One of my favorite stories from the vaudeville era involves the magician Frank Van Hoven. There’s no reason anyone would know his name today, but a century ago he was a popular comedian. His act was pure slapstick, with very little actual magic, but audiences loved it just the same. A nutty character on and off stage, Van Hoven knew how to get publicity.
Once he was performing in a town where two of his nephews lived. He paid them each $5 to meet him at the theater after his last performance. After the last show of the day, he packed his bags and headed out of town. That’s when the nephews earned their money. As the car drove away, both boys ran after it for half a mile shouting, “Don’t leave us, Van Hoven! Don’t leave us!” Of course, the newspaper mentioned it.
This kind of hype is an old show business tradition. In T. S. Eliot’s famous poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the self-deprecating speaker claims at one point that he is not “Prince Hamlet,” meaning that in the great drama of life, he is no tragic hero. But he could be an extra, he says, someone who would do to “swell a progress.” That’s Elizabethan talk for “standing around onstage to make a crowd look bigger.”
The practice of inflating crowds with rented actors was never limited to the theater. Funerals in the 19th century often featured paid mourners; people who made a living showing up in their finest black garb to follow a hearse to the cemetery and cry loudly. These folks seldom knew the deceased, but they were hired by families who didn’t want to be embarrassed by a low turnout at the memorial. Oliver Twist gets a gig like this in Dickens’ famous novel.
Advertisers thrive on this sort of thing. For years, McDonald’s kept a running tally of its total number of customers — “42 billion served” — and frequently changed the number under the golden arches. In 1994, after half a century of hawking hamburgers, the company surpassed the “99 billion served” mark and announced that it would no longer update the sign. There comes a point when enough is enough, especially when your tally resembles the national debt clock.
Politicians have not been above spending a little campaign cash to hire people to show up at their rallies (or to heckle an opponent’s rally). And activists have not been above accepting this cash in exchange for adding to the headcount. It’s all part of the game. I certainly would want to be paid to listen to some politicians talk.
Even churches are not immune. When it comes to Sunday attendance, everyone knows what a “preacher’s count” means.
So, I suppose in the digital age it was inevitable that we would get Devumi, a Florida company that is currently under investigation for selling fake followers to celebrities, sports stars and advertisers. A master of aggregate identity theft, Devumi’s crime is stealing names from Twitter and other social media platforms and selling the bundle to the highest bidder, who then gets a whole lot of instant friends.
The high friend counts on Facebook and LinkedIn and so forth have always struck me as the silliest form of vanity — filled as they usually are with acquaintances, friends of acquaintances, distant relatives, hangers-on, relatives of the hangers-on, people we’ve met once, people our friends have met once, names from headstones and other assorted party crashers who do not know the person claiming them as friends any more than he knows them.
So, until the company gets indicted, Devumi will keep helping us pad our resumes with fake followers who are yet one more step removed from our real circle of friends. Frank Van Hoven would have loved it.