Surviving Scott Greenfield

A few days ago, Rachel Humphrey Fleet started a blog called The Compelling Brief Blog, which was apparently going to be all about writing legal briefs. Her first post was called “Tweeting the Judge: How Legal Writing is Like Social Media.” (For the moment, it’s available in the Google cache here.)

The post caught the eye of Scott Greenfield at Simple Justice, who posted a response. For reasons I don’t quite understand, he wasn’t real happy with some of the things Rachel said, and if you know Scott, you know he made his feelings very clear. The exchange he had with Rachel in the comments wasn’t exactly a warm conversation either.

The next day, Scott wrote more about the whole situation, and in the comments, Rachel announced that she didn’t have time for all this and so she had deleted her blog. That doesn’t seem like an outcome that does anybody any good.

Here’s some of what Scott wrote in his second post:

It’s now happened a few times in the past few weeks, where I question a post from some newcomer to the blawgosphere and they get upset about it.  The problem is that my reaction to their post is less than adoring.  From their position, less than adoring means I have cruelly maligned their intellect and family.  I’ve hurt their feelings and they let me know it.

The way Scott sees it, all the social media marketing guru types are telling people how great blogging is and how much fun it is to blog, but they are leaving out an important aspect of the blogosphere:

The choir is busy singing the praises of blawging and social media.  Create a blawg and find happiness and success, goes the refrain.  Write well and they will come.  No one talks about the dark side.

We would have talked about the dark side.  The blawgosphere is a tough place, where your peers may read your ideas and tell you that they are ugly.  Butt ugly.  That’s the way the place has operated since its doors opened, and it still functions that way today.

Write something and someone may disagree with you, and do so publicly on their blawg.  Promote yourself and someone may knock you off your marketing pedestal and make you look like a fool.  Or worse.  None of the cheerleaders mention that there is no guarantee that you will find love or adoration online.  None mention that you may well find yourself the butt of a thousand eyeballs if your well-written blawg post is not well-received.

This is a great point. Any class or seminar that purports to explain how to get involved in blogging and/or social media should explain what kinds of reactions to expect and how to deal with them. Blogging can lead to meeting interesting people and making new friends, but it can also lead to meeting scary people and making new enemies. You should plan on handling such encounters when you start to blog.

The interaction with Rachel Humphrey Fleet is not the first time Scott Greenfield’s blogging style has disconcerted newcomers, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. The outcome, however, was kind of depressing, because Rachel walked away discouraged.

As someone who has successfully left regular comments at Scott’s blog without being told to “get off the lawn” too often, I think I can offer 8 pieces of advice to future bloggers who want to survive in the blogosphere even if Scott Greenfield says something mean about them:

(1) Scott is not the meanest guy in the blogosphere. Not by far. The early growth of blogging was fueled by major controversies—the war on terror, the war in Iraq, the government’s response to the devastation in New Orleans, and the Bush presidency in general—which resulted in a combative style of discourse that remains to this day. There are people here who will swear at you, there are people here who will refute you sentence by sentence, and there are people here who will swear at you while refuting you sentence by sentence.

(And then there are the mindless partisan hacks and total crazies. In some ways they’re a lot worse than folks like Scott, but in other ways they’re easier to deal with. I’ll explain later.)

This is a good time to make it clear that I’m just using Scott Greenfield as a stand-in for anybody in the blogosphere that posts something critical or says something unkind about you. In the criminal law field alone, you’re likely to run across confrontational bloggers like Mark Bennett, Brian Tannebaum, Norm Pattis, or Jamie Spencer. Then there’s the vast hoard of non-lawyer bloggers like me, the folks at Reason, Michelle Malkin, Daily Kos, and the teeming masses at the Huffington Post. What I’m saying here applies to everyone in the blogosphere who doesn’t like what you have to say.

(But I’ll continue to pick on Scott for a while. He can take it.)

(2) Everyone has hot button issues. They’re sick and tired of hearing arguments they think are stupid, and they’re not going to let it pass. Scott Greenfield’s buttons are sleazy lawyer marketing, unprofessionalism, law schools, and something he calls the Slackoisie.

More to the point, this also works the other way around: Every issue you write about, no matter how straightforward and clear it seems to you, is going to be somebody’s hot button issue. Blogger Pete Guither is a nice guy, but when someone writes a stupid article supporting the war on drugs, Pete brings the pain, and encourages his readers to pile on as well. When I wrote about police SWAT teams killing an unarmed mother and wounding her infant child in the process, a couple of people left rude comments defending the baby shooters. Apparently criticism of the police was their hot button issue.

If your post pushes someone’s buttons, you’re going to get an unfriendly response.

(3) If you want your blog to be popular, then it doesn’t matter what people are saying about you, as long as they’re talking about you. The currency of the blogosphere is the link, and by linking to your blog, Scott is helping to make your blog more visible to potential readers.

