The Trystero Corporation

Imagine the following scene: the suits from NBC late night TV have finally "gone on line", finally started looking around on the internet. They've set up a web site filled with stuff about their shows, as has every other network. But they notice something else: "Hey," they say, "Conan O'Brien has nine web sites listed on Yahoo, and a whole usenet newsgroup devoted to him. Tom Snyder only has space at the CBS web site. Great! You can't buy publicity like that."

Well, now you can. The Trystero Corporation, sometimes known as the "Watergate Plumbers" of on-line marketing, has seen a need and decided to fill it. What exactly do they do? Well, they are a loose syndicate of site administrators and othe internet-access heavy types, who, for a fee, will construct a sort of "virtual fan club" for a given show. As a group, they create a bunch of fake accounts, scattered on systems throughout the net, each with a cute little home page and a page devoted to the product they are being paid to push. Of course, the pages are all linked to each other, and to the various internet search engines. This is the basic service; for a little extra they will set up an alt newsgroup and/or a listserv mailing list devoted to the product, complete with AI programs that automatically generate sycophantic message traffic (anybody remember Mark V. Shaney?). For a little more, they will periodically spam related newsgroups (from safe, anonymous dedicated nodes set up just for this purpose) deriding the competition and promoting your product. I've heard rumors of an IRC chat AI in development, but my friends in the brain trusts at MIT and CMU assure me that no one can do that yet well enough to fool the rubes... Soon, though...

The result? To the casual observer, it looks like there is something of a groundswell behind the product. After all--who cares about the hype coming from offical websites? Hype is much more believable if it comes from an apparently disiniterested third party fan. The best adverstising is word of mouth, and the appearance of a cult following.

Granted, the effect is limited; after all, in percentage terms the number of Americans on the Web is minimal. But for some types of shows (science fiction, cult comedies), a net-savvy audience usually makes up a critical part of the demographic. Plus, netheads are desirable additions to any demographic--well-educated, well-paid, and they have lots of disposable income because, let's face it, they don't get out much. And the Trystero Corporation works cheap, at least relative to how many peope they reach. After all, fan pages of shows are supposed to look cheesy and poorly done. Anything slick would arouse suspicion. It seems that once they get the basic set up up and running, it would be easy to copy it with modifications for a new product.

This was probably another inevitable expansion of exploitation of the technology of the net. Every tech brings with it a new set novel characteristics that take a while to become obvious. The separation between projected and real identity in the net was bound to be exploited. Celebrities sell their affiliations for millions of dollars; why can't the affiliation of Joe Sixpack be worth something? Remember-- 50 million Elvis fans can't be wrong. If each one of those fans was worth one tenth of a cent just for marketing reasons, then that's fifty-thousand right there. And the net finally makes it possible to create and market fans, essentially for free, given the right kind of acess. And this access is exactly what the Trystero Corporation has and takes advantage of.

Don't ask me what products they're pushing--I can't tell you without getting sued. But, just remember, everytime you're looking at Yahoo and all of a sudden 8 sites for a new show or band jump out at you, there just might be an agenda behind them after all.

--Peggy Margulies

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