Being Provocative On The Internetz


differentMy friend Stuart Foster wrote about the downside of being provocative today. If you haven’t read it, you should. Because as more companies decide to engage in social media and in the blogosphere, the points he brings up become increasingly more important.

If we’re being honest, he mentions a lot of things that I’ve personally been grappling with for awhile now. And I know I’m not alone.

This weekend Sarah Lacy took to her blog to announce that she’s had enough. She’s tired of being a target and she’s removing the personal side from the Sarah Lacy brand, leaving us with just the work stuff. There aren’t too many posts these days that stop me in my tracks and force me to think, but that post did. And don’t get me wrong, I’m no Sarah Lacey lover. I’ve given her shit and I’ve supported others who have done the same. I think a lot of what she’s complaining about she’s brought on herself. But even so, I understand the battle she faces. It’s the price you pay for being “provocative”. You give people permission to poke and throw things at you. And that can be exhausting. And scary.

And Sarah’s pain is exactly why most companies are afraid of social media. They don’t want to be kicked and called out in public. How do you combat that?

You get the hell over it.

Here are some truths I’ve picked up over the years:

  • Whether you actively engage or you’re just in social media from afar, you’re going to be kicked.
  • Whether you choose to be provocative or safe, you’re going to be kicked.
  • Whether you try to be friends with everyone or to seek out enemies, you’re going to be kicked.
  • Whether you’re pretty, ugly, social, awkward or anything else, you’re going to be kicked.

Everyone is both hated and loved on the Internet. Accept that and use it.

Being “provocative” on the Internet really just means daring to be genuine. It means not subscribing to the same bullshit that everyone else does. It means taking a stand and fighting for the battles that actually matter to you. It’s about crafting ideas or stories in a way that is sometimes uncomfortable for other people. It’s about challenging people to get out of their damn boxes. That’s what it means to be “provocative” on the Web.  To be different. And real.

Being “provocative” doesn’t mean creating controversy for attention. It doesn’t mean forcing it. It doesn’t mean disagreeing just for the sake of disagreeing. I think Stuart really nails the point here:

Being provocative isn’t about being controversial. It’s about being ahead of your time, solving problems in new and interesting ways, and creating awesome brands and products.

sheepAs third-grade easy as that sounds, it’s not easy for most brands (or people). And that’s why people who are truly provocative (in SEO think Michael Gray, John Andrews, or when she remembers she has a blog – Rae Hoffman) stand out. It’s why we notice them. Because they’re not sheep. They’re real.

As a brand, you should strive to be Stuart’s definition of provocative. Will you piss people off from time to time? Will people misunderstand you at some point and get all butthurt and offended? Will you lose customers? Yes, you will. But you’ll also attract the people who will be most loyal to you. The folks who will be your biggest supporters. You’ll weed out the people who have no business filling out your Contact Form in the first place, and you’ll cut out the amount of unqualified leads you’re sifting through.

But prepare yourself, because it’s hard to maintain that level of provocative, especially if your brand is you. It’s draining. It takes a toll. And you’ll have people who don’t understand what you’re doing. At some point, you’ll inevitably want to pull a Sarah Lacy and take your ball and go the hell home. But don’t.

There’s value in pushing people and challenging them. There’s value in associating your brand with something other than group think. There are plenty of downsides to being provocative on the Web, but the alternative is to say nothing. To be one of those companies that speaks in political correct bullshit because they don’t have the balls to say anything real.

Personally, I’d rather be “provocative”. At least then people know I stand for something.

Your Comments

  • Joel Kelly

    Exactly. If you’re not doing anything worth hating, you’re not doing anything worth loving.

    Though, as you mention, people are going to be assholes no matter what, so you might as well get kicked for saying what you think.

  • Lisa Barone

    Joel: Ha, totally. I want to feel something about the brands I’m engaging with. Even if I hate them. If all I know about you is that you have a goal of not ruffling feathers — there’s no reason to invest you. I know you’ll never be extraordinary in any way. You’ll always be average. i don’t want to be average and I don’t want to associate myself with those who are comfortable there either.

  • Joel Kelly

    Very true. But then of course, I’d have to say that if a blogger or company’s goal seems to *just be of ruffling feathers*, that’s no fun either. It’s like the guy at the party who swears a lot and says outrageous things because he has nothing worthwhile to say, you know?

  • Lisa Barone

    Joel: Totally. It needs to be genuine. You need to be taking a stand because you actually care about what you’re talking about. If you’re doing it for fame or attention…people are going to seek that out pretty quickly and dismiss you. :)

  • Evan Morris

    Well I was going to comment before I actually read the post, but apparently that is not the correct order so give me a sec…….ok done!

