Occasionally, I start writing a post about one thing, only to have it end up being about something else. Such is the case with this post, so please bear with me through its twists and turns.
We begin with a story in Huffington Post about a teenager named Sarah Hanson.
She dropped out of college and auctioned off, to use her words, “a piece of me.” To be clear, the piece she sold is not the same piece that a Brazilian woman named Catarina Migliorini auctioned off last year. Catarina sold her virginity. Sarah only offered 10% of her after-tax income for the next 10 years.
One of them received $780,000. The other got $125,000. I’ll let you guess who got what.
You might be wondering what Sarah plans to do with her $125,000. Well, she’s using it to start a website, of course. It’s a senior living map that she created when her family needed somewhere to put her grandmother. You type in a zip code, and you get a map of your area with icons showing you all the assisted living and senior facilities in your area, unless of course, the zip code you typed in wasn’t yours, and you’re thinking of stashing your parent somewhere in Idaho.
Of course, you could also type a zip code into Google Maps and tell it to search for senior facilities and get pretty much the same result, although Sarah’s site does let you enter a few specifications, like facilities that take pets. But honestly, I’m not putting my dog into assisted living no matter how often he forgets what he went outside for.
Even Sarah admits her idea may be shaky. She writes:
“I can’t guarantee Senior Living Map will be a success but I can guarantee that I will be. So instead of asking you to “bet” on my first venture, I’m asking you to bet on me. I’m asking you to bet and believe that in 10 years time, 10% of my income will be your best investment.”
Assuming that Sarah is in a 30% tax bracket (and also assuming my math is even close to being accurate), her gross earnings would have to average $162,500 a year for the 10 years in order for her investor to break even. Okay, that’s reasonable. Sarah is bright, clever, pretty and, perhaps most importantly, she’s a programmer who’s been coding since she was 12. So she could certainly earn that much and more.
But I have some questions:
- Let’s say three years go by, and the senior living map thing hasn’t exactly become a cash cow. At what point can the winner of the auction respectfully call Sarah and say, “Sarah, honey, I’m afraid I have to insist that maybe you look for another line of higher-paying work, perhaps at a major online firm or maybe at a gentleman’s club, if you get my drift.”
- I’m guessing, though, that the high bidder will have no such authority. So what prevents Sarah from putting the $125,000 into muni bonds or something and getting a job at Burger King for 10 years so that the high bidder gets 10% of those earnings? She’ll be 29 then and she’ll have a lot more money in the bank than most college grads her age.
- I apologize if this sounds sexist, but what if Sarah falls in love, gets married, has a baby, and decides to stay at home with the child for a few years? Where does that leave the bidder?
- Why would someone plunk down $125,000 without knowing any of this, unless he simply just couldn’t afford a virgin?
And here’s where we go off in another direction…
After writing the four questions above, I decided to pause and make sure nobody had already asked them of Sarah and received answers. After all, it didn’t really seem plausible that someone would have given her $125,000 without some sort of guarantees, right?
So I Googled her to see if anyone had published details that weren’t in the HuffPost article. And I discovered that while Sarah may not be a college grad, and may not be buried by thousands of dollars in student loans, and may not be the owner of the greatest-ever website idea, there’s one other thing she may not be.
Evidently, this whole story really began when someone named Sarah Hanson contacted a website named VentureBeat via e-mail to tell them how she had funded her start-up. A “reporter” named John Koetsier then “interviewed” Sarah by e-mailing her a list of questions, none of which included the rather obvious ones (I think) I asked above. He published his story, which was then picked up by other media outlets like Huffington Post, CBC, Yahoo, and AOL, none of which bothered to check on any of the “facts” in the original story.
I’ll let Koetsier tell you what happened next:
“But then a TV network reporter called VentureBeat, telling us that Hanson asked to be interviewed via email for a segment she was planning to do. Not only that, the reporter said, Hanson absolutely refused to do a phone interview. A VentureBeat reader contacted me and questioned whether Hanson was too good to be true. And when a journalist at another publication asked me if she was real or existed, I had to dig a little deeper.”
Okay, well, better late than never I guess. It was only then that Koetsier discovered that Hanson, despite being a programmer and a techie, did not have Twitter or LinkedIn accounts which, in our world today, are the only true proofs of someone’s existence. What’s more, her company didn’t seem to be registered anywhere. So Koetsier published his admission that the whole thing might be a hoax.
And then GeekWire, another “news organization” which was one of the original hoaxees (they had conducted their own in-depth e-mail interview with Sarah during which they, also, didn’t ask any of my obvious questions), published a story that Sarah might actually be a man named Steinar Skipsnes, who, frankly, looks nothing like Sarah Hanson. Frighteningly, their main source for this story was a blog post by Skipsnes himself who, GeekWire says, has “lied to us before.” I’m sure GeekWire felt confident doing this, since the post is called “The Truth.” In it, Skipsnes (whose name, frankly, seems kinda fake–almost like it’s an anagram of something) claims he invented the Sarah story to get publicity for his web start-up, which is also the Senior Living Map, which he says is real. But, to me, it seems like no better an idea coming from a known web prankster than it does from a 19-year-old girl.
In fact, although they published the original story and this story, GeekWire admits “we’ve actually been asking ourselves: Is Skipsnes himself real? He’s refusing to meet or talk with us in exactly the same way he did in his role as ‘Sarah Hanson.’”
Such is the state of journalism today. “News” published on these sites is picked up and disseminated by the likes of Huffington Post (and in some cases, mainstream media like newspapers and TV networks) without further review, and gains stature as “real” as it steamrolls across the web. And because it flies from site to site so quickly, it becomes “fact” long before anyone can begin asking the questions that should have been asked in the first place.
I hope you’ve stayed with me through the unusually long post. And I will reward you for doing so with one interesting footnote:
Remember way back at the beginning I mentioned the Brazilian woman named Catarina Migliorini who auctioned off her virginity for $780,000? Well, at the same time (if you believe what you read on the web, anyway), a male Brazilian only got $3,000 for his virginity. So why are women complaining about income inequality?
See you soon.