Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2015/ Trust Me, I'm Lying

Trust Me, I'm Lying

So I finally got around to reading Ryan Holiday's book Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, which I had previously hinted at in my Goodbye Facebook entry.

The book is less mindblowing than I had hoped it would be, but it is still worth reading. Holiday's day job is to publicize American Apparel; by night I guess he does freelance publicity stuff. His narrative is that of a reformed felon: once upon a time he used to unethically manipulate the media to get his message out, but then he saw the awful consequences of those manipulations (and faced those consequences on behalf of American Apparel) and has seen the error of his ways. Now he reveals the industry secrets THEY DON'T WANT YOU TO KNOW. I don't buy this narrative; I am suspicious that he is manipulating his own image so that we feel sympathetic to him. Nonetheless, he is good at distilling the mechanics of modern media manipulation, and for that reason alone the book is worth reading.

Here is the thrust of his thesis:

He leads with his strongest example: promoting some odious celebrity named Tucker Max and his movie by faking some protests to that movie and feeding the story up the chain. But the book contains a bunch of anecdotes that are worth investigating. Of particular interest is a two-page spread called "How to Read a Blog", which is a delightfully cynical user guide to interpreting news stories on the Internet.

The most surprising section of the book was a short three page rant about RSS (p. 83):

Think about how we consume blogs. It is not by subscription. The only viable subscription method for blogs, RSS, is dead. For some of you who still religiously use an RSS reader, it might feel strange to hear me speak about it in the past tense, but RSS has died. And so has the concept of subscribing.

(footnote) RSS readers Bloglines and NewsGator are in the deadpool. Apple's Mountain Lion OS X doesn't include RSS, and Google no longer featured Reader in its top-level navigation. The latest versions of the Firefox browser don't even have RSS buttons. Twitter and Facebook both stopped supporting direct RSS feeds. And the death of RSS has been heralded in a million headlines.

Does that sound familiar? His conclusions sound familiar, too (p. 84-85):

The reason subscription (and RSS) was abandoned was because in a subscription economy the users are in control. In the one-off model, the competition might be more vicious, but it is on the terms of the publisher. Having followers instead of subscribers -- where readers have to check back on sites often and are barraged with a stream of refreshing content laden with ads -- is much better for their bottom line.

RSS never became truly mainstream for this reason. It's antithetical to the interests of the people who would need to push readers toward using it. It comes as no surprise that despite glowing reports from satisfied readers and major investments from Google and others that it would not be able to make it. So today, as RSS buttons disappear from browsers and blogs, just know that this happened on purpose, so that readers could be deceived more easily.

I disagree that relying on drive-by clicks make for a better business model than regular subscribers, but I agree that the interests of publishers are not aligned with the interests of RSS consumers.

As I read the book I kept relating it to my attempt to publicize the story about how Canadian Blood Services' donor questionnaire is biased against donors of African descent. But the campaign was a total flop, partially because I refrained from stirring up controversy ("Canadian Blood Services is Racist") in favour of more boring, less readable, more nuanced explanations of the problem ("How Canadian Blood Services' Donor Questionnaire is Biased Against Donors of African Descent"). I even pulled my punches in naming the Ignite talk that was to ignite the campaign: "Does Canadian Blood Services Have an Image Problem?" because I did not want to use the word "Racist". Even if it was not fair to call CBS racist, it is defensible to call them "Geographically Bigotted", but I did not even want to go that far.

If my goal is to get CBS's attention about the issue and stir up enough public outrage to get the policy changed, then I failed wholeheartedly.

As a result, this social wrong continues to be propagated. But maybe I should have played Ryan Holiday's game. Maybe I should have fed stories about anger and protests against the policy to some small media outlets, so that others would read the story and start up some actual protests. Maybe I should have been more provocative and less nuanced in my approach. Maybe researching the story and publishing an enormous, reference-ladedn blog entry justifying every point in my talk was exactly the wrong thing to do. Could I have written anything less clickbaity?

Sometimes I feel guilty because (other than elections) I do not pay attention to a lot of "news". I have never been much of a social justice activist, and my tolerance for such actions has diminished over the years. "If you are not outraged you are not paying attention", the saying goes, and it appears I am not paying enough attention. Or maybe I am, So much of the outrage we feel is misdirected, particularly when that outrage comes in response to some ridiculous news story that went viral. Often these news stories are misreported; almost always the story has much more nuance that we see, so we end up feeling incensed over fiction. This book undermines my trust in the news cycle further, because a bunch of these stories that incite our outrage are planted, and our role is to serve those interests by expressing that outrage. It's no different than those inflammatory, one-sided emails I get from every few days; it is just less transparent.

That does not mean that everything in the world is okay. My brain may have been poisoned by the economic optimists, but I have not bought into their rhetoric wholeheartedly. There is lots to feel legitimately outraged about. We just don't hear about those stories, because they do not serve people's agendas, and thus do not get reported. The Agenda is never going to report on the damage Canadian mining operations do overseas; regular pundit Janice Stein is from the Munk School of Global Affairs, and the Munk in Munk school is Peter Munk, Canadian mining magnate.

As usual, I have no solution, and neither does this book. Maybe I do not need a solution; maybe the world is getting better and better in every way regardless of whether I am informed or not. Maybe all of this clickery-trickery will work itself out. Maybe.

In the meantime I have turned further and further away from news sites and more and more towards personal blogs with RSS feeds. This is a highly technological way to stick my head in the sand, and I can see the negative consequences affecting me already, but maybe I just don't care any more. Let Rome burn. Until I get singed, I don't care.