This guest post is by Joe Bunting of The Write Practice.
You’ve been told that controversy sells. You’ve heard you need to use hyperbole in your headlines. You’ve tried to create polarizing content that gets comments rolling in like crazy. You’ve heard that being a jerk is the key to effectively drawing people to interact with your blog.
But I’m here to tell you there is a better way.
A way to generate more traffic. A method to write more meaningful content. A secret to building a more passionate community.
I’m here to teach you how to be a better jerk.
We’ll call it Jerk +.
Three secrets to starting controversy
Before you can be a Jerk +, you have to learn how to be a jerk. You can’t transcend jerkdom without first understanding it. You can’t break the rules before knowing what they are.
Here are three effective ways to be a jerk and create controversy:
1. Use satire
Remember, Jonathan Swift’s Modest Proposal? During Ireland’s potato famine of the 1720s, Swift argued that starving parents should eat their children. Of course, he wasn’t serious, but by satirizing the heartless rich, he helped convince them to take better care of their poor countrymen.
Satire is simple. Satire is like saying the opposite of what you believe as offensively as possible. You write a blog about social media? Write a post about three ways to piss off your twitter followers. Or for your photography blog? Write a post called the 5 Best Ways To Take a Terrible Picture.
2. Question dogma
What recent author wrote a book about heaven and hell was so controversial that one leader basically excommunicated him and many others called him a heretic? Ann Coulter? No! Rob Bell and his book Love Wins took a commonly held belief and said, simply, “Is this really true?”
What’s a widespread assumption in your field? Something everyone subscribes to? Start asking questions. Is this really true? What if it isn’t? What if the opposite is true? The best thing is, you don’t necessarily have to disagree with the dogma. You just have to raise a few doubts.
3. Be irreverent
Note: Do this at your own risk.
In April 2011, four young men walked into an art museum in France. They threatened the security guards with a hammer (one of them had hidden it in their sock). Then, they used the hammer to pry the plexiglass case off Andres Serrano’s photograph “Piss Christ,” and slashed it with an ice-pick.
Serrano’s picture is considered by many—including those who defaced it—to be one of the most irreverent photographs of all time. It is also one of the most popular. Or, rather, it was.
It’s easy to be irreverent. Do the equivalent of drawing a mustache on a picture of a dead president. Channel Eminem. What are the values of your field? Who are the leaders and celebrities? Make fun of them. It’s as simple as that.
How to be better than a jerk
Acting like a jerk will bring you traffic. There’s no doubt about that. There are consequences though. The traffic is shallow. They’ll visit your blog, but will they come back again and again? You also run the risk of annoying everyone who could help you. Do you want to get attention at the cost of being hated?
Several years ago, I wrote the ultimate jerk post. It combined satire, iconoclasm, and irreverence like a giant middle finger. Before posting it I sent it to a friend and mentor who teaches art. She told me something that changed my life, not just in my writing, but everything I do.
Don’t settle for cynicism. Always strive to create meaning.
It’s easy to tear people, ideas, even whole communities down. Creating meaning, building something that is beautiful, starting a revolution, these require more effort. They also offer greater relational, financial, and personal rewards.
To be a Jerk + you have to find a way to build meaning with your controversy. Cheap hits are easy, but tomorrow those page views will be gone and you’ll have to start over. Instead, create controversy around something that’s bigger than yourself, something inspiring, something that could change the world.
Get beyond cynicism. Don’t stop at criticism. Build something new that will last for years.
What do you think? Do girls (and blog readers) only fall for jerks? Is it okay to be a jerk if you’re able to create meaning? Or is it better to just play nice?
Joe Bunting is the head Jerk + over at The Write Practice, where he is questioning the dogma of the written word, satirizing his old English professors, and drawing mustaches on Edgar Allen Poe. Don’t you want to subscribe?