Matt Perryman

P. T. Barnum’s the only man to win an online argument

By Matt Perryman

Barnum, he of the traveling circus fame, was a fascinating character.

He all but invented the strategic use of showmanship to capture attention and draw rabid audiences to his spectacles. He did wild, crazy, borderline unethical things to bring in the crowds.

When you put it in context, he wasn’t all that different from today’s film celebrities, UFC fighters, trash-talking Youtubers and Tick-Tockers, and politicians.

It’s sort of depressing to realize that your free democracy, which you were told your whole life is about letting the masses have a say in reasoned self-rule, is built on hype, theater, and advertising.

In the microcosms of the online world, this handy fact explains why faceless anons with statue avatars can build massive followings on the social platforms by saying the dumbest thing.

Make inflammatory statements about controversial topics with lots of emotion and interest, and you’ll find tens of thousands lining up to hear your takes. They’ll even defend you against the out-group.

This is not all bad, you understand. Existentialist writers were noodling on the paradoxes of freedom 200 years ago. Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” parable is practically a blueprint for demagogues and marketers.

Complain as you will, this is what we are. Accept it and work with it.

The danger is when you get some bozo like me who sees through the shadows on the cave wall. You start to think you’re smarter than the rest and buy into your own hype.

Yes, your “guy” (or girl) really is just as bad. When you stop thinking your own thoughts and start thinking what the group thinks, that’s time to hit “pause” and sit alone for a few days.

It’s never about Truth with the big capital T.

Truth exists, but it doesn’t come through anything we’ve made or ever will make. Human business is monkey business.

That doesn’t stop the word from showing up everywhere. From “spitting facts” to “dropping truth bombs”, it’s natural to think your guy is the one with the facts.

He may be, he may not be. Correctness and facts are beside the point.

Nobody wants Truth. Nobody really cares about Truth.

The masses respond to power and its symbols.

There’s a concept in marketing called “positioning”.

Positioning is how you show up to your audience of potential buyers. What do you stand for? Who is attracted to you? Repelled by you?

It’s all power dynamics acting through the mass psychology of a crowd.

The best promoters, of anything, get this and use this. They know that what gets popular is not popular because it is true, right, correct, noble, fine, or excellent.

What gets popular is not popular because it is true, right, correct, noble, fine, or excellent.

It’s popular because the forces behind it understand how to get seen at scale, how to command attention from those eyeballs, and how to harvest for their own benefit.

Matt Perryman

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