Book Notes by Abi Noda

Trust Me, I'm Lying by Ryan Holiday

ISBN: 159184553X
READ: Feb 22, 2014
ENJOYABLE: 8/10
INSIGHTFUL: 9/10
ACTIONABLE: 6/10

Critical Summary

Trust Me, I'm Lying is part media anthropology, part instruction manual. Through first-hand experience and supporting quotes and examples, Ryan Holiday provides an insider's account of the online media industry and a collection of strategies for navigating it.

Holiday's core argument is that the fundamental economics of blogging are such that the incentives and behaviors of journalists are highly predictable and exploitable.

The structure and constraints of blogging, or "pageview" journalism as he often calls it, explain almost everything blogs do. The web has only one currency—clicks. And thus there is immense pressure to pump out content cheaply and quickly to build and sustain traffic. Content is designed to bait rather than inform. A good headline is more important than a well-researched story. And bloggers don't have the time or money to abide by the conventual principles of good journalism.

To turn something into news, all you have to go do is give bloggers what they need to pay their bills—stories that bait and provoke. It's that easy.

For consumers, this means we live in an information bubble. But for marketers, this opens up a world of opportunity for exploitation and profit.

Once one understands the economics and predictable dynamics of blogging, all one has to do is feed the monster: give reporters stories that are too irresistible for them to ignore. The juicier the story, the more reporters will overlook everything else—validity, your interests, that you're trying to sell, even whether or not your story is true at all—out of their own self-interest. Entire businesses are being built by exploiting the interaction between entertainment, impulse, and the profit margins of low-quality content.

But back to the consumer. The economics of blogging not only create an information bubble, but a world in which fictions pass as truth. And once these fictions spread and ecliptic real actions and responses, they haven't just misinformed—they've altered reality.

I personally read this book in hopes that it would provide strategies for growth hacking—and it does. But it's worth noting that the author spends much of the book pointing out the harm being done to our culture and society by the internet. He confesses his guilt in feeding the monster, and concludes with the wish that his book be used to expose and fix the system.


How Blogs Work

blogs = all online publishing (twitter, major newspaper websites, youtube, group blogs)

The economics of the internet create a twisted set of incentives that make traffic more important (and profitable) than the truth. This is a predictable pattern that can be exploited.

Reference the "AOL WAY" leaked plan for an inside look at how publishers think

Iterative journalism

Iterative journalism is a popular online publishing process/philosophy labeled as a "learning process" or compared to software betas, which calls for bloggers to publish first and then verify after. In practice this lets a blog like Techcrunch repeat sensational allegations then pretend that they are waiting for the facts to come in (p. 157). There's an imperative to pounce on stories to be first. The allure of the scoop enslaves reporters to certain sources, to pushing transparent agendas, and to break news before there's anything to officially break.

Even news that puts forth self-admitted "uncorroborated speculation" will get talked about. People don't talk about whether rumors are true—only that they are being talked about right now.

Michael Arrington: "Getting it right is expensive, getting it first is cheap". It's not just less costly, it actually makes even more money because every time a blog has to correct itself, it gets another post out of it—more page views.

"get something up" > "get things right"

This cycle gives birth to memes that become our cultural references, the budding stars who become our celebrities, the thinkers who become our gurus, and the news that becomes our news. Blogs make the news.

Corrections are merely "updates" (usually displayed at the bottom of the original post)". And since readers usually only view and draw conclusions from a single snapshot of this "iterative" process, the damage has already been done. In fact corrections backfire and make misperceptions worse by reintroducing the original claim (p. 184)

journalism can never be truly iterative, because as soon as it is read it becomes fact. people can't suppress their instincts to inexpert and speculate until the totality of evidence arrives—we're wired to do the opposite

example: tom pawlenty went from being a nobody to being a viable candidate, soley because Politico covered him to create candidates early to move up the election news cycle

Just as the legal system can be exploited (anyone can be sued), the media wields great power: e.g. when Engagdet posted a fake email announcing a delay in the iPhone, it knocked more than $4 billion off Apple's stock price

The perfect example of this is the sudden stock market crash triggered by a tweet.


the job of journalism is to provide surprise. news is only news if it departs from the routine of daily life. news is not a summary of things that have happened recently, or even the most important things that have happened. the news is just the content that has navigated the media's filters

degradation ceremonies are modern day versions of lynching / public executions, where blogs make accusations and denunciations on behalf of the "outraged public". politicians, celebrities, billionaires are targets, driven by journalists (and the publics) jealousy of the rich and successful. eg. the rise and fall of Jullian Assange. the degradation is a mere spectacle that blogs used to sublimate the general anxieties of their readers. to make us feel better by hurting others. to make us feel normal by having us read about freaks.

