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15. Vanity Metrics

15. Vanity Metrics

Rabbit girl in a blue dress leaning against a mirrored building

This is the fifteenth chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.

What do you really want?

Don’t give me the bullshit that you feed others to make yourself look better — none of that “I want to make the world a better place” nonsense. What do you want so much that it drives your life, that you center every one of your big decisions around it?

You know mine. I wanted to be famous, to build my legacy with words, to be heard for all the right reasons. That’s why I went to Stanford, and that’s why I ultimately ended up at NipNop. I was convinced that taking on such a visible role at the company would be the next step towards superstardom. I wasn’t wrong about that. In fact, Oliver and I had a very candid conversation about our true desires on my first day on the job.

This conversation almost didn’t happen, though. In fact, on my first day as Chief Marketing Officer of NipNop, I narrowly escaped an embarrassing death.

That is, I walked up the three flights of stairs and nearly tripped over a pile of LaCroix cans by the entrance. The colorful vessels were rolling all around the exposed wood floor; in my new wedges, I struggled to keep my balance. Damn it. I’d worn heels to make a good first impression, but as I wobbled around, arms stretched out to stop myself from falling, I was aware that they weren’t doing me any favors.

“Omigod, I’m so sorry,” came a breathless voice from below. I looked down to see a girl in a NipNop T-shirt holding a hot glue gun. With little flyaways escaping from her French braids, she didn’t look a day over eighteen.

“I’m building a LaCroix throne,” she explained, gesturing to the twelve or so cans that she had glued into a pallet-esque rectangle. “I’m almost done with the base. Everything should be done by the end of tomorrow.”

“Um, good luck,” I told her, wondering if she’d produced all the empties on her own. This girl had to be a new hire — I hadn’t been back to NipNop headquarters since February. It was now early April. Was it possible to go through over a hundred cans of LaCroix in less than three months?

Oliver had told me to meet him in the Tableaux, the smaller of the office’s two meeting rooms. I walked through the office, passing by throngs of people I didn’t recognize. Had I somehow gone to a Stanford building by accident? The company was aggressively hiring, recruiting new grads and college dropouts to work as engineers, designers, and product managers. NipNop’s job postings asked for five or more years of experience, but I knew that nobody actually cared about that. Not a single person I saw looked ready for adult responsibilities.

“On your left! Wait, no, just stay there!”

I froze. A second later, two guys gracefully maneuvered their Razor scooters around me. They, too, wore turquoise NipNop T-shirts. 

“Thanks!” one of them called over his shoulder.

Were they … having a scooter race? At work? In the morning? I walked faster toward the scratched-up white door with The Tableaux written on a sign taped on it. Since when did NipNop give their employees scooters, or free T-shirts, for that matter? The last time I’d been here, this place had been a total shithole.

I knocked. No answer.

I knocked harder. Still nothing.

“Fuckin’ Oliver,” I muttered, opening the door. Guitar riffs playing at full volume instantly spilled into the open office. There sat the big-shot CEO himself, with his feet on the table and his MacBook in his lap. He looked like a modern-day General Li Shang with his long black hair pulled back in a man bun. He saw me and nodded, but made no attempt to get up or turn down the music.

It wasn’t her fault⁣
She makes sugar taste like salt⁣
‘Cause she was so sweet⁣
Now you’re shuffling your feet with your hands in your pockets⁣

Oliver’s eyes had returned to the screen, fingers flying across the keyboard. I closed the door behind me, then pulled up a chair across from him and sat primly, folding my hands across my lap. I knew that he wanted to finish whatever he was doing before context-switching. I hated being pulled out of the Zone, too; this was one of those mutual understandings we had between us.

It wasn’t her fault that she didn’t have a say⁣
Spending every second wishing they would go away⁣
Tying up my shoes is becoming a problem⁣
But that’s the way it is and that’s the way it’s gonna stay⁣

Finally, he closed his laptop, got on the table, and slid across to my side, grabbing both of my hands to yank me up with him. Together, we danced: me shuffling back and forth awkwardly, Oliver thrashing around like a teenage boy at his first rock concert.

You can point the finger but she’s not the one to blame⁣
For chemical reactions that are starting in your brain⁣
Looking at the crowd thinking “who’s it gonna be?”⁣
“Who’s the lucky boy that’s gonna ease my pain?”⁣

With a whoop, Oliver let go of my hands, twisted around by himself a few times, and shuffled backwards into his original seat, headbanging all the while.

And when she walked in the room⁣
You could hear your eyes rolling round in their sockets⁣
Their sockets, their sockets, their sockets⁣

“What a DAY!” he exclaimed as the last chord of the song faded out. Beads of sweat clung to his forehead. “And it’s only” — he checked the clock — “eleven thirty-six AM.”

