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34. Forgiveness, Not Permission

34. Forgiveness, Not Permission

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

App designers are the true masters of the universe.

The features they invent are responsible for a majority of your dopamine hits. The number of likes on a picture? Whether your crush read your last text or not? How many people see your Story? Don’t lie to me, I know that these things affect you. And the algorithms! Determining whether you’ll get a ride at a time of high demand, whether you appear to hot people who will also find you attractive, how popular your content will get on a certain platform. The people who control them control your impulses, your emotions, your life.

It was a trip being one of the chosen few. I still made most of the product decisions for NipNop Stories, and I delighted in seeing how much little changes could impact society. Like when I proposed Story Highlights, a new feature that allowed users to preserve Stories for longer than twenty-four hours. They could organize these Stories into separate “highlights” that appeared indefinitely at the top of their profiles. Suddenly, Stories weren’t just a way to make a Nop available to everyone on your friends list — you could use them to introduce yourself, capture a drunken rant, or save those cute getting-ready selfies forever. Another time, I subtly reordered the list of Story viewers, making the people who looked at a user’s Story the most appear at the top. I called this the “Stalker Rank” feature, and even though we specifically didn’t acknowledge its existence to the public, people noticed and appropriately freaked the fuck out.

A meme: If her name’s not at the top of your Story viewers, does she even love you?

A trending personal essay: My Boyfriend Found Out About My Affair From My Top Story Views.

A viral tweet: Is the designer of the new NipNop Story view rankings a fucking sadist?

Yes, yes I was, and no, I wasn’t the least bit sorry about it. It was damn good to know that a tiny decision I made could impact the lives of so many. Even though there was an increasing amount of bureaucracy to fight through — a nasty side effect of growth — I had yet to see an idea of mine rejected.

Still, I didn’t feel completely secure as a master of the universe. Thanks to Elio’s small-creator-boosting algorithm, other influencers like that awful Cairee Reesemarks were starting to become a threat. My engagement wasn’t bad per se, or even decreasing, but it had stopped doubling every few weeks. A girl had to be proactive. I couldn’t just stare at the writing on the wall and do nothing.

Fortunately, I had a secret weapon. Elio owed me a favor from the time I’d convinced the Product team to adopt his Discovery algorithm. Not that cashing it in would be easy. Discovery was his baby, like Stories was mine. This particular ask would force him to fundamentally corrupt it. I had to be careful, too, about how I broached the topic. Elio had ardent opinions about the delicate relationship between business and art. Could I get him to come around?

Streetlamps cast an orange glow about me as I huffed and puffed my way up a winding gravel path. It was a cool April evening — hell, all evenings were cool in the city — but the trek from my house to Corona Heights Park went steadily uphill, and I was practically sweating in my pinstriped dress and thong sandals after just a few minutes. Beside me, Elio paused to take a sip from his half-liter bottle of Voss water. His curls stuck to the side of his forehead; in his thin black T-shirt and studded belt, he looked like he’d just come from a Blood on the Dance Floor concert.

“Jeez,” he panted, pushing an errant lock of hair back from his eyes. “This … is … a lot more intense … than it looks.”

“We’re … almost there,” I assured him, gesturing to the dark silhouette of a rock formation in the distance, illuminated by the twinkling city lights beneath it. “You’ll … love it.”

I was sickeningly full, even though I’d barely touched my ramen at dinner. Elio may have been jubilant at the moment, full of joie de vivre after three sake bombs in a row, but I could already picture his face falling after I brought up the favor. You want me to do what?

“Maybe … we … should … have … driven?” he asked now, staggering forward. “Parking seems … pretty good … around here.”

“The walk … is part … of the fun.” I grabbed his hand, pulling him forward. “Don’t be … such a pussy.”

That second part applied to me, too. Now was not the time to chicken out.

Together we walked up, up, up the street, past cars parked at ninety degrees and houses with darkened windows. There were no more lamps after the sign that read Corona Heights Park — just soft ground beneath us, then a set of short, spaced-out steps leading to the structure above. They seemed to emit an eerie glow under the moonlight.

