May 8, 2009
This is a piece about manufacturing productive dissent online, a subject about which, I am beginning to think, I know something. My first piece on this site, which I posted on September 28 last year, received 46 comments. A clear watershed divide emerged between those who hated my stance on "social media vs. knowledge management," and those who loved it. It also got an unexpectedly large number of blog reactions, considering that I am at best a D-list blogger. Though I was slightly taken aback by the intensity of the reaction, (enough that I toned it down a bit, since I have far less energy for online debate than I did 10 years ago) that first piece set the tone for my blogging here. In the six months and some weeks since, I wrote 14 original, long op-ed type pieces here, which averaged around 9 comments apiece. That's thrice the average on my own blog, where I tend to use a completely non-provocative voice. So I thought I'd do a quick overview and share my initial conclusions about the art of manufacturing productive dissent. These thoughts were triggered by the most extreme reaction I've gotten so far: some guy disagreed so much with the views I expressed when Stowe Boyd recently interviewed me, that he somehow dug up my phone number and left a slightly alarming message on my voicemail. He then spewed some venom at me on Twitter. Certainly, a time-to-take-stock event.The OverviewHere's the list of 14, with a self-rating of the level of provocation in each piece:
Breaking the Second Moore''s Law: Clouds and the Two Enterprise Cultures (Apr 10, 2009, 0 comments, provocation: low)
There is No Such Thing as Culture Change (Apr 1, 2009, 28 comments, provocation, high)
Diffusecasting: The New Model for Mass Influence (Mar 24, 2009, 5 comments, provocation: medium):
The Unsociable, Radically-Individualist Soul of Social Media (Feb 26, 2009, 13 comments, provocation: high):
Grown Up Digital, by Don Tapscott (Feb 6, 2009, 4 comments, provocation: low):
A Social Media Capability Maturity Model: Part II (Jan 28, 2009, 1 comment, provocation: very low)
A Social Media Capability Maturity Model: Part I (Jan 27, 2009, 0 comments, provocation: very low)
The Future According to Microsoft (Jan 21, 2009, 1 comment, provocation: very low)
The Last Page of Web 2.0 (Jan 14, 2009, 9 comments, provocation: low)
Will Your Enterprise 2.0 even make sense in 2009? (Dec 15, 2008, 3 comments, provocation: medium)
The Hit by a Bus'' Social Media ROI Method (Dec 9, 2009, 9 comments, provocation: medium)
Has Seth Godin Peaked? (Nov 20, 2008, 7 comments, provocation: high)
Social Media vs. Knowledge Management: The Reactions (Oct 16, 7 comments, provocation: medium)
Social Media vs. Knowledge Management: A Generational War (Sept 28, 46 comments, provocation: very high)
You don't need me to plot the correlation between level of provocation and level of reaction (comments, as well as what I haven't computed: blog responses and tweets). If you provoke intelligently and skillfully, this pattern will emerge. And contrary to what you might think you may or may not always want a high-intensity response.Manufacturing DissentWhen I first began writing online, back in 1999 (I wrote furiously for a couple of years, took a 5-year break, and returned to the online scene around 2006), I had pretty decent raw ability to create reactions, but very little control over the process. Back then, I was very active on Sulekha.com, both as a columnist (this was before the word 'blog' gained traction) and on the bulletin boards. My posts routinely provoked big reactions, and I gained some notoriety and even a couple of dedicated stalkers who liked to react pretty poisonously to anything I said. I knew that half of what I said would create debate and dissent. The problem was, I couldn't predict which half. I also couldn't predict or control the quality of the debate.Now, 10 years later, I have fairly good control over the rhetoric of online conversations (and much less interest in creating reactions for the sake of reactions). I can modulate my writing to achieve a desired quality/quantity of responses (within limits set by how well known I am, of course), with fairly high probability. On my own blog, ribbonfarm.com, where I try to post very enduring content on fundamental themes, I aim for low provocation. I don't have the time to manage a very active discussion scene there. My intent there is to provide my audience food for thought; stuff they really have to think about. Here, I like to stir the pot and challenge the biggest pathology in the world of work: groupthink and assumed consenus. A pathology that leads to the formation and perpetuation of mutual-admiration cliques that do not talk to each other, thereby silencing public discourse around the most important divides. I think this is particularly useful for the Enterprise 2.0 space, which has the potential to change the entire philosophy of organizational management, not just its IT infrastructure. So what have I learned about manufacturing dissent?
Calibrate your range: depending on your fame, there is a baseline level of reaction you will get on social media no matter what you say or how stupid it is. Oprah will get 100x more retweets for her most inane thoughts than I will for my most useful tweet. That is your lower limit. Your upper limit depends on your skill, but will be limited at some point by your reach.
