As publishers prepare to woo the advertising industry next week, the Interactive Advertising Bureau has released a new report making a case for media buyers to spend big on digital video.
The study, released Thursday, touts the size, diversity and purchasing intentions of viewers of original web video and says they’re somewhat more receptive to advertising messages from brands.
The report comes at the outset of the annual NewFronts, a weeklong spree of presentations where companies from the New York Times and Vice to YouTube and Oath court marketers in an attempt to secure advertising commitments for their upcoming slates of programming. The IAB, an online advertising trade body, hosts the NewFronts.
Digital video publishers are aiming to pry loose more dollars from advertisers who have been slow to shift their budgets from TV to new video formats. This year, upfront digital ad spending is estimated to grow 25% to $3.64 billion, according to eMarketer. Upfront TV ad spending, meanwhile, is expected to increase 3% to $20.3 billion.
While spending on digital video has increased in recent years, video creators haven’t shared equally in the riches. Bigger players like Google’s YouTube and traditional TV networks, which have increasingly embraced streaming their shows online, continue to dominate advertisers’ digital video outlays.
Despite that, there’s a sizable audience for original digital video. The audience among U.S. adults has expanded from 45 million in 2013 to 72 million in 2018, an increase of 60%, according to the IAB.
The report defines original digital video as ad-supported, professionally produced and distributed digitally, encompassing longer original series as well as short clips and extras. The report distinguishes this content from other forms of video, such as analog TV shows that are streamed online or commercial-free series streamed by Netflix and Amazon Prime.
According to the IAB, more than a third of viewers of such original digital video content are cord-cutters or cord-nevers, meaning that advertisers can’t reach them through traditional pay-TV because they have ditched their subscriptions or never signed up in the first place.
They also skew younger and more diverse, according to the report. About 60% of the audience is 34 years old or younger, giving marketers access to a significant swath of millennial and Gen Z viewers. About 43% of the viewership of original digital video is nonwhite compared with 36% of the total U.S. population, according to the report.
“Younger groups are very open to digital video, and they are open to information on it, especially from brands,” said
executive vice president of industry initiatives at the IAB.
The report also describes original digital video consumers as on par with their streaming TV counterparts when it comes to viewing frequency. About 86% of original digital video consumers watch ad-supported original video content weekly, while about 89% of viewers who watch TV shows online do so at least once a week.
They also consume video in their own “personal prime times” throughout the morning and afternoon, departing from the traditional evening prime-time viewership on TV, the report concluded. The IAB’s study was based on more than 2,000 online interviews conducted in the U.S. in March.
Despite the appeal, some ad buyers aren’t convinced that they need to buy digital video in an upfront manner since in most cases there is a near-unlimited supply of inventory. By contrast, the TV upfront has continued to remain relevant, despite rating declines, because there is a much more limited supply of commercial inventory on TV.
The IAB is touting the benefits of online video heading into a critical time period. Some ad buyers have long been somewhat skeptical about the quality of online video and have pushed aggressively for publishers and platforms to invest in higher-quality content. Compounding that hesitation, the sector is facing headwinds after advertisers’ messages have repeatedly shown up alongside YouTube content deemed unsafe for brands, which has caused brands to re-examine their ad placements.
In 1989, a man armed with a hunting rifle and a knife entered a Montreal university and systematically killed 14 women, before killing himself. “I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker … I have decided to put an end to those viragos,” he wrote in his suicide note. One female student shouted during the massacre that she was not a feminist and did not hate men. He shot her anyway.
Twenty-five years later, a self-proclaimed “kissless virgin” named Elliot Rodger, who was active in the online “incel” community and felt rejected by women, drove to a sorority house in Santa Barbara and opened fire, leaving behind a YouTube video where he proclaimed, “I don’t know why you girls have never been attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it. It’s an injustice, a crime. I’m a perfect guy.”
On April 23rd, a man named Alek Minassian, who posted on Facebook that the “the Incel Rebellion has already begun!” and “All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger,” drove a van into crowds of pedestrians in Toronto, killing 10 people.
In the stories of angry Men’s Rights Activists and incels — men who are “involuntarily celibate,” and denied their “right” to sex — the women of the world are in control, teasing and taunting and withholding, even as men maintain incredible majorities in nearly every hall of power. A recent New York Times article illustrated just how ludicrous the imbalance of men to women is in management positions in virtually every industry, where women are outnumbered not just by men, but specifically by men with common names like John.
The world is not enough for many of the angriest, most bitter Johns, particularly the ones who felt that they were promised, on the basis of their gender, more of the world than the majority they have inherited. And as women push back against harassment, rape, and the basic dehumanization that accompanies being female, many of their most insulated and privileged opponents have coalesced into an online network. Loosely termed the manosphere, the movement has transformed the unquestionable cultural dominance of men into an identity based on a delusion of oppression, and even as they whine inconsolably about the identity politics they claim are ruining their lives.
In the aftermath of the Rodgers massacre, Erin Gloria Ryan, a writer from Jezebel, did a deep dive into the incel community, which can best be described as harrowing. People posting in incel-identified spaces say many, many things, including demanding the “rape count” of other men as a form of competition, and asking for solidarity in their dreams of committing mass murder because they have not gotten off as much as they had hoped.
“Media doesnt aknolwedge [sic] the majroity [sic] of males’ [sic] discontentment with current sexual distopia [sic] its all about HATING WOMEN,” writes one man.
”It sort of boggles my mind,” writes Ryan, “that most women go through life simply hoping to have control over their own bodies, and that these fuckers feel entitled to not only themselves, but to other people. To an audience. To a platform. They exist, therefore we must all pay attention to them, like screaming infants.”
This most recent demonstration of the lethality of male sexual frustration, via Minassian’s mass killing, is linked inextricably to the internet, where the most pernicious ideas about male supremacy have flourished thanks to the superseding concern of doing whatever you want over basic human decency. Although Reddit finally, finally banned the r/incels subreddit in November for its open advocation of rape and other violence toward women, internet platforms at large have been fertile ground for men who openly hate women and wish to convene with other men who feel the same way. They have migrated easily and without restriction to other websites and subreddits, including Braincels, where these ideas persist and are deified. Minassian was subsequently declared a “new saint” on a prominent incel forum, with one poster saying, “spread that name, speak of his sacrifice for our cause, worship him for he gave his life for our future.”
It was claimed, at least in TheNew York Times, that Minassian had “displayed extreme social awkwardness. But they said that he had seemed harmless.” What a world, where an openly “troubled young man who harbored resentments towards women” could be conceived of as a harmless participant, at best.
It is, again, difficult to be alive in an online world that regularly declares that men’s right to vent their frustrations about literally wanting to kill women because they feel rejected, or are not getting laid, is a bedrock principle of liberty. We are complicit in these massacres insofar as we have facilitated them; enabling the mass murder of women under the flag of “free speech” is perhaps the most irresponsible and stupid thing that the men at the helm of the internet could do. And yet. (It is worth noting that all of these massacres also claimed male victims. The patriarchy, as is often the case, is happy to destroy men as easily as it does women. It is also worth noting that women, too, experience rejection and sexual frustration, and do not have a movement based around raping and murdering people who have turned them down.)
After Rodger’s mass killing, one of the people who had interacted with him online wrote, far too late, “Could someone tip off the police just in case?”
“Don’t,” replied another man. “Whatever happens. We didn’t do anything so just let it happen if it does.”
But they did do something — by doing nothing. By saying nothing. This is the common practice of most major internet platforms and the reality of what it means to be online for women, and it is killing us.
Correction: 28 people were shot in the 1989 Montreal massacre, but only 14 were killed.
