“Clickbait” is a thriller miniseries that revolves around the mysterious disappearance of a man named Nick Brewer. The story unfolds through a series of online videos in which Nick is seen being held captive and tortured. The catch is that he will only be released if the videos reach a certain number of views. As the videos go viral, Nick’s family and friends are pulled into a complex web of secrets and lies, leading them to question how well they truly know Nick.

Each episode focuses on one specific character (the “sister”, the “detective”, the “wife”, etc.). Episode 5 takes the viewpoint of Ben Park, “the reporter”. Ben’s journalistic instincts lead him to uncover dark secrets connected to Nick’s life. In particular, Ben discovers that Nick created a profile on a dating app. However, the profile is no longer active, which prevents Ben from finding out the women that Nick contacted through the app. But Cameron, Ben’s boyfriend, has a brilliant idea. Here is a transcript of their conversation:

  • (Ben) The profile was deactivated but it has to exist somewhere, right?
  • (Cameron) Right.
  • (Ben) What if we found a hacker on the Dark Web or figure out where the servers are kept.
  • (Cameron) Or we just buy the data. I just wrote a paper on this. Say you wanna create a new dating app. No one will use it until there’s loads of other active profiles, right?
  • (Ben) OK…
  • (Cameron) So, there are companies who sell data batches from pre-existing sites. They’ll give you people’s user names, profile pics, age, gender, sexual orientation… All for a couple hundred bucks.
  • (Ben) Wait, wait, wait, … How is that possible?
  • (Cameron) When was the last time you read the terms and conditions?

Unfortunately, what is described here is not a screenwriter’s whim. In 2018, Samantha Cole (Senior Editor, Motherboard, Vice.com) wrote the following in a piece entitled “Shady data brokers are selling online dating profiles by the millions”:

“Berlin-based NGO Tactical Tech collaborated with artist and researcher Joana Moll to uncover these practices in the online dating world. In May 2017, [they] purchased one million dating profiles from the data broker website USDate, for around $153. The profiles came from numerous dating sites including Match, Tinder, Plenty of Fish, and OkCupid. For that relatively small sum, they gained access to huge swaths of information. The datasets included usernames, email addresses, gender, age, sexual orientation, interests, profession, as well as detailed physical and personality traits and five million photos.”

So, Cameron is right: you can kick-start a new dating platform by buying profiles from data brokers and pretending that they come from users that you onboarded yourself. If the scam works, you will solve the chicken-and-egg conundrum before you know it.

In Chapter 4 of our book, we refer to this questionable strategy as “Fake it till you make it”. The objective for companies using this strategy is to present a more successful or established image than their current reality and, thereby, attract attention, users, or customers with the ultimate goal of achieving genuine success or recognition over time. This strategy may prove particularly effective in the presence of network effects. By creating an initial illusion of a thriving network or user base, a platform may attract more users. And as more users join the platform, the value of its services increases, which generates a self-reinforcing cycle.

In the book (Case 4.8), we give the following two illustrations.

Reddit is a social news aggregation platform (launched in June 2005) that allows its users to share titles with their URL links, and to cast votes to influence the visibility of what has been posted. In 2012, as a contribution to an online course on Web development, Steve Huffman, the co-founder of Reddit, admitted that all the content submitted in the beginning was shared by him and his associate, Alexis Ohanian: “In the beginning, Alexis and I submitted all the content. You’d go to Reddit in the early days, the first couple of months, and there’d be tons of content. I shouldn't say “fake content,” but it was fake users. It was really all just Alexis and I”, he said.

Udemy, a MOOC (Massive Online Open Courses) platform, was launched similarly. One of its co-founders, Gagan Biyani, explained in a Twitter thread how they decided to “fake the chicken” before they could actually “make the chicken”: “We had 0 courses but a built-out product. Eren Bali [another co-founder] created a crawler that went on YouTube and built courses out of YouTube playlists. Now we had talks from Marissa Meyer & Mark Zuckerberg on our site so any users who came on had something to learn. Our product finally seemed presentable. Users would be more likely to sign up after looking through and seeing the depth and breadth of content provided. The launch announcement generated 10,000 users and allowed us to raise our seed round. However … In the back of your mind, you’re probably thinking that was a bit of a bullshit move. And you’re right. Most users bounced, and the core issue was not resolved. Faking the chicken was only a temporary solution for making the chicken.

Mind you, the “fake it till you make it” strategy is – to put it mildly – ethically grey. While it might be seen as a useful step for platforms trying to gain traction, it raises concerns about transparency and honesty. Misleading users, even if temporarily, can damage trust. When promoting a platform, we believe that it is crucial to be transparent about its current status.