I read Ryan Holiday's "Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confession of a Media Manipulator" the other day. Then I put the book down and was breezing through the The Huffington Post when an article about an underemployed porn star "with a penis that is 9 1/2 inches when flaccid" caught my eye. (That probably caught your attention too.)
"Man with 'world's largest penis' gets stopped at SFO security," was the headline. I read the post, sent it to a girlfriend, laughed, blushed and so on. Turns out 13,600 people shared the same article on Facebook, 1,442 Tweeted it, 200 posted it to Google+ and 3,702 emailed it forward.
The Huffington Post won as traffic to its site surged. The subject in question, Johan Falcon, will probably win by landing a new gig (i.e.: Nadya Suleman), doing the talk show circuit, getting a book deal or selling travel-sized sex products. The post said the frenzy started after Falcon himself posted a tweet stating, "TSA didn't know what to make of the massive budge on my thigh."
Humor aside, is this really news? And how did it end up on the Huffington Post, and subsequently on the web sites of the San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Post Intelligencer, Gawker, SFWeekly and at least 52 other news outlets? And if @jonahfalcon only has 2,700 followers, how did his Tweet get noticed by The Huffington Post?
Falcon's profile and subsequent coverage mention he is a writer, a video game reviewer and sometimes an actor. There's a clue. To find out more, I sent an email to The Huffington Post editor behind the post Andy Campbell. Andy quickly responded, "We have a Weird News team that has a lot of regular contacts in the weird, weird world we live in and Jonah is one of them. He came to us before he started tweeting. We had an unrelated dinner with him a week before the story." I asked Andy if he contacted the San Francisco TSA to verify Mr. Falcon's and he added, "they didn't return calls."
All of this got me thinking about Mr. Falcon definitely had a role in this piece. He actively pursued a relationship with The Huffington Post and he wanted the press. From the sounds of it, he handed them the story. And the buzz is growing, including a mention in a Jimmy Fallon monologue. Is this journalism or is this media manipulation in its finest form?
It's an interesting question to ponder in industry where the rules of "church and state" don't always appear to apply. Media manipulation and the changing dynamics of online journalism are the types of topics that Ryan Holiday covers in his new book "Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator." Ryan, who I met at a conference last year, is -- or at least claims to be -- the mastermind behind much of the buzz garnered around American Apparel, best-selling bad boy author Tucker Max and others. With detailed case histories more than a little bravado, Ryan's book reveals how bloggers are to media as lobbyists are to politics.
With phrases like "sex becomes sugar" and "fake news", Ryan uncovers how the business of traffic building, click-through rates and the immediacy of the web have changed the media game forever. His stories reveal how he has used simple bribes such as gift cards, $25 incentives for Tweets, fake email accounts and more to move a story "up the chain" to garner earned media for his clients.
Ryan's book is entertaining and enlightening, if a somewhat depressing indictment of the state of news and information most of us consume each day. "The web has only one currency, and you can use any word you want for it -- violence, extremes, arousal, powerfulness, excitement -- but it all adds up to false perception," he writes. 'What thrives online is not the writing that reflects anything close to the reality in which you and I live."
Ryan's book is a must-read for anyone in media, marketing or public relationships. Regardless of what you think about Ryan or his techniques, it will challenge the way you view media in our ever changing digital landscape. Ryan came clean. How have you manipulated the media? Please share your thoughts, stories or comments below or send me a tweet at @portergale.