Early on Thursday afternoon, at the culmination of his retrial in Norristown, Pennsylvania, Bill Cosby was found guilty on three counts of sexual assault. This should not have been surprising. Women have accused Cosby of drugging and molesting them on a timeline that stretches from the mid-sixties to 2008. In 2000, a report of his misbehavior made the New York Post. In 2005, Andrea Constand’s allegations against Cosby became public, and Tamara Green went on the “Today” show to accuse Cosby of assaulting her in the nineteen-seventies. By the time that Philadelphia magazine and People covered the story, in 2006, there were a dozen accusers. In 2014, Gawker resurrected the accusations, Newsweek investigated them, and Hannibal Buress called Cosby a rapist during a standup routine, prompting thirty more women to come forward. In the summer of 2015, New York put thirty-five of Cosby’s accusers on the cover of the magazine. At the end of that year, Cosby was charged with raping Constand. His trial, in 2017, ended with a hung jury, but a public consensus had formed that the comedian and TV star would be remembered as a rapist. A few months later, starting with the Harvey Weinstein story, man after man after man was exposed and investigated for sexual assault and harassment. The tables, everyone said, were turning.
Nonetheless, I went blank with shock when I saw the verdict on Thursday. So did a lot of people. It didn’t matter that this was, by now, a he-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said, she-said situation. For all the fears that the #MeToo moment will be marked by overreach, the fact remains that a single instance of justice feels more surprising than several decades of serial rape.
I covered Cosby’s first trial, last summer, from Norristown, where I sat in a pack of reporters, inexperienced and reeling. I had never covered a trial before, let alone a rape trial. I had not watched a woman try to prove to twelve strangers, under cross-examination, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a man had raped her. Before Constand testified, a woman named Kelly Johnson told her own story about being drugged and assaulted by Cosby. (Johnson was the only prior bad-act witness allowed by the judge.) To watch the defense question Johnson and then Constand was to watch an essential part of our criminal-justice system align with some of the worst things about being a woman. Women put their sanity and selfhood on the line in the process of securing sexual justice. They accept that they will be dressed up like paper dolls to look cruel, selfish, naïve, dishonest, slutty, greedy, stupid, or just unwanted—another woman talking about something we’d rather not know.
I wasn’t surprised, last year, when the first jury couldn’t settle on a verdict. I wasn’t surprised by the Weinstein story, or by the excruciating months that followed. It’s hard to graft new values onto an old world. There are a lot of people who think that men’s jobs are as important as women, period. (The careers and happiness and earning power that women have lost as victims of sexual assault and harassment, rather than as perpetrators of those crimes, still mostly go unmourned.) But people kept speaking up. Women kept voluntarily reëntering a world they had been dragged into, their pain and bravery always inextricable and twinned.
Writing about sexual assault, you get a tiny glimpse of what these women deal with: the way they are asked to answer for the entire spectrum of sexual encounters, the way they open themselves up to a firehose of other people’s pain. In February, I wrote about sexual assault again, this time at Columbia. It was the thirteenth story I’d written about the subject in a year. I had gotten sad and tired, and wanted the sort of peace that all of these women had denied themselves. I never suggested to my editor that I go back to Pennsylvania for the retrial. I expected a not-guilty verdict. There were far fewer reporters in Norristown this time around.
At Jezebel, Diana Moskovitz, who attended both trials, suggested that, the second time, the gloss of celebrity scandal, the shock of seeing an iconic cultural father figure on trial, had worn off, leaving the mundane fact of violence against women. My surprise at the verdict has reminded me how much fear and cynicism I’m still carrying around. Inequality has all of history on its side. Stories have already been published about how Matt Lauer and Louis C.K. could stage comebacks; Charlie Rose is reportedly in talks to do a #MeToo-themed television series interviewing his predatory peers. The President, who has been accused of sexual misconduct by nearly twenty women, remains inconceivably untouchable. As Andi Zeisler tweeted, many people still think of sexual assault as a matter of opinion rather than as a crime.
But all of the women—and not only women—who have come forward in the past year mattered; what they endured, what they continue to endure, mattered. For a jury to convict in this case, its members had to understand that the absence of a yes was a violation of consent, as Kevin Steele, the Montgomery County district attorney, asserted in the prosecution’s opening statement. The Weinstein case shed light on many aspects of sexual assault that tend to confuse people: that victims often maintain relationships with their attackers, or act irrationally in an attempt to rescue their dignity, or stay silent for years. These past six months have shown that serial abusers behave in predictable patterns, and that these patterns are crucial: the judge in Norristown allowed five bad-act accusers, rather than one, to testify at Cosby’s retrial. The presence of these accusers, I suspect, made the difference. This isolated outcome is the result of the accumulated outpouring of an unfathomable amount of female pain.
To be surprised at this verdict is disheartening, destabilizing. After all of this, are our expectations still so low? (Clickhole caught the mood with its headline: “A Slippery Slope: Could Bill Cosby’s Conviction Lead to a Mob Mentality Where Society Wantonly Punishes Any Serial Rapist After Decades of Inaction?”) It’s also galvanizing. We failed Cosby’s victims for so long. We are always capable of doing better by one another. There are so many people—like R. Kelly’s many, many accusers—for whom the power imbalance between accuser and accused has seemed insurmountable. It’s not.
Every morning I wake up to the same routine. I log into the Tinder account of a 45-year-old man from Texas—a client. I flirt with every woman in his queue for 10 minutes, sending their photos and locations to a central database of potential “Opportunities.” For every phone number I get, I make $1.75.
I’m what’s called a “Closer” for the online-dating service ViDA (Virtual Dating Assistants). Men and women (though mostly men) from all over the world pay this company to outsource the labor and tedium of online dating. The matches I speak to on behalf of the Texan man and other clients have no idea they’re chatting with a professional.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that these ghostwriting services exist. Tinder alone produces more than 12 million matches a day, and if you’re a heterosexual American, you now have a one in three chance of meeting your future husband or wife online. But as e-romance hits an all-time high, our daily dose of rejection, harassment, and heartbreak creeps upward, too. Once you mix in the vague rules of netiquette and a healthy fear of catfishing scams, it’s easy to see why someone might want to outsource their online-dating profile to a pro, if only to keep themselves sane.
But where does the digital social assistant end and the con artist begin?
The online seduction manual
When I tell people that I work as an online-dating assistant, their initial reaction is of morbid curiosity. “How did you even find out about that?” they ask, voices lowering, leaning in.
In November 2017, I ran across an ad seeking “people with good Tinder skills” for a job as a “Virtual Dating Assistant.” At first I thought it was a joke, but I completed their online form out of pure fascination. I received a callback three days later.
Could I work in an “moral gray area?” Would I be comfortable ranking clients’ photographs? Was I dating anyone currently?Apparently, professional writers make for good online-dating assistants; knowing how to seduce strangers with the written word is the company’s mandate, after all. But the intake interviewer seemed just as interested in my ethical flexibility as he was in the journalistic details of my résumé. Could I work in an “moral gray area?” Would I be comfortable ranking clients’ photographs? Was I dating anyone currently?
I learned that there are two main types of writers at the company: “Profile Writers,” who create seductive and click-worthy profiles based on facts our clients have supplied about themselves, and “Closers,” who log in to clients’ dating accounts at least twice a day to respond to messages from matches.
Despite hiring writers to do this work, virtually none of what the company does requires creativity of any kind. Profile Writers follow strict guidelines, often recycling the same half-dozen clichés over and over again. If a client has a dog (jackpot!), all the Profile Writer needs to do is search for the word “dog” in their manual and choose from a list of dog-related one-liners, like this one:
“Hey. As an animal lover, I want to find out your opinion… dressing up your dog: yes or no?”
The process for Closers is a bit more complicated. The initial training period lasts several weeks before we’re given access to clients’ accounts, during which we must read several training manuals and submit draft responses to fake matches. At first, my trainer encouraged me to get creative with my replies, but by the third week, I was still getting back extensive rewrites. My most frequent mistake was asking career-oriented questions, which were deemed too difficult for some women to answer. “She seems more simple,” my trainer would write in response. “Let’s try a different approach.” My meaningful questions would disappear from our shared GoogleDoc, replaced by simpler, condescending small talk.
My Closer manuals were written by the company’s founder, Scott Valdez, a self-taught dating expert with a background in sales. The manuals have titles like Women On Demand and The Automatic Date Transition, and are loaded with his personal insights into the primal female brain. We are to treat them as dating-assistant gospel.
“There’s no question about it,” reads one chapter, “women want to date the alpha male. They are naturally drawn to the ‘leader of the pack.’” Valdez elaborates later in the manual: “The alpha male is the selector, he chooses… he is not chosen.” But how do you present yourself as an Alpha? “Never compliment her without a qualification,” he writes. “Let her know what you want in a woman and make her explain why she fits those criteria.”
