Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator (Portfolio/Penguin, $26.95) is not a fun read. Especially if you’re a member of the media.
Then again, as theater critic Scott Brown put it in last week’s New York magazine, “Many of us in the media — and by ‘in the media,’ I mean vaguely everyone on Earth, tweeter and writer and reader alike…”
Author Ryan Holiday — not a pseudonym, I checked — is the 25-year-old director of marketing for American Apparel. One night in 2009, Holiday writes, he vandalized posters (of his design and dime) for the film “I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell,” an adaption of the book written by his friend and client, Tucker Max. Afterwards, employing a fake name and email address, he sent bloggers photos of his handiwork. An onslaught of press attention followed, raising the film’s profile. In these pages, Holiday takes credit for all sorts of ugly and unethical PR ploys he has used to trick bloggers into writing about whatever product he was paid to push.
Holiday also received a six-figure payday to write this book. I requested an advanced copy. As Holiday writes, “One of the quickest ways to get coverage for a product online is to give it away for free to bloggers (they’ll rarely disclose the conflict of interest).” Yes, I got the book for free — and upon completion, I was glad I did. I would never give my hard-earned money to a man tabulating the ways he’s screwed over my peers.
In chapter six, “Give Them What They Want To Hear,” Holiday cites a study from the Journal of Marketing Research titled, “What Makes Online Content Viral?” (not “What Makes Content Viral? as he indicates in a footnote). Here’s how he quotes the source material: “the most powerful predictor of virality is how much anger an article evokes.” This is what it actually says: “Context that evokes high-arousal positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) emotions is more viral.” Despite botching the quote, Holiday succeeds again — I had a negative reaction to many of his generalizations, just like I have a negative reaction to American Apparel ads. And I’m rewarding that anger by publicizing his book, potentially generating sales. Congratulations, sir.
Two assistant professors from The Wharton School — the study’s authors — direct readers to Wikipedia for the definition of “anger.” Holiday excoriates bloggers for abusing Wikipedia; this is one of the book’s many hypocrisies. He feels bad for bloggers, who are often paid a pittance to post updates non-stop, but compares blogs to lynch mobs from the Salem witch trial era. He writes, “…I don’t see how you can call blogs anything other than digital blood sport.” On one page, Holiday criticizes bloggers for being too gullible; on another, he gleefully recounts profiting from such gullibility.
Trust Me, I’m Lying is a textbook written by a non-academic, not a memoir. Holiday never formally studied journalism - “I firmly believe that I still have much to learn about this subject.” He has a penchant for historical namedropping (Hesiod, Cicero, Descartes, Kierkegaard), while also quoting the people who’ve blurbed his book. With so much authentic media scholarship to parse, Holiday’s only edge is his outsiderdom and his youth - he’s self-taught in the art of controlling online conversation.
“We’ve been taught to believe what we read,” he writes. I completely disagree. We’ve been taught to question what we read, look for hidden meaning, research subjects that interest us. During your compulsory education, I doubt many teachers said, “Class, we don’t need to discuss yesterday’s reading because every word of it was true.” I don’t care if you went to journalism school — in any class that involves the written word, debate is highly encouraged (and participation is often graded).
The cover, a sleek, comic book-style illustration and design by Erin Tyler, features black, white and red, an ode to the newspaper joke, “What’s black and white and red all over?” (and possibly the journalism dictum, “If it bleeds, it leads.”) A single blurb — from author Robert Greene — calls Trust Me, I’m Lying, “A playbook for the dark arts of exploiting the media.” On his final page, Holiday tells us why he wrote the book: “I not only want to render the tricks useless by exposing how they work, but I want to opt out of doing them myself…Of course, I know some of you might ignore that part and use this book as an instruction manual.” Holiday’s mea culpa sounds disingenuous, especially when his manuscript is structured exactly like a playbook (the table of contents resembles a Super Bowl primer; roman numerals for chapters — including “tactics” one through nine — and two halves dividing the book).
Several times, Holiday categorizes himself as a whistleblower. However, he doesn’t give readers — or writers — enough credit. Each blog has its own standard of what constitutes “news.” Blogs make money from advertisements. Advertisers are attracted to blogs with high traffic. Headlines are the Victoria’s Secret models of the web - they leave you salivating. And any picture (on a blog or in a lingerie catalog) might be Photoshopped. Yet we choose to go online everyday and seek out certain sites. No one’s typing URLs under duress. Sometimes we want information. Sometimes we want snark. Sometimes we just want a mash-up of the president singing a sissy pop song.