Virtual alchemy

When Second Life Shrink was in its planning stages a few years ago I checked out several different blog-hosting services before settling on WordPress. I liked that it was open-source, and a couple of people I knew had recommended it, but what sealed my decision was the amount of statistical information that the platform provides. As well seeing the raw visitor numbers I can analyse where they came from, which pages they have looked at, and which links they have followed, providing me with hours of pointless distraction.

Until fairly recently just about all our traffic came straight from search engines. We’re top on Google for “second life shrink” of course, and lately we’ve been doing well with “second life demographics” too. “Second life addiction” and “second life psychology” seem to come and go; we’ve been on the front page with both of those at various times, though currently we’re languishing down on page three, where only dedicated searchers will find us. We tend to do much better on Bing for some reason; I’m not sure whether that should be a source of pride or shame.

We used to get very few hits from direct links; unsurprisingly, with a couple of exceptions, no one has ever felt that any of our posts were worth drawing to the attention of a wider audience. Recently though we have been getting a steady stream of visitors from a whole host of unlikely sites. I won’t link to them for reasons that will become obvious; suffice to say that they are not the sort of places we would like to be associated with.

I figured that this was likely to be the result of some sort of traffic-generating scam; and a little research has proved that this is the case. The program in question promises to deliver hits by automatically visiting millions of blogs and spoofing an incoming link from the site that is being promoted; the theory is that bloggers, their curiosity piqued, will follow the link back, and then purchase diet pills, or click on Google ads, or otherwise participate in whatever shady e-commerce scheme the site owner is counting on to make back the $70 the package costs.

At least this sting only leaves the would-be web-entrepreneur out by the cost of the program; most of the get-rich-quick-with-Google/Twitter/Facebook offers that litter the web these days are potentially much more expensive. Victims are lured in by the promise of secret marketing tricks for a payment of only a couple of dollars, but after handing over their credit card details they find that they have subscribed to a “newsletter”, for which they are billed $50 or more a month. Of course they can cancel any time, by simply calling a premium-rate number in the Virgin Isles, staffed by operators who will put you on hold for 20 minutes before asking for your bank account number so that they can process the transaction. These sharp practices are not always confined to the murkier recesses of the internet; last year Facebook was awash with similar scams that tricked people into signing up for overpriced cellphone services, though these have been mostly purged now.

What’s interesting about these confidence tricks is not that they are new, but that they are ancient. Persuading people to suspend their disbelief by invoking some magical new paradigm must go back to the days when enterprising cavemen extracted shiny pebbles from their gullible fellows by promising to share the secrets of how to generate revenue using that new “fire” thing that everyone was talking about. From medieval alchemists tuning lead into gold, through Gregor MacGregor’s tales of colonial riches, to Charles Ponzi‘s arbitrage of the International Reply Coupon, today’s blog fraudsters stand in a proud line of grifters and shakedown-artists.

While I like to think that I can see through crude scams such as these, I have to admit that I am not immune to the subtler form of self-deception that keeps me handing money over to disreputable virtual-world-pedlars, not in the belief that it will enrich me materially (nothing so base), but in the hope that I might be able to reinvent myself as a better person (despite all the evidence to the contrary). The alchemists of old sought the Philosophers’ Stone, the mystical substance said to grant enlightenment and immortality; perhaps Second Life, which promises to allow one to transcend the limitations of corporeality, is its modern equivalent.

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