How Stories Blow Up

The media gallops in a herd. It takes just one steer to start a stampede.

Get a small blog to pick up story up and pass it upward to bigger and more credible outlets, which simply link to the previous report and don't bother to verify it.

Blogs like gawker, huffpo, politico aren't only important because they are the most widely read blogs, but also because they are mostly read by the media elite and their proselytizing owners. A blog isn't small if its puny readership is made up of TV producers and writers for national newspapers.

"delegation of trust" = process by which reporters build on the work of those who came before them instead of starting from the beginning of a story

Blogs are today's newswires. If you master the rules that govern blogs, you can be the master of all they determine...

example: To drive traffic to a kickstarted campaign, Holiday created a video telling a story. Wrote a short article for a small local blog and embedded the video. huffington post bit on the story and feature it in their local news sections. he then took the links from the small blog and email them to a reporter at CBS News from a fake email address. when the story came out on CBS news, he posted it to reddit where other blogs picked it up

Bloggers scour the internet looking for things to write about. They must write several times each day. 89 percent of journalists reported using blogs for their research for stories. half repotted using twitter to find and research stories.

The "link economy" (p. 149) encourages bloggers to repeat what "other people are saying" and look to it instead of doing their own reporting and standing behind it.

The link economy confirms and supports by its nature, which gives scandalous stories traction and conceals their dubious nature due to the speed it's spreading at.

Whereas science pits scientists against each other, each looking to disprove the work of others, news is riddled with errors because it is self-referential.

This is the bubble. Just like subprime loans were sold off from one institution to another! Falling dominoes.

The Three Levels of the Blogosphere

  1. Small niche blogs and hyperlocal websites are the easiest sites to get traction on. Trust is very high because they write about local or specific issues pertaining to a contained readership. what's important is that the site is small and understaffed. this allows you to sell them a story that is only loosely connected to their core message. Smaller sites legitimize the newsworthiness of the story for the sites with bigger audiences

    Use the tactics from made to stick and influence to get these blogs to bite

  2. The blogs of newspapers and local TV stations and mass media sister sites like smart money (sister site of WSJ), bnet.com (sister site of CBS). The bloggers at Forbes and the Chicago Tribune do not operate on the same editorial guidelines as their print counterparts, yet they carry the same weight in terms of reputation.

    Their illusion of legitimacy comes at the cost of being slightly more selective when it comes to what they cover—you need to create chatter or a strong story angle to hook them. But it is worth the price, because it will grant the bigger websites in your sites the privilege of using magic words like "NBC is reporting ..."

  3. Getting covered by the national press involves less direct pushing and a lot more massaging. Sites that have already taken your bait are now on your side—they desperately want their articles to get as much traffic as possible, and being linked to or mentioned on national sites is how they do that. You want to make reporters notice the story's gaining traction.

    Observe and identify patterns in which second-level sites they are getting their story ideas from, in order to set yourself up to be noticed. Make it bubble up to them so all the reporter is doing is popularizing it.

    Read Ryan Holiday's example where he used fake email addresses to stir up a manufactured story by basically asking reports, "How have you not done a story on this yet?" (p. 23)


How Blogs Make Money

Blogs make money from pageviews. They gain pageviews from scoops (eg. breaking a story).

"pseudo-exclusive" = a technique blogs employ to take ownership of a story to make it look like as coop even if it isn't. since readers will see the story in only one place, they have no idea that it was actually broken or original reported elsewhere

All it takes is one story to propel a blog from the dredges of the internet to mainstream—sites will do anything to get a shot, even if it means manufacturing or stealing scoops.

Bloggers are eager to build names and buzz. The media is to busy chasing profits to bother trying to stop us, and they are not motivated to care. their loyalty is not to their audience but to themselves and their con. exploiting this isn't hard.