“You … okay?” Elio said when we were halfway up. “Want to stop … and rest … for a bit?”

“No,” I managed to wheeze out. “We can rest … once we’re up there.”

When the steps gave way to great slabs of rock, I got down on all fours, using my last bit of strength to haul myself up to a large boulder near the top. I swung my legs over to the side, then sat marveling at where my hard work had gotten me. San Francisco looked like a model city, spread out under my feet — the Castro Theatre sign to the left, putting on a sparkly show; the tall SoMa skyscrapers lit up in reds and purples to the right, the dark waters all the way out at the far edge. My kingdom, I thought. Everything that the light touches

The breeze was stronger up here, but it was gentler than the sharp, cutting winds that I was used to — perks of an early spring warm front. Surprisingly, no hippies or vape-loving techies blasted music around us. I was grateful for the silence. Elio nestled in next to me, still breathing heavily. “Oh … damn. It’s beautiful.”

“Welcome to one of the only places where you can get a three-hundred-sixty degree view of the city,” I boasted, repeating Nevaeh’s words from the day she’d taken me up here. I can’t believe you call yourself a San Francisco influencer when you haven’t even been to Corona Heights, she’d teased, her laugh carrying off in the wind. The climb hadn’t tired her out at all.

It had been sunset then, pastel buildings darkening against a background of pink and yellow and blue. Now, the orange lights provided a nice contrast to the navy sky. I took a deep breath, inhaling the cool air and the crisp scent of Elio’s deodorant. Now was not the time to think about Nevaeh.

“Look, there’s our office,” he said, pointing off to the right. “See it? It’s right by the Bay Bridge.”

If I squinted hard enough, I could make out the NipNop building all the way out by the water, the fairy logo gracing the night with sparks that shot from the tip of its wand. “I can’t believe it’s real sometimes,” I admitted.

“Me neither. Do you think we’ll look back in fifty years and be proud of what we built? Or hate ourselves for worsening an already sick society?”

“I’ll be proud no matter what.”

“Of course you’d say that.” Elio made a face.

“Listen, society hit the metaphorical iceberg long ago. NipNop just happens to be the orchestra on deck, and I’m here to make sure that everyone has a fine time before they slide off into the void.”

“I can’t tell if that makes you a cynic or a romantic.”

“Isn’t it obvious?” I tilted my head to the side and batted my eyelashes. “I’m both.”

“Right, right. I forgot that you work in marketing.” He said it mock-grumpily, but there was a smile in his tone, a satisfied look in his eye. “Congratulations on getting past Olivia, by the way. A fifty-million-dollar Series C. Can you believe it?”

He was referring to NipNop’s latest round of funding, led by Olivia Morris of Speedball Ventures. Olivia had been ruthless in the final meeting, grilling us over the nitty-gritty details in our monetization plan. Even Andre had slipped up … but since I’d pulled an all-nighter a few days before making sure the pitch deck was perfect, I’d been able to field every one of her questions with grace. Ultimately, Speedball had decided to invest. NipNop was now valued at 1.2 million dollars — a unicorn at last. It still made me dizzy to think about.

“Only sometimes,” I said. Everyone had been so impressed with me after that meeting, but they didn’t see the under-eye circles I carefully covered up with concealer or the empty Adderall bottles rolling around the bottom desk drawer in my office. “It’s kind of intense that we’re dealing in the millions and billions now, you know? With me it’s not just the NipNop stuff. I’ve also got my book deal and all that.”

“I’m glad that I don’t handle the business side,” Elio said. “You seem to be handling it well, though.”

“Mostly.” It felt good throwing myself into work to avoid thinking about Nevaeh, whom I hadn’t had contact with in a month. We were always going through periods of talking and not talking — and it was probably fair for her to be pissed at me all the time — but this felt somehow more permanent, even though I had no logical evidence as to why. It was painful, thinking of her moving on without me. Perhaps she’d found a new best friend by now, someone who didn’t keep her name off of creative collaborations or engage in practices that made her morally ill. A dull ache had replaced the raw hurt, but I still kept chilled spoons in my refrigerator, ready to calm my swollen eyes before anyone noticed I was crying. Memories of her, of the two of us, seemed to pop up at the most inopportune moments: photoshoots in the lavender fields, goofing around on the beach, smoking up in my room as the lacy curtains blew back and forth.

