The Indignation Industry, or the Art of Blogging Controversies

The Indignation Industry, or the Art of Blogging Controversies February 14, 2012

I think we bloggers and writers of online content generally need to confess to something.  We often have mixed motives — or we face a complex set of competing incentives — when it comes to potentially controversial material.

I was reminded of this by Christian sociologist Jenell Paris — author of The End of Sexual Identity — and her “Memo to the Masses” regarding John Piper’s recent comments on God’s intention for a “masculine feel” to His church.  She writes not so much to side against Piper as to question the cottage industry of online indignation that creates a larger audience for controversial comments and tacitly grants them greater power.  She writes:

[O]ften, using social media to protest these men only facilitates the spread of their message, which is consent of a sort….The power of the masses is the power to grant or withdraw consent [the consent to be influenced]…So, let’s reject the authority of the Christian sexists. Stop giving them face time on our social media. Stop engaging their arguments as if they are intellectually or biblically worthy. Stop buying their books, even if just to critique them. Pay so little attention to them that next time someone tells you about their latest horror, you’ll be surprised they’re still around.

Let’s focus right now not on the question of whether Piper’s comments were sexist (it’s been discussed ad nauseum already) but on the right way to respond to comments we find outrageous.  When Mark Driscoll mocks effeminate male worship leaders, or when Robert Jeffress says that Christians should vote for fellow Christians before they vote for cultist Mormons, or when Brian McLaren so revises Christian theology that it’s no longer clearly Christian at all, what’s the right way to respond?  Clear denunciations, to communicate to our flocks or our followings that these sorts of comments are wrong or dangerous or unacceptable?  Or refusing to give them a platform?

One thing bloggers don’t like to talk about is the mixed motives that confront us here.  Most bloggers toil in relative obscurity, and even relatively successful bloggers are often dying for the next “hit.”  It can be addictive.  My first big hit came in an interview with Harvard law professor Bill Stuntz called “You Will Call, I Will Answer.”  I admired Stuntz greatly, and believed in the value of the piece, so it was thrilling to watch the traffic numbers soar.  I felt like I had caught a wave, and I wanted it to last as long as possible.  It was linked by Instapundit and Hot Air and Powerline, discussed in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.  I don’t know the social media numbers (the number of “Shares” and “Retweets” has been reset as we’ve changed social media widgets), but it spread swiftly and reached a huge pageview total.

I was thrilled for Bill — thrilled that his profound reflections on suffering and death were getting a wider circulation — and, if I’m honest, I was pleased for myself as well.  I wasn’t milking a controversy, but I learned how exciting it could be to “go viral,” and one thing you learn very quickly is that the easiest way to “go viral” is to be one of the first voices, or one of the loudest voices, or at least one of the most striking voices, in the midst of a controversy.

The classic case from recent years was March 2011, also known as Hell Month, or when Rob Bell’s Love Wins hit the blogosphere before it even hit the market.  I’ve spoken with Justin Taylor about it, and he (to his credit) does not keep track of his traffic numbers, but I know that his initial post (“Rob Bell, Universalist?”) on Love Wins received 250,000 pageviews in very short order, and went on, I believe, to somewhere around 400,000 pageviews or more.  Tim Challies posted the first online review in the evangelical community, and it received a couple hundred thousand pageviews as well.  To be clear, I do not think that Taylor and Challies specifically were motivated by traffic.  Their blogs are already very large, and their theological worldview was very directly attacked by Bell.  What drove the controversy over Love Wins was not its advocacy of a kind of backdoor universalism but its attack upon more traditional views of divine judgment as cruel, oppressive and borderline abusive.

But when Facebook counts 25,000 shares, other bloggers take notice.  At best, they want to add their voice to an important conversation.  At worst, they want a piece of the action.  For most bloggers, I suspect, it’s a bit of both.  Suddenly everyone is talking about Rob Bell, the search-engine numbers go through the roof, and a growing cyclone draws more and more bloggers to produce more and more traffic to attract more and more bloggers who produce still more traffic…and suddenly a mediocre book (in my opinion) that did not deserve a large audience in the first place becomes a mega-bestseller and the conversation expands outward from the blogosphere until it’s on the front page of Time magazine.  Some of the same people who were the first to comment on Bell’s book deeply rued that they inadvertently helped make it a bestseller.