“It’s certainly been a day, all right,” I agreed.

The day.” Oliver beamed. “Welcome to the team, co-founder.”

“Pleasure’s all mine.” It had been hard to negotiate my new terms — ten percent instead of seven, a $20k salary raise, and co-founder status in addition to my Chief Marketing Officer title — and it had been harder to officially forego my Stanford-graduate dream by dropping out of college. But who was I kidding? ‘Co-founder’ and ‘executive’ sounded so much better than ‘Stanford alum’.

“Let me show you around,” Oliver said, rising from his seat. “We’ve given the place some serious upgrades since you were last here.”

“I see you’ve got scooters now,” I said as I followed him out the door.

Evidently, the scooters were only the tip of the iceberg. The kitchen fridge, once barren, was now stocked with sodas and ice-cream bars; someone had filled the pantry filled with chips, Smartie rolls, and a wide selection of cookies from Pepperidge Farm. Oliver had even splurged on a vending machine that deposited LaCroix, Red Bull, and Monster Energy drinks at the push of a button — no coins necessary. There was a new ping-pong table by the other meeting room, dubbed ‘The Condeaux,’ and as Oliver continued his tour, there was a noise that sounded like a baby whining, loud and high-pitched and screechy.

“What the —” I turned around to find a Siamese cat padding up to me, its tail in the air. It was easily twice the size of any cat I’d ever seen. As I bent down to stroke its shiny coat, out came the noise again: something between a croak and a whine.

“That’s Matisse,” Oliver explained, picking up the cat, who put up surprisingly little protest. “He’s the office kitty. You’ve got a broken meow, don’t you, Matisse?”

“You have a cat now?” I couldn’t keep the surprise out of my voice.

Oliver held the cat like an infant, rubbing its belly like he would a dog’s.  “Technically, he belongs to Joel, the office manager, but Joel brings him in because he works such long hours.”

Matisse craned his neck up to look at me. His eyes were a piercing shade of blue. “Can I hold him?” I asked.

I held out my arms, and Oliver lowered the cat into them. But Matisse was far heavier — and squirmier — than I thought he’d be. I yelped and let go, causing him to leap away and scurry off into the kitchen.

“Don’t worry,” Oliver said, noticing the expression on my face. “I was like that at first, too. He’s a patient cat. You’ll learn.”

My ‘office’ was an adjustable standing desk in the back corner, up against a file cabinet with a large window to my right. Golden sunlight filtered through the smudged glass, illuminating the tiny flecks of dust in the air. Against the thirty-two-inch Apple LED monitor lay a turquoise envelope that read Welcome, Helena! in gold metallic marker. Next to it was a box containing a brand-new MacBook Pro.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, admiring the ergonomic Aeron chair pushed up against the desk. “I thought you were trying to cut costs?”

Oliver winked. “Well, an influencer friend of mine told me that it was a good idea to invest in your employees.” 

“She must be super smart. I hope you gave her a raise.” I snapped a picture for NipNop, captioning it with a green fairy emoji.

“Maybe I will soon. Now come on,” my fake-boyfriend-slash-new-coworker said, grabbing my hand. “Let’s go back to the Tableaux. There’s some things I want to discuss in private. You’ll have plenty of time to get comfortable later.”

As Oliver led me back to the meeting room, I noticed Elio standing at a desk a few feet away from mine, squinting at three vertical monitors filled with colorful code. When I passed by, he looked up and gave me a little wave before turning back to his work, smiling.

The Tableaux was a windowless and uncomfortably hot ten-by-ten cube, painted white, with a circular wooden table in the center and a thin TV mounted up on the wall. A large dry-erase board had been wheeled in for the meeting; it looked monstrous in the tiny space.

Oliver got right down to business, plugging his laptop in to the projector. The TV blinked and showed a graph with thin turquoise bars extending toward the right. It looked like a right triangle with a wobbly hypotenuse — the bars generally got longer the further you looked, but the growth wasn’t consistent. Sometimes, a bar was shorter than both of its neighbors.

“This is a graph of NipNop’s monthly active users, in tens of thousands, since we launched on the App Store.” Oliver dragged his mouse along the X-axis, which was populated with labels from Sep ‘14 all the way to Apr ‘16. “As you can see, we’ve had some months where we’ve had stagnant or declining growth. Not everyone who downloads NipNop wants to continue using it.”

