Jacob Bakkila cried to me on the phone for months. When I found him out in July and texted him saying I knew he was behind Pronunciation Book, he called me almost immediately and begged me not to disclose that he and his partner Tom Bender were behind the channel.
Two weeks ago, we scheduled a meeting for him to reveal the company behind Pronunciation Book but he kept pushing it back. Finally, he called and seemed distraught. He told me the company behind Pro Book had pulled out just that morning because they weren’t seeing high enough view counts on the PB videos.
He told me he was out 40,000 dollars. He was incredibly dramatic, and seemed to be going through the emotions of loss in front of a reporter. I found that suspicious. Especially when he told me he hadn’t even phoned Bender yet to tell him they were screwed. I told him I didn’t understand why he’d call me, a reporter he doesn’t know, before his business partner, but he said he felt I’d been so kind to him.
I mostly just let him speak. He’d offer more and more information without me having to ask any questions. He cried some more. I texted him this:
I expressed to a co-worker how weird it was that he just kept telling his story, without any prompting from me, like he was hitting assigned marks for how to talk to a reporter. I thought he was full of shit. It felt like Bakkila was putting on a play, and he wasn’t a very good actor. Every time I would tell him that, he’d freak out, admonishing me for not trusting him when he was trusting me. Telling me if I outed him, he’d be sued for so much money that he’d have to go bankrupt and it would be all my fault. He’d cry. He’d call me heartless. He’d threaten me. He’d beg, saying he was just one guy and he couldn’t go up against the army of lawyers this media company was threatening him with. He was worried his career at Buzzfeed and in marketing was over and he didn’t know how he’d pay his rent or his bills. He was scared of 4chan’s wrath or of someone really hurting him. He’d text and call me all the time with his sob story. It was all fiction. A play for no one but me, and for no reason other than psychopathy.
I received a five page long email begging us not to publish. The email began like this:
“Everything in this email is off-the-record until 11 AM EST on Sept 24, at which point I’ll send you some names to fill in the blanks, as we agreed on the phone, at which point you can consider it on background, non-attributable to anyone more specific than “a source with details on the project” or something similarly ambiguous. I’ll make sure that email includes a few on-record quotes from myself or T. that you can use as pull quotes. You almost certainly won’t be able to get a response from the “other side” in this, so to speak, or if you do it’ll be just a “We decided that it wasn’t the form of marketing we wanted to pursue etc etc” but I’ll provide some contacts for them to help you out (no phone numbers but some non-public emails).
I’ve given you option (A) that you asked for in your text, which was, verbatim, “tell him that we want to run the story Monday unless we get some info in emails or the name of the company on super secret background.” What follows is the first part of that either/or, “some info in emails,” aka everything but the kitchen sink, so I trust that you’ll hold up your end and not run anything until the 24th.”
It then went on to describe in great detail what was revealed this morning to be fiction.
“It took a lot of work (and a lot of plane trips to LA), but after a few months of back and forth, a guy named XXXXXX at XXXXXX who fancied himself a “transmedia” guy got really interested really quickly. He was friends with XXXXXX, or at least said he was, and even though we’re pretty resistant to namedropping, we were impressed. The deal was, they were moving forward on a long-delayed/development hell/under-wraps version of XXXXXX (it’s not battle star Galactica is the only thing I can really tell you, but I really don’t want to play the “it’s not this, it’s not this” game of semi-confirmation).
…We were seen as weirdly similar in tone, so the ask was that we’d have some sort of concluding narrative, tie in some very obtuse references to XXXXXXX, and the channel would serve the teaser trailer at the end. Someone suggested a summer-long countdown, and we bit on the idea, thinking we’d be able to keep it secret pretty easily.
We’d get ~40K “guaranteed” (or so we thought) and it would be a great proof-of-concept for the idea, the ideal portfolio piece. Tom and I both have similar channels on youtube that we built concurrently to PB (one is https://www.youtube.com/videoroyale and I can show you another one or two later this week) that we’d then start to sell to other studios and the thought was we’d be able to start our own shop, doing this kind of crazy marketing.
…So when it got popular, I was thrilled, but then horrified that people had found out so quickly we were behind it. XXXXXXX was obviously not delighted either … it wasn’t a bad thing, in a sense, but we had promised them that we’d be entirely untraceable, and so they wanted to know why Tom had been traced.