“I’m not a psychologist or self-proclaimed expert in the multiple facets of human psychology,” Valdez told Quartz in a phone call. “I consider myself to be a marketer, a matchmaker, and a dating expert.” He lists the books he’s read that inform his methods: Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, David J. Lieberman’s Get Anyone To Do Anything, (“which kind of scared my mom”), and the classic Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.
“Online dating takes effort, and effort equals time.”“Online dating takes effort, and effort equals time,” he continued. “With [dating apps’] explosion in popularity, it means that you have a huge dating pool at your fingertips, but you’re also in direct competition with everyone else in your area. So if you want to have a chance at meeting your most intriguing matches, you need to have the best possible profile, photos, and messages.”
In my guise as a middle-aged American male, it’s my job to pursue women on our clients’ behalf. These people are often in their early 20s; young women with less dating savvy are easy targets for the company’s methods. “Rule 1: Don’t make her think too hard,” the manual says. “When writing sales copy…the goal is to reduce her ‘cognitive load’ so she’s more likely to reach the end and still have energy to write out a reply.”
What does a “low cognitive load” pick-up line look like? My personal favorite:
“Dear [MATCH NAME], You seem like someone with a lot of confidence. What’s your secret? A) all in one shampoo and conditioner, B) high fiber diet, C) Photoshop”
These pick-up lines are mostly sent by a third type of employee, “Matchmakers,” who send out opening messages en masse across every dating platform imaginable: Tinder, Bumble, match.com, POF, Luxy, and Seeking Arrangement, to name just a few. As part of the company’s all-inclusive service, Matchmakers will scour these platforms for potential matches and then send copy-and pasted opening messages to those who fulfill their clients’ preferences, such as “must love cats” or “should know how to cook.”
But combing through each woman’s profile would require too much time, so Matchmakers are instead taught to generalize a client’s preferences as much as possible and then select an opening line that could work for hundreds of women. For example, does Client X like to travel? That’s easy: Client X’s Matchmaker can search the company manual for the word “travel” and select from a handful of vague travel-related greetings. From there, after the client has approved the message, a one-liner blitz will rain down on dozens of dating sites, targeting hundreds of women with the word “travel” in their profiles.
“We have a lot of ice-breaker messages that are billed around specific interests, like yoga or skiing or having a very short profile,” Valdez told Quartz. ”If there’s a message that the client doesn’t like, we take it out of rotation.” After the Matchmakers have made contact, the Closers then step in to keep up the flirty banter and, hopefully, get their client a date. Clients are sent weekly emails to alert them of numbers we’ve scored or, for Platinum clients, when and where to go for a date we’ve arranged.
This messaging “blast” technique may appear lucrative compared to the average neighborhood yenta, but it has occurred to me that good matchmaking may not be in the company’s financial interest. When a client pairs up, they leave the service. And with ViDA charging each client anywhere from $495 to $1,695 a month for its services, there is a significant financial incentive to keep them coming back.
So, tell me about yourself
Originally a sales guy with no time for “real dates,” Valdez grew ViDA’s brand out of his own experiences in the dating world. Before Tinder normalized “DTF” (“Down To Fuck”) as an opening salute, Valdez would send copy-and-pasted pick-up lines to dozens of women a day and track their effectiveness on spreadsheets. “Online dating is a numbers game,” he would write in the ViDA training manual years later.
His idea for a digital-dating-assistant service started in 2009, when he was frustrated with the amount of time it took to search for matches online. “I was working 60 to 70 hours a week and simply didn’t have time to keep up with online dating,” he said. “Before my life had gotten so crazy, I’d managed to develop some material that worked really well on the dating sites I was using. But I was at the point where I was only able to return messages sporadically, which obviously didn’t go too well with the matches I was interested in.”
“I thought, ‘Why couldn’t I just take what I had developed, and train someone else to sound like me, and outsource my online dating to him?’”“I found myself wishing there were two of me,” he continued. “I thought, ‘Why couldn’t I just take what I had developed, and train someone else to sound like me, and outsource my online dating to him?’” After finding someone on Craigslist who “did a really great job,” Valdez started thinking about how many people were in the same position: time-poor professionals who might benefit from some of the lessons he’d learnt. “If it weren’t for my relentless dedication to cracking the code to meeting and attracting the right person, I probably wouldn’t have met the girl I’m with now.”
Today the company employs 80 people and boasts 2,500 “satisfied customers.” But the same cannot be said for all of its employees.
I asked my coworkers how they handle the moral flexibility that the work demands. One male Closer told me that it felt rewarding to “help men too old to understand the internet,” and that “some people are too busy for all that.” Another writer told me that “finding love is a mysterious process, so we use data.”
The service’s data-driven approach to professional flirting became clear to me during my training. “We’ve discovered that a surprisingly large portion of the online dating process can be systematized into what is essentially clerical work,” read one line in my training manual. “Really, when you think about it, you’re writing sales copy.”
To this end, every message I send is logged into an automated system that analyzes response rates. Closers regularly discuss what works and what doesn’t, swapping tips in extensive email chains. There are required monthly team meetings, in which Closers help workshop opening messages and pitch new ideas. While the list of company-approved opening lines is constantly evolving, the formula is almost always the same: a vague reference to something on the match’s profile, followed by an extremely easy question, like “I see you’re into yoga…. so answer this question once and for all: which is better, hot or not?”
Paradoxically, ViDA’s manual says that honesty is key to seduction. One chapter titled Don’t Lie includes lines like, “There are few things women hate more than insincerity” and “If you’ve told your date you’re a six-foot-tall astronaut when actually you’re 5 ft 9 and sell insurance, she’s going to find out.”
“It’s about trust and making sure we represent them in a way that’s comfortable for them and feels authentic, because at the end of the day they’re going to be the one going on the date,” he added over the phone. “It’s important that everything that we do feels right and feels true to who they are.”
But I’m not an astronaut or an insurance salesman. I’m a woman sitting in my living room in Montréal, running proxies on my smartphone and laptop. I’m logged into my client’s Tinder and match.com accounts, appearing on these platforms (with the help of numerous fake GPS services) to be the man I’m pretending to be. I sit on my couch and wait for messages to arrive in their inbox.
“Oh, you like Pink Floyd?” I write to one match. “Cool. I saw them in concert in ‘77.” This technically isn’t a fib: My client did see Pink Floyd in 1977—though I wasn’t born until 1992.
I was three weeks into my contract when I encountered a client whose age was listed as 25. Written beside his photos was a casual disclaimer: “…he’s actually 33 but wants to present like 25 to attract younger ladies.” Shaving two or three years off of a client’s age was common practice, but eight years felt predatory. I sent an email inquiring about the company’s policies, and never heard back.
“If a client requests it, we may add an inch or two onto the displayed height or shave a year or two off the listed age, but we don’t like to do anything that’s really big,” Valdez explained to Quartz. “The goal is for the client to meet their matches face to face and hopefully spark a long-term relationship. So big lies about important facts undermine that goal. We make sure our clients understand that.”
If a woman doesn’t respond to our cheesy pick-up lines or cough up her number by the third message, I’m instructed to move on, as the match is no longer cost-effective.Despite my attempts at embracing the “Alpha Male” attitude, the training staff have repeatedly told me that my writing is “too female,” a characteristic that has never been fully explained. To mitigate this “error,” I’ve been told I need to use shorter sentences, ask fewer questions, use fewer smileys, wait longer to reply, and set up dates before even asking if the woman is interested. If a woman doesn’t respond to our cheesy pick-up lines or cough up her number by the third message, I’m instructed to move on, as the match is no longer cost-effective.
Closers aren’t paid for the time they spend waiting for new messages, so I reread my clients’ intake questionnaires in order to bill my base salary of $12 an hour. Every client must answer 50 or so questions about themselves when they first sign up and go through a 90-minute interview, supplying Profile Writers and Closers with nuggets of mundane information. Most of it is useless when it comes to fuel for flirtatious banter—like “I took piano lessons until I was 5 years old,” or “I had fun at my sister’s wedding”—but these lifeless anecdotes are all we have to draw from.
