Of Flamewars, Personal Attacks, and Social Media

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Earlier today, we had a bit of a brouhaha among the Twitterati of the real estate set.  The genesis was this video blog by Greg Cooper in which he blasted Todd Carpenter, attacked him personally, and laid the heavy artillery on to NAR.  Which then brought responses from various members of the RE.net, some friendly to Todd and others hostile to him, and resulted in this post by Bill Lublin.

Periodically, it seems we get one of these little kerfuffles in the RE.net; I personally think it’s pretty healthy.  As far as the specifics of the Todd vs. Greg deal and all of that, the whole thing is likely blown way out of proportion, and others will address the “personal vs. corporate” burdens on someone using his personal channels.  I hear Jay Thompson is working on a post.  Suffice to say that Todd is a great guy, and if any “embarrassment” resulted, I’m 100% positive he did not intend it.  So count me in Team @Tcar as far as that goes.

But the real issue I’d like to discuss is actually from a comment by Ines Hegedus-Garcia to Bill’s post which goes:

But again, that’s not the point – it’s not about Todd, it’s about the flaming of an individual on a public forum that totally crosses the line. (And the fact that is Todd makes it all the worse)

And via Twitter, there are a number of folks who thought Greg’s post was over the top, unfair, and illegitimate.  Criticism, it goes, should be “constructive and thoughtful” of else, not worth the time at all.

This is where I part company with polite society.

Flamewars: The Sport of the Interwebs

Flaming, criticism, unfair personal attacks on an individual is a bedrock tradition of the Interwebs from its origins as something over-caffeinated geeks engaged in late at night in computer labs across American campuses.  The same forces that make the Internet such a wonderful medium for communication and community building make it also the Wild Wild West as it comes to personal attacks.  Expecting parliamentary debate on the wild ethers is an exercise in self-delusion.

The Internet, with its anonymity, its spontaneity, and its lack of real responsibility is hardly the place to expect Plato’s Symposium.  It’s gonna be rough; some folks are gonna get nasty with differing levels of snark.  Some people are gonna go over the edge, while others are going to be the wise voices of moderation.  That chaos, that rawness, is what makes social media “work” as well as it does to form relationships.  It’s people being real, and in being real, being authentic.

Some people are real assholes.  (I’m not suggesting Greg is an asshole, by the way; I thought his rant by Internet standards was pretty tame, actually.  But I do spend time at DailyKos sometimes….)  They’re going to rant and rave and behave like real assholes.

That doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, or that they don’t have a point.

Tactics of Flaming and Personal Attacks

As Melissa Del Gaudio (@startabuzz) said via Twitter, flaming rarely hurts the target but often rebounds to the flamer.  That is true.  It is almost never a wise strategy to go ad hominem.

Two reasons why personal attacks are bad tactics.  First, they inevitably raise the rancor of the target’s friends and associates.  That usually results in personal attacks back.  Second, and more importantly, personal attacks usually obscure the point you’re trying to make.  Grab a passerby and say, “This is the year 2010” and you’re likely to get total agreement (along with a stare for stating the obvious); grab the same passerby and say, “You @#)8%@#$ moron, don’t you %)(*#@$ get that this is the year 20-f’ing-10???” and they pay more attention to the @$*#@)(% part than to the “2010” part.

Now, there are times when flaming and personal attacks can be highly effective, because even as neutral bystanders might think you’re just being a jerk, partisans and people more likely to agree with you anyhow may become energized by the attack and start spreading the meme around in a less confrontational way.  The best modern example of this is how the Left treated Sarah Palin in 2008 (and still does); the Right for its part successfully attacked John Kerry via personal attacks in 2004.

From a strictly tactical perspective, a marketer wise in the way of social media should at least be aware of when ad hominem attacks could be effective in achieving a particular set of goals, even as she understands that she may be playing with a double-edged sword.

Bad Tactics Is Not the Same As Illegitimate

What I would warn the RE.net — and anyone else for the matter who might be reading this — of is not to equate bad tactics with illegitimacy.  A complaint loaded down with personal attacks might still have a valid point buried within it.

Especially those who are in the business of helping companies use social media for branding and engagement need to exercise judgment as to what is and is not legitimate.  Taking an example from real estate, suppose a past client were to get on Facebook or on a national blog of some sort and post something like this:

“I can’t stand that ***** bitch So-and-So; she’s the worst f’ing realtor in history, who kills puppies for fun.  She priced my ****** house so ***** low just to move the damn thing with no effort — greedy lazy selfish bitch!”

Understandably, So-and-So’s first reaction would be horror mixed with anger.  Personal attacks abound!  Yet, there is a valid point there.  Maybe she did price the house too low.  Maybe she didn’t do a good enough job explaining the price, or market conditions, or whatever.  Maybe she needs to take another look at what happened in that transaction.

