In a nutshell, what I said was that given that 99.9% of all the comment spam I get is about link hoarding, what evidence is there that the Bing (and also Yahoo) links were not cut from the same cloth? To me it looks like someone is trying to get some link action happening for those sites.

Except…

This morning I was inundated with a whole lot of spam such as this one from ‘Datherine':

Here’s where Datherine is linking:

Now, is that not totally bizarre? Firstly, I will acquiesce: it’s fairly conclusive evidence that my first hypothesis was incorrect. I doubt that ALL the search engines are attempting to up their ranking like this. That would just be ridiculous. But what IS going on, then?

One thing that I can tell you is that Akismet (my spam filter) is on top of this – look at the stuff that was scooped up overnight:

There were dozens like this. These, of course, are all generated by bots and are easy to screen, unlike the spumans I mentioned yesterday. But look at those links! Way to add some pile carpet to the noise floor. Why would anyone want to generate lots of links to just any search engine? What are we seeing here? Are the big search engines involved in some kind of clandestine link deluge war? Is there any relevance in the fact that all the attempted links from yesterday and the day before were exclusively Bing and Yahoo, and this morning, for the first time, it’s Google? Wow.

Another thing I can tell you is that this spam was targeting my most visited pages, such as the FAQ, the Rasputin contests and some of my Peter Popoff posts. There is definitely some method behind this madness…

You will remember that some time back I was musing about the exploration of models for earning income in the new media paradigm.

At that time I installed the Collection Plate, to the right there in the sidebar, just to see whether visitors could even be bothered to flick a virtual coin my way when they found something on The Cow that they liked. Well, it’s been a mixed response. As I might have guessed, the click count was proportionately high toward the beginning and has now tapered off. Even factoring in King Willy’s irritating clicking frenzy in the early days, I can see that there was interest when it was a fresh idea, but has now settled into a predictable low-level trickle. Not surprising really.

As of today the plate has collected 860 coins – if we assume that people might have dropped in 5c a hit, that’s a grand sum of 43 bucks in 3 months. It’s obvious that I’m not headed off to the Maldives anytime soon. Still, my readership is small (if entirely faithful) so those figures are obviously dependent upon traffic – it’s not bad for someone who’s busking in a back alley on a cloudy day.

When I installed the Collection Plate, you may recall that I mentioned, somewhere during the discussion, a concept called Flattr – a micropayment ‘sharing’ system being set up by Peter Sunde, one of the Creators of Pirate Bay. Well, I was recently invited to join the Flattr beta project and you will infer by the Flattr icon underneath the Collection Plate over to the side there, that I have accepted a role in the Flattr experiment.

This is how Flattr is supposed to work:

First of all, you need a Flattr account. Currently these are given by invitation only, but the idea is that when Flattr is launched, anyone can get an account just by signing up. When you have your account, you decide how much money per month you’d like to spend to ‘Flattr’ people who you visit on the web. This money goes into your Flattr account – you can’t get it back. Then, over the month, the amount of money you decide upon – say five dollars (or Euros, as it is at the moment) is divided up by the number of times you click on Flattr buttons you encounter while traipsing around the intertubes. That amount of money then goes into each Flattr account you clicked on. In other words, if you only click one Flattr button on one site, that site gets the whole five bucks. If you click on two Flattr buttons, each site gets $2.50. And so forth. If you don’t click on any Flattr buttons, all your monthly allowance goes to a charity.

I’m giving Flattr a try, but I have numerous reservations about its concept. Let me elaborate:

•Straight off the bat, when I activated my Flattr account I was asked to nominate an amount of money I wanted to spend to Flattr people each month. This is too damn tricky, I think. I simply don’t know what kind of a figure I think is reasonable to spend on my internet travels. Heck, mostly I get my stuff for free right now – why should I pay? I don’t think I’m the only one that will ask that question. This idea is too much like subscription models that have already shown to be less than effective on the internet. And a big difference is that with subscriptions you know in advance what you’re getting, and can make an assessment of whether it’s good value.(i)

