The Hellish Reality Of Working At An Overseas 'Click Farm'
Clicks are the lifeblood of the internet. Content that doesn't get traffic doesn't generate buzz. If it doesn't generate buzz, it doesn't go viral. And if it doesn't go viral, then what's the goddamn point in living anymore? Behind every website you enjoy is a team of folks feverishly trying to appease the fickle god of clicking on things. And in the Philippines, there are people like Albert. He worked at a "click farm," and his job was to make internet content go viral, whether the internet wanted it or not.
The Sound Alone Will Drive You Mad
A click farm is a centralized place, usually located in a growing economy like Thailand, India, or the Philippines -- places with, shall we say, "loose" labor laws. A click farm offers to add views, likes, and followers by the thousands, all in order to help content go viral. It comes at a price, of course -- usually about a thousand likes or like equivalents for about $50, though sometimes it's as low as $1. A million followers costs about $600.
Albert's job boiled down to clicking on different internet things all day, every day, for up to 12 hours at a time. We know, we know, you do that for free! What a life! And yet Albert has since moved onto a new field. Why? Because clicking left a burn mark on his very soul. "Clicks are almost a ... they start something. They make me nervous."
He described feeling a sense of "panic" in his guts at the sound of a clicking keyboard or mouse. "In the company, it was a giant room. It was in a warehouse. Few people talked, so all you would hear is the clicks. Hundreds and hundreds of clicks. When I went home at the end of the day, sometimes it would echo. It's why I couldn't use the computer when I got back. I couldn't stare at a screen any longer, and the clicks would irritate me."
The more Albert talked about his work and the bizarre rules that his employers set, the more his job sounded like something out of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. "I had noise-canceling headphones, but then they banned them. Even music wasn't allowed. And all I heard was the clicks. Even now on TV, when they show [something] being clicked, I'll get this knot in my chest. I feel horrible when I hear it. I use solely touchscreens now because of it."
While no studies have been done on click-farm-specific neuroses, we do know that repetitive noises experienced over a long period of time can cause a special kind of anxiety. Albert claims his symptoms are not exactly uncommon. "Numerous people at my company had it. Some would hear clicking hours after work. Most, like me, can't stand key clicks anymore. They got touch screens or rubber coverings for laptops. Someone at my company put a special rubber keyboard cover on. They bought it from a school specially because it's the type that's blank and makes kids learn the keys."
We never thought the mere act of using a mouse and keyboard could be a soul-crushing nightmare that grinds all the beauty of human existence into a meaningless slurry of clicks, but- Oh wait, Twitter. We forgot about Twitter.
They Make Thousands Of Fake Facebook Accounts
To generate thousands upon thousands of unique clicks/views/likes a day, you're going to need a lot of accounts. This requires new names, new emails, new passwords, etc. That's a significant effort, and it's a big part of what Albert and his colleagues were paid to do. "Before we had technicians [farmers] here, who all they did was create accounts, we would need to create them on the spot. First we would need to create emails, and like I said, we varied that. For names, we'd use a random name generator. It would have the top 1,000 names in the U.S., last names, and boy and girl first names. They also had nickname variants, like 'John' for 'Jonathan,' so there was more than that. Then we'd let it pick."
Some of their corporate rules on acceptable names were downright bizarre. "'John Smith' was fine, since it's common, but if it came up as 'Donald Sanchez,' we couldn't use it. We were warned on mixing cultured names, because it isn't common. We were told, specifically, don't mix Spanish-sounding names with English-sounding names. It's common here, and from what I've seen, it's getting more noticeable in the U.S. But we couldn't do it. We could use an English first name and an Asian last name, because they said that was more 'normal,' but Spanish names needed another Spanish name."
That sounds tremendously silly to anyone who grew up in the Southwest. But Albert assures us that his bosses based their decision on precedent. "Some site had caught us a few years before when we used too many 'Esmeralda Johnson's, and it scared my company since then."
Mostly, Albert's clients wanted fake users who seemed American (or at least Western). The few times customers wanted Filipino users was particularly easy. His company had enough employees that they'd all simply use their personal Facebook accounts. "What's normally several hours work for all the clicks they wanted was down to less than an hour of fake accounts."
