“At times one remains faithful to a cause only because its opponents do not cease to be insipid.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
I’ve spent a good part of this morning defending two blog posts that hit the TechCrunch homepage last night. No it wasn’t “Jumio’s Credit Card Scanning Technology Pops Up in Travelocity’s Hotel Deals App” or even “Flayvr, A Mobile App That Automatically Creates Photo Albums, Raises $450K Seed Round.” Nope, instead, it was two posts that used the F-word* in the headline.
Okay, for the record, F-word to F-word TechCrunch headlines is an aberration and not a habit: The total number of TechCrunch posts ever with the F-word in the title (including the two from yesterday) has been five — not counting URLs, stories about F*cked Company, or posts where people actually said the word F*ck, such as when then Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz said FU to Michael Arrington onstage. Several hundred have used the four letter word actually in the article text.
It’s sad, but perhaps the biggest and most straw man argument in the avalanche of calls and emails and debates we got into about this is that there were two F-word headlines in a row — because one would have totally been okay somehow? Two!
“We should have spaced it out with some boring embargoed story about an app that will clearly die in 6 months,” writer Ryan Lawler pointed out cynically. Because we’re damned if we’re cynical and we’re damned if we’re cheerleaders.
The truth is that even one F-word isn’t okay when people are looking to get up in arms about something, and I know because I’ve published one F-word-headlined post (one in my whole life) and it was received in exactly the same fashion as these two, with a barrage of phone calls and emails and tweets: “That’s crazy! You’re crazy!” I still have to hear about it at parties.
The other bit of feedback I heard was that these posts weren’t thoughtful, or smart or somehow damaged the TechCrunch brand because they used swearing or weren’t 100% positive. Bollocks!
What I hate about these kinds of arguments is that they always end up in some version of “You don’t need to use cursing/snark/whatever for shock value” and imply that swearing (or being a fanboy, or being snarky) somehow means that the (usually negative) content of the post wasn’t good enough to stand on its own. Often these arguments come from people personally invested somehow, i.e. people who work for a given company, actual investors, or PR: People who have a stake in controlling the message.
Posting with a strong opinion on topics you care about, with little regard for the party line, has happened since the beginning of TechCrunch, and we have always incorporated and supported a diverse set of opinions. It is a collaborative blog with a flat editorial structure, and this unique set up is what makes it compelling and successful. We have to let all of our writers take risks, because despite the mistakes and flops, there will be a few big wins.
And if you mess up at TC, you’ll definitely be taking it in the comments, which can get nasty. I’ve never seen people rage more than in our comments section.
While at times messy and human, this kind of community-fueled process journalism ensures winners eventually become clear through, well, a process (look at the first comment on this Arrington Twttr post, for example).
What has changed between then and our current time is that it’s becoming more acceptable for journalists (or bloggers or writers what have you) to be friends or otherwise related to industry professionals, and thus feel more pressure and more likely to kowtow to their expectations.
The perils of kowtowing is press release re-writes versus something that was actually chewed up and processed and spat out by a human brain. And embargo culture only reinforces this press release hamster wheel, making people feel rushed and pressured and scaring the sense out of them.
The antidote for a young writer, in tech and beyond, is honesty: You’re not getting paid to be played by PR, you’re getting paid to serve your readers and stay true to yourself. As in, as much as you want to make somebody’s day or get off of work early, you should try to call it like you see it. People will hate you for it, but oh well, because some will also secretly love you for telling the truth.
As many entrepreneurs know, what happens when you do anything that challenges the status quo is that you’ll get to listen to people who don’t agree with you tell you you’re nuts, or a shill or lame and heap all sorts of FUD on top of you to get you to fit nicely within their own definition of what’s safe. People will hate your blog post.
But succumbing to this FUD is not the modus operandi here, as it shouldn’t be at any media organization or startup. As Obama’s vanilla performance during yesterday’s debates showed: The price you pay for being afraid to be controversial is irrelevance. And losing.
Additional research by Jon Orlin.
*In case you didn’t notice, the F-word is not used in this article, not even in the URL, for effect.