Every two weeks I ramble on about the plot mechanics and cultural messages behind movie plot twists. But this time I’ll take a break from M. Night Shyamalan and Darth Vader paternity suits to delve into the strange, twisted tale of Sarah Phillips, ESPN.com freelancer and social media scammer.
The gist: Cute girl blogging about sports betting. Sarah Phillips, a college student from Oregon, goes from gambling message board poster to gambling columnist to ESPN.com freelance columnist pretty darn quick.
The twist: Cute girl blogger is probably a front for a con. Kids running Facebook meme pages and sports gamblers alike were duped into turning over administrator’s rights, passwords and several thousand bucks, all based on a web of half-promises from hotshot ESPN freelancer “Sarah” and her friend/partner/Svengali/puppetmaster Nilesh Prasad.
Oh, and apparently buying and selling Twitters is an actual avenue for cons now.
The reveal: Deadspin doing work.
Clues: For the general public: Despite a meteroic rise to ESPN.com columnist, Phillips was kind of unenthusiastic, clueless and unfunny in posts. (Really? A Harry Potter joke about the Washington Wizards?) Her Twitter account grew girthy with empty-calorie spambots last year. The Condescending Wonka Twitter started going on about @SarahPhilli incessantly in the last week or so, right as the tweets started declining in quality.
For the people she/he/they conned: A cute girl and her associates ask you for a few thousand dollars in exchange for promises of higher-up connections at ESPN. All orchestrated through Facebook chat. Really, kids, have you ever heard of a contract?
For the dumbass at ESPN who hired Sarah Phillips for a freelancing job: Did she even have to fill out a tax form? What the heck.
What does it mean? Just to get the obvious out of the way: ESPN’s editorial team needs to master the art of Google searches when hiring people. Lynn Hoppes sent out a job offer through a Twitter mention! Not even a direct message. Come on now, that’s just not good etiquette.
But beyond that gross oversight … Apparently parody, novelty, fake/faux/notthereal Twitter accounts are worth a lot of money, or at least in speculation. About 800,000 Twitter accounts follow @OhWonka’s string of snide observations. Lots of followers mean lots of eyeballs and clicks, which advertisers like. I guess those parody accounts drive people to websites and stuff? (My favorite parody account is @Matt_Donovan1, so what do I know.) But regardless of the follower accounts’ usefulness, Sarah Phillips & Co. went about buying and selling — or stealing — Twitter accounts and Facebook pages.
But now that social media connections mean something, it’s become a cottage industry to bloat up follower counts. Easy enough if you round up a bunch of unmanned accounts with gibberish names and tweets. So when Bleacher Report talks about how this whole Sarah Phillips fiasco can be a positive lesson about the power of the social media popularity wars, I call bullshit. “Likes” and “follower counts” aren’t indicators of anything if a warm body doesn’t have to be manning the clicks. Social media statistics are no more specific than Nielson ratings when it comes to determining just how many brains you’re infiltrating with ads for coconut water.
While I may not quite understand the logistics of making money off snarky Gene Wilder memes, I can peel away the most frustrating layer of this stinky onion
of a scandal: This scam squad harnessed the power of novelty and ran with it. “Sarah Phillips” wrote columns and posts on message boards and Gchat negotiations, and they had grammar and things, but the stuff wasn’t groundbreaking beyond “HOLY SMOKES, IT’S A GIRL MAKING FUN OF JOSE CANSECO’S TWITTER I DIDN’T KNOW FEMALES COULD SPEAK OF SUCH THINGS MY MIND IS BLOWN.”
There are a whole lot of attractive women out there who don’t have to be fronts for cons to write eloquently about sports, or gambling, or beer, or other stereotypical “man things.” But as long dumbasses freak out over a cute girl chatting about “man things” like it’s a cash-cow novelty, dumbasses will keep hiring con artists through Twitter.
Clever or contrived: Honey, you can’t make this shit up. Sarah Phillips — whoever he or she really is — is probably banking on one day being immortalized in a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin. The Gchats even channel Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker: “You know what’s exciting? Becoming a millionaire.”
Maybe Facebook, Gchat and ESPN need to reinvest in the power of the signature, which asserts authenticity with a scribble.
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