This is the twenty-third chapter of “Scammer,” a serialized novel about ambition, fame, and influence in the age of the Internet.
Tech bros and visual design go together like UGGs and summer dresses.
As in: they don’t, and it’s an unintended coincidence when they do. Everything these guys produce, from app layouts to floor plans to corporate logos, is a blatant rip-off of Google or Tesla or whatever other company they love to circle-jerk to. It’s why every Bay Area tech office looks like the love child of a cubicle farm and a kindergarten playpen. That’s what happens when society collectively devalues the humanities.
Luckily, the tech bros at NipNop had a secret weapon: me, who spent at least three hours a day looking at pretty things on the Internet, who thought aesthetic integrity a basic human need. When I joined their merry band of makers, I’d made it clear that the duct-tape-and-paper-clip vibes had to go. Oliver had more or less given me carte blanche when it came to decorating the new office. The result? A space that wasn’t only conducive to creativity, but a work of art in and of itself.
Bright and airy, with warm lighting, big windows, and strategically placed ficus trees around every corner, our new headquarters on Spear Street was an Instagram-ready dream. LET’S FUCKING GO, proclaimed the bold sans-serif letters in the reception area. WE CAN DO HARD THINGS, read the wall where the software engineers coded away, turning their dreams into reality. Those awful, functional Aeron chairs had been replaced with white leather desk chairs with gold accents, the black monitors with clear screens that resembled slabs of glass. One room was a faint peach, the next a buttermilk yellow, the next a pale Tiffany blue.
Though we still had an open-office plan, there were plenty of spaces optimized for coziness: little nooks in the wall filled with soft pillows and curtains that closed one off to the outside world, glass pods that shut out all extraneous chatter, “secret” bookshelves that opened to meeting rooms. I knew how important it was to daydream in private, how the best ideas sometimes came when there was no one looking over your shoulder.
“This looks like the inside of a Barbie closet,” Andre grumbled when we toured the place for the first time. “Why did we let Helena design the whole thing? It’s like she doesn’t know that seventy percent of our workforce is dudes in their twenties.”
He was alone in his distaste, for the dudes in their twenties settled right in. Productivity shot up to an all-time high. People stayed in the office longer, and did better work when they were there. The public ate it up, too. Immediately, articles began to pop up showcasing each part of the space, with titles like Six Design Ideas to Steal from NipNop’s New Headquarters. I couldn’t stop smiling. Possibility and innovation was in the air, and I’d made all of it happen with my own two hands.
Yet the thing I was most proud of wasn’t our new digs, but the Discovery algorithm — specifically, Elio’s vision of the Discovery algorithm. It had originally been designed to show people the exact type of content they wanted to see, but Elio wanted to prioritize smaller creators, making it easy for them to get noticed within their respective niches. I’d made his case to the Product team, arguing that this version would make superusers out of creators.
“Do you know how many more hours I spend on Instagram because I make art for the platform?” I’d asked, slowly making eye contact with each person in the room. “If I didn’t look at analytics and read through comments, constantly in search of more fans, I wouldn’t be nearly as glued to it as I am now. If we let Elio do his thing, we could nab people like me — only less famous — and keep them on the app. Let them get famous through us! Then we could start advertising things to them. Things that they’d actually appreciate. We do have to monetize, you know.”
The head of Product had frowned. “But ads are kind of evil. I thought that we were trying to stay away from that revenue model?”
“Why, though?” I challenged. “Ads aren’t evil if they’re giving people what they want. What they need! We’d be profitable, users would have new things they want, and the companies buying ads would have engaged customers. And Elio would be happy, too. Everybody wins.”
“She has a point,” another person — an assistant, maybe? — pointed out. “We don’t have to think about ad revenue right away, either. Maybe we could just roll it out and see how it goes.”
“I’ve got a working version on a separate branch,” Elio, who’d been listening intently but saying nothing, piped up. “We could test things with a small batch of users first and see how it goes.”
I wiggled my eyebrows. “Think about it.”
Product ended up agreeing to a trial period — and everything had worked out as planned. User retention was up by over five hundred percent. Elio’s Discovery algorithm was now running in production on all devices. Seeing everything come together so perfectly made me as proud as a parent watching their kid take their first steps. Evidently, I was a better Chief Marketing Officer than I’d thought.