Scott’s Simple Justice is a big name in legal blogging (Google PageRank 6), and comment spammers are always trying to get links from his blog to their websites in order to beef up their search engine rankings and attract readers. When Scott links to your blog post and calls it stupid, he’e also giving you a valuable boost to your visibility.

(4) For any given issue, many of Scott’s readers will disagree with him. When he links to your page and says bad things about what you wrote, chances are he’s also sending you people who disagree with him, and who will like what they find at your site. Keep writing, and people who share your values will eventually find you.

(This is also why the partisan hacks and crazies are easier to deal with. A lot of people in the blogosphere recognize them for what they are and will come to the defense of their victims.)

(5) As with everything else in the world, you can blog about it. New bloggers often have trouble coming up with ideas for posts. But when you do write something, and someone criticizes it in a comment or a post on their own blog, that’s something else you can write about.

Respond to the criticism. When the badgelickers showed up in the comments to defend the shooting I mentioned above, I got two more posts out of it. When a prosecutor took me to task for defending an alleged cop killer, I posted an explanation of why he was wrong.

Carefully take apart their argument, or point out that they completely missed the point of your post, or thank them for showing you the error of your way, or tear them a new one. Whatever seems right. You’ve got a topic for a new post.

(6) When responding to criticism in the blogosphere, you will probably not be able to win over your opponent. Not quickly, anyway. You can try once or twice, but don’t put too much time into it. It’s far more productive to try to win over the reading audience. This should be obvious to lawyers: Criminal defense attorneys aren’t trying to convince the prosecutor that he’s wrong, they’re trying to convince the jury that he’s wrong.

(7) You always have the option of completely ignoring Scott. Simple Justice is just another bunch of pages on the web, and it certainly has no power over you.

Does this mean that your critics may go unanswered? Yes, but that doesn’t mean you should jump every time they yell. My advice in point 5 above notwithstanding, when you respond to your critics, you are allowing them to set your blogging agenda. Wouldn’t you rather set your own agenda?

(8) Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard famously said that the best way to criticize a movie is to make another movie. Free speech advocates say that the best response to bad speech is good speech. If you don’t like the abrasive culture of the blogosphere, then start a better culture. Keep writing your own blog and show us how it should be done.

6 Responses to Surviving Scott Greenfield

  1. Excellent points all. The problem with Fleet is that she never got into it for the discussion, but only for its marketing value. If people were both aware of, and embraced, peer review, they would find it far less threatening and far more worthwhile.

    Fleet could have easily dealt with my critique (which was really quite light as these things go) and used it to her advantage. I gave her plenty of room. Instead, she chose to go off in a huff. It was an unfortunate, and unnecessary, reaction, that not only made her look worse but undermined her entire marketing effort.

    It really was an example of how to take a less than great situation and turn it into a really bad one.

  2. Yeah, that’s what made me think of writing a post about how to handle a “less than great situation” in a constructive manner.

    The marketing never bothers me as much as it does you. I don’t read it, but I don’t feel the urge to denounce it. Perhaps that’s because I don’t read marketing blogs by people who do what I do for a living.

    In any case, most of my advice is really only going to be helpful for people who want to have a conversation. I don’t know how to help the marketers.

  3. If you blog in order to think and explore and argue and interact, criticism is tolerable — perhaps even desired. But if you blog to market — to create positive impressions and take control of your Google rank — then criticism is intolerable.

    So don’t blog to market.

  4. Ken hits on what I was going to say. I have a simple 3 stage flowchart process to deal with criticism of my site.

    1. If the criticism appears valid, acknowledge and accept it, use it to improve your writing, argument, or your site.

    2. If the criticism is constructive but invalid or not actionable, respond to it by carefully addressing why it is not valid or actionable.

    3. If the criticism is pure bunk, either expose it as such or just ignore it.

    Now, sure, I’m not a “legal” blogger… er, despite what the ABA tells me by refusing to delist my site from their links. But, I think it still applies.

    When I first started there were two pretty influential legal blogs that were pretty critical of what I did. But I listened, thought about it, and ultimately decided they were right. I worked on addressing those criticisms and I’ve ended up with a “blogging” effort I’m very proud of… if it wasn’t for that honest critique at first, I doubt I would have done as well as I have.

    By the way… in the spirit of full disclosure, one of those blogs that took me to task back then was Simple Justice.

  5. People pointing out flaws in other people’s writing is something that lawyers really should have seen a lot of before. It seems weird that it wouldn’t familiar.

    Ronald Dworkin decided that H L A Hart’s theories were butt ugly and wrote a reply to them, Hart then decided to write one back and the Hart-Dworkin debate is now taught in jurisprudence classes. Had Hart just deleted his blog after Dworkin criticised him we would have much less to read at law school.

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