A response like, “Well, that just crosses the line!  I’m not listening!” is justifiable — but shortsighted.  Some recognition of the fact that flaming and personal attacks are part and parcel of the Internet would likely do So-and-So better.

For example, earlier today, Greg Swann of Bloodhound Blog (a national real estate blog) just laid it on yours truly:

But, alas, the Shortbus set doesn’t have the vision to come up with a truly idiotic argument against using mobile devices to market real estate. This honor was earned by Rob Hahn, an attorney in New York City who doubles as a vendorslut consultant or a consultant to vendorsluts or some bizarre combination of the two.

Among the clever epithets he came up with were “The Inglorious R.O.B.” and “The Ignominious R.O.B.”  Brilliant!  Wordsmithing at its finest!

Now, I dig a good flamewar like any redblooded partisan of the political blogosphere, but in this case… I’m not that interested.  I’m rather more interested to find out if the point he makes exposes a flaw in my way of thinking.  Personally, I haven’t seen anything buried in his rants that makes me change my mind.  The rest of it, all the personal crap, I lack the measure of respect for the critic that would make such things sting.

Frankly, that’s what I’d like to advise the RE.net when it comes to periodic flamewars.  By all means, get into it — rally around the family, with a pocketful of shells, and all that.  But don’t lose sight of whatever point the ranting flamer is trying to make.  Stomp him all you want, but don’t rule such things “out of bounds” or “over the line” or some such.  Flaming hurts the flamer; but ignoring substance hurts all of us.

As Far As Greg vs. Todd…

Greg went overboard; of that, there’s no doubt.  But there IS an important point buried in his rants.  Jay Thompson (@phxreguy) is writing a post on that, I believe.

Does an organization — in this case NAR — bear any responsibility if an employee says something via personal social media channels that results in negative impact?

That question is a valid one; and it’s one worth discussing.

The rest of it, the personal attacks, the name-calling… well, Greg… that was bad tactics.  As you will find out.  But on the actual valid issue you raised, we all will benefit by discussing that in the days ahead.


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Rob Hahn

Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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19 thoughts on “Of Flamewars, Personal Attacks, and Social Media”

  1. The reaction to Cooper was far worse that his supposed offense — the kind of shrill mob behavior I have seen too many times before. Tu quoque. Two wrongs make a right. You can see “reasoning” like this all day, every day, if you look for it.

    But for my little piece of this nonsense:

    Your claim was that mobile real estate marketing will not matter in 2010 because:

    1. Smartphone use while driving is illegal in some jurisdictions.

    2. Smartphone batteries are insufficiently robust.

    Argument #2 is false, #1 is a non sequitur and the original premise is false in any case.

    If my having spanked you for making an obvious error is your excuse for persevering in ignorance, you are truly a citizen of the internet. At least you had the fortitude to take your drubbing like a cry-baby. Nice going.

    Here's the take-away: None of your butt-buddies were willing to tell you that your position was egregiously in error — factually incorrect and incompetently argued. Those people are not your friends.

    Greg Swann

  2. The rest of it, the personal attacks, the name-calling… well, Greg… that was bad tactics. As you will find out. But on the actual valid issue you raised, we all will benefit by discussing that in the days ahead.
    Rob,in reference to your above statement,please opine or clarify further,

  3. Hey Duke –

    As I mentioned, there is a real valid issue worth discussing here. When does a person stop representing his organization in the social age? And if an employee does something in his personal time, in his personal space, and something bad results from it, does the organization bear any responsibility for that action? Should the organization take action in response? Does the failure of the organization to act mean implicit approval?

    These are all unsettled questions, really. And in the Social Age, these are worth discussing more fully. And we'll all benefit from discussing these issues and coming to greater understanding of at least our individual positions on them.

    As for Greg finding out, I think he already is. His name is being dragged through the mud on the AG post by partisans on the other side; I'm sure that wasn't his intent. Not sure if he thought that would be the result.

  4. “Periodically, it seems we get one of these little kerfuffles in the RE.net; I personally think it’s pretty healthy.”

    Agree in part, dissent in part.

    It's good for us to learn from individually. We can step into the shoes of the other and decide how we would handle. Maybe change our perspective, practices or strategies. Ken said it very well… “a living breathing case study”. As someone who, like Todd, professes to tweet from a “personal account”, do I need to be more mindful of how I'm representing my employer? In short, I haz thinking to do. And that's the good stuff.

    My fear whenever this stuff pops up, however, is how it comes off to those not in real estate and looking to us for professional services. Does it look like a school yard fight? Branding applies not only to individuals or companies, but also to industries. Was our industry branded well today?

