I have seen the tip of the iceberg many times. Charted courses close-by.
I don’t think it’s possible to work as a web copywriter for clients who drive profits by the measure of traffic and clicks to miss this iceberg jutting out of the wide Web sea. But in his book Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, Ryan Holiday has yanked me below the surface of the boiling sea with no breathing apparatus where I choke and wriggle while he drags me to explore the massive foundation of online media’s contrivances and illegitimate offspring. And I am slightly uncomfortable swimming along in this dark, cold place.
At quick glance, Trust Me, I’m Lying is a clear tell-all about the contrived rises to power of online media empires like The Huffington Post, Gawker, Engadget, Gizmodo, and TechCrunch, and manipulations of major media publications like The Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. The characters are thieves, pirates, Ponzi scheme choreographers, liars, cheats, and motivated by nothing more than their own self-serving compulsions. Small time bloggers may be the most lampooned of all: characterized as profit-mongering puppets, with zero integrity or foresight, the bottom feeders most unabashedly leveraged and manipulated — all for the purposes of fomenting virality and “valence.”
It’s also, dismayingly, a DIY manual for exactly how to leverage the “tactics” Holiday eschews or others’ for contriving and creating sensation for your own solipsistic purposes, manufactured, unsurprisingly, from …. nothing. Simply, how to game everyone and everything online for fun and profit. And this latter is exactly how it was hawked to me…for growing a website. (Perhaps by some contrived design, here’s how I came to buy this book: through an affiliate link posted on an internet marketer’s newsletter I subscribe to. After the fact, I added this marketer’s email to my swipe file. The language that most influenced me from the email: “…You must get this book. It’s new. It’s controversial. It’s Genius. Make no mistake about it – parts of this book are kind of ‘slimey’. But you have to know what the big players are doing…..”). Score for Holiday.
From his self-flagellating intro:
“If you were being kind, you would say my job is in marketing and public relations, or online strategy and advertising. But that’s a polite veneer to hide the harsh truth. I am, to put it bluntly, a media manipulator–I’m paid to deceive. My job is to lie to the media so they can lie to you. I cheat, bribe, and connive for bestselling authors and billion-dollar brands and abuse my understanding of the Internet to do it.
“I have funneled millions of dollars to blogs through advertising. I’ve given breaking news to blogs instead of Good Morning America and, when that didn’t work, hired their family members. I’ve flown bloggers across the country, boosted their revenue by buying traffic, written their stories for them, fabricated elaborate ruses to capture their attention, and courted them with expensive meals and scoops….Why do I do all this? Because it was the only way. I did it to build them up as sources, sources that I could influence and direct for my clients. I used blogs to control the news….
“Though I wish I could pinpoint the moment it all fell apart, when I realized that the whole thing was a giant con, I can’t….I studied the economics of the online media deeply in pursuit of my craft. I wanted to understand not just how but why it worked–from the technology down to the personalities of the people who use it. As an insider with access I saw things that academics and gurus and many bloggers themselves will never see…..
“I created false perceptions through blogs, which led to bad conclusions and wrong decisions–real decisions in the real world that had consequences for real people….
“Lately I have slowed my contributions…not because the quality of the content has improved, but because hope for anything different would be silly. I’m not so foolish as to expect bloggers to know what they are talking about. I no longer expect to be informed–not when manipulation is so easy for bloggers and marketers to profit from. I can’t shake the constant suspicion that others are baiting, tricking, or cheating me, just as I did to them. It’s hard to browse the Internet when you are haunted by the words of A. J. Daulerio, the editor of the popular sports blog Deadspin: ‘It’s all professional wrestling.’”
From chapter 2, “How to Turn Nothing Into Something in Three Way-Too-Easy Steps”:
“In the Introduction I explained a scam I call, ‘trading up the chain.’ It’s a strategy I developed that manipulates the media through recursion. I can turn nothing into something by placing a story with a small blog that has very low standards, which then becomes the source for a story by a bigger blog, and that, in turn, for a story by larger media outlets. I create, to use the words of one media scholar, a ‘self-reinforcing news wave.’
“Trading up the chain relies on a concept created by public relations expert Michael Sitrick. When attempting to turn things around for a particularly disliked or controversial client, Sitrick was fond of saying, ‘We need to find a lead steer!’ The media, like any group of animals, gallops in a herd. It takes just one steer to start a stampede … Remember: Every person…in this ecosystem is under immense pressure to produce content under the tightest of deadlines….Sometimes just a single quote taken out of context can set things off….
“Once during a lawsuit I needed to get some information into the public discussion of it, so I dashed off a fake internal memo, printed it out, scanned it, and sent the file to a bunch of blogs as if I were an employee leaking a ‘memo we’d just gotten from our boss.’ The same bloggers who were uninterested in the facts when I informed them directly gladly put up EXCLUSIVE! and LEAKED! posts about it….More people than ever saw it.”
At the end of the day, I am unsure what Trust Me, I’m Lying actually stands for — how I’ve been influenced into buying and reading and now talking about it. (Score, again for talking about it).
- I wish it were more carefully edited, yet at the same time I revel in the notion that it’s slightly unpolished text reflects an author driven by ghosts and late night hallucinations to pell-mell get it all out–exorcise his own beasts. I can’t help but think it’s a bit Jerry McGuire-ish, Holiday pouring out his “manifesto” before the light of day, when reality breaks and it all could be retracted — sucked back into its dark hiding place before anyone reads it.
- I am also unsure of Holiday’s motives. For some time now he has lived and breathed a life devoted to contriving viral and sensational stories and driving traffic, conversation, and influence for his clients. Trust Me, I’m Lying could be nothing more than a pay-day for Holiday’s bold, unforgiving, and gritty peek behind the curtain. He could be running this up the chain for himself. Even the stories, clients, and blogs he cites in the book will likely benefit (read: “profit”).
Does anyone else smell a Hollywood screenplay already in the hopper? I envision a disillusioned James Franco or Bradley Cooper (though he’s played possibly too many disillusioned characters recently) under contract to play Holiday. Score, big, I suspect.
(Sigh…) Unleash the nitwits who as we speak are turning to this tome as a strategy manual for trying to gain money and influence on the web, completely overlooking any instructive lessons Holiday shares. I’m no longer uncomfortable, just bored and slightly in need of an anti-depressant.