Controversy budget

28 March 2021
28 Mar 2021
Midtown, New York City
3 mins

When you start talking about something regularly on the Internet, you begin to grow an audience. If you don’t pay proper attention, growing an audience can become a game and a goal in and of itself. But having an audience is just optionality, a kind of resource you earn for working hard to provide value to the public. And once you have a sizable audience, you can start to reap the benefits of your hard work by “cashing in” on the benefits of having a group of people who will listen to what you have to say.

One way to do this is to use your audience as a resource. Asking them questions or looking for inspiration, growing a professional network, things like that. But another way to “spend” your earned reputation with an audience is to stand for an opinion you believe in.

People join your audience usually for very particular reasons. In my case, that reason is usually that people are interested in or inspired by the kinds of side projects I make, and the kinds of blog posts I write, usually about tech and creative work. If I want to talk about something completely different, say advocating for a social movement or encouraging people to change their mind on something, they’ll listen until it gets too annoying.

I think there’s a budget associated with reputation. When you earn an audience, you start to accumulate a kind of controversy budget. You earn your controversy budget by growing your reputation and audience, and you spend it by making your voice heard on the issues and beliefs that matter to you that not everyone may necessarily want to hear. It’s a budget because if you earn too little of it and speak too loudly too often, people will stop listening to you.

Because it’s a budget, you can’t just be controversial without care. Just like you spend your financial budget judiciously, you have to spend your controversy budget judiciously. It’s not worth spending your controversy budget on every single issue you care about, because then you’ll start “spending” more reputation and trust than you earn, and lose your audience. When you lose your audience, the next time you have something to advocate for, you won’t have any more controversy budget left to spend.

Instead, you can … well … “budget” your controversy. Be aware of how much social capital or reputation you have, and spend your controversy budget on the issues that you believe to be the most valuable. This approach lets you sustain an audience who cares for what you have to say, and will listen whenever you have something important that you want to stand for.

I like this mindset of thinking about reputation and activism. Earn controversy budget by doing work that you like that others will follow you for, and then spend that controversy budget on issues that matter to you, by advocating for the people or beliefs you value. I appreciate this mindset not only because it’s a way for me to balance what I say and don’t say in public, but also because it gives my public work a kind of higher purpose – I work and write in public so that when I have something to say that’s important to me, people will be there to listen.

Thanks to Gloria Zhao, whose thoughtful conversation with me led to some of the ideas in this post.

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