I’m a writer. As such, I’ve always written to the best of my ability and with the purest of intentions. You might think that’s the most natural thing in the world, but just recently I learned that many writers don’t consider these two items – which are really just the right thing to do – part of their job description.
As part of my quest to learn more about writers, who inspire me, I decided this year I would get all books from one author I like, read them in chronological order, and look at how they and their style have evolved. I started with Ryan Holiday.
I’m reading his latest, The Daily Stoic, day by day, as it’s set up this way and just closed the last chapter of Trust Me, I’m Lying. The great thing about this book is it’s about the media, especially blogs, which makes it all the more relevant to me personally.
In 2017, full-time writer is an enticing career. Gone are the days of the broke, starving artist, sitting in a broom closet hacking away on a typewriter. No, writing is cool now. You can bring your means of production anywhere in the world and open up shop.
I’d lie to you if I said I wasn’t misled by the vision of sipping cocktails at the beach while thousands of dollars trickle in via PayPal for a few lines typed here and there. But I moved past that; the process itself is just too fascinating.
I can’t wait to dissect more historic books I hardly understand, try to cut my own written words like leaves off a tree and craft sentences like an alchemist combining various elements to finally synthesize gold.
This book has really helped clear my vision on why it’s worth to take the long road to full-time writing. Ryan repeatedly uses the metaphor of ripping back the curtain to expose the media and blogging industry. If you ask me, you can add shining a light right into their eyes to that – what he reveals is astonishingly awful, yet irreversibly eye-opening.
I find it’s part of my responsibility to share some of the things I’ve learned with you. Each of the lessons comes from a different chapter of the book, or combines the ideas of multiple chapters in one, since they were similar. You can read this like a book summary or just jump to any particular lessons that interest you. Heed these warnings. Here goes.
1. Whoever determines what blogs cover, determines the course of history.
If there’s just one thing to learn from the last US election, it’s that public opinion matters. Maybe not for you as an individual, but for the country that’s governed by its outcomes, and thus, for the course of history itself.
Blogs (to Ryan Holiday that is all online publishing, but particularly big news sites) have long become standard sources of information for many, if not most of us, though we often acknowledge in the same breath that we least trust the internet as such.
Whatever information does end up on major blogs, such as CNN, BBC, WSJ, NYT, etc., isn’t far away from national television and thus, from meandering into widespread and publicly accepted opinion.
Therefore, whoever understands the rules by which blogs play, can determine what they end up covering and consequently, what might shape our future.
What rules over the media rules over the country. ~Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying
2. You can turn something artificial into something real by “trading it up the chain.”
The process Ryan has used in his former life as a self-proclaimed media manipulator is as efficient as it is simple:
- Give a small, local or niche-topic blog a piece of content they can’t resist covering.
- Nudge legacy media, like Wired, Forbes, etc. into picking it up.
- Watch it spread to national media like NBC, CBS, HBO, etc.
The problem is that this process can not only be set off on purpose by someone with an agenda, but might catch fire entirely on its own, due to the ever-ready state of the system to produce the next gush of hot air about nothing. That’s how toasts with celebrity faces end up on national television as so-called scoops. Speaking of which.
Remember: Every person in this ecosystem is under immense pressure to produce content under the tightest of deadlines. ~Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying
3. Scoops build traffic and names. Traffic makes money. Names make exits.
This is one of the most crucial lessons to remember about how blogs, newspaper websites and generally most websites work: they make money based on the number of page views. Prices are determined in CPM – cost per mille (= thousand), so an ad with a CPM of $1 will cost you one dollar for every 1,000, yes, one thousand, times it is loaded, which is considered a “view.”
Right now you should say: “Wait a minute, if every loaded ad counts, but I always ignore the ads, do those impressions still make money for the site owner?” Yes. They do. You can instantly see why that’s a problem: it encourages websites to focus on page views only.