•Right from the first time I heard the concept vaunted I could see a huge drawback: Flattr must break a critical user barrier before it’s got a hope in hell of working. If Flattr buttons were everywhere, and you saw them on YouTube and Wikis and Forums and so forth, then I think you’d be inclined to join up, if for no other reason than to get a chance at a slice of the pie for yourself. But for now, the very first thing you realise after you put some money in your Flattr distribution account is that there are not many people out there that you want to Flattr. Well, sure, for the novelty you’re likely to chuck a few coins in wherever you see a Flattr button, but the idea is that you reward people who are doing great stuff, not just exchange coins with everyone else in your club.

We can see the problem here of course – Flattr needs to be ubiquitous to get the system working, but the system has to be working for Flattr to be ubiquitous. It’s an unenviable conundrum. Can Flattr pull itself up by its own bootstraps? I’m doubtful.

•You can’t proportionately award good stuff more Flattr points the more you like it. Flattr will only let you click on one unique button once a month. I think this is a problem. I understand the egalitarian idea behind sharing revenue ‘fairly’ among places that I visit, but let’s face it, I want to be able to decide that if I like someone a lot, I can click on their button three or four times to reflect that. I’ve hit this stumbling block already – I’ve visited a few sites that are linked off Flattr and, well, they’re OK, but do I really want to give them my coin? If I plonk my click down on one site, then I am under pressure to find another site just so site #1 doesn’t get my whole month’s allowance. There’s something that I find instinctively wrong about that concept.

•You can’t see (as far as I can tell) who has Flattred you. This is probably not something that would be ultimately relevant, but while Flattr is new I think it’s quite important. If someone Flattrs you, you instinctively want to see what they do also. It’s like when someone leaves a comment on The Cow – mostly I will pay their link a courtesy visit to see exactly what it is they’re about, and if I like it, I might even stay. I believe this sense of community is vital in a scheme like Flattr, at least in the early stages. (It occurs to me that it’s also a very good way of finding out exactly who actually even has an account on Flattr, since the only people who can Flattr you are Flattr users). And related to that:

•To even get a leg-up, you need to have Flattr users come visit you. I don’t see how I’m going to get this to happen unless I actively solicit visitors to The Cow. Once again, this may not be as much of a problem if Flattr becomes widespread, but for the moment it is a stumbling block. You can see how many people have Flattred me by the count on the Flattr icon. Right now it’s zero and I expect it will remain that way for some time.

How do I get you guys to join up with Flattr, so that you can Flattr me? Why, according to the Flattr website, I tell them to! So – how many of you are heading across to Flattr right now to get an account? Right, I thought so.

So, there are my thoughts on the Flattr mattr. As I said in my original article, these things interest me so I’m all for some experimentation, but I really don’t hold high hopes for Flattr. I aim to stick with it for a few months – let’s see how we go.

ADDENDUM: I thought of another instability just now. Flattr exists as a kind of community contribution idea – I Flattr you, you Flattr Gilbert, he Flattrs me, what goes around comes around. But exploitation of the system would arise very fast. Let’s say I post something on my site that really gets people’s attention. They all Flattr me, and not only that, I get quite famous, with lots of readers and a nice Flattr income. There is no incentive for me to care about belonging to the Flattr community, as such, any longer. I can reduce my Flattr contribution to the minimum allowable and just let it go to charity every month. Meanwhile I’m doing very nicely out of a constant Flattr revenue stream. I’m not suggesting this would happen a lot, but there would definitely be Mega Flattr sites that are sucking it in rather than giving it up.

Another thing that occurs to me is that knowing how much people are being Flattred is likely to influence how much they get Flattred. If I see someone with lots of Flattrs I’m likely to think – oh well, they’re doing OK, I’ll save my click for someone else. I think this could be ameliorated slightly by having the number of Flattrs NOT displayed on your icon. It may well be that doing this might counteract the situation I mentioned above.

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Footnotes:

  1. I suppose that you can always treat your Flattr account as a hypothetical donation to charity from the get-go – which it kind of is. []

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