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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  • Jenell

    Yes! So well-put.

  • “Are you an organ donor?” “No, but I once gave an old piano to the Salvation Army.”

  • Excellent post and on a subject that I have thought about before. In the world of journalism controversy sells, not to mention causes attention to the one who wrote the piece.
    I am a book blog reviewer. I review Christian fiction and non-fiction books. I feel that’s my calling.
    I try and stay away from controversy, because after a while too many people offer their opinions and before long it becomes redundant, boring.

  • Thank you for this post. I have a much smaller blog than the ones referenced above, and have tried to keep my posts above these controversies. While I do think there is merit in informing and properly critiquing, my focus is on the gospel interrupting the ordinary. Sometimes I feel like the high-traffic blogs are like the tabloid isles in the checkout line, giving each other credence and clout by using the big names. That’s not really the ordinary story for most of us. That being said, I value good book reviews. Unfortunately, much of these controversial guys get all the coverage, while faithful authors don’t get noticed.

  • Extremely helpful, and challenging too. Thanks, Tim.

  • Tim Seitz-Brown


    Since you are a Stanford guy, then you are probably familiar with the work of Rene Girard and his work on mimetic rivalry, scapegaoting, sacrifice, and violence. I think your post is related to mimetic rivalry. It seems clear to me that this process is at work everywhere, including the blogging world.

    We need the positive mimesis of Jesus, the salvation through Christ, now more than ever!

    Peace and joy to you, Another Timothy

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Great perspective, Tim. Thanks for that.

    • Mike M.

      Excellent point about how these concepts from Girard’s work apply here. This reminds me that I am long overdue to re-examine the two Girard texts in my personal library: I See Satan Fall Like Lightning and Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky (the latter of which reminds me…. I am long overdue to revisit my favorite Dostoevsky novels!)

  • Randy

    This is good advice for ANY pending criticism we might be formulating toward anyone. Put on the brakes and think. Let the heat dissipate. Bring the matter back under Christ’s love and lordship, then see what’s left that will build others up according to their need. How practical is that Scripture?

  • Well said. All of us who blog face the very temptations you outline. It is difficult to watch your blog get ignored when you’ve written what you consider interesting material only to see other people gain visitors for publishing the spectacular and controversial. I hope we can learn from what you said and seek to avoid giving a platform to some of the crazy things people say and do.

  • Daalch

    Good show Timothy. You are wise beyond your years. That from one who just turned 59 today.

  • Bob Myers

    “People are starving for compassion”- great insight, and couple that with the fact that compassion is the innermost emotion that the Holy Spirit pinpoints and reveals to us when describing Jesus’ inner life, it should shape Christian blogs more.
    Trivial example perhaps is Whitney Houston. I led a discussion at my church of how Whitney Houston was a shaft of light/glory from God (ala C.S. Lewis’ essay the Weight of Glory) , a voice that made atheists believe in God and call her “gifted”, and a person just like the rest of us, whose sin is more than we can handle in our own strength.

    Contrast that with the graceless response of Bill O’Reilly or others defining her by her weaknesses.

    The reality is, I made a case that Whitney was a “better Christian” than me.

    One piece of evidence, in a 2009 interview with Oprah asking her,”Who do you love?” Whitney immediately answered THE LORD!”. And explained why, with bold eloquence and self humbling. Not sure I would have done so well or answered so affectionately and publicly about Jesus!

    Again, so often our Christian blogs have the compassion of the Sanhedrin, and the tone of Fox News, or MSNBC’s political debate shows….

  • I appreciate your thoughts here, Timothy. Some fantastic reminders in your list.

    I do want to push back on one thing just a little – I didn’t build my blogging career by writing about sexism. I built my blogging career on hard work.

    I was piddling along with pretty average pageviews and visits until last year when I decided to deliberately focus on growing my blog. I started by taking notes on what more successful bloggers were doing. I spent weeks making lists on how to improve. Then I made two major changes that sent my blog traffic soaring:

    1) I began putting up a post every day (or at least five days a week)
    2) I began trying to serve as a RESOURCE for my readers by including more interviews, reviews, guest posts, links, videos, etc.

    When I did those two things, my traffic doubled within one month. And when I kept doing them, it continued to grow. (You will notice that Scot McKnight and Tim Challies follow those two rules as well.)

    My blog is successful because I consistently work hard at it. That’s not the most exciting explanation, but it’s true. My post popular post of all time, by the way, had nothing to do with sexism:

    Of course, the posts I’ve written critiquing Jon Piper and Mark Driscoll always get a big response. But it’s not because I don’t put the same amount of love and hard work into post about prayer, social justice, grace, and unity.