Hence the chase for scoops. Whoever’s first usually gets the most clicks. Clicks equal money. Plus, they help you build a reputation. TMZ repeatedly broke news about celebrity scandals, like Mel Gibson driving drunk or Brangelina splitting up, “first,” so they get credit for being a good source. And only “good” sources can ultimately be sold for good money.
Guess who often reports news about tech startup IPOs, pivots or employee layoffs first? TechCrunch.
Guess who reports over 20 million page views per month, thus making north of $2 million per year? TechCrunch.
Guess who was sold to AOL for $25+ million in 2010? TechCrunch.
Keeping their goals in mind, it won’t come as much of a surprise that bloggers rarely bother verifying the expert status of those, who submit quotes for articles, are happy citing Wikipedia without double-checking and gobble up every press release they can get their hands on.
Media was once about protecting a name; on the web it is about building one. ~Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying
4. The page view problem is history repeating itself. Solve it for bloggers and they’ll do what you want.
Newspapers started as nothing more than info flyers, created by individuals to keep the members of their political party up to date. Once these began to include general news and reach a wider audience, the one-man bands running the show usually demanded a subscription fee.
This dynamic changed with the increasing speed of the printing press, and thus, publishing frequency of the 1830s. Newspapers were sold on the street, one copy at a time – and the fight for the best headline began. Adolph Ochs made the subscription model great again around the turn of that century after buying The New York Times, until it eventually made way for the page view model we have today.
Seems like we’re stuck in a cycle.
Even when bloggers were still paid by the post, they had to crank out ridiculous amounts of content – say 125 posts a month for a total of $500 – but now page views determine their paycheck. For a net salary of $2,000-3,000/month, your deliverable page views range in the millions. Millions!
Therefore, whatever incentive you can give bloggers that has even the slightest odds of increasing those will make their day (and maybe yours). That might be a freebie they can review, an affiliate commission, a finished article they don’t have to write, or, in its bluntest form: any kind of financial bribe.
Bloggers have a direct incentive to write bigger, to write simpler, to write more controversially or, conversely, more favorably, to write without having to do any work, to write more often than is warranted. Their paycheck depends on it. ~Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying
I used to be worried about posts that don’t generate a lot of comments, because most of mine don’t. Now, not so much. In the book, Ryan explains something called Warnock’s dilemma, which lays out five possible interpretations of silence as a response:
1. The post is correct, well-written information that needs no follow-up commentary. There’s nothing more to say except “Yeah, what he said.”
2. The post is complete and utter nonsense, and no one wants to waste the energy or bandwidth to even point this out.
3. No one read the post, for whatever reason.
4. No one understood the post, but won’t ask for clarification, for whatever reason.
5. No one cares about the post, for whatever reason.
In the first case, silence can be a good thing. Great insights are rarely shouted from rooftops. But to make sure they avoid the bad kind of silence, blogs try to avoid all silence. And what better way to do so than engineer something viral? Well-aware that fear, excitement, laughter, happiness and anger spread far better than things that evoke consent or make you sad, reality is exchanged for the point of view that spreads the most. Probably in form of a cat picture slideshow.
Through the selective mechanism of what spreads – and gets traffic and page views – we get suppression not by omission but by transmission. ~Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying
6. The medium is the message: long-winded loses.
How many long-form pieces of content can you remember that went viral? Go on, you can dig, I’ll wait. You’ll be a while. In the meantime, can you recall that one TV show that just had an image and a guy talking? Which one was that again?
Right, no TV show ever.
Of course the medium in which you deliver your message will determine the packaging of what you have to say. With three out of four blog posts taking less than 3 minutes to read (which equates to less than 750 words), you’re limited in how well you can explain an issue and still expect to reach lots of people. Virtual reality is a hot topic, but it’s hard to illustrate, let alone exhaustively deal with, in a few paragraphs.
File it under sad facts, but it’s true that short shit spreads.