Swear that you won’t leave me again, the way you left me in LA.

If only Elio had seen how I’d almost broken down at that last board meeting. Jumping in with answers had been the only way to stop my eyes from smarting.

“What are you thinking?” he asked now, breaking the silence.

About all the things I sacrificed to get to this point. About whether it’s wrong for me to want this much, if it’s sick of me to think it was all worth it.

“About legacies,” I said, focusing my vision on the Castro Theatre sign. The letters C, A, S, T, R, O were arranged vertically along the side, flashing on and off one by one in order. “About all the things I had to do to earn mine.”

“You’re not proud of what you’ve done?”

“Oh no, I am. Very much so.” A gust of wind blew in our faces and I shivered, finally wishing that I’d brought a jacket. “I just had to give up a lot for it. We all did.”

Elio scooted closer to me and put an arm around my waist. He was shaking, too, making me acutely aware of how small he was: slim hands, wrists that were as thin as my own. I wondered if we were the same size, whether we could share clothes. Like Nevaeh and I once had, on occasion.

I blinked rapidly. Now was not the time to think about Nevaeh.

“I suppose we have,” he mused. “Although, really, what was the alternative? To go to college and learn how to properly suck juicy corporate dick? At least this way, we can try to make the world — and our lives — better in our own way.”

I forced out a laugh. “Guess so.” Thanks to NipNop, I’d already done things beyond my wildest tech-lord fantasies, and I wasn’t even twenty-two yet. Still, I wondered whether truly I’d made it, whether I’d be mentioned in future history books. I’d once wished upon a shooting star to be more famous than I could ever comprehend, and now …

My legs were going numb from the cold. I tucked them under my dress, and Elio wrapped his other arm around me, burying his face in my shoulder. “What is a legacy?” he murmured into my hair.

I laid my head on top of his. “I would’ve said that I wanted people to remember me after I was gone, but … I’m not so sure anymore. I guess I just want people to listen to what I’m saying. Like, really listen. I want them to see me. Hear me. To take my ideas seriously.”

“Hello, NipNop Stories.” He hugged me tighter. “I think cool things happen when people take your ideas seriously.”

I smiled. “Then I guess I got what I wanted.”

“Me, too.” Elio let go of me then — instantly I felt the wind whipping through my dress, chilly and unforgiving — and began to sing.

If I lay here
If I just lay here
Would you lie with me and just forget the world?

I looked at him, all aglow from the lights beneath us, eyes scrunched up in musical bliss. I often thought about what life would be like if I’d met Elio first. I would’ve definitely picked him over Oliver as a fake boyfriend. He was sweet and idealistic in a much less cringey way.

Just like Nevaeh, I realized with a start. The curly hair, the gentle demeanor. Hell, I’d even taken Elio to the same places Nevaeh had taken me: Marshall’s Beach, here … 

Forget what we’re told
Before we get too old
Show me a garden that’s bursting into life
Let’s waste time
Chasing cars
Around our heads

What would it feel like to lift his chin and press my cold lips to his? Would he taste like alcohol and those breath mints he always carried with him … or something else? I imagined Elio kissing me back, caressing my cheek with an icy hand, pulling me closer, closer. Everything around us going still.

Instead, I swallowed the nervous lump in my throat and folded my hands back in my lap. “Can you do something for me?”

His eyes twinkled. “Is it another one of your legacy-building ideas?”

“Yes, actually.” I took a deep breath and braced myself. “Will you tweak the Discovery algorithm for me?”

Everything did go still then, but it was restless, disquieting. Elio wrinkled his brow. “Tweak it how?”

“So that my stuff always shows up, no matter what the user’s actual preferences are.” I winced inwardly, bracing myself for the initial shock, disappointment …

… but on him, it seemed more like confusion. “Why would I do that?”

“Because of Cairee Reesemarks.” And her fucking book, which was scheduled to come out before mine. Fucking try-hard billy-goat bitch.

