The Line Between Business and Scam (David Fallon)
This is part one of a two part post. Part two was posted a few days later.
It’s been a few weeks since I was clued in to The Verge’s article, “Scamworld“, about the prevalence of online marketing scams and the ongoing work of The Salty Droid to try to combat it. Reading the article made me reflect my own career, what my fellow online marketers are doing, and whether this is all really ethical or not. I decided that there are definitely activities online that constitute a “scam”, but there are also very legitimate marketing activities online as well. The Scamworld article brings a lot of problems to light, but I think the most valuable insight is the question: where do you draw the line?
It’s not as simple a question as you may think. And, though the online world is the biggest battleground right now, the question can be applied to all of business ever since the industrial revolution. What is legitimate and what isn’t? And for those things that are not legitimate, what do you do about them?
As I mentioned on Tumblr, The Salty Droid makes a few assertions I wasn’t too comfortable with. I think what initially gave me pause was the term “Internet Marketer” used to describe the base, moral-less scumbags who prey upon the weak. But I have considered myself an “Internet marketer” for years now. I don’t prey upon the weak at all! Clearly, there is a disconnect between the term and the activity.
But it doesn’t stop with the term. There is a growing public sentiment that businesses are, or are becoming, bad for average people. This probably stems from the scams and other nefarious business practices that are used by large and small companies the world over. The Salty Droid is far from alone in expressing this, though I would say he probably expresses it best. Another one that I saw the other night was “Ethos“, a documentary hosted by Woody Harrelson, which broke down and examined the deep, pervasive problems with business in America and the world. Though I don’t want to endorse the film (I felt it was over the top in some parts, and under in others), I do think it is worth watching.
There’s no doubt some businesses can be, have been, and will continue to be “scammy”. And it’s worse online. As The Verge’s article shows, the online medium is particularly prone to fraud. Companies can easily spring up, put up a legitimate looking website, use SEO (which admittedly isn’t easy) to get to the top of certain Google searches, and then set up snares. When the risk gets to high, they disappear overnight amid FTC investigations. What’s worse still is that this troubled economy is actually a boon to them. Average people are desperate to make more money, and they see the divide between the rich and the poor growing alarmingly. In America, “we hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal”, which leads middle class people to wonder why they are different from the upper class. Is it that they just haven’t tried the right things or taken the right risks? Is a higher take-home pay just a matter of learning the “secrets” that the upper class knows? We don’t like to think that the system is somewhat biased and the ideal of “all men created equal” is less and less a reality. So, desperate people search online to find out those secrets and become targets of scammers.
Now let’s shift gears a little and look at the other side of the tracks. I don’t think anyone except the staunchest of anarchists believe that business in-and-of itself is a bad thing. It is through business that many of the things we enjoy and rely upon today exist. Some will say it is technology that is the hero, but I think technology rests on the broad shoulders of industry and business. Things like the Internet where you are reading this now would never exist if companies hadn’t built it from the ground up (the software, the hardware, and the personnel) with the promise that doing so would make money.
So there are legitimate businesses. They offer and provide one of four basic products in modern society: tangible goods, services, advertising mediums, and entertainment. If someone is asking for your money, it’s probably for one or more of these four things. In a completely laissez-faire economy, that’s all you need to consider. If someone has one of those things to offer, and someone else decides to pay money for it, then poof: you have a business.
But in practical reality there are clear problems, and these problems are becoming worse over time, perhaps because we haven’t paid enough attention to them. In the next post, let’s look at the extra things to consider when determining if a business is legitimate or a scam.