The way the news must be presented determines the news itself. ~Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying
7. Trick, don’t treat. Or at least help bloggers do it.
Does pizza cause cancer? Can this gadget save your life? Will these guys save the planet?
Whenever a headline ends in a question mark, try these two things:
- Answer “no” and see if it feels like a rationally valid response.
- Remove the question mark and look at the statement. Does it seem like a lie?
If your salary depends on the number of times people view your article, you can’t afford to use a plain headline. Welcome to clickbait city. Journalists used to explore topics and if they found they weren’t newsworthy, shocker, abandoned them. But not in a page view driven payment model.
When there’s no angle, bloggers find one. Or make one up. The degree to which some of them trick readers almost doesn’t matter, because it’ll increase over time anyway; the lies must get bigger to keep people clicking. Help bloggers trick their readers and you’ll help them make a living. Sad, but true.
The question is not “Was this headline accurate?” but “Was it clicked more than the others?” ~Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying
8. Media manipulators don’t care about being wrong or getting caught. If anything, it helps them.
You know how they say all PR is good PR? For blogs that’s actually true. A click is always profitable, no matter where it originated from. Hence, it’s become impossibly difficult to discern sincere bloggers from toxic ones, manipulators or greedy publishers. Here, worst comes to worst as bloggers, who are wrong or get caught gaming the system even benefit from their own stupidity.
Case in point: A piece on Jezebel titled The Daily Show’s Woman Problem asserts the show has trouble with sexism among its staff. The claim was refuted instantly by the women who work on the show, yet the original post remains with seven times as many views as the correction.
But not only does being wrong add additional page views, it also makes it more likely readers will believe the initial, wrong statement. This is called the backfire effect and is a result of how our brain forms opinions and how much trust we put in written words.
Making a point is exciting; correcting one is not. ~Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying
9. The media tries to keep you in a state of narcotizing dysfunction, so you don’t ask pesky questions.
All this trickery primarily serves the purpose of keeping you so drugged with information that you don’t get a chance to step back, take a break and ask the kinds of questions I encouraged you to ask under point three. Inaction through information is the motto.
You can read the news, get angry, wave your fist in the air, but please, after that, go to bed. Don’t write angry letters. Or start a movement. Or remove your browser bookmark.
The longer you stay inside the bubble the media create without realizing you’re in one, the better. Just look around you. You’ll see the victims of this system all the time. I mean, I’m not perfect, and sometimes, when I realize I’m on my phone while watching something on TV or Youtube, I put it away. But this is ridiculous:
(observed just a few weeks ago)
When even the masterminds behind the system become its victims, it’s time for a revolution:
If the user stops for even a second, they may see what is really going on. And then the business model would fall apart. ~Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying
10. Facts become optional when journalism relies on links and updates for verification.
I’m never quite happy with the way I provide sources. Even linking to scientific papers and the original studies sometimes doesn’t feel like it’s enough. But compared to the standard practices of major news outlets, I’m a saint.
Adding credibility to an assertion has never been easier: you just slap a link on it. Often it won’t even matter where it goes. Just seeing highlighted, underlined text tells us: the author spent time researching this, so it must be true.
Unless we’re okay with delegating our trust like that, it’s on us to verify or disprove these kinds of facts, because bloggers are forced to write, edit, update and publish in real time.
Ryan calls this iterative journalism and its biggest accomplishment is giving us the news of the death of Osama Bin Laden 20 minutes earlier than we would’ve gotten it otherwise. The downsides it comes with are constantly updated blog posts, which often leave us with a wrong, intermediary result the moment we consume them, lazy, nondescript reports of rumors about rumors and lists of reactions to statements bloggers made, which turned out to be wrong, instead of corrections.
Fact-checking can’t be optional in a job where fact-reporting is the de facto task, much less the duty of the recipients of said facts.
