Monday, January 07, 2013

The Best of 2012: Nonfiction

One of the many items [old and new] enjoyed by Burbank Public Library staff during 2012, recommended for your consideration:

Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator is a provocative and highly readable book by Ryan Holiday, a former Internet “media strategist” now claiming to be reformed, as well as intent on blowing the lid off how the media “really works.” It is a fast and alarming read, and regardless of how sincere you find the author, Trust Me, I’m Lying is an eye-opening primer to the flimsy structure that Internet news aggregators and bloggers have in place for determining what counts as news.

Holiday’s “trust me/lying” ethical and intellectual contradictions are key characters here, and his book is appropriately broken up into two parts: first, a kind of how-to manual on manipulating social and news media to your own ends, followed by a why-that’s-bad-and-you-shouldn’t-do-it. Holiday makes persuasive emotional arguments about how today’s media encourages unprincipled practices, and how easy it is to game the system, especially as traditional news outlets increasingly get their cues from the malarkey that is “trending” on the Internet. Examples show how carefully worded Wikipedia pages can influence press coverage of an event or person, and how stories can go up the journalistic food chain without the normal need for attribution and accountability simply because people are talking—or are perceived to be talking—about something online.

Holiday puts our contemporary mess in historical context (a 10-page history of the newspaper business is a highlight of the book) and compares today’s frivolous/provocative/fear-baiting blog headlines to the newsie-hawked yellow journalism at the turn of the last century. The crazy screaming headlines of the yellow journalism era faded away when subscriber-based newspapers came into prominence, and Holiday suggests some sort of subscription system is needed online before the whole thing devolves completely.

The author reflects often on his regret about his own dishonest dealings, and goes off on impassioned, idealistic rants that ring sincere on certain levels. But throughout I got the feeling that he is still rather turned on by the thing and his part in it. It kind of reminded me of the baseball autobiography Joe, You Coulda Made Us Proud, by Yankee first baseman Joe Pepitone, in which Joe recounts his many, many, many sexual exploits. In the book, Pepitone says he’s talking about it because he’s a changed man now and that he’s ashamed of his past behavior and he needs to be honest about it. That may be true; but Pepitone is so clearly jazzed to talk about it that you can tell he’s still fairly impressed with himself. (By the way, I highly recommend the Joe Pepitone book if you can find it somewhere—lotsa fun!)

But back to Trust Me, I’m Lying: One surprising aspect of the book is how poorly proofread and fact-checked it is. Typos and names spelled incorrectly in a published book are always dispiriting to behold, but when the book’s subject is factual accuracy, it's particulary "ensaddening."

But nonetheless! Holiday actually becomes a more interesting figure because of his contradictions, and the topic becomes trickier and more personal as one contemplates one’s own feelings about the good and bad of the Internet. All in all, a fascinating swipe at an important subject, and great fodder for conversation at a party (especially if you already have a girlfriend).

Jeff W., reference librarian

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