The Internet Is Not What You Think

Sam Ursu
Sam Ursu
Nov 23, 2015 · 6 min read

Although I am an American by birth, I have never been to California or the West Coast. And although I don’t know how to hack, program, code or design software, it is because of Google that I pay my bills and feed my family.

I know that Medium is popular with the movers and shakers of the internet world, especially the English- (and to a lesser extent, Portuguese-) speaking men and women who design software, make and use all those wonderful apps, participate in those cool tech Kickstarter campaigns, raise billions of dollars for start-ups, and press the keys
that affect billions of internet surfers (if I am still allowed to use such an "archaic" term) around the world. But I, a humble nobody, am here to tell you one important message:

You don’t know my name, but I AM the internet

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As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Indeed, I’ve already written a few books, but as Cory Doctorow once said, "The
problem for most artists isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity". So to feed my family, I turned to the Dark Side.

I started, easily enough, writing academic papers for desperate and/or lazy university students. This was before the internet existed, and professors able to use advanced software to detect plagiarism. I then started doing work re-writing news copy for obscure indy newspapers, ‘zines, and other second-tier print media.

As the internet blossomed, I found that work was abundant, where I could write from dusk to dawn and get paid handsomely for my effort.
There was just one caveat: none of my hard work ever carried my name or byline. Today, the vast majority of the internet is as fake as a three dollar bill. This secret isn’t exactly hidden, but it’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge.

That product review you read on Amazon before deciding to buy? I wrote it. I’ve never owned or used the product, but yet I wrote about it with conviction and authority.

  • Cookware set? Why dontcha know, I’m an Italian grandmother with six children, and I sure do love cooking up big batches of my homemade
    spaghetti and marinara sauce with the X Brand cookware set.
  • Rifle scope? I am White Male English Name, a retired Marine Corps sniper, so I definitely know my rifle scopes. The X Brand scope is far superior because...
  • Juicer? I’m a personal trainer, with 20 years of following the raw vegan lifestyle. I can definitely recommend the X Brand juicer because...

You get the idea. But it’s not just fake product reviews that I get paid to write.

  • That restaurant review? Fake. I’ve never even been in that city, yet here’s a glowing but subtly nuanced review (with one included negative remark) about the delicious and affordable food at Chez X.
  • That 5-star review for that app you’re considering downloading? Fake. I got paid a couple bucks to download it, rate it, write a
    brief comment, then delete it. Both Apple and Android.
  • That helpful article you just read? Also fake. I just made up the Top 10 Foods to Help You Find the Common Cold, or 5 Ways You Can Reduce Wrinkles. I probably write 50 pseudo-health articles a week.
  • Home decorating ideas? Also fake. I just rehashed the information from five other sites and added one idea that flatters my client.
  • Medical information? Not fake, in the sense that the information is at least somewhat true. But I just mixed and mashed whatever else is
    out there on the internet with whatever spin the client wanted. For example: E-cigarettes are good/bad and here’s the evidence to prove
    it! Or here’s what to do if you think you have arthritis (and definitely choose my client’s medicine/therapy/product!)
  • Dental procedure? Cosmetic procedure? All fake. If it’s legal (and the FDA lets almost anything slide these days) I’ll make it seem
    like a miracle cure, with no pain or side effects.
  • Legal advice? I’m not a lawyer, but I can sure write like I’m one. And wouldn’t you know it, the exact situation you may be facing is exactly what I (my client) supposedly specializes in.

But surely that’s it, right? A few fake reviews, "helpful" articles, “ambulance chasing" lawyer pseudo-ads, and elective procedures isn’t so bad, is it? Nope. It gets worse.

  • That book you’re thinking of reading? I not only wrote the fake glowing review, I wrote the book too. Most of "my" books are non-fiction e-books, but there’s a healthy market for ghostwriters.
    And yes, some of your favorite fiction writers are hiring me to write their best-selling series.
  • That hard news article you just read? I just rewrote it from one of the handful of original news sources still left (WaPo, New York Times,
    etc). There’s a reason why Google shows 5,000 "similar articles" to every breaking story.
  • That subtle product placement disguised as a news story? Well I wrote that too. I just happened to write about how gosh darn great
    insurance is at the same time a site was running ads from an insurance company. And I write plenty of articles about how eating junk/fast
    food ISN’T bad for you.
  • That press release, email blast, small town/city government statement, and corporate news briefing were all written by me.
  • Those tweets, Facebook and other social media posts from organizations, charities, (non-American) government entities, and NGOs
    were all written by me. And then I used puppet accounts to boost the likes and comments. Facebook occasionally requires "verification",
    but a photoshopped ID fools them every time. Twitter meanwhile openly lets you run hundreds of accounts.
  • Academic papers are, ironically, even EASIER to write these days than in the pre-internet era. Between what I can crib from a few textbooks and my ability to bamboozle plagiarism software, few professors have the time to figure out that Billy Boy didn’t actually write that doctorate thesis, essay, or do the scientific research.
  • Those comments you see on REAL news sites? Well, I wrote them too. It just so happens that I agree/disagree with a big policy issue, and
    have the chops to write my opinion persuasively.
  • “Op-Ed" type articles you see on sites like the Huffington Post, where members of the public (especially celebrities or people with name recognition) can submit pieces, well I wrote those too.
  • The screenplay for that film you loved? Well, I wrote that too. Another person or persons got their name in the credits, but I did the heavy lifting and wrote the first draft. And then of course I wrote the review after the movie came out.
  • That interview you read with a famous/influential person? Well, I wrote that too. And no actual interview was necessary. They just
    told me what points they wanted to make, and I tweaked everything to make them look smart/wise/funny.
  • That translation you just read? Well, I wrote that too. It helps when you speak and write half a dozen languages. I just churn it through translation software and then clean it up, adding whatever subtle slant the client wants.

Quite simply put, the number of people who can persuasively and correctly write English is rapidly diminishing. Billions of people can use emojis and txt speak, but the internet still runs on words.
And words move people.

Words get people into doctor’s offices. Words give people advice on how to choose their next gadget, product, or outfit. Words persuade people to download crappy and/or virus-laden apps. Words get people to buy books. Words get "real" people to join in on bandwagons, add their likes and stars and hearts and follows. Words garner respect for empty-headed celebrities and retarded politicians. Words change policy and legislation. Words sink or swim that new song, new movie, new YouTube channel star, new book, or new "viral" meme. Words sell T-shirts, smartphones, lawn mowers, steroid pills, and juicers. Words fill theaters and open wallets.

Of course, I am not the only one. There’s a small legion of retired English majors, former journalists, grammar nerds, and other intelligent but unrecognized people, often homebound for one reason or another, who do what I do. Sometimes I recognize their work out there in the vast space of the internet, even as I’m busy borrowing and
mashing and rewriting it, until on some days it feels like the online world is one big echo chamber, with me and a small legion of hyper-literate serfs typing our fingers to the bone in the service of the ruling 1% with power and name recognition.

In this world, the nobility are scarcely literate and speak and write in half-baked cliches and aphorisms. But they have us, their whore scriveners, who tighten and polish verbal turds until they become the authentic, eminently trustworthy opinions that the vast majority of the world still blindly trusts.


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