I thought of all the new apps I’d downloaded on my phone that I no longer touched, from games to virtual journals to one weird encrypted chatting platform, kind of like NipNop but without the pictures. “That makes sense,” I said slowly. I’d been so excited to try them out, but the only real apps I used were Instagram, NipNop, and Snapseed for editing photos.

“The only times we’ve had steady growth” — he typed something into his laptop — “was when you were actively running campaigns for NipNop.” The graph disappeared; in its place was a vertical timeline populated with various Instagram posts that I’d created since I’d started my little partnership with Oliver. There they were, catalogued neatly and slotted into a meticulously branded slide: my announcement that Oliver and I were “dating”, NipNop’s public launch on iOS, Oliver’s and my awful joint birthday party, my faux-but-also-kind-of-genuine feminist rant about being in my so-called boyfriend’s shadow. 

I chuckled at the word campaign. I’d made those posts with a goal of giving NipNop more users, sure, but there had been no meticulous planning and certainly no creepily flattering data visualizations involved.

“Basically, you’re the secret sauce.” Oliver tapped twice and the timeline morphed into the bar graph again, with little pictures over the months where my posts had had an impact. “You reliably drive traffic to NipNop every time. What’s more remarkable is that, when people come for you, they stay.”

With another tap, the screen shifted into a turquoise background with a picture of a girl with mousy brown hair and wire-frame glasses, and a hesitant smile on her face. Underneath was a quote.

“I don’t normally use apps like NipNop or AnonChat,” Oliver read aloud, “but I joined because Helena Holloway promised us a peek behind the curtain of her gorgeous Instagram. I was not disappointed. She updates me regularly with less polished pictures than I would see on social media. I’m totally addicted to her posts and literally scream with glee every time I get a notification that Helena’s sent me a new Nop.”

I felt a warm pleasure rise in my stomach, like a hot-air balloon preparing for flight. “Aww, that’s super nice.”

“A few weeks ago, I decided to pull together a focus group,” Oliver said. “These are NipNop’s most fervent users — the ones who send over a hundred Nops a day, who spend at least three hours doing that on the app. It’s ridiculous, but the common thread was you.”

He showed me another slide with another girl who looked as young and socially awkward as the first one. I love NipNop. The app is so easy to use and it lets me send goofy selfies to my friends without worrying about how I look. I joined because I follow Helena Holloway and wanted to see the story behind her story. Now, I look forward to her updates whenever I see them, but I also got all of my friends to join and we spend most of our time sending pictures to each other on here.

“Apparently, they see your updates, become totally hooked, and stay on the app because they like it for other reasons. The best part is that they tell their friends how awesome it is, and then those people join, too.” Oliver went back to the first slide with the graph. “It’s amazing. Like, literally, people sending dick pics and drug drops are a drop in the bucket compared to your fans … when it comes to app activity, at least.”

“This is why you wanted me to join you so bad,” I realized, staring at the Mar ‘16 bar, which had dipped below both Feb ‘16 and Apr ‘16. My little adventure with Nevaeh had affected things, and apparently at a bigger scale than I’d thought.

“You’re the key to our success right now.” Oliver got out of his seat and began to pace around the room. “So when it comes to job responsibilities, that’s what we want you to focus on.”

“You want me to keep posting about NipNop?”

“Don’t let me tell you what to do.” Oliver kept pacing. “You’re the artist here, not me. The only important thing is to keep that user rate growing.” He stopped and looked at me. “That’s your job. That’s why I hired you.”

“So if I wanted to — just as an experiment — buy two thousand pastel-colored condoms, fill them with helium, and let them loose in Union Square on Easter Sunday, you’d let me?”

“If you can manage to keep costs down, then yeah.” Oliver grinned. “I like your ideas. I would’ve never thought to date you on my own, babe.”

I wanted to get up and dance around the room again, but something seemed off. I crossed my arms over my chest. This seemed too good to be true. “What’s the end game?” I asked.

“Meaning?”

“Like, what’s the goal here? Why do you want all of these users? What is NipNop going towards?” I didn’t know why it had taken me this long to ask these questions. I guess my mind had been focused more on book deals and pretty pictures. Better late than never.

Oliver walked over to the whiteboard and twisted the cap off a red marker, which made a loud squeaking noise in protest. He drew three boxes, stabbing at the surface with the marker’s felt tip: one near the top of the board, one in the middle, and one by the bottom, connected by downward-pointing arrows. 

In the first box: Helena.

In the second: Users, with a little drawing of a stock-market arrow going all the way up.

In the third: $$$$$$$$$.

“The end goal,” he finished, squeezing the cap back onto the marker, “is to cash out. Either through an IPO or an acquisition.”

