Let’s be clear: Dilbert creator, Scott Adams resides in the entertainment area of the culturespire. But he does so in a way that moves him out into the thought-provoking area. In that respect, he shares a space with Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, and Dave Barry (I’m selecting from the people I happen to follow there are many more; for someone who does this that I often don’t agree with see Orson Scott Card). Contrast this with say, Michael Lewis, who is in the journalist space but has a clear entertainment hook.
Anyhow, over the last few weeks, Adams has found himself in a celebrity firestorm. It all started with this post (scroll to the bottom to see it) where he took something called the ‘men’s rights movement’ to task in a way that could easily offend many men and women. As I read it, I thought, “he’s going to offend many men and women.” And what happened is that he offended many men and women. To be sure, when I read that post, I looked at it as something that was going to stir people up but unlike other posts from Scott Adams it didn’t actually provoke too many thoughts in me and so I didn’t pay any attention to whatever argument he was putting forward.
What followed was a firestorm on the Internet. I think it started here, drew some entertainers out here, Adams responded here, and also anonymously as a commenter too and then finally plonked itself with a long post by Adams here which finally provoked a thought in me. What I want to comment on here is that last post (which is also very entertaining). (I re-read the original one and my impressions of it haven’t changed).
Adams postulates a theory whereby there are a bunch of people out there on the Internet whose path to attention is to find a celebrity to focus their rage on whatever issue they want to promote. Adams actually does not think there is a problem with that per se (its just a strategy) but he does worry when it starts to hurt his broader business. If you get marked as a celebrity, that harms your ability to profit from your activities. For that reason, he thought he should fight back (including posting anonymously). Suffice it to say, it didn’t work in quashing all this. On the PR front, Scott Adams is no Steve Jobs. Although his approach was not too dissimilar and I suspect that all this will not be career destroying. Indeed, if anything, a whole lot of people are paying more attention to Adams and becoming more offended by his vast amount of past writings.
But does the theory make sense? (Here is another articulation of it). Is it really the case that relatively minor Internet figures have the power to launch celebrity firestorms of any consequence? I don’t think so. What probably happened here is that the Adams post provoked discussion and that started the firestorm. Others looking to gain some thought-leverage took over from there. That is, the strategy was a consequence of the firestorm and not its cause.
That said, let me also posit another theory — a theory that I know explains at least one datapoint, ‘me.’ Scott Adams is known to monitor discussions of himself (with the Google alerts system). Whether you are a fan or not, grabbing his attention is something that could put a spark in your day. I tried for years to do this and was finally successful with this post that prompted a short email from the man himself. I won’t quote the whole 19 words here but he thanked me for the attention (cue irony). I suspect that trying to attract the attention of a celebrity is precisely what a whole heap of those commenters are doing. They don’t care about the crowd Scott, it is all about you. They want you to notice. [And yes I know that writing this very post is doing it again. Fingers crossed! Oh yeah, and don’t think that Adams himself is above this — see here for evidence.]
When it comes down to it, this is Scott Adams business. He says things in a stark manner designed to provoke thought and given everyone’s limited attention, you have to believe that some of it is going to blow up. It has happened to him before and will do so again. With regard to the post that caused this one, you don’t have to be a certified genius to see it had the potential for that.
The issue is not the mechanism but whether this firestorm and its consequences is a good thing or not. If someone wants to pursue nuanced arguments, they should be allowed to do so. The problem is that if they have other interests (commercial or otherwise) that could be harmed by the consequences of engaging in such discussion, then for most, that is a reason to avoid entering the fray. Almost every politician falls into this and most public figures (again Steve Jobs is an exception). And we hate that. There is a yearning for people to say what they think.
I think what is sad in this instance is that very few people of influence have come to defend at least Scott Adams’ right to engage in blunt debate without having to bear career ending consequences of it. We want more of this stuff even if it is hard to keep the debate in context. It is far better than thoughtful people keeping those thoughts to themselves.