“You are a brilliant genius,” Elio raved on the day that his algorithm went live for every NipNop user in existence. “Seriously, I owe you one. If you ever need my help with anything — anything at all — call my name and I’m all yours.”
Even Oliver was impressed. A few weeks after the launch, I found every inch of my new top-floor corner office covered in fragrant white flowers, à la Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 Great Gatsby remake. I’d fashioned the space to be a pink version of my tower — white furniture, circular bed, and all. The flowers gave me the effect of floating in an enchanted forest of my very own.
On my desk was a small white card covered in Oliver’s signature scrawl.
I miss your witty
Remarks about boy problems
When we’re talking shit
I’m a piece of work
And so are you, so let’s
Just be friends again
The haikus made me wince a little — Oliver wasn’t as good with words as he thought he was — but it was cute that he was trying, and I was glad to have my best friend back. Elio was fun to hang out with, but I had to filter myself around him, lest I say something unsavory about capitalism or the labor market. With Oliver, there was no need for such precautions.
— Me sitting on my new couch, surrounded by white flowers on all sides: Here’s a not-so-fun secret I’ve kept from you: Oliver and I have been going through a serious rough patch over the last few months. Working with your partner can be so rewarding, but you also share in all the day-to-day stresses of the job. Sometimes, you can’t help but suffer a little overlap between the two. We’d been spending less time together because I was overseeing things at the new headquarters and he was working on raising a B series of funding (almost done! Looking at you @yardstick.capital). Before we knew it, we weren’t talking at all unless we were arguing. But that’s all over now. Today I walked into my office and saw these beauties covering every available surface and realized that Oliver knew what was important all along: grandiose gestures that one can brag about on social media! I’m so glad we’ve made up now. Here’s to a new era of NipNop and the two of us ❤️
Oliver and I instantly fell back into our old routine of shooting the shit and barging into one another’s rooms at odd hours of the day. Ben was a good sport about his boyfriend being in a fake relationship, acting as our photographer whenever the moment called for it. Everything was back to normal — but better, because now we didn’t take one another for granted. I knew that things would inevitably turn topsy-turvy again, but life was great for now, and I was determined to enjoy it while it lasted.
I loved staying in the office after working hours. NipNop provided dinner and drinks to anyone who stayed past seven PM; by eight-thirty or nine, only a handful of people would be left, and the place would start taking on a sleepover vibe. People ran around the dimly lit office in sock feet, slipping and sliding, hyper from the sugar and caffeine we poured into our bodies. Sometimes we raced each other down the hallway in Razor scooters or challenged one another to hopscotch tournaments. It was like recess, upgraded — instead of the one on the sidelines, I was the ringleader, the one making it all happen.
“Let’s see who can get to the third floor the fastest,” I challenged Oliver one night when I was feeling especially competitive. We were finishing up a presentation on the ground-level lobby; next to us was a spiral staircase — clear, with gold accents — that led directly up all five levels of the building.
He shot off immediately in response, taking the tiny steps three at a time, making it halfway up the second floor before I had time to set definite rules. Hundreds of photoshoots in busy streets had trained my reflexes, though, and I darted up right after him without thinking, shoving him aside to land on the final step with a sharp cry of victory.
“Jesus … fucking … Christ,” he panted, trudging up the final steps behind me to collapse in a millennial pink beanbag chair. “What are you, a spider monkey? You literally leapt over my back like a fucking frog.”
I took care to keep my breathing normal, even though I also wanted to collapse on the ground. “You know what they say. Move fast and break things.”
“Glad that you’re so dedicated to the startup life.” Oliver rolled off the couch with a thump. “Ugh, I think that protein shake I had is going to come back up.”
“Take it easy. Must be rough, having that head start and losing anyway.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” He got up and started walking toward the kitchen area, a retro fifties-themed affair with a pale purple fridge and checkered floors. “Want some water? You must also be parched.”
“Sure.” I followed him over and hoisted myself up onto the counter. I was ninety-nine percent sure that I looked great with my cheeks all flushed from the race. For the second time that day, I thought about having someone trail me and capture my best candid angles. What was the point of looking presentable all the time if I could only take selfies like a fucking plebian?
Oliver slid a frosty glass over in my direction. “So, you and Marnie Tucker, huh?”
“What about me and Marnie Tucker?”