Iterative journalism makes the news cheap to produce, but expensive to read. ~Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying
11. We’re applauding our own stupidity and encourage the media to deceive us even more.
When shit hits the fan, a storm of negative PR is hard to stop. As if that wasn’t bad enough, we encourage the media debauchery by giving even the kind of content attention that lays out exactly how they’re playing us.
The Super Bowl ads are a perfect example. Every year there’s a huge hype around who will have the best commercial and they generate millions of views online and off, when all they’re supposed to do is sell us stuff we don’t really need.
In case of the Bin Laden example, blogs instantly jumped at the opportunity. Not to report about the death of the man, but to report about how one guy had reported about it first.
Similarly, blogs celebrate the fact that manipulators trick them into publishing their content by openly giving instructions on how to pitch them.
The internet is the problem here, not the solution. ~Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying
12. Blogs offer an online stage on which public degradation, shaming and extortion take place. It’s the witch hunts all over again.
Because of the iterative approach and mistakes playing no role in whether the media make money, they’re actually incentivized to extort, shame and ruin people’s reputations in public. Obviously, if I write an article about you, it’s more important to you than me that what I publish is, well, correct.
But since outrage drives the most clicks, why not make a claim that’s false to begin with, push the subject into a corner and then burn them in the spotlight? This has been happening to celebrities since the dawn of time, but today, it could happen to anyone.
Take the recent case of PewDiePie vs. the Wall Street Journal:
- Instead of asking PewDiePie for a statement, WSJ took a bunch of Nazi jokes from his videos out of context (which, ironically, were only there to prove this exact point) and pressured Youtube and his sponsor to quit working with him.
- Worse yet, there’s nothing he can counter the snarky remarks with, which, again ironically, came from a guy who frequently makes racist jokes himself.
- PewDiePie now has to deal with a reframed public image of his he had no hand in creating, all because a big publication is scared of a man who singlehandedly wields the same power (in terms of influence) they do.
What do we learn from that? Smart people fly below the radar. Be powerful, but boring.
There is a reason that the weak are drawn to snark while the strong simply say what they mean. Snark makes the speaker feel a strength they know deep down they do not possess. ~Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying
13. The way the media limit what information we have access to blurs the border between what’s real and what’s fake.
“Welcome to unreality,” says Ryan at the end of the book. When manipulators turn nothing into something and the cycle keeps feeding itself, how are we supposed to tell what’s real from what’s fake? We can’t. News is only news when it’s new, but since it’s so easy to turn old hats into shocking events, plenty of stuff slips through the news funnel:
Unreal events alter reality itself, simply by making a big splash online. Fake and reality build on top of one another, until it becomes impossible to distinguish one from the other.
News is only news if it departs from the routine of daily life. ~Ryan Holiday, Trust Me, I’m Lying
14. You can help solve all these problems for yourself and others with two simple questions.
Ryan concludes that the dominant cultural medium shapes culture itself, which means it’s time to turn our critical thinking on, not off. In a world where three million blog posts are published every day, it’s natural for bloggers to claim what they do is “different.” When there’s no authority left, everyone wants to have some.
But I’m not an expert on sleep, productivity, psychology or health. Very few people, who write about these topics are. So don’t believe everything you read, just because it’s written. That very much includes this blog.
Instead, I would encourage you to ask two questions before and after whatever you’re reading online. It seems like most journalists have long forgotten them:
- Is this true?
- What do I want to do with this information?
Whenever the answers are “no” and “nothing,” let’s put a metaphorical pin in the author’s name and remember that this emperor, like many before him, is naked too – and it’s on us to point it out.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. ~Upton Sinclair
That’s it. Lots of lessons, and though the picture I’ve painted might look a bit grim at this point, it really just comes down to thinking for yourself and being responsible with information.
But that’s just my perspective on Trust Me, I’m Lying. You should form your own. Since you made it here, you already have plenty of reasons to pick up a copy.
Note: You can find three more lessons I wrote down after reading the summary of this book on Blinkist in 2016 here.
Next up: Growth Hacker Marketing.