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Cairee? That girl who scaled up the side of the goddamn wall at my surprise party?” I gazed up at the inky sky, willing the Universe or any other higher power to help me out. “Thanks to Discovery, she’s gaining followers. Fast. She was up sixteen percent yesterday, and I’m only up eighteen.”

“So why is that a problem?” Elio asked. “You’re still growing faster than she is. Two percent is a big difference.”

I pursed my lips. “You owe me a favor, remember? I got your Discovery algorithm implemented in the first place.”

“But this is morally wrong. It goes directly against NipNop’s policy of good user experience.”

“Oh, come on.” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. “You made God View for Andre.”

“He had a good reason. We can make the app better for users if we know exactly what they’re using it for.”

“And you bought that?”

“It’s better than what you’re proposing. There’s at least some plausible deniability.” The look in Elio’s eyes was hard to comprehend. “Plus, I happen to agree with him on this one. Why’d you think I thought Stories was such a good idea?”

“Ew, what?! You do realize that you’re talking about spying on people, right? God View is a surveillance tool that you use without their consent.”

“They signed the terms and conditions, which clearly stated that NipNop owned all data shared across the platform.” He shrugged. “I’m all about the user experience, okay? I want to make NipNop the best app they’ve ever had. Why not use all the methods available to do so?”

Out of all the ways I’d imagined for this conversation to go down, I hadn’t expected Elio to defend God View. Funny, I’d thought that he’d be the one judging me, but now I was the one backing away, wondering I’d even thought of kissing him a few minutes ago.

“Okay, fine,” I said after a beat. “Here’s a justification for you. You know how we’re planning to put ads at the end of popular creators’ Stories?”

He nodded, skeptical. “We don’t want to do it with smaller creators because we want to maintain that organic feeling, like they’re talking to their friends.”

“Exactly. Users treat popular creators’ Stories like reality TV, and TV already has hella ads, so it makes perfect sense to slot them in there. Everyone will already be used to it.”

“So …?”

“I’m NipNop’s biggest creator.” For now. “My account will be responsible for the majority of ad revenue once the change starts running. So why not keep it that way? The more people watch me, the more the ads will run, and the more money they’ll make.”

“Wouldn’t Cherie be making us just as much money?”

“It’s Cairee,” I corrected. “I mean, right now, yes, but she could just be a passing trend! I’ve been on the app since the very beginning, and I’ve sustained organic engagement. People love my stuff.”

“Then why do you need me to do anything?” Elio asked. “Discovery is designed to predict exactly what users want. If they want to see your content, they will. That’s the whole point of the algorithm, Helena. Users are supposed to have the power to decide what they like and what they don’t. Isn’t that why you fought so hard for it?”

“I said it was a justification, not a reason.” I looked down at the various residential buildings. They resembled strange, broken teeth in the semidarkness.

“So what’s the reason? You never answered me earlier.”

I hugged my knees to my chest, curling my toes against my sandals. “It’s just … I know that this is fucking pathetic to say, but I’m afraid to become irrelevant. I can’t have that. I want to hedge my bets against it, and this is the best way I know how.”

Elio was silent. I looked at the Castro Theatre sign again. C, A, S —

“Okay, let’s say I entertain this stupid idea of yours,” he sighed, rubbing his temples. “What happens if the board finds out? We’d get in so much trouble.”

“Gotta ask forgiveness, not permission.” I winked. “Isn’t that what you did with God View?”

“I think that that’s more of an open secret.”

Go figure. I saw Nevaeh in the hallway at Stanford: God, people warned me about you, and I chose to fucking ignore them because I loved you. I can’t be with someone who lies for a living, okay? It’s you. You’re making me sick.

“You said I could count on you for help.” I blinked at the sudden, familiar tears. “Please, Elio. Do it for me.”

The sun was beginning to rise, once more turning the sky into cotton candy colors. Strange — it hadn’t felt like we’d been out all night. I’d never noticed how much sunrise looked like sunset in the opposite direction, lightening the buildings below.

“Fine,” said Elio after a few beats, expression unreadable in the early morning glow. “For you, I’ll do it.”

Next chapter

Chapter 35: Competitive Advantage

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