Several times a day, female staffers receive Photo Ranking Requests, in which we rank new clients’ photos in order of attractiveness. This helps Matchmakers select which photos to use when building or updating a client’s dating profile. “We don’t like to declare that this client’s a 9, this client’s a 6, or compare our clients in any way,” Valdez said. “We do, however, rank the attractiveness of a single client’s photos against one another. We just employ a data-driven ranking process for choosing the most attractive pictures…We do this internally to determine a client’s optimal photo lineup.” He mentioned that OkCupid used to run a similar service, and Tinder can also optimize your photographs so that the most popular are shown first.
One Profile Writer I spoke with (I’ll call him Doug) was candid about his dilemmas over the company’s practices. After working as a Closer for two years, Doug had asked to switch to Profile Writing. He’d taken to referring to Closer work as “the dark side.”
Doug told me that a lot of clients never call the women “who have been really engaged emotionally and are responding to our messages.” Once Closers receive their commission for getting a number ($1.75 each), they move on. But if a woman never hears from the client—the man she believes she’s been corresponding with the whole time—she might send more messages through the app, upset that she hasn’t heard from him. But the Closer is no longer allowed to reply, so he ghosts her. There’s no more money to be made.
“I am creating these bitter women out there,” he said. “I ask myself if I’m part of the problem.”
Doug learned to unmatch from women once he’d received his commission. It was easier for him that way.
What kind of person would pay strangers to score them dates online, and then not even bother to call? Clients who can afford to ignore phone numbers because they receive so many a week are internally referred to as “Cash Cows.” They go on several dates a week for months or sometimes years on end, traveling frequently to new areas and an ever-expanding pool of women. These clients tend to be younger men in high-powered finance jobs.
Valdez said that the typical client profile tends to be somebody between the ages of about 28 and 52, with most being in their 30s. (He also claims that one third of their clients are female.) From there, it divides into two camps: those who “have more money than time,” and those who are just plain frustrated. “Entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers,” he lists. “Programmers, too—especially programmers in the Bay Area. We get a lot of them.”
“[ViDA allows] them to delegate this particular aspect of their lives to an expert, just as many have financial planners, landscapers, personal trainers, and mechanics on speed dial.”These types of professionals are money rich but time poor, he explains. Valdez referenced a recent survey that shows online love seekers are spending 10 hours a week on dating sites and apps. “Our clients have successful careers,” he said. “They work, they travel often, and they just don’t have that time. So the need a company like ViDA fills is allowing them to delegate this particular aspect of their lives to an expert, just as many have financial planners, landscapers, personal trainers, and mechanics on speed dial.”
Indeed, there are plenty of older men seeking age-appropriate, long-term relationships online. These are the types of clients Doug and Valdez always refer to when justifying the service, as our work helps them navigate unfamiliar territory. After all, internet culture does not come naturally to some, and many of our clients are widowed or divorced retirees.
I asked one of my trainers if the company takes on any married clients. Men looking to quietly set up extramarital affairs would benefit from the company’s all-hands approach; they wouldn’t even need to install the dating apps or visit the websites we use. Matchmakers will select their best photos, Profile Writers will make them sound appealing, and Closers will do all the flirting for them. Our clients need only check whatever email they’ve provided for date locations and phone numbers.
My trainer was quick to reassure me that they refuse those prospective clients. “Even if the guy’s lying about it, Scott has a whole system for how we deal with that situation.”
When asked about this policy directly, Valdez pointed out that their website clearly states that they do not take on married clients or those looking to cheat; he also said that the extensive on-boarding process tends to weed out any immoral actors. “I couldn’t sleep well at night knowing we are helping people wreck their families. We’ve never knowingly helped cheaters,” he says. “There are a lot of other ways I’d prefer to make money than helping people mess up their family.”
Is it even legal?
The company’s practices may be unethical—but they’re not illegal. Once the company obtains the client’s permission to impersonate them online, there are no laws against what Closers do.
Instead, it’s left to individual platforms to crack down on fake accounts. OKCupid, for instance, makes it clear in their terms of service that third parties are not allowed to open accounts, and it’s not uncommon for clients’ profiles to get flagged and deleted. But from a legal perspective, unless a Closer harasses or threatens a match, exposes a client’s confidential information, or asks for money, everything they do is legal according to US, Canadian, and UK law.
But legality aside, these cut-and-paste flirtations perpetuate negative gender stereotypes, and they reinforce an oversimplified (and destructive) view of romantic expectations.
Men and women on online-dating platforms therefore learn to emulate personalities that yield quantifiable results.As dating platforms become flooded with calculated, flirtatious spam, men and women on these sites learn to emulate personalities that yield quantifiable results. This means playing down unique traits and unorthodox views to the point where a total stranger—like me—could literally do it in their place. By trying to appeal to dozens, if not hundreds, of strangers at the same time, we forfeit our ability to take risks and experiment with social norms; only placing safe bets robs us of new and genuine experiences.
But the steepest price of this online anonymity appears to be human decency, which—as I’m often reminded at ViDA—doesn’t lead to dates.
For example, one match told me that she’d just put down her family dog. Still in training, I wasn’t sure what to do. I wrote out an apology for her loss and sent it to my instructor for approval. He crossed out my response and wrote underneath: “Alpha Males don’t apologize.” What we sent back instead was an upbeat story about our client’s two dogs, which was a shamefully inconsiderate reply in my view. I expected to never hear back from her, but three exchanges later, she was sending me her phone number.
It was my first commission: $1.75.
Had she blamed my client’s callous response on internet miscommunication? Or was she learning—just as I was—that reaching out for a unique connection online would lead only to awkwardness and rejection? Every time she has an interaction in which her feelings are ignored—whether it’s online or in-person—I worry that she’ll learn not to talk about her emotional needs, or any needs of any kind.
As the disillusioned masses learn to offer less and expect nothing, companies like these can take advantage of this extraordinarily low barrier to entry. That cringe-worthy shampoo vs. Photoshop line might sound impossibly lame—but it works. (And at least it’s not the bare minimum “DTF?” or an unsolicited dick pic.) As a result, businesses such as these are an economic inevitability.
* * *
I was given my first female client after two months with the company. Women seeking out our services require a very different approach. When talking to my new client’s matches, I was told to make her voice sound “feminine (soft, warm, delicious, flowing, focusing on how she feels about things).” I had to “focus less on her career and more on her outside life…write longer sentences, more emoticons, and be more playful.”
In Doug’s view, it’s our job to act as gatekeepers for these female clients—to make sure no subpar matches make it through. “Women are so put into a box, and they aren’t going to represent what they really want,” he said. According to him, a Closer should ask the tough questions that female clients aren’t comfortable asking themselves: Does the match want children? Are they looking for something serious? Are they dating anyone else right now?
I took his advice to heart and played hardball with my female client’s matches. None of the men fit her description of what she wanted, so by the end of the first week, I had not pursued any phone numbers. I was reprimanded for not producing results, and for wasting both the company and the client’s time.
“Our clients are interested in finding their ideal match, and if the writers aren’t getting them closer to that goal, then we’re not fulfilling our commitment to our customer,” Valdez said. “So we might realize that a writer’s writing style isn’t a fit for a client or the match that client wants to attract, so we simply shift them to a client that he or she is better equipped to help.”
Another Closer was given my account. Overnight, they scored seven numbers from the matches I’d already vetoed—an additional $12.25 in their pocket.
I decided to make my exit soon after.
My initial curiosity about these dating assistants had morphed steadily into deep disgust: with the company, with Valdez and his manual, and—above all—myself. The sight of my first paycheck sent me crawling back to bed in a guilt-ridden panic.
I grew suspicious of my own dating accounts—not just of the men I matched with, but of my own ability to present a likable version of myself online. Every new conversation felt like a minefield, filling me with equal parts boredom and dread. To my dismay, I started to want my own virtual dating assistant.
This all begs the question: Have you unknowingly flirted with a professional Closer? Me, even?