Separate your mood from your rhetorical intent (but not all the way): 10 years ago, the reason I couldn't control the level of provocativeness in my writing or the probable intensity of the reaction was that I hadn't yet developed the maturity to separate rhetorical intent from my own feelings. It is one thing to spout vituperative nonsense because you are mad about something, and quite another to (for example) dramatically posit a "War" between social media and knowledge management because you think that will start an interesting debate. On the other hand, you can get too detached from the content of what you are saying, and get addicted to the sociopathic delights of baiting and button-pushing. Don't. Stay detached enough to control, close enough to care.
Really understand your rhetorical intent: Self-awareness is key. Don't delude yourself that you are trying to foster useful dialog when all you are doing is creating linkbait to drive up your page rank, or rationalizing a desire to vent or spew venom about someone/something. The absolute best intention behind provocation is personal learning. If you are the kind who is into provocation as part of an SEO (search-engine optimization) strategy, smart people will soon tune you out, and you will find yourself surrounded by idiots and other SEOers.
Dichotomize, dichotimize, dichotomize: Your two favorite colors should be black and white, and in any given provocation post, you should talk about both and pick one. Don't insult your audience's intelligence by offering philosophy 101 lessons on the futility and falsehood of all dichotomies. Not any dichotomy will do: picking the right dichotomy to poke at is like finding a social earthquake fault-line. The latent energy has to be out there, not in your head. Usually in the form of two non-talking cliques that are silently wooing fence-sitters on some issue. A newbie mistake is to assume that any old silly post with a title like "X vs. Y" or "A or B?" will work.
Be careful about adopting polarization as a goal: Dichotomies are necessary to create fertile framings for public discourses. But if your goal is to create a deeper chasm between two sides (polarization) and more cohesion on both sides, you are basically preparing for escalated conflict. There are some who believe this is never a legitimate goal for a public discourse, but I tend to be somewhat agnostic. I am willing to believe that there are sometimes irreconcilable positions, and that you have to help move the public discourse towards a winner-take-all conflict.
Qualifications are your cadmium rods: A friend of mine has a great rule of thumb for crisp writing: round off to the nearest simple assertion. The more you qualify bald statements, the more you will dampen the response. That's not a bad thing. That's how you exercise calibrated control, like the cadmium rods that prevent nuclear reactors from turning into nuclear bombs. Baseline high-clarity assertions, where 10 words articulate 80 % of your nuanced "internal truth" position, should be your starting point. Every additional 10 words worth of qualification will get you 80% of what remains. So 10 words will create a perception that is 80% true to what you believe, 20 words will get you to 96%, and so forth. You need to put in a minimal amount of qualification based on your estimation of the sophistication of your audience, and then add more to the extent that you want to dampen debate.
Target a level of provocation that matches your own level of uncertainty: Here is a paradoxical rule: the less sure you are of your position, the more provocative you should be. If you are unsure what you believe, a highly-qualified 96% true-to-you articulation will result in a turgid, gray, useless article that merely expresses your own confusions. An 80% true-to-you articulation will create room for others to challenge and support you. But here's where newbie agent provocateurs make a mistake. If your level of confidence in your own position falls below a certain threshold (that you need to intuitively judge), you basically don't know enough to play the catalytic agent provocateur role at all, and you should shut up. Pick topics where you have more to offer than the average listener, but aren't 100% certain of your position either.
Decide what you want out of the conversation: It goes without saying that despite your best efforts at managing the ensuing conversations in your own comments sections, others' blogs, and places like twitter, the overall public conversation may not reach closure at all, may converge to multiple different conclusions in different places (or even the same place), or solidly converge to a "you are WRONG!" outcome that you still disagree with. You need to be very very modest in setting your own goals. My goal is rarely persuasion, polarization, conversion or bringing a choir closer to me. My goal is nearly always to draw my own private conclusions from the conversation, move to a more refined position myself, and bank the learning credits. Only rarely do I share my revised position in a follow-up post because that rarely serves any purpose (though I usually publicly thank/acknowledge those I learned from). The public conversation you have caused will likely have too much momentum and locked-in equilibrium positions for you to strongly influence further in the same medium. Further influence will need a higher impact medium. To the extent that I have a public-spirited goal for others, I hope others take away some private learning like I do.
These are just the most important "advanced" principles. But a comment on the 101 stuff is in order. There are many basics that I haven't talked about, like ignoring the jerks and knee-jerks, selectively engaging only those with the sophistication to understand that your stance is rhetorical rather than absolute, knowing when someone is on the other side of an unbridgeable divide and so forth. If you are still at that level of the game, you have only two choices. You could just give up on the challenge of developing your dissent skills and decide to become a purely harmony-driven blogger (and accepting a much lower ceiling in your ability to create reactions), OR you could fumble around and learn like I did. Hopefully it will take you less time than it did me.Venkatesh G. Rao writes a blog on business and innovation at www.ribbonfarm.com, and is a Web technology researcher at Xerox. The views expressed in this blog are his personal ones and do not represent the views of his employer.
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