Viral Writing: the Beauty of Controversy

I’d never heard of Samantha Brick before last week, when her article for the Daily Mail in the UK went viral – as did its follow-up. Literally thousands of readers posted nasty comments and shared her article, while many journalists and bloggers shared their opinions from a variety of angles. Let’s take another look at what happened.

Just in case you haven’t read these pieces, here is Brick’s first article and her follow-up piece. It’s worth noting, of course, that Brick’s no beginning writer: her articles for the Daily Mail go back to mid-2009, and in them, she gives the impression of a longer professional history (as you might expect for almost anyone her age).

She’s written somewhat controversial articles before, but they never seemed to take off like this one. Indeed, in a piece for the Telegraph on the topic, Bryony Gordon wrote that “Samantha Brick’s contributions to British newspapers have gone unnoticed until this week.” What did Brick say?

In a nutshell, she said that she was beautiful – and what’s more, that beauty came with unasked-for attention and little favors from men, and hatred and jealousy from women. She talked about how these reactions had lost her friends and even kept her from getting promotions. She talks about what she has done to play her appearance down in some cases. In the follow-up article, in which she discusses the reactions she got, she says they just proved her point. Both articles included pictures of her, which provided ample fodder for those responding to the pieces – and many of them said nasty things about her appearance and what they perceived as her arrogance.

Whether or not you believe she’s all that beautiful, it’s clear that Brick hit some kind of nerve. As this is SEO Chat, I’m somewhat less interested in her looks and more interested in how she generated this kind of viral response. What nerve did she hit? And how can you locate a similar nerve to attract visitors to your website?

If you read some bloggers who wrote sympathetic pieces, you’ll think that Brick inspired the outcry by saying exactly the opposite of what we’re used to hearing women say. Gordon notes that “In a world where female self-loathing is perfectly normal – expected, even,” Brick’s other articles earned little notice. But then, “Brick wrote that she thinks she is beautiful and that other women are jealous of her beauty…The story here seemed to be something along the lines of: Woman admits she doesn’t detest herself, world wobbles on its axis!”

Certainly, saying the opposite of what readers would expect to hear is a great way to grab attention. And that’s certainly one element of what caused Brick’s article to go viral. Gordon suggested that Brick’s real sin isn’t that she’s beautiful, but that she dares to believe she’s beautiful, and come right out and say it. It makes Brick “come across as arrogant, but that is a crime men have been guilty of for years,” Gordon notes.

Indeed, a number of male writers parodied Brick’s article, with Tim Dowling’s subtle humor being one of the better examples. But I think Gordon and Dowling only saw part of the larger picture. The real reason Brick’s article garnered such a strong response is a little more “primal,” and you can adapt it to your business.

When Brick talks about men giving her free champagne and women becoming jealous of her, what she’s really talking about is power over others. When this power is based in something as apparently superficial as one’s appearance, it’s easy to think of this power as unearned. People react strongly to unearned power; we resent it, and on some level we may want to tear it down. That’s why Brick got so many negative comments; readers felt an obligation to tear her down to their level.

Here’s another aspect of Brick’s article that inspired comments: she’s complaining about what others see as her good fortune. She has exactly the kinds of problems other people wish they had! When she wrote the piece, I’m not sure she considered how it would be perceived by others. Whining when you clearly have it better than those to whom you are complaining isn’t exactly the best way to win friends. Cracked ran an item on six things rich people need to stop saying that illustrates this point pretty well.

Now, I could go into a long diatribe about how beauty for women gives them some of the kind of power that men have historically gained from money or applied intelligence. I could talk about beauty not being an entirely “unearned” power, because if you care about having it, you have to work to get it and to maintain it – especially as you get older. I could talk about the unfairness of the double standard that castigates a woman for honestly thinking she is beautiful, but only nods knowingly when men display such arrogance. But that’s not what you came here to read, is it?

So let’s put what Brick did back together again. She said the opposite of what one expects. She talked about unearned power. She talked about the problems with unearned power. And she complained about having those problems. How can you apply that to your own website and your own industry?

Well, I’d suggest you proceed with caution, of course. But is there some unquestioned piece of wisdom that has been around for a long time, that is no longer true? Challenge it. Look for the elephant in the room, the things that people may not dare to say out loud. Then bring it into the open. Show it to your readers, describe it, explain all the issues with it; educate them even as you make them uncomfortable. If you have a thick enough skin, you might even want to risk making them angry. (Mine isn’t that thick, which is one reason you won’t find any pictures of me on SEO Chat!).

My point is, within almost every industry, you can find a controversy worth talking about. Talk about it on your site, and you’ll get your readers talking – and sharing. Good luck!

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