  5. Excellent point, I agree.Thanks for the clarification. My opinion<<,I said my opinion is that Greg had a pretty good idea of the reaction he was going to recieve, Using yourself as an example in your post provided an excellent perspective. As usual the one sided bromance continues.

  6. Well said on the “As Far as Greg vs. Todd…” part. Sums up the substance of today's debate pretty well.

    I think it's obvious Todd had no intention in disrupting the barcamp in anyway. But the governor (or the governors aide, i can't remember) must have seen the title Social media manager for NAR and because of the position, took the tweet seriously (whether it was misinterpreted or not, is beside the point).

    Truth is, your title, especially if it's a title of importance for an important organization, follows you when you leave the office. It might not be fair, but's it reality. Now, whether Todd tweeted something that reflected poorly on NAR or was inappropriate …well that's for NAR to decide, as only their opinion matters in this regard.


  7. Rob, thanks for the thoughts. While neither a friend or fan of Todd or Greg I think the take away here is a valuable lesson.

    Greg has some valid points that need the light of day and could have been discussed without the personal attacks. As I stated in a previous comment, the sword cuts both ways.

    Todd, while I'm all for freedom of speech and all, is a spokesman for the National Association of REALTOR®. What we do and say in public (or social media) reflects back on us and our Brand, organization, company, or platform. Like it or not, someone in this position probably needs to temper his public statements. I certainly don't share everything of my personal life in such a public forum.

    I don't think you would find many private corporations allowing their social media spokesman such an alter-ego personality. Right or wrong, it's a reality, LIKE IT or NOT.

    Social media is wonderful stuff and bringing issues into the light for discussion is what I love about it. I don't think it is a place for personal attacks of someone character.

    Bad tactics is not the same as illegitimate, but it's certainly not as effective in causing thoughtful conversations and solutions.

    Rob, I am with you in your question, “Does an organization — in this case NAR — bear any responsibility if an employee says something via personal social media channels that results in negative impact?”

  8. As usual, Rob comes from a different angle and an intriguing one. This day was and still is a fascinating case of SM practices for novices and long timers alike. Valid points made but poorly and emotionally done!? What's the cost and benefit? I side & rally with one I know better, as others do, and the argument is lost in partisanship. All noise and no value. There was a point but I don't want to discuss it 'cause you trashed a “friend” I have never met, btw, a strange world 'fer sure. One lesson, never post to the RE-net in haste or anger! YOU will look the fool no matter your point, right or wrong, and we all lose as there is no real debate, just defending peeps & not the issues raised, if any! Thanks Rob for the in-depth.

  9. There is much to digest here. First, a real dialogue about the line between our personal and professional lives, or if it even exists, should be started … though I don't think this post is its place.

    As for yesterday's melee, I don't have all of the information, so I won't get too involved in the he-said/he-said stuff. I'm sure that there are valid points on both sides, just as I'd wager that all of this has gotten blown out of proportion.

    As I said yesterday, personal attacks, such as this, don't make your complaint illegitimate, but they dilute your message. We all get angry. There are times when each of us wants to scream and yell and throw a fit. But it's best to keep those feelings in check. Take a step back, take a deep breath. THEN voice your complaint. Do it intelligently. Your argument will be far better made once the steam has fully exited the stratosphere.

  10. Rob, I think you know me well by now – I love a good argument and don't mind controversy at all, but the personal attacks just blow my mind. I seriously sat there and watched Greg's video several times to try to decipher facts and fill in the gaps and ended up falling short. Of course the whole thing lost track of the original point and nothing was achieved.

    I think somewhere in that thread of comments, someone made a suggestion that a manual or sorts be created for rebarcamps (it's irony at its best that an “unconference” would need a manual), but I think a lot of these problems arise from lack of clarity from the individual organizers. I've seen Brad, Andy and Todd taking their time and inviting many of us that have organized these events to participate in conference calls to help future planners. I've seen people start out with the whole wrong concept (starting with FAR who recently contacted me and now understands how these work). So I don't want to make your post about barcamps, but the whole point, I think, had to do with the organization of rbcin and how maybe they were organizing an event that didn't stick to the original spirit to which these were intended. It wasn't about Todd, it wasn't about Greg, and it wasn't about a Governor getting his feelings hurt.

  11. Oh, I hear ya, Ines. And I know you're really fun in a good debate or two. 🙂

    I just used your comment as an example of the general tendency of which we all are guilty. I'm sorry if it came off as singling you out — that was not my intent.

    It was just a very useful jumping point for the overall discussion about levels of politeness vs. legitimacy.


  12. Wow, “butt-buddies” Greg? Really? What a way to wrap up your… ah… “argument”. Homophobic much, or just a Freudian slip?

    Inquiring minds want to know.

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