A short story about self-satisfaction, nerdcrime, and the 2008 economic meltdown. [5 min read]
That old media first reported my antics was the final insult, but only for my scapegoat.
“I still don’t know how you pulled it off,” Miranda asked. We were at a beach restaurant. I’d flown her out to gloat, but also, perhaps, to relive old times. “Was it even illegal?”
The New York Times didn’t call it a scam, though there was certainly criminal misdirection involved. Bloggers were not so temperate. The consequences will be severe, but not for me.
“Someone will think so. Yes. Of course it was,” I said. And smiled. “It’ll be in the papers, right?”
Rewind two years. 2007. I’m a blog repossessor. The duties involved had existed in the shadows for some time, but only as the economic meltdown built up and boiled over did it become a real profession.
Here’s how it works. All the countless blogs you see on the Internet, which have the appearance of a dedicated author or two and little in the way of operating expenses? They’re nothing of the sort. In truth, most were planned businesses, absurdly overcapitalized by investors. A bubble. The investors, tired and panicky, would finally realize it was all over and set out to wring residual value from the ruins. In one month alone, I repossessed more than a dozen.
“How many, Leo?” Miranda picked at her meal and her assumptions. “A nice haul? You sure disappeared in a hurry.”
I frowned. She’s still thinking about the repossessions, but that’s not what I did. Not this time. Not really. “You like ouzo?”
She just looked at the bottle. I poured her one anyway.
A blog repo is performed much like any other. The creditor quietly makes the legal arrangements. Paperwork is presented to the service providers, datacenters, hosts, and whomever else. They give us the nod, and we take it from there. Getting in is usually very easy, but it can get fun.
Once access is gained, the current operators are locked out, and a crack team of retired teachers and journalists and other hacks takes over the writing and blogging duties. Paid $12 a post, their English is typically superior to the original writers’, whose names and mannerisms they seamlessly adopt. Worth every cent.
Dispossessed bloggers go through the stages of grief in fast-forward, just like Hyundai owners behind on their payments. Payoffs are at the sharp end of our damage-prevention stick, but blackmail isn’t unheard of. Gadget bloggers are particularly easy to silence. So many unreturned loaner laptops.
“Does Lefty know? Stop trying to be cryptic,” Miranda smiled. I wanted to let her figure out what I did, step by step. She’d just realized that whatever it was, it involved screwing over our mentor, Lefty K.
Lefty once repossessed an entire blog network. 50 million page views a month. A Fortune 500 company had bought it, removed the founder, then let it decline into mediocrity. But it hadn’t crossed its tees, and eventually Lefty took the blogs back. The capture involved a team of twelve lawyers, the secret cooperation of a board member, and a false criminal accusation to facilitate a raid on the datacenter. The Feds, our oblivious remote-control troublemakers, walked out with a well-targeted rackful of servers. Genius.
Miranda’s face, gold in the western sun.
“You should have learned your lesson after Segway Man,” she said. “You promised me, no more of this.”
“This wasn’t a repo.” I said. Giving her just one hint. “Besides, who cares? There’s no-one to come after me this time.”
Segway Man was my own biggest hit, and he nearly killed me: afterward, I ostentatiously quit. In truth, that was just when I realized that the repo game was winding down, that I needed space to work on a plan.
A deep-thinking latecomer to the Web 2.0 era, Segway Man took a heap of VC money, squandered it on “blog development,” then turned down $30m for his shooting-star website. A year later, the bust came, the offers and ad cash evaporated. We couldn’t have any fun with this one: no hacks, no shenanigans. I had to go there in person to execute the order.
I nudged open the door to peer inside. Holed up with some Valley pals in his vast and now-desolate offices, he stood atop a carbon-black special edition Segway. Eyes bleak beneath the lip of a bicycle helmet. His friends leaned on nearby desks in the liquid crystal gloom, their mutterings too distant to make out. I coughed to announce myself.
His eyes fixed upon mine. He knew exactly who I was. The Segway spun to face me, then lurched into motion. I began to read the order of repossession, but it was no use. The accelerating vehicle’s electronic whine harmonized for a terrible moment with the nerdy tenor of his warcry. His cronies twittered furiously on their iPhones. Every mistake shone in his tears and I remember nothing more.
That was Segway Man.
Miranda just wasn’t getting it. Oh well. She always was a little slow.
“Verizon,” I said. “It spent fat sums of money prizing hundreds of domain names away from squatters. Misspellings of ‘Verizon,’ verizonsucks, that sort of thing. And you know what? Last year, it got 19 million page views from the redirected traffic. Just from people who can’t type.”
Lefty knew, because I took my tools with me when I quit. But he never said anything. Maybe he’d had the same idea as me, but it just wasn’t in him.
“Dead blogs,” Miranda said. Longtailed gulls wheeled behind her in the dusk.
“Bingo.” I said. “No investors, nothing but a tiny quantum of traffic. Glide driver discussion forums. Transmeta fansites. Tech blogs that screen-scrape other tech blogs, copyright five years ago.”
The web hosts just let you right in if the site’s dead or delinquent. They’d dealt with me so many times before. Domains lapsing is a much bigger problem for residual value.
My favorite repo? Seebohm Rex. The job of being this famous blogger is now the side gig of a lacquerer working via ISDN from a monkey-infested temple near Katmandu. No-one can tell the difference. The real Rex is now a consultant at Halliburton, telling crazy energy executives how to gamify hydrocarbon extraction.
Miranda folded her hands over the remains of the moussaka, then smiled. “Nearly worthless isn’t worthless,” she said, quoting an old friend of ours.
“DNS and dragons,” I continued. The phrase, so carefully rehearsed, now seemed dorky. “Scripts to ready the sites and hook them up to advertising accounts, then move the lot to hosts in China. Flipped the switch. The dark traffic of two hundred and thirty thousand abandoned websites became a single point of light”--I could not help but gesticulate wildly--”not a Google bomb. A Google singularity.”
“Google figured something was up, but all I needed to do was bribe the right Chinese to make a call, make it look like something AdSense was up to. Googlers were scared witless of those guys back then. Google’s motto, in 2008: ‘Don’t be evil to middle-managing Communist party officials.’”
“Good times,” Miranda’s eyes were cold. “And Lefty?”
Why would she keep asking about Lefty? There was something so irritating about how she obviously didn't understand what I'd done and that I'd have to explain literally everything to her.
“Who cares what happens to him?” I said. “He’s off to jail, and we’re here in par—”
Then it struck me with the silent force of a million malformed SYN packets.
I put down the ouzo.
Miranda was wired.
A flutter of activity in my peripheral vision. Inconspicuous suits walking calmly toward me. I was finished.
“What’s that smarmy thing you always say, Leo?” she said. Her voice a long rasping smiling whisper: “It’ll be in the papers, asshoooooooooole.”
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