by Andrew Rucker Jones
Andrew Rucker Jones is a former IT expert and American expatriate living in Germany with his Georgian wife and their three children. He quit his day job to become an author, and he has yet to regret it. You can read his blog at http://selfdefeatistnavelgazing.wordpress.com/.
This story was first published May 1, 2021, in The Quiet Reader.
Seventeen followers, Len reminded himself. That’s why he was here. Seventeen followers, which led to a bottom-left-corner feed at the online party for twenty-somethings last night. He had been little more than a cluster of pixels—not enough for anyone to recognize him or find him interesting, even if he had stood on his head and worn moose antlers on his derriere. Which he hadn’t. Some guy handled DJBowser had done that, and his feed had grown and swayed away from the corner as he gained followers and people struck up conversations with his antler-clad hindquarters. He claimed interest in language reform and was working up a petition to change the plural of “moose” to “meese.”
Even more embarrassing for Len had been one lady in particular who had left both him and DJBowser in her dust.
Now Len stood before a storefront sporting the name “Personality Emporium” in cursive letters stenciled in a red-to-white ombré. The loop of the “l” was like a woman’s curved, manicured finger with scarlet nail polish, beckoning him to enter.
His new shoes squeaked as he shambled into the diminutive brick room, and the change in acoustics surprised him, just as it had outside and on the bus over, after having spent three months inside his apartment. The brick appeared to be real brick—abrasive, uneven, and inert. He poked it once, but nothing happened.
Satisfied he couldn’t misconfigure or erase anything with a stray touch, Len took in the store’s unusually static features. It was too small for the word “emporium.” It was really too small for the word “store.” “Shoppe” fit its antiquated feel, but was pretentious. The same space might have been a hobbit-hole. Or a sushi bar.
A dark brown, broadly built man smiled and waved him in. Len shuffled over and slid onto a barstool in front of the man’s high desk, which resembled a bar.
“Welcome! I’m Tank. It’s not a handle. It’s a real name. With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking this morning?”
Len blinked twice. “Oh! Uh, Len,” he said. The word tasted odd in his mouth. “My name is Len. Um, also not a handle. I thought I might want—”
“—a new personality. I’m sure I can help you, Len, but first, tell me what drove you to want a fresh start at this juncture in history.”
Len squirmed under Tank’s unbroken gaze. There were no incoming messages, warnings, or updates around Tank’s head and no video running in the background. Besides Tank himself, there was only brick wall. Len glanced at Tank again, but Tank’s eyes still looked straight at him. How could he look at someone for so long?
“At last night’s, um, juncture, I was scanning other people’s profiles, trying to find people to follow me, when I saw a middle school lunch lady with thirty-two times as many followers as I have.”
Tank’s head bobbed, and his gaze remained riveted to Len. “Thirty-two times …”
“Middle school! In elementary school, lunch ladies still get Valentine’s cards. In high school, they’re laughed at. But middle school? They’re invisible!”
“Janice Sopolovski, right?”
“I …” Len’s rant had been derailed by the unexpected interjection, and now he didn’t know which train of thought to board. “I don’t remember exactly. I just looked at her profile. Do you follow her, too?” How good could a service be that was sold by a guy who followed a middle school lunch lady?
“Let’s just say I know her,” Tank said with a wink. “So your goal is to entice more followers, correct?”
Len nodded, but his eyebrows were knit and he crossed his arms. The lunch lady thing was testing his faith.
“Do you have any secondary goals?”
Len wasn’t sure what that meant, so he shook his head.
“All right then, Len, let’s see what we can do for you. What’s your last name?”
“Rivner,” Len replied, and Tank’s attention shifted to the small computer on his desk. Freed from the twin spotlights that were Tank’s eyes, Len’s shoulders and neck relaxed.
“Easy enough. It’s a unique name.” He scrolled, paused, scrolled, paused. “Rabidly vegan—”
“I guess that’s a little outdated. It seemed like the thing to do at the time.”
Tank nodded, but Len wasn’t sure if he was agreeing or just acknowledging Len’s statement.
