The self-obsessed world of online journalism came close to a singularity moment early this month, when an up-and-coming young sports columnist was exposed as a garden-variety con artist. Over at the Gawker sports site Deadspin, John Koblin reconstructed the luridly fascinating saga of ESPN.com writer Sarah Phillips, who had landed a plum perch in the enormous, vastly profitable industry of sports journalism without benefit of a single in-person job interview. Ms. Phillips’ career path was largely a con job—she had previously set up shop as a sports-betting columnist at the betting site Covers.com, with no discernible background in either sports fandom or wagering—so perhaps it felt natural for her to set about gulling impressionable sports-minded writers and web proprietors out of piles of money on the promise that, together, they would all come into tidy fortunes by cracking wise about the sports world on the Internet. “I’m a writer for ESPN.com. And I have a plan to take over the world,” is how Ms. Phillips succinctly put things to one of her marks on Gchat.
The plan, such as it was, involved reviving a version of ESPN’s lapsed Page 2 franchise, and bulking it up into a network of sports-comedy blogs. “By my ESPN.com senior director estimates,” she explained in her world-conquering Gchat pitch, “each of the five of us [contributing content to the network] will be making over $100K. My ultimate goal, being that I work for ESPN, is to sell the site to ESPN and become a blog on ESPN.com.” But inevitably, there would be some strategic hitch along the way—photo rights to purchase, seed money to collect, advertising to pay for—and once Ms. Phillips had that stake in hand, she’d typically vanish.
The deal on offer probably sounded vaguely plausible in Ms. Phillips’ own head—the key to carrying off an effective scam, after all, is for scammers to project confidence in their own ornate fantasies; that confidence is what they are selling to their clientele. And since the managers at ESPN had already hired Ms. Phillips without even a minimal semblance of due diligence—so certain is the mass appeal of a comely young woman writer in the online sportswriting world—well, who’s to say what’s possible? (Mr. Koblin reports, by the way, that Phillips was not merely an online con artist, but also something of a sock puppet: She had a history of channeling sports forecasts and betting odds by a longtime male confrere named Nilesh Prasad; the two had attended high school together in Oregon, and worked at the same T-mobile store until they’d both been fired for allegedly perpetrating another online scam there, involving the resale of company phones on Ebay.)
But like all cons, the Sarah Phillips episode is more interesting for what it reveals about the marks than about the perpetrator, whose motivations almost always turn out to be sad, venal, and banal. But since this con was aimed squarely at the great enabling myths of the rapidly monetizing world of social media, it speaks volumes about the ultimate end-uses we envision behind the frantic connectivity of our online lives.
Just consider the inner workings of the Phillips pitch. There was the testimony of the geektrepreneur who had swiftly monetized her own online brand—her identity, that is—and who was now extending the same bounty to a corps of web-savvy self-starters, just like her. There was the credibility of major online brands dangled before the marks as a classic inducement-cum-distraction.
And there was, most of all, the the illicit allure of a hot-seeming twenty-something woman reaching out to shut-in geeks with the promise of easy money explicitly rewarding them for their pet obsessions—in other words, the very fantasy of transcendent personal specialness and irresistibly attractive genius that keeps most young men transfixed before the Internet for hours on end in the first place.
From the demand side of the equation, the Phillips scam also had to seem invitingly credible in a broader sense, as well. After all, the standard come-on of Web business prophets is that the self-generated marketing of your personality online is the hidden secret of online prosperity. “The new American Dream is to go viral,” burbles the cyber-visionary hack Jeff Jarvis. The interactivity of the Web has enhanced all manner of enterprise, announces the NYU digital cheerleader Clay Shirky, precisely “because there is no way to filter for quality in advance: the definition of quality becomes more variable, from one community to the next, than when there was broad consensus about mainstream writing (and music and film and so on).” Lay these entirely representative specimens of pat and content-free managementspeak side-by-side, and you have the high-theory version of Sarah Phillips’ business plan.
The ever-elusive quest for the optimally self-marketing kind of personality was also why my former corporate superiors at Yahoo News would obsess over the intangible magic of the online “voice” in the site’s coverage of the news cycle—even though the occasional appearance of a strong voice in a Yahoo-branded platform was also guaranteed to send them into operatic bouts of managerial fretting. One of the more curious sidelights of the Phillips affair, indeed, was a scam whereby the young hustler would purchase individual Twitter accounts outright to boost her own social media profile. This may be the saddest footnote to the Phillips saga: Madly seeking to monetize a Web-branded personality, the con artist is reduced to subcontracting the illusion of an appealing online persona.
It used to be an elementary job requirement for charming hucksters that they at least be colorful—but in today’s social-media-verse, all that evidently matters is that you seem popular. And that you don’t get caught.