As we grow accustomed to foisting more and more complicated emotional tasks onto digital butlers, we lose our ability to tolerate inelegance or find value in social failure. Moments of awkwardness and heartbreak are an inevitable part of the dating experience, and they are essential in our evolution into mature adults. By outsourcing our courtship to robots (and robot-like humans) we might save ourselves some pain in the short term, but it degrades us, simplifies us, and fails to provide for our ultimate goal of finding someone accepting of our flaws. In this age of automation, romance isn’t just one click away—it’s guaranteed.
But if you’re willing to scrape the bottom of the barrel, what isn’t?
Photographer Spencer Platt captured the scene for Getty Images. His pictures show a massing burning swastika and an othala rune – a pagan symbol that was used by some elements of the Third Reich.
One image shows dozens of people giving Nazi salutes in front of a burning swastika that appears to be 12 to 18 feet tall.
According to Platt and local news reports, the white supremacist group gathered in Draketown, Georgia, about 50 miles from Newnan after the protest.
Members of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the US, hold a swastika burning after a rally on April 21, 2018 in Draketown, Georgia. Community members had opposed the rally in Newnan and came out to embrace racial unity in the small Georgia town. Fearing a repeat of the violence that broke out after Charlottesville, hundreds of police officers were stationed in the town during the rally in an attempt to keep the anti racist protesters and neo-Nazi groups separated
Spencer Platt – Getty Images
Members of the National Socialist Movement, one of the largest neo-Nazi groups in the US, hold a swastika burning after a rally on April 21, 2018 in Draketown, Georgia. Community members had opposed the rally in Newnan and came out to embrace racial unity in the small Georgia town. Fearing a repeat of the violence that broke out after Charlottesville, hundreds of police officers were stationed in the town during the rally in an attempt to keep the anti racist protesters and neo-Nazi groups separated
Spencer Platt – Getty Images
The rally at Greenville Street Park in Newnan was organized by the white supremacist National Socialist Movement. The New York Times reported that it was made up of roughly two-dozen people, making it much smaller than the deadly “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last August. One woman died after a car ran through a crowd of counter-protesters at that rally.
The neo-Nazi rally on Saturday was met with about 100 counter-protesters, according to the Times, including members from antifa anti-fascist groups, and a large police presence of roughly 700 law enforcement officers. About 10 counter-protestors were arrested, according to reports. Local authorities said some were charged for refusing to removed their masks – in violation of a 1950 state law initially aimed at stopping the Ku Klux Klan.
Every state legislator as well as numerous county and city officials in Coweta County condemned the rally before it took place.
When I announced that I was leaving Bloomberg View for the Post Opinion section in February, many longtime readers gently reproached me for moving my writing behind a subscriber paywall. Some of them were not so gentle. How could I cut myself off from readers like that? Was I really so arrogant as to think they ought to pay for the privilege of reading me?
I couldn’t blame them for being miffed; some of them, after all, had been reading me since I was a young(ish) blogger writing from Ground Zero. The open Internet literally gave me my career, and for years, I’ve repaid that gift by seeking out employers that kept my writing free to readers. I really believed in the motto that “information wants to be free.”
But by the time The Post approached me, I’d already concluded that the battle for the open Internet was lost. Sooner or later, virtually everyone in the industry is going to put his or her content behind a subscription wall. And in general, you should bet on “sooner” rather than “later.” This week, Vanity Fair became just the latest in a long line of publications to say “If you want to read us, you’ll have to subscribe.”
As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen noted on Twitter, Bloomberg already has “one of the greatest subsidy systems ever invented”: the terminals that it sells to financial companies at a cost of $20,000 per user per year. If they still want a paywall, we should be bearish on the chances that anyone else in the news business will make a go of the “free content” model.
So how did my industry make it work for so long? The answer is that we never did, really, which is why so many newspapers and magazines are struggling to stay afloat, and so many Web publications are burning through piles of investor money as they hunt for a viable business model. The more interesting question is why we couldn’t make it work. And the answer to that lies in the structure of the traditional media business.
Critics of the “mainstream media” (or if you prefer, the “lamestream media”) are fond of saying that we’re going to be put out of business by competition from “new media” upstarts. Indeed, as a young blogger, I might even have made a few such pronouncements. And I and those critics were wrong. Traditional media can survive competition for readers just fine. It’s competition for advertisers that’s killing us.
For more than a century, magazines and newspapers were what’s known as a “two-sided market”: We sold subscriptions to you, our readers, and once you’d subscribed, we sold your eyeballs to our advertisers. That was necessary because, unbeknownst to you, your subscription dollars often didn’t even cover the cost of printing and delivering the physical pieces of paper. They rarely covered much, if any, of the cost of actually reporting and writing the stories printed on those pages. And you’d probably be astonished at how expensive it is to report a single, relatively simple story.
But that was okay, because we controlled a valuable pipeline to reader eyeballs — a pipeline advertisers wanted to fill with information about their products. You guys got your journalism on the cheap, and advertisers got the opportunity to tell you about the fantastic incentive package available to qualified buyers on the brand-new 1985 Chevy Impala.
Then the Internet came along, and suddenly, we didn’t own the only pipeline anymore. Anyone can throw up a Web page. And over the past 20 years, anyone did — far more than could support actual advertiser demand.
The companies that won this rugby scrum weren’t the venerable old names with long experience marrying ads to winsome content. They weren’t even the new media companies with their frantic brigades of young staffers generating hot takes. The companies that are winning — mostly Google and Facebook — get content for free from their users, or other people on the Internet. Including us.
Providing the rope with which someone else will hang you is obviously not a very good business model. And in the words of economist Herb Stein, “If something can’t go on forever, it will stop.” Either we will find someone else to pay for the news and opinion and cartoons you consume, or we will go out of business.
That someone doesn’t have to be the reader. Some journalism can function as a sort of a loss leader for a conference business, or another associated product, like books or package tours. Some opinion writing can be produced by people who use it as a personal loss leader for their brand as a “thought leader” or “public intellectual” — or simply use it as a hobby to blow off steam. Outside of the “loss leader model,” there are a few other options: Some reporting can be financed by donors as a philanthropic project; some consumer product journalism can support itself through affiliate programs that provide rewards for selling merchandise; and some writing can be supported by “native advertising” sprinkled among the journalism so that it’s hard to tell them apart. All of those business models can produce good journalism.
But all of those strategies also have flaws. You need a pretty affluent demographic and a highly prestigious brand for the “loss leader” strategy to work. And while opinion writing is very important (she said, modestly), it’s not the only important work we do; academics and business executives are largely not going to pick up the unglamorous but necessary job of beat reporting. Philanthropic journalism can take up some of that slack, but it will be narrow in another way: Donor-funded journalism tends to largely be ideological, with donors looking for stories that flatter their opinions and produce measurable political “impact” beyond just keeping readers informed. A lot of that journalism is very valuable — but it’s not all that we need. And as for the last two models, I presumably don’t have to explain the dangerous incentives built into them.
But if you don’t like those options, then you, dear reader, are going to have to step up to the plate. Unfortunately, many of you have gotten used to the idea that news ought to be free, and resent being asked to pay for it.
At the moment, in concession to your feelings on the subject, most paywalls are relatively porous. (Yes, we know about the tricks you use to subvert them.) But as more and more publications move behind paywalls, you should probably expect that to change. The less we have to worry about competition from free sites, the more those paywalls will tighten. (To be clear, this reflects my opinion based on analysis of industry-wide economics, not any knowledge of employer business strategy, current or former.)
And that will be a sad thing, because the old open Internet was a marvelous gift to readers, a vast cornucopia of great writing upon which we’ve been gorging for the past two decades. But there’s a limit to how long one can keep handing out gifts without some reciprocity. At the end of the day, however much information wants to be free, writers still want to get paid.
During her “Smallville” days, Allison Mack was unfailingly sweet, smart, and kind. She was committed to female empowerment and making a difference in the world, according to multiple sources who worked with the actress during the series 2001-2011 run.
This month, federal prosecutors described Mack in court documents as the second-in-command of a sex cult that preyed on vulnerable young women for the benefit of self-help guru Keith Raniere, who was arrested last month in Mexico.
Mack, who was arrested April 19 in New York, is accused of being a leader and prime recruiter for a sorority-esque group of young women who were manipulated into serving as “slaves” for male “masters.” She is facing 15 years to life imprisonment on charges of sex trafficking, conspiracy, and conspiracy to commit forced labor.
