Lies, damn lies and attention


“A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”

That statement, often misattributed to Mark Twain, was uttered by Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a famous preacher in late 19th century England. He delivered the line in an 1855 sermon that included this complementary thought:

“If you want truth to go round the world you must hire an express train to pull it; but if you want a lie to go round the world, it will fly: it is as light as a feather, and a breath will carry it.”

The mistaken attribution to Twain is understandable given his similar pronouncements such as, “Never tell a lie–P.S. – Except to keep in practice,” and “(Lying) Man’s most universal weakness.”

Scientific American echoes that last cynicism in a article that suggests humans have long used deception as an evolutionary advantage:

“The Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis suggests that social complexity propelled our ancestors to become progressively more intelligent and increasingly adept at wheeling, dealing, bluffing and conniving. That means human beings are natural-born liars … . We falsify our resumes to get jobs, plagiarize essays to boost grade-point averages and pull the wool over the eyes of potential sexual partners to lure them into bed.”

So let me get this straight: we’re hard wired to hoodwink; the Web carries whispers further and faster than ever; and more communicators now compete for finite attention. No wonder that the Internet is based on the TCPIP software protocol, herein defined as as two complete prevarications linked by innuendo.

Today’s screed on lying follows from a post last week that asked:

“Does the Web invite spoofing and misdirection as an organizing tactic?”

That query was far too tame. Outrageousness is the order of the day. Whatever gets attention gains currency. Wake up and smell the Attention Economy.

Consider the saga of Aleksey Vayner, an investment-banking job-seeker whose self-promotional antics have earned him a cult following. I got a link to his tale from a colleague who got it from a friend, and so on. This is a preposterous tale; I’m not convinced the guy exists. But who cares. You’re at your desk. Up comes the email from a friend . You poke around. It’s wild! You have to share. It’s viral. It’s visceral. Truthiness trumps truth.

Or does it. What is scarcest is also most valuable. Truth. Trust. I’ll have to learn more about trusted nets.

But let me end with one of Twain’s more serious remarks, one which suggest that his favorites lies were those that told the truth.

“I am different from Washington; I have a higher, grander standard of principle. Washington could not lie. I can lie, but I won’t.”