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The Boston Globe

Opinion

alex beam

My fake online friend-bots

istockphoto/h. hopp-bruce/globe staff

For 70-plus years, Oxford’s All Souls College required applicants to sit for three hours and compose an essay on a single word. The subject, e.g. “water” or “innocence,” changed annually. The college eighty-sixed this venerable tradition in 2010.

A pity, because one could easily spend three hours analyzing the tortured recent history of the word “friend.”

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Friends used to be the people you called up to play touch football, to grouse about work or politics or — the ultimate test — to help you move. In a famous “Seinfeld” episode, Jerry un-friends New York Mets star Keith Hernandez, because the too-presumptuous Hernandez asks for help with an upcoming move.

Note my contemporary use of “friend” as a transitive verb. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg may have stripped us of our privacy, but in recompense, he has enriched our vocabulary.

The Russians used to say, “Better have a hundred friends than a hundred rubles.” Now that the social media hot air balloon has inflated the currency of friendship to its present worthless state, I’m brimming with “friends.” The lowest common denominator, the Facebook friend, might be better termed an acquaintance, a pal, or just some schlemiel you may or may not have gone to school with.

Your cousin knew my sister, I think. At Harvard; or was it Howard? We’re friends!

Now I learn that instead of recruiting friends to my anemic Facebook and Twitter accounts, I could have been buying them. Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that the State Department spent $630,000 buying “friends” for its Bureau of International Information Programs’ Facebook page. The bureau self-describes as America’s “foreign-facing public diplomacy communications bureau,” the linchpin of State’s “growing social media community that numbers over 22 million followers.”

Many of them fake, alas. It would be nice to lay this scandal at the feet of the emotionally needy secretary of state, John Kerry, but the policy of buying friends for America redounds to his emotionally needy predecessor, Hillary Clinton.

I’m no stranger to emotional need. Over at WeSellLikes.com (“Give your Facebook page an uplift!”), I can buy 10,000 Facebook “likes” for $350. Twitter followers are a lot cheaper. An Indonesian gentleman sells 1,000 fans for $10, and a million for $600. So for about the cost of a high-end tablet computer, my 222-person Twitter account could swell to Pamela Anderson-like (995,000) proportions.

I’m obsessed with Anderson, because she tweeted one of my columns last year, but forgot to include my Twitter handle, @imalexbeamyrnot. (There are a lot of Alex Beams on the Internets . . . ) Does she know that I buy all my postage stamps from her beloved PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), which prints a full pane dedicated to America’s “Dynamic Vegetarians”? Oh, never mind.

While you and I may have trouble distinguishing fact from fancy on the Internets, clearer-eyed people don’t. Last month, the web consulting firm Incapsula revealed that 61 percent of web traffic “was generated by non-human entities” called bots. Atlantic magazine writer Alexis Madrigal quickly dubbed this the “Internet of Thingies,” and helpfully demonstrated how the most ignorant layperson could quickly assemble a program to visit your Web page 100,000 times.

Sounds good to me! I have an under-the-radar Web page for which those would be the first 100,000 visitors. Welcome, bots!

I asked Madrigal if I could build my own bot to jack up my Twitter following, exponentially. No problem, he replied; “It would probably take you less than an hour of searching and cost you $20.”

The more sober question would be: Why do I want to jack up my Twitter following? Forbes.com reports that 60 percent of Twitter accounts are currently inactive. It’s unlikely that the digital dead have much interest in what I’m up to. Madrigal’s Atlantic colleague Robinson Meyer reported last month that “the median Twitter account has only one follower.”

That is something of a statistical anomaly. If you factor out the dead accounts, Meyer writes, the median user has 61 followers. Which makes you wonder: Why do they bother?

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “Friendship, like the immortality of the soul, is too good to be believed.” Hail the Sage of Concord! He anticipated the Internet.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.
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