The coercion went so far as to include a mutilation ritual in which some of the women were branded in their pelvic area with a cauterizing pen with a symbol that incorporated Raniere’s initials.
Mack’s “slaves were kept seriously sleep-deprived and emaciated to the point where they stopped menstruating,” according to court documents. “During the ceremonies in which her slaves were branded, the defendant placed her hands on the slaves’ chests and told them to “feel the pain” and to “think of [their] master,” as the slaves cried with pain. The defendant also “provided naked photographs of her slaves to Raniere and was aware of Raniere’s proclivity for having sex with multiple young women.”
Mack was released from federal custody on $5 million bond on Tuesday. She is in the midst of plea negotiations with prosecutors and is believed to be prepared to cooperate in the case against Raniere, who has a checkered legal history involving his purported self-help businesses and alleged pyramid schemes. Mack was released on condition of serving on home detention with electronic monitoring at her parents’ house in Los Alamitos, Calif. Her parents, Jonathan and Melinda Mack, put the property up as collateral to help cover their daughter’s bail.
How did a young woman with a promising future as an actress become enmeshed in such a bizarre and sordid drama? Industry sources are shocked at the headlines involving Mack, particularly those knew the actress in the “Smallville” years. More than one associate of the actress from her time on “Smallville,” the Superman origins drama produced by Warner Bros. Television for the WB Network and CW, said she was “the least likely person” to be involved in an alleged criminal conspiracy, let alone something that targeted young women for abuse.
“Nobody can believe this,” said an industry veteran who had close ties to “Smallville” throughout its 10-season run.
Mack’s connection to Raniere is believed to be rooted in the time she spent in Vancouver, where “Smallville” was shot. With so many TV series heading north to take advantage of Canadian tax credits, Vancouver has developed a large community of working actors, many of them young adults. Around the 2005-2006 period, a source said the actor circles in Vancouver seemed to take on a “new age-y vibe” with a focus on tools for self-help and empowerment. Some pegged it to the release of the 2006 documentary “The Secret,” based on the book of the same name, which features a number of philosophers, authors, scientists discussing “the secret” to personal and professional success that purportedly aided historical figures ranging from Plato to Beethoven to Albert Einstein.
Raniere’s Albany, N.Y.-based Nxivm Corp. — billed on its website as “a community guided by humanitarian principles” — has long operated a self-help seminar series known as Executive Success Programs, or ESP. ESP had a large operation in Vancouver that attracted numerous actors and others working on TV and film productions. Canadian actress Sarah Edmonson, who was one of the first to go public with disturbing allegations against Raniere last fall, was involved with the Vancouver ESP operation.
Multiple sources familiar with the situation at the time emphasized that the ESP seminars unfolded as they were billed — a pricey series of lectures and classes designed to help participants set and achieve goals, overcome past traumas, and gain confidence and stature in their professional lives. The courses, according to sources familiar with the ESP offering, ranged from a five-day series for about $3500 to 16-day intensive sessions to one-off classes. ESP instructors pushed participants to continually be “promoted” to higher-level courses. The seminars would typically take place in hotel ballrooms or conference centers. Instructors would play short videos of Raniere talking up his program and his philosophies. The emphasis was often on casual conversations and goal-setting in small groups.
A source familiar with the ESP service a decade ago emphasized that it was similar to other popular self-help programs such as the Landmark Forum series or Tony Robbins’ live events. “These were legitimate courses. It’s not like you showed up and there were handcuffs there for a sex cult,” the source said.
But in hindsight, the source said, it’s easy to see how the information gathered in ESP courses could help identify potential recruits for Raniere’s alleged clutch of DOS followers. The ESP program pushed participants to divulge their fears and vulnerabilities in the context of overcoming obstacles to success. Mack would have been a prime target for drawing deeper into Raniere’s world, the source said.
“They try to help you get through some of your trigger points,” the source said. “He probably started grooming her there. He located her trigger point of wanting to make other people happy and to feel special.”
Mack got her start in acting as a child, which means “she’s been taught to want to make everybody happy from a young age,” the source added. She was born in Germany but grew up from the age of 2 in Southern California in a family with multiple siblings. Her father is an opera singer who has been associated with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and worked as a vocal arts instructor at USC and Chapman University.
In Vancouver, Mack became enamored of the ESP courses and continued to move through higher levels. She sought to recruit her “Smallville” co-workers and other friends to sign up for ESP offerings, multiple sources confirmed.
At the same time, Mack was widely praised as a pro on the set of “Smallville” who was always prepared for shooting and always cooperative with PR and fan requests, and was a good ambassador for the show at ComicCon and other forums, multiple sources say. She was a “Smallville” fan favorite for her role as the earnest Chloe Sullivan, who long nursed a crush on her classmate Clark Kent and was later found to have superpowers of her own. She was also remembered as bright and determined to expand her horizons, as she did by directing two episodes of the series in 2009 and 2010.
Sources who know Mack say the actress seemed to struggle at times “to find her place in the world,” she said. She was vocal about wanting to make a contribution to the world in a positive way and about female empowerment.
Now prosecutors say she was part of an elaborate front organization designed to provide a steady stream of young women to serve as sex slaves to Raniere and others. Prosecutors and others allege that Mack was the leader with Raniere of the effort to recruit women under the guise of joining a women’s empowerment group. Those who were led in the secret society known as “DOS” or “the Vow,” had to provide a form of “collateral” in the form of embarrassing photos or written testimonials that could be used against them if they tried to leave and discredit others. Members were continually pressured to divulge more compromising material under the threat that previous items would be publicly released.
In a eerie echo of the dystopian drama series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” women in the group were also forced to remain celibate, remain alert at all hours, and perform menial tasks for Raniere and others, according to court documents filed this week in New York’s Eastern District in connection with Mack and Raniere’s indictments.
“DOS slaves understood that if they told anyone about DOS, if they left DOS or if they failed to complete assignments given to them by their masters, their collateral could be released,” according to court documents.
“A number of DOS slaves, including Jane Doe 1, performed services other than sex (such as editing [Raniere’s] articles and transcribing interviews) for the benefit of the defendant, believing that if they did not, their collateral could be released. The masters who gave these assignments received the financial benefit of free labor from their slaves. Many DOS slaves were also groomed for sex with the defendant by (1) being ordered to adhere to very restricted diets (the defendant is known to sexually prefer extremely thin women), (2) being ordered to remain celibate (the defendant has taught that women should be monogamous but that men are naturally polyamorous), and/or (3) being ordered to stop waxing or shaving their pubic hair (the defendant is known to sexually prefer women with a lot of pubic hair). The slaves were told that they were being given these orders to benefit themselves. The DOS masters who directed their slaves to have sex with the defendant received financial benefits in the form of continued status and participation in DOS, as well as financial opportunities from the defendant.”
Moreover, “DOS slaves were seriously sleep-deprived from participating in ‘readiness’ drills, which required them to respond to their masters any time day or night.”
Raniere has “physically assaulted at least two intimate partners,” prosecutors alleged in a filing to deny bail for Raniere, who remains in federal custody. “In 2012, under the guise of mentorship, he encouraged a woman to run headfirst into a tree and to drink from a puddle,” prosecutors said. “He also co-founded a movement called ‘Society of Protectors,’ which, in part, relied on humiliating women in order to eradicate weaknesses the defendant taught were common in women. For example, women attending the classes were forced to wear fake cow udders over their breasts while people called them derogatory names.”
In the years since the show ended, Mack relocated to New York. Prosecutors said she’d spent the past year living in an apartment in Brooklyn, where she was arrested last week.
Her professional credits during the past few years were limited. She logged guest shots on FX’s “Wilfred,” Fox’s “The Following” and NBC’s short-lived “American Odyssey,” and was also a member of the voice cast of Amazon’s animated series “Lost in Oz.”
The image of Mack in gray-green jail scrubs answering to felony charges in a Brooklyn courthouse stands in sharp contrast to the wholesome image she projected for 10 seasons as “Smallville’s” plucky Chloe Sullivan. Former associates expressed sadness for Mack’s predicament, even as they are quick to condemn the criminal allegations she faces.