“Fanboy for Halle Berry and Carrie-Anne Moss. You can never go wrong with hot actresses, though you might want to think about streaming more recent movies. The last song you liked was four months ago?” Tank shook his head just a little.
Len bristled, but he also blushed. “It still speaks to me.”
“Sure,” Tank said, “and maybe it’s destined to be a classic, but …” He shrugged. Len’s shoulders slumped. “What worries me most is that you seem apolitical.”
“Is that bad? I thought everyone hated politicians.”
Tank looked him in the eyes again, but like magnets of the same pole, Len’s gaze deflected down to Tank’s shirt. “That’s a common misperception among my clients. Everybody hates the other guy’s politicians, and hating any politician is very political.”
“So, um, can you help me?”
“Of course!” Tank boomed with a smile as big as his voice. “Your profile is a classic fixer-upper. I have a starter package that will make you look a lot more human, more three-dimensional.”
In Len’s mind’s eye, the “Followers: 17” on his profile page sprouted two zeros at the end, and he dared to lift his gaze to Tank’s mouth. “How would that work?”
Tank swiveled his computer halfway around, and Len fell toward the screen as if it were an electric womb. It displayed his own profile page and activity.
“You see these gaps here?” Tank pointed at a few posts and retweets that were next to each other. “The dates, I mean. You have gaps in here of up to three days. That loses you followers. That loses you clout. It makes it seem like you’re not really interested, Len. If you’re not interested, if you’re not out there saying something, people lose interest in you.”
Tank pulled up a second profile, one in which the activity was more uniform. “I created this profile for demonstration purposes.”
Len whistled in appreciation at the profile’s statistics: fifteen thousand followers.
Tank grinned. “Not bad for someone who doesn’t exist, right?”
“You must spend a lot of time keeping it up to date.”
Tank’s grin grew larger. “I haven’t logged on to this profile in half a year. That’s exactly what I can do for you: the whole thing is automated.”
Len scrutinized the profile to find the holes, tells, or slip-ups. Consistently left, pro nonbinary sexualities, active for the conservation of cultural and historical landmarks, and a series of song-likes that were mostly mainstream with a smattering of garage-band-looking groups he had never heard of. “You don’t do that?” he demanded, pointing at the screen.
Tank waggled his head. “It’s all in the algorithm, friend, and the starter package is very reasonably priced.”
Len’s eyebrows rose, and for the first time, he held Tank’s gaze. “What do you have beyond the starter package?”
Tank leaned back on his barstool and looked at Len as if assessing his credit-worthiness. “Beyond that is a package I pitch at people who are looking to create a business-oriented presence. Influencers and the like. It’s a bit pricier, but it includes original tweets instead of only retweets, and the algorithm is more configurable, allowing you to fine-tune your online personality with scant five more minutes of time invested.”
Len’s jaw dropped. “Original tweets? Do you have people writing them in a sweatshop in Nigeria?”
Tank’s laughter boomed through the tiny shop again. Len winced and searched for a volume slider below Tank’s face. “It’s all generated by the AI algorithm, my man. No one writes it.”
Scripts, greeting cards, even books written by an AI existed, but that dampened Len’s interest. The quality was notorious. When his expression went sour, Tank pulled up another profile and let Len read.
“These are … good,” Len said. “Really good. And they’re not just copied from somewhere?”
Tank shook his head.
Len read a few more posts. “But they all seem a little familiar. Haven’t I read them somewhere before?”
All Tank subjected him to this time was a chuckle. “I said original tweets, not original ideas.”
Len’s face fell.
“Take heart, my man! When was the last time you saw an original idea or opinion on the Internet?”
Although he was sure he couldn’t afford it, Len had to know. “Is that all you offer?”
There was something nourishing about the way Tank beamed, as if his smile reached all the way back to a childhood spent playing with ladybugs and fireflies on a back lawn. “I have one more package, but that’s for the movers and shakers. It sports the highest configurability. It scours other profiles for people with similar interests and likes their posts or tries to befriend them. It selects a new profile picture for you every week based on pictures you’ve taken and viewed. Best of all, it comes equipped with a personalized obscure, new, or controversial social cause to create the illusion of original thought and carve out an uninhabited opinionspace on the Internet.”
