Tutorial 26: How to spread messages on the internet

October 16, 2013

If the internet has any underlying monomyth, or universally shared common ground, or absolute rule, it is this:

People love to see the underdog win.

This rule has a corollary:

When you try to censor someone, they automatically become the underdog.

I say “try to censor” someone, because on the internet that is remarkably difficult to achieve. I’m not going to argue that the attention paid to the range of stories told on the internet is fairly distributed–being published is not the same as being read, and people seem to prefer cat pictures to reading about genocide. But it’s awfully hard to shut someone up, and any attempt to do so may backfire spectacularly.

If you work for an organization of any size, or have amassed any considerable power, reputation, or influence personally, you need to keep that at the forefront of your mind in every interaction you ever have with anyone, anywhere, ever. The reason for this constant attention is to keep you from becoming the overdog and thereby making an ass of yourself (and your organization, if you belong to one). Go read about the Streisand Effect and think proactively about how to keep that from happening to you.

Now, for the purposes of this tutorial I am going to arbitrarily sort the full range of possible messages into four bins:

  1. Those that make the teller look good.
  2. Those that make the teller look bad.
  3. Those that make someone else look good.
  4. Those that make someone else look bad.

Two and three are dead easy and often go hand in hand. If you want to spread messages of that type, all you have to do is find someone with less power, reputation, or influence–a prospective underdog, in other words–and be a jerk to them, thus turning them into an actual underdog. Coercion, threats, employment termination–these are all pretty good and may eventually pay off. But if you really want to look like a complete tit, and make the other party an instant hero, you gotta go for censorship. Out here in bitspace, it is the ne plus ultra of suicidal moves. It’s like Chuck Norris winding up for a roundhouse kick to someone’s face, only somehow his foot misses the other person’s face and hits him right in the junk instead. We will click and tap on that until they pry the mice and touchscreens from our cold, dead hands.

The first one–positive messages about yourself–is tricky. You can’t just go around telling people that you’re awesome. Anyone with any sense will suspect advertising. The only sure-fire method I know of is to do good work where people can see it. One thing you will just have to accept is that reputations are slow-growing but fast-burning. So, again, try to avoid burning yours down.

The last one–making someone else look bad–is also surprisingly tricky. If you just broadcast negatives to the world, that will probably backfire. At the very least, people start thinking of you as a negative force rather than a positive one. If the person you want to make look bad has ever lied or falsified data or oppressed anyone, use that. If they’ve ever tried to censor someone, or are actively trying to censor you, rejoice, they’ve done most of the work for you.

The upside of that last one is that, provided you’re not actively nasty, it is hard for others to hurt your reputation. If they just spew vitriol, it will probably backfire. If they lie about you, it will definitely backfire. About the only way to really trash your reputation is through your own actions. Your fate is in your own hands.

———–

So, this is transparently a meditation on the DNLee/Biology Online/Scientific American story.

I would really like to know the backstory. Did someone at Biology Online contact SciAm and ask them to take down DNLee’s post? If so, well, geez, that was stupid. Why does anyone ever expect this to work anymore? I mean, the actual event from which the Streisand Effect got its name happened a decade ago, which may seem short in human terms but is an eternity online (it’s two-thirds of the lifespan to date of Google, for example).

If someone at SciAm did it unilaterally to protect their valued financial partner, it was doubly stupid, because not only did the censorship act itself fail, but now people like me are wondering if Biology Online asked for that “protection”. In other words, people are now suspecting Biology Online of something they might not have even done (although what they did do–what their employee did on their behalf, which amounts to the same thing–was bad enough).

So all in all the affair is like a tutorial on how to royally cock things up on the internet. And in fact it continues to be–Mariette DiChristina’s “apology” is a classic non-apology, that uses a torrent of words to say very little. Her self-contradictory tweets are much more revealing, despite being under 140 characters each. And in fact her loudest message is the complete lack of communication with DNLee before she pulled the post. So meaning scales inversely with message length for DiChristina–not a great quality in an Editor-In-Chief. And, OMG does she need to learn about the Asoh defense.

In the end, the whole thing just saddens me. I’m sad that SciAm made the wrong call immediately and reflexively. It says to me that they don’t care about transparency or integrity. They may say otherwise, but they are belied by their actions.

I’m sad that, having not even known that Biology Online exists, my perception of them now starts from a position of, “Oh, the ones that called that science writer a whore.” (If you’re a BO fan, please don’t write in to tell me how wonderful BO actually is; doing so is just admitting that you didn’t read this post.)

I’m sad that this happened to DNLee. I hope that going forward her reputation is determined by the quality of her work and the integrity of her actions, and not by words and circumstances inflicted on her by others.

… I wonder if I could make it as a corporate consultant if I put on a suit, walked into rooms full of pointy-haired bosses, and just explained the Streisand Effect and the Asoh Defense as if they were novel insights. I’ll bet I could make a killing.

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