“Who she was and who she became are very different people,” a source said.
gallery js Li Guoan was delivering food on his electric bicycle in Midtown Manhattan on a frigid January afternoon this year when an NYPD officer pulled him over. E-bikes are illegal to ride in New York City, and Li had been stopped by the police before. But this time the officer decided to seize his bike. Li was charged with misdemeanor reckless driving, no different than if he had been behind the wheel of a 4,000-pound SUV.
Li had been unable to understand why the officer pulled him over because his English is poor. Walking out of the police precinct, his hands shook uncontrollably as he described his dilemma. “I have two children, I have a wife, I’m the only one working now,” Li said in Mandarin. “What am I supposed to do now for work? How am I supposed to survive? How am I supposed to take care of my family?” Two hours later, Li was on a mountain bike given to him by a friend who worked at 55th and Lexington. Both brakes were shot. “I’m moving slowly,” he assured us, as he carried the plastic bags of food through dense Midtown traffic.
“I’ve seen these bikes going the wrong way. I’ve seen how fast they can go. I’ve seen how reckless they can be. I don’t like it,” de Blasio said. He noted that more than nine hundred of the bikes had been seized by the NYPD in 2017 alone, a surge of one hundred and seventy percent over the previous year.
In dozens of interviews, delivery cyclists told Gothamist that e-bikes were essential to their jobs—to deliver food quickly to avoid complaints from hungry customers and earn more tips—and three of them allowed us to track one of their typical shifts using a GPS watch.
“I would never use a regular bike, there’s no way to ride a regular bike,” Zhu Xian, 31, said in Mandarin, adding that he does his best to obey traffic laws. Zhu is one of four delivery cyclists who ferry between 100 to 150 orders to customers every day out of a Chinese restaurant on 14th Street.
Over roughly ten hours on a Saturday in January, Zhu biked nearly 60 miles to make 34 deliveries; he said he earned a little more than $80.
“Being a delivery worker is the lowest rung of work in society,” Zhu said.
Zhu Xian rode nearly 60 miles during his ten hour shift.
(In an email, Brendan Lewis, the vice president for communications at Grubhub, said that he “wouldn’t recommend reading too much into all the visuals included” in the ad.)
Do Lee, a CUNY Graduate Center student who is writing his PhD dissertation in environmental psychology on delivery cyclists, said the controversy over e-bikes could be seen as the “nexus” of policing, class, and immigration.
“It’s almost like they’re the canary in the mine for all these issues,” Lee said. “They’re not quite bike, they’re not quite car, and the early adopters are immigrants. I think this is a lot of anxiety about who has the right to determine how the city is shaped going into the future.”
Zhu navigates traffic during a delivery. On this day, the roads are still covered with ice from a recent snowstorm. “It’s very easy to slip and fall. I slipped yesterday morning on a patch of black ice. There’s nothing you can do about it,” Zhu says. “If your soup doesn’t spill you get up and keep on going. If your soup does spill you have to go back and get another one.” (Scott Heins / Gothamist)
While other states like California and Washington have embraced the use of e-bikes and have taken clear steps to regulate them, de Blasio has admitted that New York’s e-bike prohibition was a “strange law.” E-bikes that have throttles, the less expensive models favored by delivery cyclists, are illegal to ride or sell, but not possess. On the other hand, “pedal-assist” electric bikes, which tend to be more expensive and require the rider to pedal to some degree in order to accelerate, are technically legal because, per the text of the law, they are not “capable of propelling the device without human power.”
The mayor also insisted that businesses, not workers, would bear the brunt of the stepped-up enforcement. Restaurants that employ delivery cyclists who use e-bikes would begin to receive $100 fines. “We didn’t want a situation where the business thought, ‘The poor schmuck delivery guy will have to pay for it,'” de Blasio said in October.
But according to Lee and the e-bike delivery cyclists interviewed for this story, they are all essentially independent contractors: they own their e-bikes and pay their own fines.
“There’s this weird plausible deniability,” Lee says of the mayor’s position. “‘Oh, I’m this Sanctuary City mayor, I’m not going after immigrants.’ But the actual implementation absolutely is.”
Yudi Burnama, a manager at the Japanese restaurant where Li Guoan worked, said he would accompany Li to the police precinct, but that the restaurant wouldn’t help pay his fine. “They make money, then they pay for it,” he said. “That’s the rules from the beginning here.”
Burnama added that while his restaurant has not been fined for employing workers who use e-bikes, he has observed the police cracking down on delivery cyclists.
“You know, they work hard, they make like, one hundred dollars a day, maybe less sometimes,” he said. “And then you know, sometimes you get two tickets at the same time. Sometimes three tickets. That’s like, two hundred fifty dollars, three hundred dollars. It’s just crazy.”
“Customers want to have their food on time,” Zhu says in Mandarin. “Otherwise customers will call the store and complain and they could cancel their order and then we don’t get a tip.” (Scott Heins / Gothamist)
Language barriers, immigration status, and the long hours his subjects work make Lee’s research difficult, but he recently compiled the results of a survey of one hundred and forty delivery cyclists. The vast majority are immigrants who speak Chinese or Spanish. Most of the eighty Chinese-speaking cyclists said they depend on e-bikes, compared to less than half of the Spanish-speaking cyclists; only a handful of English-speaking riders used them. The average age for Chinese delivery cyclists is also much higher, 46 compared to 32 and 27, and they also earn less money than their English-speaking counterparts, an average of $10 an hour, compared to $15.
The minimum wage for delivery cyclists in the city is $10, while the average hourly wage for Spanish speaking workers surveyed was $9.38. Lee said that labor laws tend to be “almost completely a fiction with immigrant workers.”
In 2016, Lee found that nearly all of the summonses given by police to commercial cyclists over the previous eight years were issued on the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, and Midtown, neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly white.
“We’re talking about mostly immigrant men of color, but mostly Asian and Latino men, who are riding electric bikes in very wealthy neighborhoods,” Lee said. “And who order a lot of delivery too.”
The civil fine for retrieving an e-bike confiscated by the NYPD is $500.
“For us delivery guys, we don’t make that much money,” Chen Qixiong, a 56-year-old delivery worker who works in Midtown East, said in Mandarin. “To fine us $500, that’s a whole week’s worth of money gone.”
Zhang Yucai, another 50-year-old delivery cyclist who works in Midtown, estimated that he has paid $4,000 in various fines over the course of a year, without the help of his boss. “I pay by myself,” he said in Mandarin.
“Customers often complain if orders don’t get to them in time,” Zhang explained. “At least with e-bikes you can save a bit of energy. Saving energy is important because a day could go as long as eleven hours. If you use a regular bike there’s just simply no way.”
To justify the increased enforcement, the mayor portrayed e-bike riders as a menace to public safety. “You shouldn’t feel unsafe crossing streets in your own neighborhood,” de Blasio said. “We have to go after anyone who creates a threat to neighborhood residents.”
Dong Shixiang rode just under 28 miles during his shift on Super Bowl Sunday, much of it in the pouring rain.
Yet there is no hard evidence to suggest that e-bikes are more of a “threat” than traditional bicycles. The mayor has not cited any numbers to support his assertions. An NYPD spokesperson did not say whether the department keeps track of crashes that involve e-bikes.
At a transportation committee meeting for Manhattan’s Community Board 7 in Janaury, NYPD Sergeant Felicia Montgomery said that last year, 86 pedestrians were hit by vehicles in the 20th Precinct, which stretches from West 59th Street up to West 86th. Just five of those crashes involved bikes. And of 58 crashes just involving bicycles, only one involved an e-bike.
Captain Leedroige Manuel, of the neighboring 24th Precinct, added, “We’re not seeing a lot of collisions with e-bikes.”
The officers’ testimony, and their assurances that they would do their best to stop law-breaking cyclists, did not placate several members of the audience, who said they were fed up with delivery cyclists riding on sidewalks and speeding down bike lanes.
“They’re going really fast, much faster than a biker. They’re silent so you can’t hear them coming,” Dawn Moore, an attorney who has lived on the Upper West Side for more than a decade, said of e-bike delivery cyclists.