“Are you guys … you know.” He formed a circle with his left index finger and thumb and stabbed his right pointer finger through it. “Busy being gal pals.”
I nearly choked on my water. “Ugh, please never do that again.”
“Is that a yes?”
“No.” Thank God he couldn’t see my face very well in the dim light. “Okay, fine, it happened once. But it’s not like that. We’re not like that.”
“Mmm-hmm, sure.” A huge grin spread across his lips. “Helena and Marnie, sitting in a tree —”
“Eff you see kay EYE ENNN GEEEE —”
Dainty sip, uncross legs. “One time in Miami, and we still talk. But not like that. Really. We’re just friends now.”
“There she goes again, the girl I’m in loooooove with,” he belted out, voice cracking at the high parts. “It’s coooool, we’re just friiiiieennnnnnds …”
I coughed. “What, have you been stalking me on God Mode or something?” I wouldn’t put such a thing past Oliver. There had been a few nights where I’d stayed up myself, looking at the message cadences between people I knew. I never peeped at the messages themselves, though — that was where I drew the line.
“I don’t need God Mode when you’ve got that look in your eyes.”
The room grew warmer. “What look?”
“The fucking heart-eyes, man. Plus, you’re posting twice the amount of stories that you usually do. Are you checking to make sure that she sees all of them?”
“I literally have no clue what you’re talking about.”
“Ah-ha!” he crowed. “I knew it!” He tipped back the rest of his glass and set it on the counter with a satisfied smack of his lips. “You are such a bad liar. You’re totally into Marnie. I can see it all over your face.”
A notification lit up my screen: Marnie is typing. Oliver stared at it pointedly, until I slipped my phone into my dress pocket.
“I’m done talking about this,” I said frostily, hopping off the edge. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a few posts to make before I go home.”
“Posts for NipNop, or for Marnie?”
“For NipNop, asshole. If Marnie happens to see them, then that’s her prerogative.” I held up a hand. “Please don’t disturb me, okay? It’s hard work making this content. I need total silence.”
Oliver matched my stride in two quick steps. “All right, sorry. If it’s NipNop stuff you’re doing —”
“I’m just saying, like … you’re working really hard, you know? Have you thought about hiring a team for the smaller tasks, like scheduling interviews and engaging with your audience?”
“Working on it.” I started up the stairs.
He followed me to the fourth floor, matching my pace. “Helena, seriously, I know you want to do everything, but delegation has been such a lifesaver. Don’t let the small stuff keep you from getting the important stuff done, like writing your book.”
I turned around and gave him a stern look, crossing my arms over my chest. “Look around you. What do you see?”
He stopped, taking in the velvet couches and rounded tables, shadowy in the half-light. “Um, some meeting rooms and workspaces?”
“And who arranged those meeting rooms and workspaces, all by herself?”
“That’s right. So please, trust me. I know what I’m doing.” I let my expression soften a little. “I know that it seems really chaotic from the outside, but I like it this way, okay?”
He frowned. “If you say so.”
“And the Marnie thing …” I sighed, my mind briefly back in the warm black water with Marnie cackling next to me, fireworks going off above our heads. “I’ll tell you about that later, maybe over drinks. I’m not sure how I feel about it myself.”
Oliver shoved his hands in the pockets of his gym shorts. “All right. Just know that I care about you. We all do, me and Ben and Elio and … maybe not Andre, now that I think about it.” He shook his head quickly. “My point is, we see you working really hard and we don’t want you to burn out. You’re an important asset to NipNop, but you’re also our friend. If you need help, all you gotta do is ask.”
“Thanks.” I smiled. “I’m glad we’re friends again. I’ll see you in an hour or two.”
Up the remaining flight of stairs I went. When I was safely in my office, I shut the door and let out a long groan as I collapsed into my bed. The white flowers had begun to wilt, filling the room with a cloying, heavy scent. I’d have to get someone to clear them out tomorrow or the next day, before they started stinking up my room.
I picked up my laptop and opened the And We Weren’t Like manuscript, feeling a sinking feeling grow in my stomach all the while. Oliver had been right regarding one thing — I’d been able to see the office to completion and fight for the Discovery algorithm, but when it came to my own book, I only had two half-chapters written. The November deadline I’d begged Wren for was fast approaching. If I didn’t get my act together soon, the entire world would know me as a failure.