Coincidentally two different people decided to upbraid me at the same time. Susanne Freeborn, commenting on “How do vaccines work?” writes:
No matter how medically correct you may be in what you are saying, and I am certain you are correct quite a lot of the time, your responses to people who doubt or question you are boorish. And really, I don't think it matters if they are equally boorish…
Your unkindness undercuts any benefit you feel inclined to render. That seems emotionally and deeply unintelligent to me.
And Ginny Rose, commenting on “A modest proposal: no insurance for vaccine rejectionists” writes:
Do you even KNOW how condescending and polarizing your posts are? You make a lot of great points, but then piss everyone off with the absolutes of your verbage.
Why aren't you listening to the feedback? …
Write what you're interested it, but dial it down. Back off the supercilious shit, and quit alienating your audience. You have a lot to offer, but not if you're boycotted, and deeply hated.
Rather than copy the exact same reply to both, I thought it might make more sense to publish it as a separate post.
Dear Susanne and Ginny Rose,
Your comments put me in mind of an incident that happened when my daughter was small. Something like it has happened to almost every parent.
When I wouldn’t buy my daughter something she wanted, she turned to me and declared:
“If you won’t buy it for me, I won’t be your friend.”
Responding as most parents do in that situation, I told her, much to her surprise:
“I’m not trying to be your friend. I’m your mother. It’s okay if you don’t like me. As your mother my job is to make sure you are not spoiled, and I take my job very seriously.”
Susanne and Ginny Rose, my response to your chastisements is similar:
As a writer, I am not trying to be a friend. I am trying to be heard. In order to be heard, I must be read, and in the Wild West that is the Internet being read requires several specific attributes.
Nearly every week I read a post with my name in the title that ponders why I get so many EP’s and covers. I have no relationship to Kerry or any of the other editors. (A note of friendly advice: Pissing off the site editor by accusing him of various sexual acts with me probably does not help your efforts to get on the cover, but you can check with him about that.)
So if I’m not servicing Kerry in some way, why do I get EP’s and covers? Only Kerry and the other editors can tell you for sure, but here’s what I’ve surmised.
To be heard on the Internet in general, and on this site in particular you must:
Write something provocative.
Supply expert opinion.
Buttress your claims with professional references.
Make your blog sticky by engaging with readers in a way that is designed to keep them coming back.
I can reliably deliver 4 out of 5 every time I write about sex, but frankly, I get bored of writing about sex, and I want to leverage my readership to teach people. I can’t teach anyone anything if they don’t read what I write. So if I want to write about how vaccines work, I still must follow the above guidelines. Therefore I spend a lot of time thinking about provocative titles; I spend even more time reviewing the relevant literature so I can provide references that are important and understandable; and I spend a great deal of time engaging with my readers.
Here’s what I’ve learned about engaging within a setting like this. If the comment section is filled with people agreeing with me, and me agreeing with them, no one is interested. Conflict drives the comments section and makes the post “sticky.” People come back to see what nasty accusations others have flung at me this time and to see whether I tolerate the accusations or make the accuser look foolish. I give as good as I get, and people find that entertaining.
Am I alienating my audience? Certainly I am alienating some people, but, frankly, I’m amazed that people think I am being mean when I respond to ridiculous assertions and vile comments with demands to supply proof. One thing I know for sure, though, is that my audience increases.
And those nasty posts written about me? They are free advertising. I’m surprised that people don’t understand that. Every post written about me is not an insult, but is a small victory. It shows that what I write has hit the mark, has elicited strong feelings, has made people think. And of course every post written about me increases my readership.
Do I change people’s minds on the topics that are important to me? Certainly I don’t change the minds of the commenters, but nothing is going to change their minds. I could supply all the proof in the world, but they are resistant to both evidence and persuasion. But I’m not trying to change their minds. I’m aiming for everyone else, the vast middle that isn’t sure what to think, but is willing to read anything entertaining and ponder the points that I make.
So Susanne and Ginny Rose, I would be going about it all wrong if I were trying to influence people by making friends. But I’m not trying to make new friends. I’m trying to be heard. And I cannot be heard if I am not read. And I will not be read if I am not both entertaining and provocative.