Out of seven billion people in the world (give or take), there are two billion Facebook accounts. Now, Facebook is pretty good at finding fake accounts. They estimate that only 8.7 percent of their accounts are fake. But even if that number is accurate, that still means there are 174 million fake accounts out there. That's half the population of the United States in entirely fake people. Were ... were teenagers right this whole time?
You Have To Do A Lot To Throw Off The "Authenticity" Algorithms
"You stare at a computer for 12 hours, logging in to an account, liking something, logging out, and doing that again." The average American spends around two hours a day on social media. Imagine being forced to do that for six times as long, all while pretending to be someone else and constantly worrying about getting caught.
"Facebook catches people who click too many times for something too fast. Every account you started is taken off, and they know who paid us, so they'll be taken down as well. And we'll be careful." By "careful," he means careening through a cycle of different accounts on all types of social media in order to seem random enough to trick whatever algorithm Instagram, Twitter, and the like employ to catch people like Albert.
"We'd start off like liking something on Facebook. Then we go to SoundCloud and listen to a song. Then I use another account to follow someone on Facebook. Then I follow them on Twitter. Then I sign into DeviantArt and view and like someone's art. Then I'll like the same first Facebook page. Then I go to a Kickstarter and donate a dollar to a certain cause (they had paid our company previously). Then it's another SoundCloud song."
We'd count that as an especially productive Saturday, but Albert described all that as the work of a few minutes. "You'll multitask. A song will be going while you go to different sites liking things. You need to sign in and out of different accounts, and one tab will be the Facebook tab. Another will be the Twitter tab. The Instagram tab. The YouTube tab." We're tired just hearing about it, but that's the game.
"We're tracked by how many likes we give a day. It could be a viewing or a listen, but 'likes' is the word we use for it all. If we're below where we're supposed to be, we'll get a verbal warning, and if we're still behind in a few hours ... they'll turn off our personal fan for half an hour. Not the lower fans on the computer, but the fan on us. You can be fired if you have too many slow days. And sometimes it's not even their fault. They may put a typo in a fake password or an email, and when they try to log in, it won't happen. Sometimes the email will say it's detected that it's gotten some unusual activity and they need to verify it. We go on to the next one if it comes up, but you know how tight my schedule is. A few of those can cause you to go off-pace."
The people in Albert's position are very much on the losing end of the digital revolution. "It's not a good job. You get depressed very easily because you're stuck inside doing this all day. And they won't pay you for the day unless you work all of the hours you're assigned. There's no leaving early, especially on days when a site asked for a million likes. They need all those likes, and you need to do a constant sign in, like, sign out over and over again, for hours."
Christ, we never thought we'd say this, but that sounds worse than using the regular internet.
There Are Even Physical Hazards To The Job
You may recall that scene in Silicon Valley in which a character hires a click farm in India, and at the end, they show what it looks like:
For Albert, that was close to reality. "They aren't that dark. Mine had bright lights, and a little window so we could see the road outside. But those banks of computers crammed together, that's accurate. The clicking too, like you wouldn't imagine. What they aren't showing is all the fans underneath keeping the units cool. They were outdated computers. We went from Vista to 7 when I worked there."
Have you ever been in a room with a huge number of old computers? If so, you know that they generate an enormous amount of heat. Albert claimed that the heat from so many shitty machines in such close proximity formed a legitimate hazard in his job. "We had a short once. The way our spaces were set up is that they were under our desks in bunches of four, and a group of four burned out and made the entire room smell like burnt plastic. One of the technicians got up, and another employee brushed against his leg to find it very hot. It heated up so gradually that he didn't notice, and when he pulled up his pant leg, his entire lower leg looked cracked and sunburnt. He got that from a group of hot computers he was resting his leg on, and we only noticed because they burnt out. When others found out, we all pulled up our pants, and those who had their legs against it also had a sunburn mark."
Even when a click farm worker isn't being roasted alive by their own machine, they're living in a state of near-constant paranoia. "Managers would walk by and could see where you were on your list. You were required to shorten your internet window so a Word document on the side could be seen as you did each task. If you covered or removed it, you were fired." Think Office Space, but with bosses who have an even lower regard for the value of human life than Bill Lumbergh.
