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The Scene from HBO’s Silicon Valley that Everyone Should be Talking about

Silicon Valley’s (the place, not the show) not-so dirty little secret got its moment under the Hollywood spotlight on this past Sunday’s penultimate episode of Silicon Valley’s (the show, not the place) third season.

Silicon Valley, created by Mike Judge, is perhaps the most honest portrayal of what work and life is like in California’s digital gold mining community.  And if the antics of Richard and team’s Pied Piper start-up company  seem sometimes a little far fetched, the final scene of this episode, titled “Daily Active Users,” represents an all too honest peak behind the curtain.  Audiences are finally brought face to face with human beings in a third world country (think Bangladesh or India) who wake up each day and go to work in a large office filled with dozens if not hundreds of others who do nothing all day but click on ads, download apps, log into sites, and various other tasks that real everyday users of the internet engage in purposefully.

Here is that final scene…

 

However, these people do it simply to get paid on average, the equivalent of $1 a day. Their “work” can be worth millions to their employers and sometimes billions to the tech companies of Silicon Valley like Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, What’s App, etc..  Really, any company that bases its value to investors and potential buy-out suiters on a high DAU count. That’s Daily Active Users to us laymen.  In contrast, a company like Uber may not utilize these click farms because they are providing an actual real world service – connecting people with cars and nowhere to be, to people with no cars and somewhere to be.  So it’s kind of hard to fake actual people getting rides in actual cars.  Although I do admit to a possible future where people, or AI robots, could be paid to book Uber rides around town just to boost their DAU count.

Facebook, for instance, now claims that it has a DAU count of over 1 billion. That’s one billion people everyday, logging into Facebook and engaging.  How many of them are actually using it for its intended purpose of connecting with friends and family, sharing stories, photos and life events? Well considering that over 1 billion of Facebook’s total 1.59 billion user accounts exist outside of Europe and North America, I imagine it is fair to say that a plethora of those accounts are are bogus.  Read this account published by Business Insider three years ago which details some of the fakery behind all those likes, views, and followers that social media giants rely on for their billion dollar evaluations.  Emphasis mine.

There’s just one problem: the liking was fake, done by a team of low-paid workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh, whose boss demanded just $15 per thousand “likes” at his “click farm”. Workers punching the keys might be on a three-shift system, and be paid as little as $120 a year.

“There’s a real desire amongst many companies to boost their profile on social media, and find other customers as well as a result,” said Graham Cluley, an independent security consultant.

The importance of likes is considerable with consumers: 31% will check ratings and reviews, including likes and Twitter followers, before they choose to buy something, research suggests. That means click farms could play a significant role in potentially misleading consumers.

Dispatches found one boss in Bangladesh who boasted of being “king of Facebook” for his ability to create accounts and then use them to create hundreds or thousands of fake likes.

Click farms have become a growing challenge for companies which rely on social media measurements – meant to indicate approval by real users – to estimate the popularity of their products.

For the workers, though, it is miserable work, sitting at screens in dingy rooms facing a blank wall, with windows covered by bars, and sometimes working through the night. For that, they could have to generate 1,000 likes or follow 1,000 people on Twitter to earn a single US dollar

Film and television are powerful tools when communicating to the masses indiscretions such as this.  It’s one thing to hear about people making a dollar a day, but it’s quite another to see it happening.  Remember when Ray Rice hit his fiancé, knocking her out cold and dragging her unconscious body out of that elevator?  It wasn’t until video emerged of the crime, that the our collective outrage meter hit the roof.  Before the video hit, it was just a another report of domestic violence. No video – yaawwwn.  Seeing is believing.  Search “click farms” on your favorite search engine and you will see endless news stories come back, but it’s popular television and film that truly drives national conversations.

While there are plenty of us who can somewhat relate to sitting in front of a computer all day working, at least for most of us in the western world, our work is about producing goods or services and being compensated accordingly.  The mere image of seeing these impoverished faces clicking on ads, creating fake accounts, and logging into services they have no need for and thus rigging the success columns of tech companies in Silicon Valley is frightening.  This is a bubble that is going to burst and it will be global.  This is worse than just creating work for work’s sake.  The work they are engaged in is a lie.

This isn’t just about web apps either. Anything that needs a buzz to be successful can spend a little cash to infect themselves into going viral.  From movies, gadgets, books, and music bands, the list is endless.  Channel 4 produced a documentary specifically to test these click farms and make their fake boy band, Wrong Direction, a viral sensation. Here is the trailer.

Silicon Valley (the show, not the place) has been hilariously and brilliantly pulling back the curtain of the tech world for the past three years, and in one scene – one without jokes, without commentary or dialogue – it exposed these Wizards of Silicon Valley for what they most likely are, the slumlords of the 21st century sweatshop.  People who hire other people to make them rich by lying about the success of their product.  I applaud Mike Judge and team for seamlessly exposing this dark underside of the tech industry.

It wasn’t long ago when the the image that most popped into most people’s head when they heard the word Silicon was fake boobs.  Now in a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy, Silicon Valley seems to be living up to that fakery with a foundation built on lies and house of cards ready to collapse at any moment.

Is all of this wrong or illegal?  After all, people are getting paid and who am I to suggest that the person doing the clicking isn’t able to make their own decision if that kind of work is worth the wage offered.  However, when Facebook claims and demonstrates to advertisers that 1 billion people a day are using their platform, but doesn’t say how many of them are there just to log in with no intension of actually using the platform the way advertisers expect people too, they are lying in order to boost the price of advertising.  That is highly unethical and downright wrong.

Matt Edwards

Matt Edwards is a filmmaker in his native Los Angeles. He is an alumnus of the 2011 Taliesin Nexus Filmmakers Workshop, a 2014 Liberty Lab Fellow and the current editor of SCC. Matt is also host of the The Rear View film podcast. Follow @TRVpodcast and @mattchrised on Twitter.