Looking to get more popular on Facebook? Alex Melen will sell you 1,000 "likes" for about $75.
Melen runs an Internet marketing company. About six months ago, companies he worked with started coming to him more and more with a simple problem: They had created pages on Facebook, but nobody had clicked the "like" button.
"You would go there, and there would be two likes," Melen says. "And one of them would be the owner. And people right away lost interest in the brand."
For the right price, Melen can fix that.
Facebook knows an incredible amount about hundreds of millions of people — what they like, what they want, who their friends are, where they live. This is the key reason why investors think the company is so valuable. But that value only holds up if the data is real — if all those people actually like what they say they like.
When Melen sells likes to a company, he goes through an intermediary, who in turn could be working with people anywhere in the world. The people on the other end are just doing it for money. They get paid a very small amount — 10 cents, say — each time they like a company.
"Right now on the black market, you can actually buy and sell bundles of Facebook account credentials," says Ben Zhao, a computer science professor at UC Santa Barbara. "Tens of dollars or hundreds of dollars for hundreds or thousands of Facebook accounts."
In some cases, there are no people involved at all. Those fake accounts are controlled by robots and create fake data. (Melen says all his likers are real people.)
The people who pay Melen for likes range from an LED light bulb company to a publicity company for a reality show.
The show had 95,000 Facebook fans already, but it wanted about 25,000 more. These likes really matter to television networks, which sell advertising based in part on the number of likes they have.
Facebook knows this sort of thing is going on. And the company has created an elaborate system to root out bad data. It has social bot hunters whose job is to track down fake Facebook profiles and kick them off the network. But it's still happening.
Another company that sells likes showed us a Nashville country singer who was a client. She had a lot of likes — mostly from Egypt.
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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Facebook's resume has some impressive stats: 901 million active users, 3.2 billion likes a day, 125 billion friendships. And for those stats, they're selling this week as the company goes public.
NPR's Steve Henn and Zoe Chace of Planet Money report on one downside to numbers that big.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: The reason Facebook is so precious right now is they have this great story. It goes like this. They have 900 million users.
CHRIS DELLAROCAS: These people have revealed their personalities, their interests, their desires, their passions - everything.
HENN: That's economist Chris Dellarocas. He studies social networks at Boston University. Facebook sells ads against all the data they have, and that's their main revenue stream. But Dellarocas says Facebook could do more.
DELLAROCAS: This is, in some ways, a blueprint of our global society.
HENN: Facebook could help businesses to find employees. Intelligence analysts could use it to predict revolutions. But these ideas only work if this data is real and reliable, if this blueprint Facebook has created is accurate.
ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: Yeah. The more valuable the data gets, the bigger the incentive to mess with it, to rig the game. I want to introduce you to someone that's using Facebook a little differently from what Dellarocas imagines.
So you sell Facebook likes to your clients.
ALEX MELEN: Yes. We could make you the Facebook page. We make you a Facebook design. We could get you the friends. So kind of the full spectrum.
CHACE: Welcome to the warehouse district of Little Ferry, New Jersey. Right above the loading dock, I found Alex Melen. He runs Melen LLC. It's an internet marketing company. And he provides Facebook likes to people and companies for about $75 per 1,000 likes.
HENN: Liking something on Facebook means you're a fan. It lets a company talk to you. So clicking that little blue thumbs up actually has value. This company supplies likes for cash. It sells them. So I go in and I say, I want 200 likes. How much?
CHACE: Right. And when you go in, it's exactly what you'd expect. About 10 guys, computers, beer cans, Red Bull, iced coffees. The oldest one there is Melen. He's 28.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CONVERSATION)
CHACE: He started the social part of the business six months ago. Companies he worked with were coming to him more and more with this simple problem. They'd create this Facebook page and then they wouldn't get any friends.
MELEN: You would go there, and there'd be like two likes, and one of them would be the owner. And people right away lost interest in the brand.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible)
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MATT PREPIS: 1000 targeted Facebook Likes.
CHACE: This is Matt Prepis. He runs the part of the company that deals with Facebook likes. He's checking his email.
PREPIS: They sell LED light bulbs. They currently have 77 fans, and they would like some more.
CHACE: The LED company wants U.S.-based likers. Melen charges a premium for that.
MELEN: And once we find a supplier that says OK, I have the--2,000 likes or 5,000 likes or whatever the client ordered, we just place the order with that network, and then they fulfill it.
CHACE: So who is it that's actually clicking the like button for cash?
PREPIS: Danny Longshanks, Camel Love, Vida, Elvis Adon, Bruce Buffalo...
CHACE: Well, it's people from all over the world who are found on work-from-home sites.
PREPIS: And if they get paid 10 cents per like, then they like it. You know, even 500, the over month total. You're making $50 a month that probably took them, in total, maybe 20 minutes to do.
HENN: Or these Likers might not be people at all. Ben Zhao is a computer science professor at UC, Santa Barbara. He says there are much cheaper ways to get a supply of likes - social bots. These are fake people controlled by a computer. Or you can buy compromised accounts.
BEN ZHAO: Right now on the black market, you can actually buy and sell bundles of Facebook account credentials, tens of dollars or hundreds of dollars for hundreds of thousands of Facebook accounts.
HENN: And those fake accounts create fake data.
CHACE: Melen says all his likers are real people. And it's not just LED light bulb companies who want them. He told me about a publicity company for a reality show - a major network with a major star. They had 95,000 Facebook fans already. They wanted about 25,000 more to click like. These likes really matter to television networks because they sell advertising based on the amount of likes they have.
Originally, Melen was making a couple thousand a month with this service. Now, he says it's much more.
MELEN: Especially with the launch of Facebook Timeline, which has been pushing having that number right on your page. As soon as you go to someone's page, you see that number right there. And as soon as that started rolling around, we've got more and more clients that kind of want to have that bigger number.
HENN: This is not what Facebook intended when it launched its new layout.
CHACE: No. Facebook's entire premise is that they have an authentic social graph, made up of real people with genuine interests. Paying for likes screws that up. And there's quite a few businesses out there selling stuff like this.
HENN: Now, Facebook knows this is going on, and they've created an elaborate system to root out bad data. But some of it is still in there.
CHACE: For example, one company that sells likes showed me this Nashville country singer who was a client. She had a lot of likes. But then I check what city the fans are from, and they were primarily from Cairo.
HENN: Egypt. Now, data, good data, is what makes Facebook so valuable. That's what's convinced investors this company could be worth $100 billion.
CHACE: That price tag also creates another incentive. It now pays to mess with Facebook. I'm Zoe Chace in New York.
HENN: Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.