In Ryan Holiday’s excellent book Trust Me I’m Lying, he relates his alarming experiences as a Marketing Director at American Apparel, the infamous yet successful company. One of the main takeaways is how online news is mostly poisonous edutainment, although everyone treats it as important. In order to avoid getting caught up in the never-ending cycle of page views, clicks, and profit, he recommends one simple rule:
What Do I Intend To Do With This Information?
Before reading , ask yourself “What am I going to do with this information?” Simply being conscious of your intentions as a reader will filter out the things you really want to read from what is merely in front of you.
As a reader, you may read something to learn more about something, or for entertainment, or because you trust the writer to put out great content. In other words, the information is either intrinsically pleasurable, or helps you attain some knowledge based goal, or you absorb it because you know the writer consistently puts out material that is one of the above.
It’s okay to read for entertainment alone, of course, as long as you are aware that that’s what you’re doing. If you’re reading entertainment and treating it as useful, that’s when things start to get dangerous. At least with a reality show the line between fun and fact is more clearly delineated. Ryan’s question helps you be intentional and aware of the info you’re putting into your head.
What Was I Intended to Do With This Information?
This is a great heuristic, but I think there’s another equally helpful side to the question. “What does the writer want me to do with this information?” Why did they publish this? What were their intentions? The answers there are more insidious.
There are plenty of great reasons to write. It’s a fun hobby, it helps you examine your thoughts outside of your own head, and it is a good way of transmitting information to a specific person. But there’s only one reason to publish – you want people (anyone!) to read it. The question is why?
There’s only two reasons – either they think it’s something worth sharing (entertaining or artistic for fiction, helpful or important for nonfiction), or they stand to gain from the reader having read it. They’re either selfless or selfish. You benefit from consuming the information, or they benefit from you having consumed it, whether in the form of page views, clicks, conversion, or something as nebulous as ‘thought leadership’.
Needless to say, you should stay away from the stuff that exists solely to benefit the author. When they care more about page views than readers, thought leadership than trust, or conversions than visitors, then you become a peon, of no worth to them beyond the attention you bestow. Why read that stuff when you can read things that benefit you?
Content Companies Explicitly Milk You
For established content producers, the moneymaking methods are obvious. Companies exist to make money, theoretically by getting paid in proportion to the value they provide to society. Content mills like Buzzfeed and Upworthy value your clicks over your trust, so they churn out mindless fluff scientifically formulated to make you share. Again, there’s nothing wrong with entertainment, but when the creator cares more about you sharing it than enjoying the piece itself, your time is better spent elsewhere.
Publications with ‘journalistic integrity’ like the New York Times value your continued attention more than your shares, so they stick to long-form well researched content. These writers take great effort to gather the information, create a narrative, and present it to you cohesively. They’re writing it because they think it’s a story worth being told, not just to make money. But in the end, they need you to keep coming back in order to stay in business.
New Web Personalities Vary
The new web personalities play the same game, but with varying strategies. Some place the reader first, like Leo Babauta of ZenHabits. He makes business decisions using the maxim “Would this be better for my readers?” That’s why his websites are clean and ad-free – his goal is to make the reading experience pleasant. This engenders enough trust to keep the readers coming back, which allows him to make a sustainable living off of his writing using indirect methods like affiliate links. His readers trust that he is sharing what is best for them, not for him.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of examples of scammy internet entrepreneurs who use direct marketing tactics to make as much money as possible off of you while providing minimal value. You can see them from a mile away – every word of their blog is copywriting intended to get you to buy something, their sites value annoying pop-ups over a quality reading experience, and their information products cost thousands of dollars. Many of them really do provide value, but it is rarely proportionate to the money you pay.
The line between scammy internet author and honest blogger gets blurred with people like Tony Robbins and Joe Rogan, but whether you think they’re writing for you or for themselves is up to you. I think in general that personal blogs are better places to find content with the reader in mind than corporate ones. Many startup founders maintain blogs just to share their learnings, and make nothing off of them. They’re sharing what they’ve learned, and nothing more. Whereas any corporate interest is trying to make money off of you one way or another.
It’s true that some publishers have journalistic integrity, and aren’t trying to milk you for all your worth. Again, it’s up to you to decide for yourself. But at least ask the question – who was this written for, me or them?