Around 2009, Gryn moved to Prague to intern at a company called Elephant Orchestra, which specialized in selling ads on misspelled domain names such as facebok.com. Elephant Orchestra was so profitable that its founder, then about 26, produced a feature-length movie about typo domains and got Václav Havel, the former Czech president and anti-communist hero, to make a cameo. The company’s customers were affiliates. Soon, Gryn discovered Stack That Money and other forums where they posted about their millions. The posters were people like Ryan Eagle, who’d made a fortune as a teenager in suburban Chicago and acquired a chrome-covered Bentley, iced-out watches, a diamond-encrusted chain-mail mask—and a nasty drug habit. (“When you’re a real douche bag,” says Eagle, now 30 and sober, “the douchey things find you.”) Other posters came from the world of professional pickup artists—people such as Mark van Stratum, who wrote a memoir called Drug of Choice: The Inspiring True Story of the One-Armed Criminal Who Mastered Love and Made Millions.
The problem, though, was that things were about to get worse:
Gryn found the affiliates at a moment when they were discovering social media. They’d begun applying tricks on Facebook that had been invented by email spammers, who’d in turn borrowed the tactics of fax spammers in the 1980s and ’90s.
Hold on to that thought. In 2009, there was pretty much a social consensus that spam was terrible, that there was no reason to facilitate it, there was no objection to getting rid of it by technical means, and being a spammer was a shameful way to make money. In fact, most countries had at least tried to legislate against it. Now, well, it’s 2017 and even though your e-mail filter works damn well, we’re up to our necks in shitty ads and platforms carefully engineered to help these bastards.
What happened? Well, I only gradually realised this, but mass adoption happened. Sure, in 2007 a hell of a lot of people were buying Lastminute.com airline tickets. But it wasn’t until we were well into the smartphone boom that the deep majority actually engaged with all this internet stuff. That didn’t have to be terrible, but some people made terrible choices where others made somewhat better ones:
I know a lot of people don’t want to hear this. Most of us have the luxury of working in the warm glow of building products consumers love. But make no mistake, growth tactics are how we got here. If you joined the company because it is doing great work, that’s why we get to do that great work. We do have great products but we still wouldn’t be half our size without pushing the envelope on growth. Nothing makes Facebook as valuable as having your friends on it, and no product decisions have gotten as many friends on as the ones made in growth. Not photo tagging. Not news feed. Not messenger. Nothing.
Note that he says this is even more important than profit:
That isn’t something we are doing for ourselves. Or for our stock price (ha!). It is literally just what we do. We connect people. Period.
They understood the network-structure logic, they rode the wave of adoption, and when they needed revenue they basically turned the spam ecosystem into a sort of mitochondrion.