So it was only a few days in and already a lot of the mystery and shine was gone … the fever pitch of the first 96 hours or whatever was utterly sapped. We had more or less promised them 100K views for every single video, which looked totally achievable at first. But suddenly, the project was humanized, Tom’s name was all over the internet, and “it was just another arg.”
Either Tom or I or both of us would have a weekly check in with XXXXXX, over the phone (I was in LA coincidentally once and they still insisted on talking over the phone). Overall people seemed ok, but then the videos dipped below 10K, and things got terse. We never really took the low view-count seriously enough, which in retrospect I feel like a complete amateur about. We certainly tried to improve it (spent money on clickfarms, hired a freelance social media expert who did almost nothing, started a tumblr that we’re at this point only keeping updated out of a compulsion not to abandon things. OFF THE RECORD: We had even tried to get the original guy behind pronunciation manual to reach out to the new owners to do a dual countdown with us but he didn’t feel comfortable doing that. Please keep that out of your story, he’s a nice dude and I don’t know the specifics of his situation/contract with the company that bought PM. If you can get someone else to talk about it fine, but I don’t want to be responsible for screwing up someone else’s situation). I guess it didn’t really ever cross my/our mind that they’d just pull out of the whole thing.
Which is where I stand now! I’m out thousands of dollars that I had already chalked in to my budget (and spent a not-inconsiderably portion on trying to artificially jack up the viewcounts), and Tom is too, plus a whole lot more stupid promises/offerings (I don’t even want to talk about that part yet, if you don’t mind, it’s literally too embarrassing). We both make a good living in advertising/consulting/etc., so neither of us is exactly at risk of not being able to pay rent.
It just drives me up the wall that years of my life are going to result in absolutely zero money. Its never a good idea to play “what if” but I still think if Tom hadn’t stupidly left that WhoIs public this would have absolutely gotten hugely viral, millions of views per video. Ultimately though I am really glad that, if this was going to happen, it happened early enough for us to try to salvage the project creatively.
Speaking of which, this is where things stand creatively: If you’re interested, we filmed constantly this weekend, and even got a friend to compose some ambient music. The short film we’ll be releasing on the 24th is going to be called “A Song For The Stars,” and it’ll act as the coda/conclusion to PB. I can send you some test footage this week if you’re interested. (I am not too proud to beg: I would love a story on my short film.)
Let’s talk later this week about how to do the story on the 24th. One ask: I’d really prefer that it not seem like a hit piece from me and Tom. If I can get someone else to talk, would you be interested in talking to them? (There’s not a lot of people who even really know about this, is my feeling, but I will check around if you’re interested).”
After this email arrived, I told my editor I thought Bakkila was telling the truth. What kind of sociopath would go to these lengths to lie and cry and beg like this for months? It was so specific, and after months of talking to this person, this email seemed genuine. I wasn’t out to burn an Internet little guy who’d already been burned by a big company. I told him I felt badly for him that he was out so much money and had gotten screwed. We agreed to him phoning me at 11 am EST day of, and giving me all the details. He last contacted me nine hours before the day to talk about the conclusion to the project, still lying:
“Yeah, we’re going to upload it to youtube tomorrow at noonish then have it go “live” at 2 pm as the culmination of the countdown. We’re running behind, one of our drives died and ate some footage in the process (our own fault for not having an immediate backup) so we’re burning the midnight oil so to speak, had to go to a friends who had a backup. I’ll try to have something on dropbox, either super latenight or in the early AM,” he wrote.
Then, Susan Orlean in the New Yorker broke the story behind Pronunciation Book. Bakkila never called me. His phone went straight to voicemail. When I called Seena Jon, another person involved in Pro Book, and asked him to tell me what was going on he said simply, “I can tell you it’s not Battlestar Galactica.” Then, he laughed and hung up on me.
The best part is they cried to me about hurting their careers and appealed to me not to get them sued or laughed at by the Internet, telling me to have empathy for them, and then coldly did exactly what I protected them from, to me. I took pity on them after ruthless emotional manipulation involving friends of mine that I’ve known for years, who were in on it.
The cold, calculated, and cruel (with no remorse, not even a quick email to explain/apologize or to say, hey this was just a fun project, sorry we had to burn you even though we have friends in common, no hard feelings) way they regarded me and handled this gives me chills. These are not good people having fun with a game. These are psychos. At one point, Bakkila wanted to meet me in person for lunch to, I guess, continue his charade in person and get off on it? I don’t know. It’s disturbing.
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