Book Review: Trust Me, I’m Lying

Book Review: Trust Me, I’m Lying

This was one depressing read.

Don’t get me wrong, the book itself is brilliant. Ryan Holiday is a hell of a writer that knows his stuff. What’s depressing is the content he exposes: the current state of the online media. Mr. Holiday does a wonderful job of portraying the corrupt and greedy mess that goes around behind the scenes of blogs nowadays. Ryan, a self-proclaimed “media manipulator”, shows us more than enough evidence on how broken the media is, and how this affects our everyday lives.

Holiday is not afraid to give us names to blame, without ever shying away from his own responsibility in creating this monster. From big names like Michael Arrington and Arianna Huffington, to smaller bloggers such as Irin Carmon, there’s plenty of finger-pointing to go around. Again, always acknowledging his part behind this disaster.

The book is divided in two parts: “How Blogs Work” and “What Blogs Mean.” On the first part, the author tells us how to manipulate the media and bloggers with nine blunt tactics. Ryan explains that he managed to achieve impressive results on his campaigns by “Telling bloggers what they want to hear” or “Killin’ them with pageview kindness”. One can’t complain if one finds this sort of advice too crude for his or her taste. Early on, Holiday warns us:

“I didn’t intend to, 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. I’m going to show you every single one of these tricks, and what they man. What you choose to do with this information is up to you.”

On the second part of the book, the author goes all out on stirring despair and impotence in the reader, by explaining how screwed we are as long as this corrupt system keeps working the way it has so far. This section is arguably the most important one of the book, because Holiday shatters many myths about the supposed benefits of the immediacy of online media, and what’s happening to us because of these lies that we’re buying into:

“Bloggers lie, distort, and attack because it is in their interest to do so. The medium believes it is giving the people what they want when it simplifies, sensationalizes, and panders. This creates countless opportunities for manipulation and influence. I now know what the cumulative effect of this manipulation is: Its effect is unreality. Surrounded by illusions, we lash out at our fellow man for his very humanness, congratulate ourselves as a cover for apathy, and confuse advertising with art. Reality. Our lives. Knowing what is important. Information. These have been the causalities.”

As I thanked Ryan after finishing the book (he sent me a copy some weeks ago), I told him that I was angered and depressed, but that I liked it. He said that that’s how he hopes to inspire change in our generation and the media. I was skeptic about his statement, but then I remembered the message I posted on Facebook at some point during the reading of the book:

“As I read and review Ryan Holiday’s upcoming book, I feel an urge to gather my wisest entrepreneurial friends and scream “The media industry is making us retarded, LET’S DISRUPT THE F**K OUT OF IT!”

Maybe Ryan has a point on this whole “depression inspiring change” thing…

Below are some of my favorite excerpts from Trust Me, I’m Lying:

On conning the media:

“The assumptions of blogging and their owners present obvious vulnerabilities that people like me exploit. They allow us to control what is in the media, because the media is too busy chasing profits to bother trying to stop us. They are not motivated to care. Their loyalty is not to their audience but to themselves and their con. While ultimately this is reason to despair, I have found one small solace: Conning the conmen is one of life’s most satisfying pleasures. And it’s not even hard.”

On single-use traffic:

“Whereas subscriptions are about trust, single-use traffic is all immediacy and impulse – even if the news has to be distorted to trigger it. Our news is what rises, and what rises is what spreads, and what spreads is what makes us angry or makes us laugh. Our media diet is quickly transformed into junk food, fake stories engineered by people like me to be consumed and passed around. It is the refined and processed sugars of the information food pyramid – out of the ordinary, unnatural, and deliberately sweetened.”

On the indicators of professionalism:

“In a sane system, a political article that generated thousands of comments would be an indicator that something went wrong. It means the conversation descended into an unproductive debate about abortion or immigration, or devolved into mere complaining. But in the broken world of the web, it is the mark of a professional.”

On stories’ angles:

“Since bloggers must find an angle, they always do. Small news is made to look like big news. Nonexistent news is puffed up and made into news. The result is stories that look just like their legitimate counterparts, only their premise is wrong and says nothing. Such stories hook onto false pretenses, analyze a false subject, and inform falsely.”

On our dependency of the web:

“The idea that the web is empowering is just a bunch of rattling, chattering talk. Everything you consume online has been “optimized” to make you dependent on it. Content is engineered to be clicked, glanced at, or found – like a trap designed to bait, distract, and capture you. Blogs are out to game you – to steal your time from you and sell it to advertisers – and they do this every day.”

On the media’s low standards for content:

“As media outlets grapple with tighter deadlines and smaller staffs, many of the old standards for verification, confirmation, and fact-checking are becoming impossible to maintain. Every blog has its own editorial policy, but few disclose it to readers. The material one site pulls from another can hardly be trusted when it’s just as likely to have been written with low standards as with high ones.”

On iterative journalism:

“Our friends Jeff Jarvis and Michael Arrington like to use the metaphor of beta to explain this new form of journalism – like how Google rolls our their new services with software bugs still in it. It’s just like that, they say. They forget we’re not dealing with software or ones and zeros; we’re dealing with the news and information, and those things affect people’s lives. Or more likely, Jarvis and Arrington know this and don’t care, content to advocate a concept with painful consequences for everyone but them. It’s made them wealthy and influential; what does it matter if the metaphor is wrong?”

and…

“It is true that the iterative model can eventually get the story right, just like in theory Wikipedia perpetually moves toward higher quality pages. The distributed efforts of hundreds or thousands of blogs can aggregate a final product that may even be superior to what one dedicated newsroom could ever make. When they do, I’ll gladly congratulate them – they can throw themselves a tweeter-tape parade for all I care – but I’ll have to remind them when it’s all over that it didn’t make a difference. More people were mislead than helped.”

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