Blogs are built to be sold

Though they can bring in decent revenues, building traffic and revenue is part of a larger play—blogs are built to be sold for a multiple of their traffic and earnings.

techcrunch -> aol, huffpo -> aol, ars technica -> conde nast

blogs are a mini-ponzi scheme. traffic and brand recognition are more important than trust or solid fundamentals.

Influence is the ultimate goal of blogs. That influence can be sold to a larger media company, and influence can also be abused, be it the companies they invest in (eg. michael arrington) or the sites they send traffic to.


How to Manipulate the Media

1. Make Them Money

“To grasp The Huffington Post’s business model,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’s Tim Rutten, “picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates.”

Blog posts only make pennies on pageviews. Even the biggest blog posts generate very little revenue. See Nate Silver's article about "the economics of blogging".

Make them money:

  1. Give them free swag and perks: one of the quickest ways to get coverage for a product is to give it away for free to bloggers (they'll rarely disclose their conflict of interest). e.g. American Apparel has two full-time employees who find fashion bloggers and send them free clothes.

  2. Give them scoops and exclusives bloggers make a name for themselves by breaking stories. Building a name lets then get a cushy job at a magazine or startup desperate for the credibility and buzz. There's no need to buy influence directly. bloggers have every incentive to write bigger, to write simpler, to write more controversially, or conversely, more favorably, to push out stories and get views.

2. Tell Them What They Want To Hear

It's generally impractical for bloggers to try to verify sources or facts. The better you package and sell your stories to journalists, the more they overlook validity or the fact that you're manipulating them.

"To call it a sellers market is an understatement""

Here's how:

3. Give Them Stuff That'll Go Viral

"The most powerful predictor of vitality is how much anger an article invokes" —wharton study of 7000 NYtimes articles on its most emailed list. Emotions like anger and surprise are arousing and trigger a desire to act. Reasonableness, complexity, mixed emotions.

Reference the actual Wharton study! This is the click and whir that can be exploited by content marketers.

Be a provocateur. Create short, shocking narratives with a reusable narrative.

The best way to make your critics work for you is to make them irrationally angry—they'll then go around telling everyone about how bad you are.

“Study the top stories at Digg or MSN.com and you’ll notice a pattern: the top stories all polarize people. If you make it threaten people’s 3Bs—behavior, belief, or belongings—you get a huge virus-like dispersion.” —Tim Ferris

Marketers need to conspire to distort regular ol' information int something that will register on the emotional spectrum of the audience, and drive clicks. Crank up the valence of articles, relying on scandal, conflict, whatever.

4. Every Story Must Sell Itself

today's major website's top referring sources are not google, Facebook, twitter—not direct traffic. Viewers were sent directly to a specific article for a disposable purpose. They're not subscribers, they are seekers or glancers. Subscriptions are about trust, single-use traffic is about impulse—even if the news has to be distorted to trigger it. Each story must sell itself.

history: earliest forms of newspapers were a function of political parties—media outlets for prty leaders to speak to party members. The birth of papers sold on the street with headlines being yelled on busy street corners led the media to focus on producing more interesting content.

It also created the one-off problem—the need to sell new papers every day. When news is sold on a one-of basis, publishers can't wait for new to come to them—there's not enough of it. They must create the news.

This led to the subscription model (like the NY Times)—where readers bought into a source they could trust, not based on the catchiest headline. Reputation mattered more than notoriety. This for the first time created a sense of obligation to the audience e.g. facts corrected, uncertainty acknowledged.

Social media has lead to the death of subscription, and rebirth of one-off stories and media manipulation. THIS IS WHY RSS was abandoned and never became mainstream.

5. Give Them a Good Headline. Make it All About the Headline

Blog posts live and die by the click, so it all comes down to the headline. Your headline is your pitch to prospective buyers.

Headlines should not be designed to represent the contents of articles, but to sell them—to win the fight for attention against an infinite number of other blogs or papers.

The more extreme a headline, the longer participants spend processing it, and therefore the more likely they are to believe it.

p. 89 -- examples of sensational headlines from today and 1903

Blogs won't write about you unless you or your story can be turned into a headline that will drive traffic.