"When I got home, I couldn't use a computer. Not even TV some days. Watching a screen for that long, to look out and only see other screens, [I] felt trapped. I would stare out the window of my apartment or read. Working at my company ruined that for me."
You Might Be Raided By The Government At Any Time
Click farms are borderline illegal in most countries, for any number of reasons: holding too many computers, holding too many SIM cards, participating in fraud -- you know, the works. In the Philippines, lawyers said, "Potentially, a number of laws are being breached -- the consumer protection and unfair trading regulations. Effectively it's misleading the individual consumers." So the potential for a government crackdown is always there. And Albert's company had a plan for that.
"We had a fire escape plan, a flood plan, and we also had a government raid plan." Those first two make sense, but the third is something you should only need in the kind of business that has a budget for rubber bands for money stacks.
"It's not what you're thinking, like destroying computers and shredding documents. The plan was, if the national police came, we needed to stay at our desks, not move, and comply with everything they said to do. What we were doing was legal, but laws were changing, and that could shift at any time." Albert's company skirted the line of outright illegality. They told their employees to comply with the police, but also told them not to save anything in order to avoid leaving a documentation trail.
"There was a smaller company here that did something wrong, and the police showed up there, but they could only get who their current assignments were, and a few that had been tracked through there, because they did what we did. That's why you prepare."
Weirdly enough, the major reason Albert's company was at risk had nothing to do with people being burned by computers, going mad from a clickophany, or defrauding the internet with garbage content. "You need specific licenses for having what we had [i.e. rows and rows of computers]. We were told the license covered it, but after we added some more rows, that rule was mentioned more. We were somewhere in between being legal and illegal, I think."
Ah, we know that territory well. We call it "sub-legal," and our lawyers say that's "really stupid."
Companies Care More About Backlash Than Working Conditions
Corporations are happy to have their social media pages or videos go viral thanks to click farms. But nobody wants to be seen using them. Coca-Cola noted that they "did not approve of fake fans," and made an ad video private after click farms helped it hit six million views. Albert definitely saw the impact of companies pulling out of deals when they realized click farms were being used.
"I'd come into work and settle down in front of the screen, to see the Word document in the corner, [which] would have [had] numbered tasks going '1, 2, 3, 4, 5' were now [going] '2, 4, 7, 9, 12, 13, 14' because so many clicks of the day had been changed or pulled. [It was] almost always because they were caught. We didn't even need to ask why after a while. Newer [farmers] would always ask, because they didn't know. And the answer was, 'A company pulled out because they found out we were being used,' and then on with work. During the day, managers would occasionally come through saying, 'Delete all Facebook-likes-This-Company tasks,' because they were just cut."
Albert didn't want to say how much he made, exactly, but Thailand click farmers can make several thousand a month, while Bangladeshi click farm workers make as little as $120 a year. Nobody deserves to be on the internet for 12 hours a day, at any price. But at least one of the American companies that hired Albert's click farm sent someone by to check out the conditions.
"I think he was a scout from a company to see what it was really like. It's not the prettiest building, but it is hot. Instead of asking why it was hot (indoors, Philippine summer with thousands of computers overheating), he complimented us on how fast we were typing. I think that's how he saw a happy worker -- by how fast we were typing." Hey, you know, some people see the glass as half full, some see it as overflowing with human sorrow. "That's also how negative our jobs were. We knew we weren't liked, but another company sent somebody to see what the conditions were like. You do that for sweatshops."
Albert himself doesn't think these places are sweatshops. While he has moved on to a newer, better, healthier career, he still doesn't think there's anything morally wrong with his old job. He's frustrated when American companies pull their money at any hint of click farming. "You get upset, because you were duped into fake popularity. But for us, that's food money we lost. We've seen the stories. People on Facebook are happy because they found out some company was using fake users to drive up numbers, but from our view, you're cheering that we don't get paid."
Well damn, we never thought we'd feel bad for cheering on authenticity. Thanks, internet.
Real talk for a second, people upgrade their graphics cards and storage a lot, but often forget about their fan until it's too late. Try upgrading with a Corsair Air Series.
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