Blog Fight Rules Of Engagement

Blog fights happen. Sometimes for attention, but most of the time because someone is really pissed off about something. And don’t count out big media, they jump right in too when they feel it.

No one’s ever written down any rules for blog fights that I know of. But there are some unspoken rules and guidelines.

Here are a few core strategies:

  • Only start a fight if you really believe in what you’re saying. Don’t start a fight just because you’re bored. It’s pointless. There needs to be an issue you really care about. The back and forth will help the truth get out.
  • Be direct and be clear. Have a position that you believe in. The world is black and white. If you see lots of grey, stay on the sidelines.
  • Generally you don’t start a fight with a smaller site unless they’ve done something really egregious. Fight up the food chain. Conversely, you have to ignore the countless jabs you take from the small guys. They’re just trying to get attention, or they have no idea what they’re talking about, or they’re just plain crazy.
  • Don’t engage in French-style military strategy by going half way and then surrendering. Robert Scoble does this all the time. He picks a fight and then he backs off completely when he takes return fire. If he didn’t feel strongly enough about the issue to begin with, there was no reason to jump in.
  • Most importantly, don’t just engage in fights you know you’ll win. You’re doing this to fight for what you think is right or correct, not score points. Sure, I take the easy wins when they’re handed to me, but I try not to take cheap shots even then. And I often engage in fights that I know I’m going to lose because I care about the topic. And I always know if I’m going to win or not before I even post. See Blogging And Mass Psychomanipulation.
  • In summary, don’t pander to the crowd. It’s pointless. If they love you they’ll hate you tomorrow anyway, and vice versa. Write what you believe and your head will stay in a good place.

That’s not it though. There are also unspoken rules of engagement. An ethical guide to a clean blog fight, if you will.

Last week I threw a few punches at Engadget, our sister site at AOL. They’ve been on our ass for a couple of years now. They have a major attribution problem, for example, and tend to just steal stories. They also get extremely petty, as evidenced by how they covered the CrunchPad story. More recently Engadget editor in chief Joshua Topolsky tried to kill our acquisition by AOL. And for some strange reason Engadget writers and editors tend to troll our comments pointlessly.

All of these things are facts. It’s a big pile of petty. I was going to let this all go, but now the NY Times says they’re going to write a story about the fight and want my comments.

After our acquisition by AOL I tried to bury the hatchet with them. I put on my big boy pants and I went out of my way to link to them, retweet them and generally say the past is the past. I suggested we work together on an internal call. We even invited them to participate in the Crunchies. Dead silence on their end, and the trolling continued.

So I took my shot. And then they fired back.

Not directly, though. They spoke off record to another blog. They denied ever doing anything to poke at us. They released parts of private emails out of context. Worst of all they brought “civilians” (non bloggers) into the fight. Etc.

In other words, Engadget is really good at being passive aggressive, but they really suck at a good clean blog fight. So here are some suggestions for the next time they find themselves in the middle of some mess they started. Basically this comes down to fighting your own battles, not using human shields, and generally making sure to play by some basic ethical rules so that when the fight is over, you can move on.

  • Fight directly under your own byline. If you want to respond, respond directly. Don’t hide under off record comments. Don’t want to use Engadget for the fight? No problem. You have your own blog and other choices. But blathering off record is just cowardly. See this Kevin Marks tweet (he’s often very critical of me) to understand what I’m saying.
  • Don’t lie. Just because the other side isn’t going to post proof of your actions doesn’t mean you should feel free to just deny actual facts. If you’re embarrassed of your behavior, that should be a sign that you’re in the wrong. Josh says he didn’t try to kill the AOL deal out of spite. He, I and a few other people know that’s not true.
  • Don’t bring civilians into the fight. In this case they trashed Heather Harde, our CEO. Heather has built quite a business out of TechCrunch over the last few years. She is one of the most effective executives and kindest people I know, and doesn’t deserve to become collateral damage in a blog fight. Also, the stuff they said about her isn’t actually true. Engadget also trashed AOL management, suggesting they were incompetent for not controlling me. That’s a weak counter argument.
  • Don’t pretend you’re more important than you are. Engadget made a big deal out of how big they are compared to us, how little we matter, etc. The truth is this. We did $10 million in revenue in 2010 (previously reported). They did all of $11 million, from what I hear (I don’t have access to their data, this is sourced). If Heather ran Engadget, she could get their revenue to $30 million or more in 18 months, based on our model and their page views.
  • In our big fight with the NY Times last year there was lots of communication in the background, and that helped contain the battle. Remember at the end of the fight we have to go on with our lives. That means there are certain places you don’t go in a fight. You don’t publish private emails, particularly just parts of them and out of context. Being able to communicate directly, even while fighting, is what keeps things civil. Once you break that trust, it’s gone forever. Engadget did exactly that. And now all email communication between us and the rest of our business unit has effectively ceased.

To sum up this section – if someone starts a knife fight with you, then walk away or pull out a knife and fight. Don’t just hire someone else to show up with a gun and call it a win. Truth matters. How you fight matters. Whether you win or lose is far less important.

That’s all I’m going to say about this particular fight for now. Hope this helped people understand how we approach these things, and what kind of behavior we expect from the other side.