Let me illustrate the story with two of my own bloggers.  Both of them are scholars who were asked by many friends and readers to address the controversy.  One, whose traffic was 170,000 pageviews in February, went to 260,000 pageviews in March and continued with high numbers as his multi-part response stretched into April.  The effect was even more profound for a blogger with a smaller audience of 23,000 pageviews in February.  His traffic skyrocketed to 76,000 pageviews in March.  Both of them deserved it.  Both wrote excellent material that helped guide people through the important issues at stake.  Heck, I saw my own traffic spike as well, though it was scattered over blog posts and articles and interviews.  And when we see this sort of thing, it gets easier next time to crave the controversy and want to be the first person into the fray.

In fact, some bloggers have practically built their blogging careers on their responses to controversies.  Rachel Held Evans is an excellent blogger, yet the posts that have made her reputation (and have expanded her following) have mostly been responses to sexism controversies.  I may not always agree with her, but it’s a worthy cause.  One of our bloggers (in a different faith tradition) had a middle-sized blog in the 50,000 pageview range before he responded with grace and vigor to a controversy in his faith community — and after his traffic spiked to 200,000 monthly pageviews, he managed to keep it there permanently.

There’s a financial dimension here as well.  Most bloggers of size are compensated, directly or indirectly, on the monthly pageviews total.  If you’re directly compensated on the number of pageviews you bring to a website that hosts you, then you may typically earn a humble amount, but you can see a pay spike to go with your traffic spike.  I’ve seen bloggers receive nearly $2000 for single posts that go viral.  That’s nothing to sneeze at!  Or if you work through an ad network like Beacon Ads, then you can raise your rates and increase the number of ad impressions you sell after your traffic numbers have risen.

So what are some guidelines we might use?  Pastor P says Controversial Statement X.  We blog because we love to write about these things, but we want to do so for the right reasons and not give more oxygen to a belief we think is bigoted or ignorant.  Here are some questions you can ask yourself before you respond:

  1. Am I responding to a controversy or creating one? Lest it seem as though I was being critical of Justin Taylor and Tim Challies (I was not) above, let me mention that I once asked Justin and Tim whether they’d write a response to Brian McLaren’s recent book.  Each (independently) told me that he didn’t want to use the platform God had given him to give McLaren’s book (which they – and many others – regarded as terribly misleading theologically) more prominence than it would otherwise achieve in evangelical circles.  McLaren’s book came and went, and had much less influence than it would have had if its arrival had been heralded with Rob-Bell-like buzz.  Contrast this with, say, Robert Jeffress’ comments about Mormonism at the Values Voters Summit, or Harold Camping’s comments on armageddon.  Those were already live issues in the mainstream media and they were going to get buzz whether or not evangelical bloggers addressed them.
  2. Have I fully digested and assessed this issue? Sometimes the temptation is so strong to be the first person to comment on an issue that we rush out responses that are less thoughtful – and often less charitable – than they should be.  Never respond to something in the first flush of indignation.  Yes, others may beat you to the story.  But the point is not to write something, anything, that gets traffic.  The point is to write something that full of grace and truth.  The point is to edify.  Give it a day.  If God’s really given you something to say, a day’s not going to derail his intention.
  3. Do I really have anything important to add to the conversation? If you’re just going to say what others have said already — or say it louder — or even if you think you can say the same thing better or more clearly — it may not be worth adding to the hubbub.  If someone else has already done a boffo job, post a link and a quotation.  Herald their excellent work and educate your readers without adding to the noise.  If what you wanted to say has already been said, then thank the Lord and turn off the computer.
  4. Assess your motives.  Even with all of the above, it’s possible to write a piece for the wrong reasons, or write it in such a way (with an exaggerated title, or overwrought condemnations) that does not honor the virtues of Christ.  We should give expression to the goodness of God not only in our words but also in the way we speak them.  If you don’t feel you can do so, hold your tongue.
  5. Remember the power of compassion.  One of the bigger pieces I’ve written was “A Letter to Harold Camping and His Followers.”  I whipped it up in 30 minutes on the faux Judgment Day — and it exploded.  Within half an hour, my phone was buzzing and buzzing with people subscribing to my Facebook and Twitter accounts.  It was not “Rob Bell, Universalist?” but it did get 10,000 Facebook shares and 100,000 pageviews.  The lesson it taught me was important: people are starving for compassion on the internet.  When we think of tapping into controversies, we think of expressing strong disagreement and righteous indignation.  But the people involved are always…well, they’re people.  They’re people with stories and struggles and blind spots.  Sometimes compassion is the most surprising — and the most convicting — response.  Remember: it was God’s kindness that moved us to repentance.

Please leave comments if you have other thoughts and ideas.

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