Looking for Morals in all the Dark Places

Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday
Reviewed by Gabriel I. Sistare
 
April 8, 2013
 

Leave it to the villains to be the most ethically insightful.
 
There’s a substantial catalog of tell-all memoirs written by reformed scoundrels – ad-men, rouge traders, sexual assailants, and senators – that unpack the writer’s moral conflict with his life up until the point the memoir was written, with the act of publication serving as a sort of public, secular penance.
 
It’s upsetting to realize that there is a lucrative market for these confessional memoirs that seems to far outstrip the market for narratives of ethical consistency. Never would we want to read a story of someone doing well.
 
We hear this familiar confessional tone in Ryan Holiday’s memoir / marketing manual Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. “I didn’t intend to,” Holiday defends, “but I’ve helped pioneer a media system designed to trick, cajole, and steal every second of the most precious resource in the world—people’s time.” In Trust Me, Holiday, the director of marketing for American Apparel, explains his strategies to arrange massive publicity for his personal and professional projects: these range from lying about his identity and public vandalism, to taking advantage of bloggers pressured to excrete content for blog networks. (Don’t be precious with The Huffington Post; it’s too likely that your favorite blogs are sucking the energy from fleets of low- or unpaid writers to maximize revenue.)
 
Holiday leads us through a tour of certain mechanics of online publishing that ensures the existence of these “media manipulators” and our inevitable consumption of dubious information. These mechanics include “Trading Up the Chain,” the virality of extreme emotion, and page-view economics.
 
Holiday received plenty of experience in these tactics through marketing Tucker Max’s controversial book and film I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. For free publicity, Holiday vandalized some billboards in Los Angeles displaying advertisements for the film. Without wasting time, Holiday photographed his own vandalism, sent it to a local blog in Los Angeles under a fake name, and waited. The blog promptly published the photos, and so began the public boycotts of the film. The local controversy was enough to get the attention of larger media outlets like Gawker, which then interested better-established publications like The Village Voice. This is trading up the chain: give a little morsel to a small, desperate blog, and they’ll blow it up to collect lucrative page views. Regional media, equally lazy and eager for content, will use the material the local blog picked up, and hopefully for the media manipulator, a national news source will join in the game. Create a little false controversy and maybe even The New York Times will get curious.
 
If it wasn’t evident to you already, anger inspires action. With its well-documented tendency to hyperbolize human behavior, the Internet should only make this clearer. Holiday cites the Journal of Marketing Research paper “What Makes Online Content Viral?” to explain, “the most powerful predictor of virality is how much anger an article evokes.” Maybe it is too naïve and conservative to ask such a thing, but why aren’t depth of intellect, positivity, and solidarity viral sentiments?
 
If online content were to accurately reflect the spectrum of human mood, certainly sadness would be equally viral. But Holiday explains that sadness prevents the sort of persistent “sharing” needed to stimulate circulation of a blog article, photo, or video. The consequence of human emotion being tied so closely to online economics is that we might assume no one is ever anything but enraged or moderately titillated.
 
David Foster Wallace was hip to this confusion of emotion influenced by certain media. He said “audiences prefer 100 percent pleasure to the reality that tends to be 49 percent pleasure and 51 percent pain.” Anger isn’t pain, either. It feels great when we’re angry—big, bold, on the attack. It’s the leftovers that are painful—a kind of emptiness that is rarely interrogated. As Holiday clarifies, we are nothing but an audience and one that needs to be fed a diet rich with emotional triggers. These media outlets that present to us a buffet of controversy have their own appetites to satiate, too. Their diet just consists of money.
 
In Trust Me, Holiday outlines the root economic model for most, if not all blogs—Advertisement x Traffic = Revenue. Many of us understood this before Holiday’s explanation, but did we grasp the extent to which this obsessive financial quest made media susceptible to such amateur manipulation? Re-brand an article as a “scoop,” Holiday explains, and watch as another million page views come through. It doesn’t even matter if the scoop was poached from a journalist who was sharing material with friends on a rival publication’s staff, as was the case in a Gawker story that was plucked from an independent reporter. Multiple millions of page views are more valuable than certain standards of friendship.
 
I suppose it’s useful to read something like Trust Me and applaud Holiday for his honest objections to the scandalous business of online publishing. But didn’t Holiday start as a fraud? Don’t let his confession make him sound vulnerable in any way. A priest might have the potential to assign ten Hail Mary’s to reset your quota of sin. As for the rest of us, we remember being lied to, and we have no prayers to distribute. People are being exploited in the world in which Holiday worked. Holiday was – maybe still is – a professional manipulator.
 
And this, to me, seems to be the crux of the problem with these kinds of memoirs. Why are we so interested in the reformed offender? We can’t just keep listening to people who’ve done terrible things who now want absolution. We need to know there are always better ways before we reach the edge. We need a new kind of memoir, one that remembers consistency and discipline. Such a genre might turn out to be terribly boring. But the alternative – more tales of gossip and public vomiting – seems far too dismal to take lightly. We shouldn’t have to wait for characters like Holiday to pull back the curtains.

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Gabriel Sistare is a writer and editor most comfortable steaming vegetables or sitting in the public library. He prefers to sit next to the oversized Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture and write about his philosophical opposition to the automobile.