Len couldn’t look away. “Like what?”
Tank’s smile turned to a sly grin. “No freebies, my man, but do you remember the minor social revolution that made it okay to buy a Christmas tree again? That was a customer.”
Len sat bolt upright. “You’re behind the plural of moose, aren’t you?”
Tank only winked. “So what do you think? Are you ready to stand out from the crowd for a low monthly payment?” He pulled up a price list on his screen, then clacked on the keyboard to factor in the offline discount Len had ventured beyond his apartment for.
If Len could have signed over his firstborn child—not that he intended on having children—he would have. “One starter package, please.”
When he had finished the formalities, Tank showed him how to customize his new personality. Mostly, it was a simple matter of pushing sliders between poles: conservative or liberal, artsy or technical, authoritarian or laissez-faire. There were some boxes for multiple selections, like interests, taste in music, and “reasons I hate Rob Schneider’s movies.” (“It’s like a Rorschach test,” Tank explained. “Everyone hates Rob Schneider’s movies, but the reasons why say a lot about your personality.”)
“What’s the ‘randomize’ button up here in the corner?”
“It does pretty much what you think it would,” Tank answered with a congenial grin. “It creates a random personality. Would you like to try?”
“Is it safe? I don’t want to be turned into a Neo-Nazi or something.”
Tank clicked the button and a window popped up asking if he wanted to disengage safeties. “See? Leave the safeties on and the routine will randomize in the middle eighty percent of all settings so your personality isn’t too extreme. I’m guessing you don’t want to be a tree hugger, either, do you? I didn’t think so.
“Well, Len, that does it! You’re all set up to enjoy your new personality.”
Len watched Tank for a hint. How did one say goodbye? Tank saved him by getting up and extending his hand, which Len took after a moment’s hesitation. He winced at Tank’s practiced grip.
At the exit, an emptiness stretched tendrils out inside Len like kudzu. Tank hurt his ears sometimes, but conversing with him, even if it had been a sales pitch, had been … nice.
“Why the, uh … why the offline discount? Usually shops give you a better price if you buy online.”
Tank looked up from his screen and gave Len that same unwavering attention that had made him uneasy twenty minutes ago. “Because today I got to meet you without filters and distractions, Len, and it was a pleasant experience.”
Len nodded as if this made sense. “I expect this will give me more free time,” he mused.
Tank broke out his wide smile, and the corners of Len’s mouth lifted as if they shared the same tendons. “Boy will it ever. You’re going to love it.”
Len touched the rough brick wall and asked, “What do you do with all that time?”
“I take care of my business. Feeding the AI, tweaking parameters when a customer complains their personality is off. Mostly, though, I read and I think. Original ideas have to come from somewhere, so I supply the AI with everything I can scour from books or think up myself. And before you think that’s selection bias and creates a monoculture of thought—” words Len didn’t even understand, much less think, “—I read things I love and things I hate. I think thoughts I agree with and thoughts I consider poisonous. It all goes into the AI and gets spewed out in one form or another onto the Internet, where people try to destroy each other’s opinions. Soon,” he shrugged, “it will just be AI’s duking it out.”
Tank’s eyes didn’t meet Len’s anymore, but stared off into space instead. After the time it takes for a dozen itinerant thoughts to float through a mind, hundreds of individual sensations to be collected, hundreds of thousands of synapses to fire, he looked at Len again with curiosity. “What will you do with your time?”
The world shimmered beyond the door. The sunlight caught particles of glass and quartz in the sidewalk and outshone Tank’s smile. Hints of pastimes and causes once heard tugged at Len’s recollection.
Len’s smart phone tinkled, and the world went dull again.
“I already have two new followers!” He swiped a couple of times, then muttered to himself, “But that’s the same guy. He’s just in drag for the second profile.” He waved a hand somewhere close to where Tank was seated. “Okay, well, bye,” he said and walked out the door, new shoe rubber squeaking one last time on the tile.