“Yeah, and plus they don’t speak English,” added Judy Goldberg, a longtime Upper West Side resident.
Goldberg insisted she was a “pro-immigrant person” and an avid cyclist. “I have friends who wanna get e-bikes because they’re getting old and they need e-bikes and I think that’s great,” she said. “However, delivery men don’t pay any attention to rules anywhere.”
Workers use plastic bags to keep their hands warm. One evening, we noticed that a delivery cyclist was using bags from a nearby restaurant instead of those with his shop’s logo. “All the police go there, so if they see someone from [that restaurant] breaking the law, they won’t stop them,” the delivery cyclist said in Mandarin. An NYPD spokesperson responds: “A summons is given based on the observation of a traffic violation and in no way based on the race or status of an individual.” (Scott Heins / Gothamist)
Earlier this month, the de Blasio administration said they would begin “clarifying” the gray area that currently allows pedal-assisted e-bikes to be used on city streets, but did not change their position on the throttle-assisted models.
As WNYC’s Stephen Nessen reports this morning, as of April 1st, the NYPD has this year issued 459 moving violations to e-bike riders, and seized 320 of the bikes; only 48 restaurants have been cited for employing delivery cyclists with e-bikes.
“The City is constantly trying to strike the right balance when it comes to enforcement on e-bikes,” a spokesperson for the mayor told Nessen.
Asked if Grubhub would seek a change in the e-bike law, Lewis, the Grubhub spokesperson, replied, “We’re keeping a close eye on regulation changes in NYC.”
He added, “Every delivery partner contracted with Grubhub or Seamless signs a contract requiring they shall abide by all local laws and regulations. Additionally, our restaurant partners—many of whom have their own delivery personnel—are also contractually obligated to comply with all local laws and regulations.”
Yang Hai rode around 27 miles during his shift.
Yang Hai is a 52-year-old delivery cyclist on the Upper East Side, and one of three workers who allowed us to shadow him during his shift. “The bikes are a tool for us to make our deliveries, to serve the people, to serve everyone in the community,” he said in Mandarin.
Yang has worked for two or three restaurants in Manhattan, and the police have confiscated his bike twice. “I didn’t have a single day off for seven months,” he said of one of his previous jobs.
“Are e-bikes faster than cars? Isn’t the threat of a car much more dangerous than that of a bicycle?” he wondered. “So why is there a difference in the law, between an e-bike and an automobile? Is this because the delivery workers at the lowest level can’t express themselves with their own voices?”
That final destination, of course, will be a Landscape where the logo of each marketing, advertising and search solution on the planet will be written on individual atoms.
Brinker, the lead author of this annual exercise, is Conference Chair of our MarTech Conference, which is now taking place in San Jose, California, and which was the venue this morning for the unveiling of this year’s Landscape.
The atomization of the Landscape appears to be inevitable. The new version has 27 percent more logos than last year’s. In all, the current Landscape shows 6,829 marketing solutions from 6,242 vendors in 48 categories.
In numbers, that means over 1,500 martech solutions added over last year’s. If this growth keeps up, the laws of physics will soon be called into action.
“I’ve been tracking the martech sector and building these landscapes since 2011,” Brinker told me via email.
“This year’s landscape is equivalent in scale to all of the landscapes I produced from 2011 through 2016 combined (I didn’t do one in 2013).” Here’s Brinker’s visualization of this year’s scale:
He added that many analysts have been predicting consolidation in the field but, “at least in terms of the number of vendors, that empirically hasn’t happened.” Only 4.5 percent of the companies in the 2017 Landscape are not present in this year’s.
While some companies are acquired or go under, Brinker noted, many more take their place.
Or, as he puts it in a related blog post: “Water continues to flow into the martech tub faster than it’s draining out.”
Of course, he pointed out, the solutions are not all equal. A few are large, and many are smaller or newborn startups. And new categories emerge, such as this year’s “Bots and Live Chat” and “Compliance and Privacy.” One category — “Predictive Analytics” — bit the dust, since machine learning is adding prediction to almost everything.
The real reason the Martech Landscape keeps growing, Brinker suggests in his post, is that “we’re putting more flesh on our digital customers and striving to serve them in more human ways.” In other words, marketers and vendors keep finding new ways to communicate with consumers and other businesses, expanding the total number of solutions every year.
But there are a couple of possible ways to avoid the eventual need for atomic microscopes to see all those annual additions.
That’s because the Landscape — which was created this year in collaboration with Anand Thaker of IntelliPhi and Jeff Eckman of Blue Green Brands — is also available as an Excel spreadsheet and a super high-resolution version [registration required].
About The Author
Barry Levine covers marketing technology for Third Door Media. Previously, he covered this space as a Senior Writer for VentureBeat, and he has written about these and other tech subjects for such publications as CMSWire and NewsFactor. He founded and led the web site/unit at PBS station Thirteen/WNET; worked as an online Senior Producer/writer for Viacom; created a successful interactive game, PLAY IT BY EAR: The First CD Game; founded and led an independent film showcase, CENTER SCREEN, based at Harvard and M.I.T.; and served over five years as a consultant to the M.I.T. Media Lab. You can find him at LinkedIn, and on Twitter at xBarryLevine.
It’s been speculated for some time that Google has been working on some updates for the web-based version of Gmail, and the company is officially moving from tease to truth with its early-morning announcement today.
Though the company’s blog post is themed around its G Suite version of Gmail, Google representatives have confirmed that regular ol’ Gmail users will receive the same updates. Here’s a quick look what you’ll be able to play with today if you opt into the new version of Gmail—which you can do by clicking on the Settings gear in the upper-right corner of Gmail and selecting the option to “Try the new Gmail.”
As the name implies, you’ll now be able to hover your mouse over messages in your inbox and perform different kinds of actions without ever having to open the email directly—like RSVP’ing for events, marking the message as read, archiving it, or snoozing it for later. (More on that in a bit.)
A brand-new sidebar
You can now tap on super-tiny icons in a brand-new right-hand sidebar to pull up your Google Calendar, write new notes in Keep, type up to-dos in Tasks, or access other Gmail add-ons you’ve installed.
And, yes, Tasks finally has its own dedicated mobile app for Android and iOS, which Google is also launching today.
Say hello to snooze and Smart Reply
That sound you hear is Boomerang screaming into the bathroom mirror this morning. That’s because Google is basically integrating this add-on’s functionality directly into Gmail. You’ll now be able to “Snooze” messages, which will temporarily clear them out of your inbox until a set time period. In other words, if you’re busy now, but don’t want a message to get lost in your deluge of email, snooze it so you’ll definitely see it later.
Smart Reply should be a bit more familiar to anyone who has used Google’s Inbox by Gmail app. In short, Gmail will now offer quick answers that you can fire off just by clicking on them rather than typing them, depending on the context of the email you’re looking at (and the language you typically use when replying to messages).
According to Google, you’ll now be able to add recipients to your emails directly from the body text. When typing out a message, enter a “+” and start spelling out a contact’s name. That’s it. It’s just like how you’d tag a friend in a post on Google Plus—you still use Google Plus, right?
Google also says that it’s dropping a new contacts hovercard into Gmail. As soon as we get a chance to play with it, we’ll let you know what’s changed.
What you won’t get to play with (yet)
Google isn’t quite ready to launch all of its new Gmail features just yet. A number of the rumored (and arguably more eye-opening) updates are still baking for a few weeks, including:
Offline support for Gmail—You’ll be able to search, write, respond to, delete, and archive up to 90 days’ worth of messages. Yum.
Confidential mode—Create expiration dates for previously sent messages or just revoke them entirely. You can prohibit recipients from forwarding, copying, downloading, or printing messages, and you’ll also be able to require recipients to authenticate with you via text messages prior to reading your email. In other words, you’ll be able to prevent a compromised account from reading a sensitive email even if it’s sitting in their inbox.
Nudging—Gmail will encourage you to follow up to messages that you’ve been ignoring for far too long. This is all done automatically on your, er, “behalf.” We suppose “nagging” was too strong of a description.
Big-ass security warnings—You now have no excuse if you’re fooled into giving up your credit card information by a suspicious email:
As soon as we gain access to Gmail’s new features, we’ll give them a whirl and report back with any updates.