Write the headline or hint at the options in your email or press release and let them steal it. Make it so obvious and enticing that there is no way they can pass it up. Allude or suggest headlines to bloggers, but do it in a way that makes them believe they came up with it. eg. create press releases that leave room for speculation. If creating a story as a fake tipster, ask a lot of rhetorical questions.

they'll be so happy to have the headline that they won't bother to check whether its trye or not their job is to think about the headline above all else—the medium and their bosses force them to, so that's where you make the sake. only readers get stuck with buyers remorse.

Loaded-Question Headlines let you get away with a false statement that no one can criticize. When you take away the question mark, it turns the headline into a lie Examples from nytimes: "Is Sitting a Lethal Activity?", "How Little Sleep Can You Get Away With?", "Is Sugar Toxic?", "What's the Single Best Exercise?", "Do Cellphones Cause Brain Cancer?"

Remember Made to Stick: SURPRISE is the best way to get people's attention.

"Thumbnail cheating" = using a tantalizing photo of a hot girl, cute kitten, or anything to draw clicks to youtube video

6. Give Them Pageviews and Comments (literally)

Bloggers dread silence. No comments, no links, no traffic => no money.

Show that a story you want written is connected to a trending topic or popular search-term.

Once your story gets coverage, help promote it and to inflate the stats in your favor. Blogs are so afraid of silence that the flimsiest of evidence can confirm they're on the right track.

Buy traffic for your stories to page views; leave fake comments, good and bad to create a hot debate; send fake emails to the reporter, positive and negative.

These strategies create the illusory confirmations to the blogger that you are newsworthy, lead journalists on to write more stories about you, and cement the impression that you or your company make for high-valence material.

publishers don't care what they say as long as it isn't bland or ignored. the more irresistible you make your story to journalists, the more they'll overlook the validity or the fact that you're manipulating them

"A status update that is met with no likes (or a tweet that isn't retweeted) becomes the equivalent of a joke met with silence. It must be rethought and rewritten. And so we don't show our true selves online, but a mask designed to conform to the opinions of those around us." —Neil Strauss

the things that matter are "did a shitload of people see it? was there a raging comments section? did the story get picked up by gawker?"

7. Conform To the Medium

people are busy, and computers are wrought with distraction. blogs must adapt their content around these facts.

the pressure to keep content visually appealing and ready for impulse readers is a constant suppressant on length

unless readers can see the end of your post coming around 800 words in, they're join to stop because it feels like the article will never end. this gives writers < 800 words to make their point, since big blocks of text are intimidating and should be broken up with graphics, photos, or links. to fit this format, blogs must deliberately distort the news to make it short but interesting.

another constraint since content is stacked with newest articles at the top, there is pressure to keep sites fresh by creating news out of nothing and publishing as much as possible and as quickly as possible. this means bloggers are short on time and makes it much easier for us to create our own version of reality so long as we come to them with our story on their terms.

"narcotizing dysfunction" = when people come to mistake the busyness of the media with real knowledge, and confuse spending time consuming that with doing something. blogs want to keep you so caught up and consumed with the bubble that you don't even realize you're in one.

8. Make Stuff Up

The world is boring, but the news is exciting. To create an angle you just have to make stuff up, eg. intentionally misinterpret information.

As deadlines get tighter and news staffs get smaller, bloggers NEED fake events, or pseudo-events that are staged for coverage.

"There is no topic too mundane that you can't pull a post out of it"

Fiction on one site becomes the source for fiction on another... until it becomes the truth. For examples reference the case studies at the end of notes.

Even when articles are corrected, the original post stays up and updates go at the bottom of the article.

Sometimes just a single quote taken out of context can set things off. Kurt Warner, Dancing With the Stars (p. 26)

MG Siegler (Techcrunch): "I won't try to put some arbitrary label on it, like 80%. But there's more bullshit than there is 100% pure, legitimate information" (pg. 115)

Michael Arrington: "Getting it right is expensive, getting it first is cheap".

The qualities of that surrounded osama bin laden's death broken over twitter (p. 171) might be an interesting incident to study and mimic.

You can make spurious assertions look legitimate by making them links. When you add a link to a claim or description, you've vaguely complied with the standards of the link economy. You've rested your authority on a source and linked to it, and now the burden is on the reader to disprove the validity of that link. Bloggers know this and abuse it. Online links look like citations but rarely are. Through flimsy attribution blogs are able to assert widely fantastic claims that will spread well and drive comments.


Examples