An Uncontroversial Guide to Being Controversial
My Model for Talking Past Backlash
As far back as I can remember I always wanted to be a contrarian. Okay, not really. But if you voice opinions that occasionally deviate from media consensus, you’ll frequently encounter this descriptor, whether you seek it or not. These days, it’s rarely meant as a compliment.
We are in this odd phase where the word “contrarian” is slung by media professionals as some sort of epithet, as though there’s an obvious virtue in conformity. In the social media era, a divergent opinion is also regarded as a cynical form of negative attention-seeking, in addition to being morally wrong. So, not only are you bad, but you’re pretending to be bad for clicks. Or something.
The short story is that, in the highly memetic world of social media, you are not emotionally incentivized to deviate. That’s unfortunate, but there’s an upside for creators: It’s very easy, perhaps easier than any time I’ve been alive, to voice a totally reasonable opinion that you’re not seeing at major publications. In this way, you exploit a massive market inefficiency just by being disagreeably sensible.
Here’s the catch: It’s hard to be publicly sensible in this way without eventually going insane. It happens because you get locked into never-ending arguments, or you lash out at the people who try to shun you, or you’re obsessed with proving critics wrong, or all of the above. Ultimately, it’s not the criticism that kills you; it’s the unforced errors you commit in response to it.
So with that in mind, I’m offering a model for how I approach unavoidable backlash. It’s been built up through trial and error over the years and has served me well in this endeavor. Am I the right guy to dispense this advice? Depends on who you ask. I have either a great or a terrible reputation, depending on where you hear it from. The point of these rules is to not be reputation-dependent, though. The goal is to simply reach readers and bypass a distraction like maintaining your standing.
Perhaps the model will be of use to somebody else and perhaps it’ll just be a peek behind the curtain for those curious. To be clear, these are rules that work for me, person who’s largely stumbled into a niche that pays the bills. They might not work for everyone. With that in mind …
The First Principle
Here’s my First Principle of controversial content: If I lose a customer, I want to lose a customer for an unavoidable reason.
Put another way, I want to lose a customer over something I said and meant, that happens to serve the site. It hurts to be rejected over saying what you mean. For the sake of ego, you might want the rejection to be based on an arbitrary factor, or some misunderstanding. So why is this the sought standard?
It’s because I don’t want to lose a customer for other reasons, like commentary that provokes but presents little upside. And I see this happen a lot out there on the Internet. The writer or podcaster hyperbolically lashes out at people over Twitter, or glibly insults a large group on a shallow basis in a column. Some can do this and thrive, but that’s just not my model. As a small businessman, I don’t need to be chasing people away for reasons other than the presentation of content that also draws other people in.
The one caveat here is that this rule applies to writing more than podcasting. Extemporaneous audio is nearly impossible to manage, and I say at least one thing I regret every pod. But hey, I’d rather accidentally hurt my business with my own product than do so for free on Twitter. Which brings me to my next principle.
I don’t really tweet, save for article links, and basic PR for the site. I reserve the right to tweet if I feel the need, but that moment almost never comes. Back in the day, Twitter probably helped my career a lot, but now, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.
My Twitter avoidance started after I joined The Athletic in 2018, in the middle of a Warriors playoff run. At that point, I’d been out of sports media for roughly a year, my first son had just been born and I was terrified that I’d fail at recapturing whatever had worked before my firing from ESPN. Looking for any sort of spark, I decided not to tweet during a playoff game, just as a changeup.
It sounds stupid, but this took some self control. As a beat writer, I’d internalized that tweeting was almost like proof of attendance. People were following you for live game updates, and you were letting them down by not being insightful or funny.
Immediately after I stopped tweeting though, my articles got better. I realized that, for years, I’d stupidly been giving away angles in the middle of the game. Even if the publicly aired observations hadn’t been “stolen” by competitors, they probably seemed less fresh by the time I fleshed them out in articles. Without tweeting, nobody knew my angle, plus I had more energy to focus on the end product. People act casual in their tweets, but it is a fairly high-pressure performance in front of a sometimes-large audience of strangers. For some people, tweeting a lot isn’t such an energy spend. It might even galvanize them. For myself, however, Twitter participation was a massive drag on productivity.
Distraction isn’t the only Twitter downside, of course. There’s something about the setup that appears to inspire conflict and encourage passive aggression. You also almost never really “win” when engaging this way. I remember when, years ago, basketball writer Matt Moore took a slight shot at me on Twitter and I tried to take a clever shot back at him. In the moment, I enjoyed whatever stupid insult I sent his way. There was a brief catharsis. Then I just felt bad. Moore could be aggressive on social media sometimes, but he was a decent guy. Going after him didn’t return any deep emotional reward and I had a sense that I’d appeared small-minded to any passing observer. What was the point?