    I started paying attention to you and outspoken after a contest for a free membership or something like that over at SEOmoz, which you didn’t pick me as the winner for. ( THANKS ) But I have continued to pay attention, because, in my opinion, you succeed at being provocative on the internet! (I’m sure in real life as well) Outspoken Media IS outspoken and that is a good thing for all the reasons you mention.

    Being unique and standing up and saying “this is how I’m going to do it whether you like it or not” is hard, especially for a business. But the success that comes from taking risks and putting yourself out there is usually greater than playing it safe.

    Just noticed that the picture is an orange slice inside an apple…very provocative!

  • Stuart Foster

    It certainly would be easier to not put yourself out there and take a position on issues that you care deeply about. Then again…you’d suck if you did that and probably wouldn’t be worth reading in the first place.

    Being hated is the cost of being loved, especially when it comes to view points. I think what I have learned the most over the past year is one thing: You need to have a team around you in order to maintain your pace, consistency and outspoken views. Without their support? You will fail eventually. Therefore, the more people that you win over…the better. So don’t piss the whole internetz off. Just piss the douchey people off.

    Glad I inspired you Lisa :).

  • Ani López

    great instigators/provocateurs along history had a real message behind their provocative attitude. if you don’t or if what you stand for is really so deep buried in the noise you are a provocateur as well but a stupid one and people get it really fast.

  • Alysson

    Publishing anything online invites criticism. Putting yourself out there, being genuine and unapologetic about who you are and what you believe is bound to ruffle the feathers of those with opposing viewpoints. If you’re not prepared to handle that criticism, don’t dive into the ocean that is today’s social web. The sharks are constantly circling and will attack without warning. Being provocative just chums the waters.

    Would you rather get kicked in the proverbial gut for being a disingenuous, hypocritical bobblehead who panders to herds of sheeple in a feigned attempt to get everyone to like you or for being unapologetically yourself, speaking your mind and holding true to your convictions? Is it better to be hated for who you are or to be loved for who you’re not?

  • Lisa Barone

    Evan: Yeah, er, sorry for that SEOmoz thing? Rand made me do it? ;)

    I definitely think you need to take stands as a company, however, you can probably do that without taking a total, “whether you like it or not” approach. I think there’s a difference between not apologizing for who you and smacking people in the face with your policy.

    Stuart: Ha, sage words. :) I’d agree with that, though, for sure. I think the longer you’re in business, the more you realize you need to surround yourself with people who will keep you on track, keep you from selling out, etc. I think I’ve been able to do that with Outspoken and clearly there are people on twitter who know when to smack me in the face if I’m getting out of hand.

    But really, awesome post this morning. It was exactly what I needed to mentally kick my week off. You rock!

    Aly: Oookay, someone’s a bit wound up today. :p The only point where I’d disagree is that it doesn’t matter if you’re voluntarily entering the world of social media or not — because your brand is already there. You’re either contributing to it or allowing other people to run the ship. Either way, you need to stand for something.

  • Evan Morris

    Yeah, now that you point it out I may have gotten a little aggressive with my F the world attitude. Obviously, the idea is to build relationships, which is hard when you come off like an ass that doesn’t care. *kicking myself in the shin*

    “Being “provocative” on the Internet really just means daring to be genuine.”

    As more and more businesses find their way online trying to find success in social media it is extremely important to be genuine in the things you are doing, because that is how the valuable customers will find you and stay around. However yelling at people when they don’t like what your doing, and telling them to get the hell out, probably isn’t the best approach!

    Thanks Lisa

  • andrew wee

    One major differentiator in the provocative vs trolling positioning is that you’d have a basis/somewhat rational basis for your position. Lacking which, you’d be another boy/girl who cries wolf whom everyone ignores after a time.

    Having said that, injecting your personal shit into your online presence, then withdrawing it later cos you can’t take the heat, is kinda cowardy in my books.

    It’s like promising a fudge sundae with your meal, then deciding to pull it later, cos the price of that is too high.

  • john andrews

    I think you two (Stuart and Lisa) should get a room and then work out some definitions of “provocative” and “controversial” and “real/fake”. Great stuff, but 1938 Loren (provocative in the Stuart’s Paragraph 2 sense) is quite different from Michael Gray (provocative in the quit-lying-to-us-Google sense).

    Me? I’m more like a contrarian, speaking up when the forces align in a “if we form a cabal, we can say anything and pretend it’s true” sense. I hate to see falsehoods floated as fact, especially by lazy figureheads who got onto their pedestals for non-performance-based reasons. And I am especially offended by those who act that way to cash in on the otherwise uninformed.

    In SEO world I think there is truth and there is clique. They are opposing forces. The clique can pull a person away from truth with the promise of rewards (the clique will like you!), but only until those rewards are worth less than the truth (everyone else says you’re a Rockstar poser). It’s a never ending battle… the more bs talking heads there are in the clique, the less value it seems to have relative to the truth. But if everyone sticks to the truth…. life is boooooring, the community’s thirst for conflict remains unquenched, and an exclusive clique starts looking very appealing (the dark side?).

