AskMen interview: Ryan Holiday — “Do you want to hear about how the sausage gets made from the person putting mouse faeces in the sausage?”, May 2013
An AskMen Q&A with 25-year-old media manipulator, Ryan Holiday. This is one of the most enlightening interviews I’ve ever conducted. If you’re in marketing, the media, or even if you’re just a daily user of the internet, Ryan’s book, Trust Me, I’m Lying, is essential reading. Excerpt (from the interview) below.
Over the last five years, while the rest of us were surfing the blogosphere daily for the latest piece of clickbait, Holiday was busy using the system against itself, spreading misinformation for paying clients such as American Apparel and Tucker Max.
Central to the 25-year-old’s tactics was what he calls ‘trading up the chain’: seeding a story on a local blog desperate for the clicks and watching it get picked up by larger and larger news organisations. He’d abusively desecrate billboards that he paid for in order to create a boycott against Tucker Max’s 2009 film, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and falsely leak copyright-infringing photo shoots for American Apparel. In both cases, his schemes were wildly successful.
These misadventures and more are outlined in Holiday’s book, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, in which he blows open what many people suspected — or at least sensed: that online news is rigged against worthwhile information making its way into the hands of users. But Holiday also reveals how the system — or ‘feeding the monster’, as he likes to call it — was soon used against him and his clients. And the self-doubt started when his handiwork popped up in some of America’s biggest and most well-respected newspapers.
AskMen caught up with Holiday during a research mission in Rome and asked how his book has been received, what exactly can be done about the parlous state of web-based news media, and when exactly he knew he could no longer feed the monster.
The so-called crumbling of the old media: most people have celebrated it. What are your thoughts on this idea that old media is a dying beast?
I’m not sure I necessarily get the celebration of the collapse of an industry that is fairly good at delivering what we need. In terms of what we want, clearly there have been some failings in how old media and newspapers work, as the internet has illustrated. There are all sorts of topics that we’re interested in and all sorts of styles of communication that we’re clearly interested in that just didn’t exist a few years ago, and the internet has made them possible. So clearly there were failings with the old system, but in terms of delivering us reliable, actionable information in quantities that we could actually conceivably consume, it did a fairly good job. So I don’t understand this celebration of the collapse of an entire industry, and I think that’s very endemic of how the internet works, that we would be so short-sighted to get gleeful about the destruction of billions of dollars worth of value.
And I think the celebration is off for another reason. When you look at the revenues of some of these businesses and you look at the revenues of those that have replaced them. The New York Times recently reported earnings in the US in the realm of about $2 billion for 2012. You could take every major blog on the planet, roll all their revenues together and you’re not going to come anywhere near half of that. So the idea, for instance, that the New York Times needs to get with the program and figure out how it could be more like the Huffington Post, which has revenues of around $100 million dollars; I think we should really question the math there, for sure.
So, Trust Me, I’m Lying. For me, reading the book was like sensing something wasn’t quite right and suddenly having the strings and pulleys revealed, so to speak. Do you get that reaction from a lot from readers?
Yeah. That’s what I wanted the reaction to be. It’s for marketing people and brands that are having trouble understanding why they couldn’t break through the noise, and to show why certain people were getting way more publicity than other people. And I also wanted to show it to journalists. If I was writing a marketing book I don’t think it would have been as dark, it wouldn’t have the cover it has, and I definitely wouldn’t have chosen that title if I was trying to show people necessarily how to do this. So a big part of the message was to the public and the journalist community saying, “Look. This is how the other half practices their craft. I think you might want to make some adjustments to anticipate our counteract some of these negative influences.”
But it’s been weird, the reaction. There are people like you saying, “Look, I get it. This showed what I always suspected.” And then there are other people. I had this at a talk in Amsterdam a couple of days ago: a journalist physically stopped me on my way off the stage. He was an editor at The Economist. And he not only denied that all of this happened, and [suggested] that I was a lone bad actor, but said my book was from a completely disingenuous place and that I should donate all the royalties to charity. My response to him was, “Are you really going to stick your head in the sand and say this didn’t happen?” I’m not sure what that accomplishes, because I’ve been in all these rooms with the journalists and I’ve been in the room with the marketers and we have these conversations privately, and we all lament how this stuff works. And then what happens, as soon as I turn around and talk about this stuff publicly or I try to write about it, then we all deny that it actually happens. And we wonder why the public is disaffected with media, why all these businesses run on very short-term incentives, and why we have all these problems. And to me, a large part of that is because we refuse to have an open and honest discussion about how it really works.
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