- Fake Streams, Listening Bots, and Click Farms:Counterfeiting Attention in the Streaming Music Economy
SEOClerks is a microlabor platform. Like other, better-known sites, such as Amazon's Mechanical Turk, Crowdflower, and Fiverr, the platform acts as a virtual labor market, bringing together buyers and sellers of services. Those seeking to have tasks done can publish job descriptions, detailing, among other things, the prices they are willing to pay, while those looking for work can advertise the services they offer and the fees they charge, as well as make bids on jobs posted to the platforms. Where microlabor platforms like SEOClerks differ from other, more traditional labor markets is in the scale, distribution, and digital mediation of the services being traded: generally speaking, microwork consists of small data-processing tasks distributed among a large group of individuals working remotely via the internet (examples include labeling images and video online, transcribing audio, and classifying the sentiment expressed in a review or comment posted to a website). And where SEOClerks differs from other microlabor platforms is in the precise nature of the digitally mediated services being bought and sold. As its name suggests, the platform specializes in search engine optimization, the ethically murky practice whereby individuals and companies game search engines and recommendation algorithms in order to gain a competitive advantage over rivals in capturing the attention of potential clients and audiences.
But even the phrase "search engine optimization" is perhaps too much of a euphemism to accurately describe the kinds of transactions the site [End Page 153] hosts. More apt might be to describe SEOClerks as a so-called blackhat marketplace, where individuals traffic in counterfeit goods: fake reviews for Amazon, ersatz followers for Twitter and Instagram, bogus Facebook likes, and fake plays on streaming music platforms.1 "Are you struggling to make your SP0TIFY Music [sic] more popular?" asks one freelancer advertising on the platform. To rectify this situation, musicians can purchase a thousand streams from the seller for just two US dollars, with discounts available on bulk orders (100,000 streams cost $90, while 500,000 cost only $420).2 If this offer isn't attractive enough, there are plenty of others to choose from. Another seller highlights the economic rationale for engaging their services: "Your music is your business, let me help you grow your business. I will gain you 5,000 SP0TIFY Plays. … When you buy SP0TIFY plays you are directly increasing the popularity of your music."3 Judging from posts by would-be buyers of bulk streams, such arguments do not fall on deaf ears. "I am marketing a new song on Soundcloud, I am looking to ensure it brings in an appropriate amount of traffic," declared one listing posted to the site in 2016.4 To improve the chances that the song in question might gain traction with listeners, the prospective buyer offered to pay up to $100 for 150,000 plays, provided that they be delivered within four days' time. Still other job listings strike a more urgent tone: "trying to get my album on Itunes top 100 in the USA … will pay whatever just as long as i get in top 100. tired of my album getting no recognition … PLEASE HELP lol."5
The buying and selling of bulk streams on SEOClerks is not anomalous. Since 2010, traffic in the tokens by which reputation, ranking, and attention are counted online has grown in tandem with the platforms on which such tokens serve as valuable tender. By 2017, it was estimated that between 9 and 15 percent of all Twitter accounts were bots designed to emulate humans—a figure that translated to between 29 and 48 million of the platform's 319 million active monthly users at the time.6 Twitter is scarcely the only platform where deceptive practices have flourished. In May 2018, Facebook announced that it had deactivated 538 million fake user accounts in the first quarter of that year as part of its efforts to root out fraudulent activity on the platform; left unsaid was that this represented just under a quarter of the platform's more than 2.2 billion active users at the time.7 Reports...