Why is controversy so rewarding online (and is there a different way forward?)


Have you noticed that most content creators, marketers, and other online personalities like to generate controversy? They make a debatable claim, take a strong political stance, or even personally attack another personality, and then watch their viewers and readers fight each other in the comments.

Even major news organizations have taken advantage of this trend, sacrificing accuracy (and sometimes journalistic integrity) to purposely outrage their readers, or at least “stir the pot” with controversial claims.

It is no secret that the controversy sells. But why is controversy such a powerful tool online? And, assuming the controversy is as unhealthy as it feels, is there a different way forward?

The gifts of controversy

The power of the controversy comes from many overlapping factors.

For instance:

  • Differentiation. The web is packed with content, with new posts and videos posted constantly, but 75 percent of published content gets 0 external links. In other words, the vast majority of content is not informative, interesting, or useful enough to justify the acquisition of links. If you write the same basic content as everyone else, you won’t get any attention. But if you write something less accepted, or something provocative, at least you will stand out from the crowd; Even if the quality of your content is lower, you will gain a great competitive advantage because of this.
  • Direct engagement. Controversial content is much more likely to attract an audience. Imagine a social media post that says, “Scientific study finds that most people think puppies are cute.” How many comments will that get? How much discussion will that generate? Some people will say that scientists are wasting time and money testing what we already know, but that’s it. Now imagine a post that says “Scientific study finds that people who think puppies are cute are more likely to be serial killers.” Whether it is true or not is irrelevant; What matters is that this second post is much more likely to get people talking, and as we all know, very engaging posts tend to perform better in all categories.
  • Relevance and interest. Generally speaking, it is better to have a small, dedicated, and loyal audience than a large audience that is largely indifferent. By taking controversial positions, you will alienate a portion of your audience, but those who stick around will likely find your content much more relevant and interesting. Post enough controversial content and you will eventually generate a cult following of sorts.
  • Novelty. Controversial statements are controversial because they are a combination of new, rare, or disputed. In all these cases, the controversy is distinguished from the usual and customary opinions and comments. Creating controversial content is one way to provide people with new and exciting material.
  • Information, research and understanding. In many cases, controversial content lends itself to a Better informed and more robust speaking environment – and one that can lead to better public understanding, assuming they are getting controversial opinions from both sides of a disagreement. For example, a moderate stance on US healthcare will not generate controversy. Articles with controversial opinions on the subject, such as pushing for Medicare for All or completely deregulating the market, will generate controversy, and if you read both takes, you will likely leave with a deeper understanding of the variables and considering factors involved.

In defense of the controversy

Controversy often makes us uncomfortable. It makes us argue, confuses us, and questions our understanding of various topics. But controversy is not always bad.

Controversy can be a way of getting closer to the truth to begin with. In legal settings, it is important to have a prosecutor and a defense attorney; In this way, the most extreme opinions of the case are equitably represented, and jurors can find out where the truth of the “middle ground” lies. Stating an extreme case can sometimes reveal flaws in conventional schools of thought and bring us closer to the real truth.

We can also think of controversy as a way to strengthen our ideological immune system, so to speak. Being exposed to bad ideas and controversial ideas. forces you to think critically – and it can make you take a closer look at other materials you find online.

The ramifications of the controversy

That said, there are some downsides to over-publishing controversial ideas.

For instance:

  • Extremism and political polarization. Political polarization is approaching an all-time high in the United States, in part due to the prominence of extremely controversial content. Outrageous claims push people one way or the other, and moderate candidates with reasonable positions tend to consistently lose to louder and more polarizing numbers. While this has not yet fully eroded our political system, the emergence of more radical voices is troubling to many.
  • Disinformation and resulting threats. Controversial content is not always “good” content. Some people provoke controversy by making bold predictions, misrepresenting data, or selectively omitting crucial information; When this happens, it often leaves significant segments of the population highly misinformed and potentially encouraged to take violent action based on that misinformation.
  • Mental health and wellness. Even if you know that the content you are reading is inaccurate and low-quality garbage, viewing it can be nerve-wracking. It’s worrying to know that content like this not only exists but is rewarded, and that a small but significant percentage of the population actually believes it. It’s just not good for our mental health or general well-being.

What is the alternative?

This is the biggest problem. If an overabundance of controversial content is a bad thing, what’s the alternative? What change could we make to discourage controversy while preserving the rest of our environment hungry for content?

The only adequate solutions require massive reforms of our existing institutions, or a fundamental change in human nature.

Since this is not particularly feasible, your best option is to exercise authority where you can, taking control of your own content. Feel free to lean on controversial content, but create it with the following in mind:

  • Accuracy and integrity. Don’t create controversy by lying, misreporting, or exaggerating things. Focus on accuracy and your integrity as a content creator.
  • Fair and comprehensive topical examination. If you are exploring a controversial or sensitive topic, try “reinforcing the man” on the opposite side, describing your position generously. Done right, it can serve to inform people and make your case even more persuasive.
  • Respect and courtesy. Do not create controversy by attacking, insulting or disrespecting other people; it is not productive, informative, or friendly.

Similarly, you can change the way you choose to interact with online content:

  • Limit engagement with provocateurs. When you notice that a particular creator or institution is constantly producing provocative low-quality content, stop interacting with them. Don’t react to every scandalous thing you see online, and don’t add comments to comment sections that have the potential to turn into real dumpster fires.
  • Support high-quality content in all its forms. When you find creators and institutions creating high-quality, thoughtful content, support them. That could mean subscribing to them, sharing their work, or just interacting with them regularly.
  • Encourage others to follow your example. Help people in your social circles understand the power of controversial content and encourage them to examine your sources carefully. There is not much you can do to change the habits of the entire human population, but even if you change some minds, you can have a positive impact on the world.

The controversy itself it is not something strictly bad. In many settings, a broad controversy can draw attention to important issues or help people discover the truth in a complex situation. But it’s hard to argue that controversy has no ill effects, and that the penchant for controversial and outrageous content is not something we should strive for. Since we can’t rewrite the internet overnight, and we may not want to do it anyway, our best bet is to strive for greater integrity and accuracy, and try not to get too irritated when we see opinions we don’t like. online.

Nate nead

Nate Nead is the CEO and Managing Member of Nead, LLC, a consulting firm that provides strategic advisory services across multiple disciplines, including finance, marketing, and software development. For more than a decade, Nate had provided strategic guidance on M&A, equity acquisition, technology, and marketing solutions for some of the best-known online brands. He and his team advise Fortune 500 clients and SMBs alike. The team is based in Seattle, Washington; El Paso, Texas and West Palm Beach, Florida.


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