    The best defense the clique has, to avoid having to work and be truthful (or admit they are in fact posers), is to paint the truthful ones as “provocative”, call them “haters” and label their messages as “attacks”. Typically the posers will lean back on their hundreds of years of experience while doing this (even though the rest of us know pre-2003 SEO had almost nothing to do with modern SEO).

    This concludes lesson one. For homework, revisit the named individuals in the post above, and identify their attributes and tactics. Are they generally factually truthful? or are they generally all about the BS? Are they “in” a clique, with others who are full of BS, and is that clique getting large? Do they call their detractors “attackers”? Or are they “outside” of the clique? On the outside, do they still survive on their merits and abilities? What does that say? Explain your work.

  • Dr. Pete

    Great point on being provocative vs. being controversial just for controversy’s sake. Personally, I get tired of manufactured controversy, whether it’s in the SEO blogosphere or on CNN. Some topics are factual and rational, and don’t need to be controversial, but sometimes you have to stand your ground and even paint a target on your head for something you sincerely believe.

    My only gripe is that, for every SEO who I see really being provocative to fight something worth fighting, there are 100 wannabes who think being the next Graywolf or Sugarrae means insulting people at random and using the word “douchebag” 10 times in every post.

  • Lisa Barone

    Evan: We all get a little aggressive every now and then. I don’t mind if you want to take it out on us. ;)

    Andrew: haha, nice analogy. It’s hard. Part of me understands where she’s coming from. There have been times where I’ve gotten flagged and then wanted to withdraw, just bury my head in work and let someone else be the figurehead. But at the same time, when so much of your brand is “you”, you can’t just pick and choose what you’re showing people either. I’m torn on the Sarah Lacy thing. I think it’s lame she just ran away, yet, I know how often I’ve just wanted to run away, too.

    John: [takes notes, stands ups, applauds]

    Dr. Pete: WTF are you trying to say? F’n douchebag. ;)

  • MikeTek

    I think there’s a few drops of “provocative for provocative’s sake” in many otherwise valuable posts.

    Getting noticed means you’ve got to be noticeable – and that means you can’t lie the way the other chips are lying. That’s the obvious. And people who focus on the obvious find themselves at the ridiculous ends of the spectrum – the people we mock enjoyably every day.

    In the middle ground there are posts that make good points but have language tweaked to rile people’s anger. Like, ehem, a certain post titled, “It’s Not the Recession, You Just Suck” – which, while it made good points about sucking it up and getting things done instead of wallowing in self pity, could easily be construed as a “piss everyone off to get attention” post. If nothing else it was a study in good headline/title writing.

    Still, at the end of the day nobody gets anywhere by adding their agreement on a point that’s become common knowledge, or by being “nice.”

    Provocation should be the result of innovation. Shattering paradigms brings us forward – sometimes at the expense of the stone thrower. But throwing crap on the walls for no other purpose than bothering the patrons isn’t worth a damn.

  • Nathan Hangen

    A lot of times it is easy to get caught up in trying to be nice all the time, but then you start to feel stretched…not yourself. I’ve learned from that and try to shoot from the hip more often. It is hard to put on a front all the time, so I just write like I would talk to a friend. It is much easier that way.

  • Lisa Barone


    In the middle ground there are posts that make good points but have language tweaked to rile people’s anger. Like, ehem, a certain post titled, “It’s Not the Recession, You Just Suck”…

    God, I take so much shit for that post. :) Agreed, part of why that post was provocative was because of the language, and that was intentional — not to “get attention” or to be “link bait” but to make people uncomfortable and to make them think. There was a point larger than simply getting people to read it. It’s possible I’m a little sensitive about that post and having it simply be written off as “link bait”. :)

    I don’t think “being nice” is a good marketing strategy (though I think Rand has done a good job using “nice” as a market himself. he’s an expection, though), but I don’t think you have to be in people’s faces to get attention either. I look at Bruce Clay. They’re pretty PC and polite, but they’re helpful. And they have a history of being helpful and I think that’s been a good branding point for them.

    Nathan: Agreed. :)

  • Nonchalant Savant


    I now have a new favorite word.

  • Lisa Barone

    Heh. I do what I can. :p

  • Shashi Kapoor

    This post really nailed the difference between being opinionated and just being aggressive. I think strongly opinionated people are the most important factor in determining what feeds I bother with. That said, there are so many attention seekers, wannabes and irritating asshats that skew this entirely.

    I think this all kinda ties in with what you blogged about regarding using social media as a weapon.

    The most important thing imho is not to present opinions/conjecture as factual (or even leave any sense of ambiguity with this), and to be able to back this up or justify it when needed.

    I think you are one of the more provactive bloggers that I follow, but on the other hand, you are also one of the most diplomatic, go figure :P