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The Art of Constructive Controversy on Your Blog


Without a doubt, controversy can drive tons of traffic to your blog. I do, however, believe that many if not most bloggers out there are going about this in a destructive way. Controversy is the cholesterol of the blogging world: there are both good and bad forms. Both drive traffic, but if you perfect the art of good controversy – what I like to call constructive controversy – you can reap the benefits beyond a spike in traffic that doesn’t stick and a plethora of emotionally-charged comments on a single post.

What is Constructive Controversy?

Constructive controversy is like constructive criticism; it can sting, but ultimately, the conversation is helpful. You could take a tone that is accusing or snarky if that’s the style you want to use, but you have to do more than pontificate. A constructively controversial post follows these guidelines:

  • Research or real-life examples are given to back up the opinion.
  • The alternate view is considered, not dismissed.
  • The post starts a conversation about the topic – and it’s a conversation that really matters.
  • The opinions in the post are genuine, not manufactured for the sake of a good post.
  • The post attacks ideas, schools of thought, practices and the like – not things people can’t control like gender or race. (I like to call this the no name-calling rule.)

The post “Why 150 Followers Is All You Really Need” from Srini Rao is old, but a good example of constructive controversy. Writing this post, Srini had to have known that some people wouldn’t like it. Most Twitter tips are about how to get more followers. But within the post, he used examples to back up his opinion, and the post was about starting a conversation about why we care so much about quantity and ignore quality.

Another great example is “Are Universities Giving Hall Passes for Hate” (warning: link goes to a post with strong language and is on a NSFW blog, though the post itself is SFW) by Erika Napoletano. In this post, Erica writes strong opinions about an event in the news, and not everyone in the comments section agrees with her. But it’s a post supported by facts and opens a dialogue. On Erika’s own site, Redhead Writing, she often publishes posts in this vein – very opinionated and very snarky, but also a way to get everyone talking about the topic at hand.

Whether or not you agree with the post has nothing to do with whether the post is constructive controversy or not. It’s about the goals of the post, not about the message.

What is Destructive Controversy?

The antithesis of constructive controversy is destructive controversy. As the name implies, this kind of controversy isn’t about creating conversations. It’s about destroying them.

Sometimes, these posts attack people, not for doing bad (or perceived bad) things, but for being female or gay or whatever the hate flavor of the day might be.

Usually, destructive controversy bloggers are the first to cry “free speech!” but often they heavily moderate comments to only include those that agree with the post. It doesn’t matter if a comment was constructive or not. Or, sometimes, these bloggers take the complete opposite approach and don’t moderate comments at all. They stay out of the comments section, just opening it to be a free-for-all between trolls and legitimate commenters.

Destructive controversy is usually really smart. The post is written to play on people’s emotions, fears, and ignorance. The goal is not to start a conversation, but rather to beat people down so the blogger can stand over the pile of bodies triumphant. Bloggers who write destructive controvery blog posts have, in my experiences, low self esteem and the need to stroke their own egos.

In some cases, the controversy is manufactured – the blogger doesn’t actually believe what he/she is saying or at least does not feel very strongly about the subject. It’s all rhetoric to bait people. Destructive controversy usually comes attached to a sensationalist headline. The goal is to get as much traffic as possible, simply for personal gain.

I’m not going to link you to examples of destructive controversy. You know who they are. It’s a fine line that some bloggers walk between constructive and destructive, but we’ve all read posts that were little more than troll comments (for the record, this is a really good post about what a troll is, because a lot of people use the term incorrectly).

The Controversy Tsunami

Of course, I’m advocating that you write posts that are constructive, not destructive. But even if  you choose every word very carefully to be as diplomatic as possible, prepare for the storm that may be heading your way. If you choose instead to take a more accusing or even mean tone (and yes, you can still be constructive this way), prepare for the storm that is definitely heading your way.

A few facts about humans on the Internet:

  • When you voice an opinion, there will always be people who disagree. Some may be nasty about it, so a thick skin is necessary. Beyond that, however, be prepared for the trolls you’re going to attract. These aren’t just people who disagree. These are people who’s purpose is to disrupt the conversation, attack you personally to hurt you, and otherwise be destructive even when your post is constructive.
  • Stupidity breeds stupidity. In other words, once one troll shows up, you can usually expect more. You can also expect commenters to start attacking one another, especially when there’s a troll loose in your comments section.

So be prepared. It’s like a tidal wave – if you’ve written an interesting post that goes viral, you might see hundreds of comments in the span of an hour or two. If you lose control, it’s hard to regain it. Controversial posts are not posts you want to schedule to go live while you’re on vacation.

Controversy online, when done well, can lead to really interesting new ideas about topics that often divide people. It’s an art, though, to do controversy the right way, an art that I’m perhaps still learning myself. What’s important is not that you master this art before you publish controversial posts, though, but that you realize you’re a student. Aim to be constructive when you’re controversial, and you’ll be adding value to the entire online community and solidifying yourself as someone with a blog worth reading, not just dumping sludge on the Internet and basking in short-lived, negative glory.

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  • Diana Schneidman

    Allison, I appreciate your distinction between constructive and destructive controversy. Sometimes i don’t recognize that something I’ve written is controversial. It’s so surprising when readers have what to me is a totally unexpected point of view. I once wrote a post referring to the women’s movement, which didn’t strike me as controversial at all. Then I have an “expert” evaluate my site who recommended staying away from such controversial topics. Oh, well, you can’t please everyone, and if you do, it’s pretty darn boring.

    • WordsDoneWrite

       @Diana Schneidman Diana, pleasing everyone can be boring, huh? I’ve had that same experience. Something I think is benign takes an unexpected turn. Oftentimes, however, those have been my most popular posts, though.

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