On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published three ebooks and one paperback anthology of those stories so far.
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Thanks so much for the wonderful response to last week’s issue. Today’s brief tale is inspired, believe it or not, by the fact that I did my taxes a few days ago. As an independent author, I use advertising on the major online booksellers and social media sites to help bring my books to readers’ attention, and I was accounting for those costs in my tax return.
When you’re creating those ads, you can specify the sort of audience you want them to reach, and it can be troubling to see just how specific the targeting can be.
Whenever George’s mother called him, which was once a week on Thursday evenings at 8 PM like clockwork, he made a silent bet with himself on whether she’d ask about his job.
He kept a coin on the desk in his home office for that purpose. She’d call, he’d answer, and while they talked he would pick up the coin and then set it down again; heads for a bet that she’d ask, and tails otherwise. Lately, he’d been getting about a ninety percent success rate.
The thing that his mother seemed unwilling to accept was that George was an independent marketing consultant, which was technically — and also substantially factually — true. The thing that she would have a much more difficult time with was the actual reality of George’s job. When you got right down to it, George killed people for a living.
If he ever did have that conversation with his mother, which he absolutely never would, he’d be quick to point out that he’d never pulled a trigger in his life (unless you counted video games). Nor had he ever actually seen anyone die. Because George was a facilitator, rather than a murderer. Technically.
And for George, technically was just fine.
He had managed to reach his third year of high school by the time that psychometric testing revealed something he’d always known: he entirely lacked what other people called a moral compass. George thought of himself as flexible rather than sociopathic, but he didn’t really mind either label. That was one of the defining qualities of his condition, after all. And if this discovery had been reported to his parents as it ought to have been, maybe he could have had treatment of some kind.
Instead, the careers counsellor had quietly taken George aside, and given him a business card bearing a name that was unfamiliar. It had taken a full week of deliberation before George decided to call the number, reasoning that it probably wasn’t a trap, and that as a minor he could certainly feign ignorance and lay all the blame on the counsellor if things went wrong.
Instead of a trap, George had received a year of entirely free training in online targeted marketing technology. Social media networks amassed unbelievably vast troves of user data, allowing advertisements to be laser-targeted to reach the most receptive and lucrative audiences. In almost all cases, that information was used for the most casual and ubiquitous type of misanthropy: making people buy things they didn’t need. But the particular training program George had been ushered into had a different goal in mind.
From his perspective, there was a spectrum of behaviour that logically followed from just not caring what happened to others. It began with indifference, progressed through coercion (in which he included consumer advertising), then became active harm before reaching its ultimate form: murder. It was all just a matter of degree, depending on how much of your empathy you could repress or switch off. Since George had none at all, it made sense to embrace the full set of options available to him.
His work was as straightforward as it was enjoyable: he would receive an encrypted message which contained two things; a date range, and a link to a social media profile. His task was simply to ensure that the person who owned the social media profile would be at a predictable location, at some point during the prescribed range of dates. What happened after that was no concern of George’s, but then he wouldn’t have been concerned anyway.
Facebook was one of the best tools in his arsenal, because their ad targeting was positively sinister in its precision. On average, he needed to spend only a couple of hours trawling a given person’s social media presence to determine how to create an extremely targeted ad that would be guaranteed to reach them. Geographically, politically, interest-based; there were dozens of options. And then George would create a contest.
Anyone could set up a mailing list and invite people to sign up for a chance to win a prize. Whether it was tickets to a sporting event, a year’s supply of a favourite beverage, a car, or something more esoteric, you could always find the right button to push. And since George already knew the name of the person he was targeting (and just about everything else), he’d simply watch the competition entries until his target inevitably signed up, and then promptly inform them that they’d won. Usually it didn’t even take a phone call; email worked just fine, from a suitably authentic-looking domain.
From there, it was child’s play to organise a mutually convenient time for the lucky winner to collect their prize, sign appropriate disclaimers, participate in a brief promotional photo shoot, and — unbeknownst to the giddy target — be efficiently murdered for whatever reason they’d attracted the attention of George’s unknown employers.
The social media posts would abruptly stop after that, of course, and George took particular pleasure in continuing to monitor the complete absence of further updates. Sometimes, family members’ posts would appear instead, appealing for information. At that point, George tended to lose interest and move on.
There was such a beautiful symmetry to it: the idea that people would voluntarily provide the means to lure them to their own destruction. It validated George’s worldview every time, and he appreciated the reinforcement. It was a lonely job, certainly, and not the sort of thing you could really share with your mother – unless you planned to kill her too.
I connect people with those who want to reach them, George told his mother instead, or some variation on that theme, and it tended to satisfy her until the next time she asked.
In the meantime, George’s work went on, and business was booming. He may not have the same feelings as most of the rest of humanity, but he knew one thing very well indeed.
It was important to enjoy your job.
That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.
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Have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.