This is the first of a DOTE three-part series about the internet. I will post Part II on Wednesday — Dave
I recently read Ryan Holiday's Trust Me I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. Young Ryan is a sharp cookie, a person who has excellent insights into how blogs on the internet actually work because he has worked on the inside manipulating the system for profit (video below). While his book did not change my fundamental understanding of how blog "content" shows up on the internet, it did deepen and broaden that understanding. This post is not a review of Holiday's book, but rather an explanation based on it. Specifically, we are trying to answer the questions—
Where does all the astonishing bullshit we find on the internet come from? Why is it there?
To get the answers, we must understand the business model of the most popular "content-based" websites (blogs). For Holiday, all web sites featuring content are called "blogs" and I shall follow that usage. Although Holiday didn't define a category for the most popular blogs, I find it convenient to call them Sensational Content Mills (SCMs). These blogs get many, many hundreds of thousands or millions of pageviews every day. (DOTE gets about 1,550 pageviews per day during the work week.)
Here is a short (and incomplete) list of some of the most popular contemporary blogs. This list does not include mainstream media sites like the New York Times and its associated blogs, CNN and its blogs, or Yahoo and its blogs.
- The Huffington Post
- The Atlantic (magazine)
- The Daily Beast
- Business Insider
- The New Yorker (magazine)
- The Drudge Report
That list should give you a pretty good idea about who the SCMs are. And here's their business model.
You can find a good definitons of ad impressions here.
In order to get this vicious cycle going, SCMs must first get your attention. Constantly, over and over again. In order to do that, these "content" sites publish a neverending stream of nonsense specifically designed to attract pageviews (from you). Holiday calls this "fake news", and indeed, much of it is simply made up, or it's simple rumor mongering, or it is yet another attempt to stir up the pot, or some similar phoniness. All of this "content" is published to attract your attention, to get you to click on ads, and generate revenues for the website in question.
Holiday has a saying which he tells his clients—may becomes is becomes has. A specific example will suffice to show how this works. I chose Is Jon Stewart Turning Off His Fan Base?, which was published by Salon on Saturday, January 19, 2013. This story represents the early stages of Holiday's rule.
Jon Stewart is known among his fans for speaking truth to power — see his dismantling of the CNN show “Crossfire,” for instance, or his criticism of President George W. Bush and the “Mess O’Potamia” in Iraq on The Daily Show. However, his recent work may have turned some liberals against him.
OK, that's the hook. (Ignore the ridiculous "truth to power" statement.) Is there is a shred of evidence that Stewart's recent "work" has turned "some liberals" against him? Actually, there is some flimsy evidence that some liberal bloggers are pissed off at Stewart. Note that a few liberal bloggers do not constitute Jon Stewart's Comedy Channel fan base as the post's title suggests.
Stewart defended present-day cinema punching bag “Zero Dark Thirty” as having not been made in cooperation with the government and said the torture it depicts is “difficult,” raising the ire of liberals across the blogosphere. (Andrew Sullivan wrote that “this subject is too important for equivocation or the ‘I’m just a comedian’ cop-out.”)
Damning evidence—a conservative blogger (Sullivan of the SCM The Daily Beast) is supporting Stewart (see below). Do you see how the SCMs feed off each other? This tempest in a teapot has its own self-sustaining momentum. Moreover, Zero Dark Thirty is not really "the issue" here, although this vacuous nonsense serves to promote the movie.
Then came Stewart’s smug dismissal of the “trillion-dollar coin” idea floated in order to stop the debate debacle in Congress. While the idea was not tenable for many reasons (including optics), Stewart’s open mockery and suggestion of alternatives got him in hot water with Paul Krugman, the Nobel-winning economist and New York Times columnist.
“Stewart seems weirdly unaware that there’s more to fiscal policy than balancing the budget,” wrote Krugman. “But in this case, he also seems unaware that the president can’t just decide unilaterally to spend 40 percent less.”
The entire "story" actually hinges on the fact that Stewart ridiculed the "trillion dollar coin" spending ceiling fix, which is surely one of the goofiest ideas the humans have stumbled upon lately. That story had its own momentum, but the idea pretty much died when Obama and Geithner rejected it, so it's time to spin things a different way to keep those pageviews coming.
(The trillion dollar coin was so goofy that even a moron like Jon Strewart could see how goofy it was. In this respect, he's a lot smarter than Paul Krugman. But I digress.)
And of course, Jon Stewart struck back at Krugman in order to keep the bullshit flowing (video below).
Now we get some enraged liberal bloggers (aside from Krugman) who think Stewart is uninformed about fiscal policy because he ridiculed the trillion dollar coin. Here's one—
Jonathan Chait at New York magazine wrote that the Comedy Central host “flunks econ” and is operating under a premise about economics that was “completely uninformed.” Chait told Salon that he generally agrees with Stewart’s arguments but that the host’s “homespun Hooverism” tends to “dovetail a little bit with elite moderate liberal sentiment. Keynesian economics is not intuitive”...
And here's another—
Leslie Savan, a blogger for The Nation, has long taken issue with Stewart’s equivalency between two sides, citing the 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, which equally criticized activists on the far right (including birthers) and the far left (including groups like CODEPINK, who called George W. Bush a war criminal). “He’s so stuck on tone,” said Savan. “If somebody looks silly, it’s like waving a cape before his comic bull. And, in a way, that came out in this thing with the coin — ‘what a silly, crazy, nutty idea.’ But it was sane compared to what could happen if the House Republicans don’t raise the debt ceiling”...
There follows a "serious analysis" of all this bullshit, and the Salon post finishes up like this—
Indeed, Stewart will always have his fan base, and it’s not just made up of liberals. After opening the floor to commenters who took a less dim view of Stewart’s remarks on “Zero Dark Thirty,” Andrew Sullivan emailed Salon: “I don’t consider myself a liberal critic of Stewart; I consider myself a conservative admirer.”
That's the final damning comment—praise for Stewart from conservative cretin Andrew Sullivan of the Sensational Content Mill The Daily Beast.
This phony brouhaha is of course an argument among morons, but if you think that's all it is, you've missed the point. All of this contentious back & forth has a point—to make money for all the businesses involved, including Salon, The New York Times (via Krugman), The Daily Beast, The Comedy Channel, and, more peripherally, The Nation and New York Magazine.
In a single web post, I can not possibly cover all the disparate sources of bullshit on the internet, but Sensational Content Mills are responsible for a great deal of it. So the next time you run across some unbelievable bullshit on the internet, bear in mind that this bullshit actually serves a purpose—to make money for those who own the writers who purvey it. (Bloggers are often grossly underpaid wage slaves; sometimes they are like salesmen on commission who are paid by the pageview.)
And in America, that's the main purpose of most of the bullshit you read or see.
Bonus Videos — First we have Jon Stewart's response to Krugman, and then the book trailer for Ryan Holiday's Trust Me, I'm Lying. You might also watch this longer interview with Holiday.