    I’m not pushing back because I feel defensive…(okay, so maybe I feel a little defensive)…but because I often hear bloggers complain that no one reads their blog and that it must be because, unlike people like me, they only write constructive, unifying posts

    When I hear this I always ask: Do you write consistently, at least three times a week? and Have you contributed guest posts to other blogs to get your name out there?

    Nine times out of ten they say, “no.”

    Just trying to demystify this a bit. Successful blogging has a lot more to do with hard work and consistency than controversy.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I’m sorry to make you feel even a little bit defensive, Rachel. There is no doubt, none whatsoever, that you have worked hard and earned your following. You write consistently thoughtful and helpful material, day in and day out. I don’t wish to take anything away from that. (I know how hard it is to write an original post every day — partly because I’ve never been able to do it myself!).

      That said, I do think your responses so some of the sexism controversies (and, again, that’s a perfectly noble thing to do) have helped you rise into a different rank of blogger. I have bloggers who write daily and remain in the 25-50K range, even though they’re strong bloggers. When a couple were able to write viral pieces on controversial issues, they vaulted into a new traffica category. That’s a fine thing. Whenever there’s a controversy over gender roles or etc., people want to hear your take. That’s an accomplishment in itself.

      In any case, I should have followed my own rules and thought through how this would sound. Thanks for supplying what I had left out. Sincerely.

      • Oh yes. There’s no doubt that a controversial post will send your numbers soaring. But I don’t think they inspire readers to stay for the long run. For that,you have to write consistently and constructively.

        Good conversation! Thanks for starting it, and for being so gracious.

  • This seems like a lot of projecting. YOU confess to mixed motives, therefore the rest of us supposedly also have mixed motives? Honestly, I don’t even think like that when it comes to my blog. And I would agree with Rachel. My blog has grown because I’ve worked hard at it. Yes, I tackle controversial subjects, but my biggest pieces are often the narrative-driven personal stories. There is a difference between popular and influential–sure, there is crossover, but I don’t measure my blog’s popularity based on pageviews alone or which big site linked to it. I measure it based on the authentic relationships I’ve developed with real readers. I connect at the heart, not at the “bottom line.” There are many ways to become a “Big Blogger” and not all of them can be measured by the standard you’ve laid out, here.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I’m just assuming that other bloggers are human like I am and susceptible to temptation. When you’re working hard to grow your following, the temptations can be strong to jump into a controversy or beat other people to a story, without really taking the time to digest and make sure one is being constructive and compassionate. But these are just general observations. I don’t assume they apply to everyone.

      I strongly agree with your last point. Blogs can be successful in a very meaningful sense if they form 10 enduring relationships between an author and her readers. Or it can be successful if if reaches 100 regular readers, but they’re readers with influence and so the blogger is having an impact. Or it can be successful if it draws 20K visitors daily. There are many, many models of blogging.

  • I agree that for many bloggers the allure of increasing hits can make a writer a bandwagon jumper or out right attacker. Attacking someone gets attention. period. I even seen bloggers write –about– the attacking w/o exactly attacking in order to look above the fray, but yet get those oh so lovely hit spikes. It really doesn’t build readership though. That comes with consistency. .. writing often with good content.

    This month, I’ve suspending my blogging. It’s refreshing. I usually post 3-4 times per week, and it’s amazing how it become a plexi-glass prison. (You don’t realize how it’s become your master b/c the bars are transparent.)

    I just may need to put my spiritual formation training into a needed niche “Spiritual Growth for Bloggers”…maybe what works for me will help others.

    Yep. by March 1, expect a post on just that “9 Things Christian Bloggers Should Know for Consistent Growth” or something like that.

    ….(and I won’t even drop names to get hits…uhem…like you did, Tim.) You sure got Rachel’s attention…And that is so fun and easy to spin into a blog spike for both of you! What a honey trap, eh?

  • Jay

    Why the dig at Brian McLaren? Thats a pretty big accusation just to drop in your blog and pass over. It makes your post all the more ironic.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      “All the more” ironic? What made it ironic in the first place, in addition to the Brian McLaren dig?

      I had given a few examples from the “Right” of folks who push the boundaries (Driscoll, Piper, Jeffress) and felt that I should give an example of someone from the “Left” (thus McLaren). It would have been ironic if I were trying to profit off of a McLaren controversy, but that’s clearly not the intention here. And note, I didn’t say that it’s no longer Christian, I said it’s no longer “clearly” Christian (or such at least was the conversation). I’m pointing to a controversy coming from the Left margin of American evangelical Christendom, not really taking a position.

      Hope you’re doing well, though, Jay. All going well with your church?

  • Very well put, Timothy. Thank you!