Abstractly, I knew that if the company went public, my ten percent would suddenly mean a lot. I’d grown up hearing my mom talk about stocks and mergers and acquisitions, but I’d never cared enough to make myself understand what she was talking about. I could give her a ring and ask — she had been filling up my voicemail inbox recently, asking me to please call her back — but Oliver was here, and my mom wasn’t. “What would happen if the company went public? Would I get money because I own stock?”

Oliver angled himself against the table, only to change his mind and sat back down when it started to wobble. “Sometimes, publicly-traded companies split their profits up and give it to shareholders as dividends. It’s mostly older corporations that do that, though. If NipNop goes public, we’re going to reinvest all of our profits back into the company.”

I stared at him. “So what’s the point of being a stockholder?”

“You can sell your shares to people. The more stock you own, the more you have to sell, right?” He leaned across the table. “And the price is determined by the market. So if NipNop stock is trading at twenty dollars a share, and there are, say, a hundred million shares, and you own ten percent of that hundred million …”

I whistled. “A hundred million is a fuck ton.”

“Even ten percent of a hundred million is a fuck ton.”

The thought of all that money made me dizzy. “And what if NipNop gets acquired?”

“That’s more complicated. Technically, an acquisition means that one company buys all the shares of another’s. The specifics depend on the terms of the acquisition, but NipNop is valued at seventy million dollars right now, so …” He tipped his seat back like a hyperactive second-grader. “Ten percent of seventy million is also a lot.”

“Holy shit.” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do a cartwheel or throw up.

“It’s not going to be easy getting there, though,” Oliver said. “I know it looks like we’re in smooth-sailing mode, but there are a lot of costs involved, and I want to continue experimenting and expanding.” He began to pace again. “We need to keep investors happy —”

“— so that they’ll keep giving us money.” I was beginning to catch on.

“Exactly.” He pointed at the middle box on the whiteboard. “The only thing that they really care about is growth. Everything else is a vanity metric.”

“I see.” The gears in my mind were turning so quickly that I couldn’t consciously keep up with them. Stocks. Acquisition. Ten percent of seventy million is … 

I remembered all those speeches Oliver had about building something great, all the mini-rants he’d gone on about wanting to be a thought leader. “You don’t want to stay CEO?”

A few seconds passed. The front of Oliver’s chair landed on the carpeted floor with a thump.

“Not at NipNop,” he said finally. “Not forever.”

“Oh.”

Oliver doesn’t actually care about NipNop, I heard Nevaeh snap in my head. Look at the way he runs things, the way he makes his hires. He’s a hustler, a farmer fattening up his prize pig for the highest bidder.

I wondered what Nevaeh would say if she were in the room right now. Aside from a text letting me know that she’d returned the rental car, I hadn’t heard from her in weeks.

“It’s the same as what you do with Instagram. All those posts, in service of writing your book.” Oliver’s voice brought me back to the present. “That’s what you really want, isn’t it? To write a memoir so that you can be famous and known and heard?”

I nodded, even as I felt my throat close up at the mention of the book. The proposal I kept assuring Wren was coming along well was no more than a few sentences in Google Drive. I’d been so busy recently that I hadn’t given much thought to it.

“I’ve got your back, Helena. Remember that. If you want to release a thousand helium-filled condoms into the sky, or make up some ridiculous story to get more followers, or whatever, I’m here for you. I’m down to do literally whatever, as long as we can keep those numbers trending upward.”

I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something different about this Oliver who was looking at me so intently from across the table. Then it dawned on me: I was officially playing his game, now. He’d been playing mine, but the minute I’d signed that contract and come onboard, I’d assumed a new role — pig fattener. I was no longer just a friend helping out, an influencer whose presence on the app happened to be beneficial. I was an official company asset, and I could have serious repercussions if I failed to perform.

Well. I was never one to shy away from a challenge. 

“Got it.” I smiled without showing my teeth. “Let’s fucking do this thing.”

“That’s the Helena I know.” Oliver walked around and patted me on the back. “Let’s fucking do this thing.”

Oliver was my asset, too, I reminded myself as we shook hands for the upteenth time in our friendship. Sooner or later I’d find a way to put him to use.

As I walked back to my desk, I heard a whining noise behind me. Matisse gazed up at me, a serene look in his bright blue eyes.

Without thinking, I leaned down and scooped the cat up. It was a bit of a rough grab, and he yelped in surprise. Once Matisse was in my arms, however, he started to purr. I squeezed him closer to me, listening to the trembling vibrations in his chest. Then I carried him back to my new corner and plopped him down on the standing desk.

It was time to get to work.

Next chapter

Chapter 16: Only Alive When Seen

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