Book Review: Trust Me I’m Lying

trust me im lyingTrust Me, I’m Lying – Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday is a brilliant book about the online media landscape, and how it is driving public discourse in a very bad direction. Ryan has a very interesting background, having worked in marketing and being part of the problem he describes. In his work, he has exploited the weaknesses of the new media landscape to get stories into blogs, press, and often national television. Stories about his clients, to get them attention and ultimately business. In this book, he  describes what he did, how he did it, and why we as a society have a big problem. It has changed the way I read online media, and made me a lot more critical of things I previously did not take notice of.

The basic thesis of the book is that today, with blogs driving much of the media reporting, it is very easy to plant false stories. Online bloggers have no incentive to check facts, and great incentive to write stories that go viral and collect clicks and pageviews. And once a story is roaring around in blogs, mainstream traditional press and television often feel compelled to pick up on it in order not to appear behind or out of touch. Ryan describes in quite some detail how he has “traded up” stories, starting with some obscure blog and then getting it picked up by subsequently more important blogs, sometimes finally making it into CNN or the New York Times.

He makes an interesting historical analysis of the situation, and finds a great analogy in the early era of newspapers, when every newspaper had to sell each copy every day. This led to brash headlines that were designed to make you buy on an impulse – even if they had very little to do with the actual truth or what is important in the world. Celebrities, scandals, and loud words drowned out deep analysis and the news that mattered. The invention of the subscription model was what got the newspapers out of this gutter and formed them into the champions on truth and deep analysis that they (still, but quickly losing it) are today.

The pageview-based economy of blogs today moves us back to the sales model of the yellow press. Each headline has to fight for attention, and each article has to be designed to go viral and spread. And what spreads is controversy, things that make people react or be curious, that makes you angry or makes you laugh. Negative is usually better than positive, something that makes you mad is more likely to spread than something that you agree with.

One Swedish social-media storm of 2013 perfectly fits the description in the book… American Apparel (where Ryan Holiday happens to work) got crucified in social media and real media in Sweden for an advertising campaign with lightly-dressed women and well-dressed men. What can you say? Mission accomplished. A brand with zero regular presence in Sweden gets enormous amounts of coverage, by being just a bit controversial. Probably, a net gain for AA. I don’t know if this was planned (most likely not), but it could well have been. Ryan Holiday describes several such cases he staged himself in the past. Push out an ad sure to cause outrage, let it spread, and then retract it. Perfect. The media reporting on the issue also benefit by having readers feed the fire with comments and links. Everybody wins – except the public that is made to spend time on something really quite unimportant. There are many more pressing concerns in the world than what a particular clothes brand puts in their advertising, right? As I said, this book can make you a cynic.

On the other hand, an article that says something profoundly interesting but which does not tickle our reactions will not spread, even if it is way more valuable. Thus, the current style of headlines on the web that are designed to make us want to read more, and sometimes the headline really has very little to do with the actual point of the article. It might even contradict it.

Even some of the more trustworthy (in my opinion) news outlets on the web succumb to this at times. Example: http://arstechnica.com/business/2013/12/an-estimated-18-percent-of-americans-used-drugs-from-silk-road-says-study/ – why would I care? That is completely irrelevant, but tickles your curiousity. Ars typically does much better, with reasoned articles such as http://arstechnica.com/science/2013/12/solar-variability-has-a-small-effect-on-climate-change/.

Lists are a current trend in even the most serious media channels, such as http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2013/12/the-20-best-and-three-most-disappointing-video-games-of-2013/, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-25526366. The Pictures of the Day things popular on lots of newspaper sites is another example: light, devoid of any real content, but inviting to look at and inviting to link and like.

TechCrunch recently ran a piece that does show some critique of the click-bait of the Internet, at http://techcrunch.com/2013/12/27/how-a-fabricated-story-about-iron-maidens-love-of-music-pirates-became-internet-truth/. But it still fits the Ryan Holiday thesis that blogs write about blogs, as a way to get clicks as well. If you think cynically/skeptically about things, you could say that this story actually repeats the original click-friendly story, and then adds a “not true” sticker on top of it. The cynic sees them still getting the value out of the non-story (nothing happened here, really, but a lot of words got written anyway). I do admit to thinking that this kind of article is worthwhile, as it hopefully does help some people avoid repeating the original untrue thesis.

Separately from the book, I have listened to a series of reports in Medierna i P1, where it has become clear that even mainstream media (in Sweden) have started to look at their success in terms of how much an article spreads. Not in terms of what it actually covers or how important the analysis is. But in terms of whether it catches the attention of people. Scary world.

Overall, the feeling of the book is that of a reformed sinner who has realized that what he has been doing is bad for society (not for himself, he got rich doing it), and who has also taken the time to analyze and think about why things are like they are. The press historical chapters impressed me quite a bit, I had not expected that kind of intellectual analysis from a new media guru, who often tend to lack any understanding for or interest in what has come before.

I am happy to keep this my personal blog ad-free, as that means I do not care if I get 10 reads or 10000. That is not the point. But I once accidentally created a piece of click bait. The blog post http://jakob.engbloms.se/archives/953 gave me several orders of magnitude more readers than any other post ever. The recipe? Put in a celebrity and a headline that makes a statement people are going to take issue with.

The book is highly recommended.

Read it, you will see the web with new eyes.

And make sure to take out a newspaper subscription or two, to support the real journalists and proper journalism that are struggling to survive in a world obsessed with page views, links, and likes.

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