Sunday, March 28, 2010

Phantom Networks: A Fraud by Any Other Name

I am not a critic.  By this I mean I don't make it a point to assess the social value of everything that runs across my radar screen, then volunteer those judgements for public consumption.  I'm not a censurer.  Neither am I much of a culture warrior or demagogue; a citizen investigative journalist making it my business to shed light upon people's indiscretions. 

But I do recognize a fraud when I see it.  And I have no problem calling 'BS' on a fraud.

Back some time ago, I joined this Yahoo! group, 'Black Business Owners Network'.  I joined in anticipation the group's conversations might evolve into a genuine network; a common base of resources from which all the group members could draw upon.  Okay... I divorced myself from that expectation pretty quickly upon entering the group.  But I still held a belief that a chance remained I would meet a group member or members with whom I might someday corroborate on some future project. 

My previous experiences with 'Black'-themed online professional networks have not been good.  The most recent one prior to my joining the BBON was another Yahoo! group called 'e-Mobile'.  That group, arranged around developing a technology-based product or service company, albeit one owned and operated by 'Blacks'.  e-Mobile's founder and moderator was a Slim Shady by the name of James Neusom.  To make a long story short, Neusom ultimately undermined the group's project with his opaque machinations and micromanagement.  I didn't mind Neusom orchestrating group discussions or the project; it was his lack of transparency with the group that alienated me.  It was as if he was trying to leverage the group on the sly.

Brenda Eason's BBON popped up on my radar screen making similar appeals to racial solidarity.  It was easy to see early on that there wasn't much talk in the group on business-related issues or authentic networking.  Mostly, posts were announcements by would-be event planners and impressarios about music and/or comedy shows at local bars.  Even Eason's posts were mainly about hyping her podcasts on BlogTalkRadio.  I didn't exactly mind that most of the group's conversations were actually one-sided and self-serving.  I figured any genuine networking that might occur would likely transpire amongst a small, random assembly of group members.  I was fine with that.

Over the period I've belonged to the BBON, I haven't been very active.  I drifted away from Yahoo! groups in general, as I discovered other social networking sites that were better suited to my purposes.  When I did check in at the BBON group, the posts had become almost totally about Eason's announcing upcoming podcasts and happy hours.  Eventually, I gathered Eason's real hustle is promotions and that she was attempting to leverage the Yahoo! group's membership -- maybe its e-mail list -- with sponsors.  My estimation didn't exactly cause me to lose sleep.  The BBON was a network in name only.  There was no sharing of resources going on among group members.  In fact, members were talking at each other instead of with each other.  I figured I could still submit ideas on various programs, i.e.; microlending, syndication, etc., for brainstorming by group members.  But my optimism soured once Eason (or perhaps one of her silent associates acting as group moderator) blocked a couple of posts I intended as trial balloons for gauging the group's feedback.  I then e-mailed Eason directly, asking if I could present project ideas before the group to have her respond any ideas would be vetted by a stealth panel of her choosing -- consisting of persons unknown and unidentified to myself and the members at large. 

I'm not familiar with a network that can function where none of the nodes demonstrate any transparency toward other nodes.  Even in a completely de-centralized network, any two of its nodes in immediate contact with each other share some disclosures, or agree to provide some level of due diligence.  The BBON and Eason don't subscribe to this axiom. 

By the time I had concluded the BBON was something other than a true network, I had added the group's MySpace page to my friends list there.  It's at this point when I noticed Eason's something of a spammer, sending multiple e-mails and blasts from BBON group posts -- often in the same day -- trumpeting her podcasts or events she was likely being paid to promote at local nightclubs.  I started receiving e-mails from Eason offering "50 percent off" advertising packages to BBON members.  When I inquired about advertising with the BBON, I asked for a rate card and demographic information -- fairly standard information -- in order to evaluate and plan a purchase.  But the only information Ms. Eason provided was a claim the BBON's radio program reached 1,000,000 people.  There was no mention of a specific radio station (beyond a podcast); no statistical overview, i.e.; time spent listening ('TSL'), age/sex/income information, etc..  Worse... there was no mention of pricing... anywhere... not on a rate card, not on the BBON website, and not on any of its message boards.  (NOTE: BBON advertising services and rates have since been posted @

Later in 2009, Ms. Eason and an associate named Kimberly Bowles, distributed e-mail blasts and posted messages on the BBON's Facebook and MySpace pages that announced a reinvention of the BBON as the National Association of Black Business Owners ('NABBO').  As I recall, Ms. Eason announced it as a "merger" of the BBON with Ms. Bowles' organization that was previously unknown to BBON members.  To my knowledge, no BBON member -- other than Mss. Bowles and Eason -- was informed beforehand of a possible merger or participated in its formation.  Ms. Eason also cyberparked the URL to give the new entity the appearance of a legitimate professional non-profit association.   (If you click the NABBO link, you're directed to the BBON's former site:  At this point, Mss. Eason and Bowles announced a special membership incentive for members, although it was unclear whether they were planning to charge fees for membership renewals, simply charging new applicants to join the NABBO, or both.   Presuming myself to be a BBON member in good standing, I wrote to Ms. Eason requesting a clarification on the membership fee, as well as a formal list of benefits/privileges extended to NABBO members.  I also asked of the new entity's organization and hierarchy vis-a-vis officers (or officer candidates), board seats, articles of incorporation, mission statement, and by-laws. 

Thus began a series of exchanges between myself, Ms. Eason, and her surrogate troll, Ms. Bowles.  In response to my aforementioned inquiry, first Ms. Bowles, then Ms. Eason placed a curse (!) on me by way of e-mail.   As it became increasingly apparent the real purpose of the NABBO was to line Mss. Eason and Bowles' pockets, I posted a summary of our... eh... conversations on the BBON/NABBO/
XYZPDQ's Facebook page, backed up with the e-mails upon request.

As much as it pains me to play P.I. to out a couple of frauds, I'm very much against persons masquerading as if they're helping some aspect of the community.  It's both aggravating and disappointing to put a couple of scammers like Mss. Eason and Bowles on blast for exploiting the good will of people and generally behaving so unethically, for it diminishes the already shaky trust of people in commerce and undermines the integrity of social networking technologies like Facebook.

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