I probably lose something from my lack of engagement on Twitter. Perhaps I could have added many thousands more followers and built my “brand” to a greater degree. When I wrote my book, the publisher wanted me to cite my Twitter follower amount in the bio, as evidence of stature, relevance, etc.
While the benefits to winning Twitter exist, those incentives are misaligned with doing the sort of work people pay money for. Twitter is a good content port for dropping a link, but I don’t want to shape my product to what works over there.
I could probably do 10,000 words on how Twitter destroyed the modern media ecosystem, but I’ll just close by noting a subtle issue with the app: It’s really hard to be an active participant without finding yourself on a team, and thus alienating people outside that team. I have a childhood friend, an investment advisor who doesn’t care much about politics. I’m not sure how it fell into his possession, but he enjoyed Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life.” Then my friend checked out Peterson’s Twitter timeline, saw angry jeremiads against “leftists,” and pulled back from Peterson World. My buddy was looking for apolitical advice, not an ideological crusade. Maybe Peterson thinks the crusade is more important than continuing to reach my friend, but the point is less about him and more about how easy it is to repel people with tribal-signaling tweets. Which brings me to my next principle.
This is a tricky one. First off, I do enjoy thinking about politics and sometimes writing about politics. There are cultural trends observed on this site that overlap with partisan fights. Obviously, I think certain laws are better than other laws and certain politicians are better than other politicians. I do not, however, identify with a political party or support any candidate in particular. Why?
First of all, because I don’t have to, but more to the point, because that crosses a line for some. The second you identify with a party or candidate, you become a combatant on the battlefield to a lot of people, and some who’d otherwise listen will tune you out.
Yes, there are people, especially media people, who project a politics onto me, but it’s a different ballgame if I’m the one doing the defining. I have a lot of liberal readers who enjoy when I mock Blue World shibboleths. Many would be less inclined to enjoy the mockery if they figured me for someone explicitly on the other side. Similarly, my more conservative readers don’t entirely mind if I shit on Trump or make fun of conservatives for making a thing of Enes Kanter, so long as I’m not an explicitly political entity.
None of this is a defense of “centrism,” whatever that means, or an exhortation that others do as I do. This is just what works for me. I seek to maintain a degree of dispassion when approaching subjects that evoke big, sometimes deranging emotions. That’s a heavier lift if I’m on a team, by my own declaration, than if I’m not.
My more engaged readers might notice that I rarely argue their counterpoints in comment threads. I’m not trying to ignore them and I’m sorry for my lack of presence. It’s just easier if I buy into the idea that critics are entitled to their criticisms, and I leave it at that. I don’t want to insult the person who takes issue with my column. Their rebuttal could be incisive, and whatever I said could be flawed.
But I also don’t want to spend an hour trying to recapitulate what was already said, best of my ability, in the article. That’s time and bandwidth that could be better spent on the next article. I’m into a “less fighting, more writing” model. Which brings me to my next principle.
Wait, what? No community? Doesn’t everyone want a monetizable world of active fans? Can’t I charge people extra for Discord or Substack chat access?
Yes, I could, just like I could make money off podcast advertisements. But as with both, there’s that bandwidth problem. One of the reasons I paywall my comments is because I prefer a smaller, more manageable reaction base. I enjoy seeing reader reactions to articles, but there’s no need to spin this off into a bigger concern. Also, I’m a believer in the rule that any Internet community eventually turns toxic. My goal is to head that off by never inculcating a big community. My readers are so well-positioned that they need no sense of place when giving feedback. They’re a baseball team, theoretically working together, but operating as high-quality individuals.
If I don’t completely trust the publication, I ask to either do a podcast interview or conduct the interview over email. This happened a bit after I launched the site and the Nike article inspired some backlash. Writer Z would reach out to do a phone interview, ever so politely and maybe even obsequiously. Then I’d request it happen over email and the request was dropped immediately, revealing the offer to have been a setup.
Like anyone with a business, I appreciate publicity, but would rather not participate in the process of creating a stigmatized summation of what happens here. As with participating on Twitter, I’d question why I’m creating content for someone else, especially if such creation isn’t exactly flattering.
And that’s it. Those are the rules. Try to only lose customers over saying what you mean, don’t tweet, no explicit politics, no community, and redirect interviews to email. These are constraints to be sure, but with structure comes freedom. I’m happy to say, roughly a year-and-a-half into this, that the job’s been a liberating experience. Thanks to all of you who made it possible, even if I won’t tweet at you, argue with you, accept your phone interview or join your political cause. You’re still a valued member of the HoS community, if such a thing ever existed.