In my Twitter Teardowns over the last few weeks, I’ve noted a lot of budding audience-builders struggling with what to talk about and what not to say.
It makes sense: we’re afraid to be labeled as one thing or another. Twitter is widely regarded as a divisive and vitriolic platform where people constantly fight about politics, social issues, and religion. Through these divisions, people identify with one category or another. Conservative. Liberal. Crypto supplicant. Crypto skeptic. So many categories.
Many entrepreneurs and creators who want to build a Twitter audience are afraid to be thrown into such a category. And from my conversations with my teardown clients, they are equally fearful of silencing an essential part of their own personality with the intention not to stand out.
I don’t think that I have a definitive answer on how to tackle this communicative dissonance. But I think it’s a problem worth exploring. And because I don’t want to even suggest that this might be advice, I’ll talk about my own experiences with this subject. For someone with over a hundred thousand Twitter followers, this is a surprisingly omnipresent problem.
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Tall Poppy Syndrome
Let’s start with the obvious: I don’t want to evoke the ire of the internet. People on the web have way too much time to spend being outraged about all kinds of things. I’d rather have them yell at someone else than at me.
I’m constantly encouraged to stay in my lane by the fear of being exposed to a shitstorm. Obviously, I have opinions. And often, I really want to share them. But I also know that people are waiting for this moment —ready to pounce— and that’s something I’m not going to encourage actively.
It’s a dilemma: I want to be a unique and well-defined contributor to my community. I want to be seen and understood as a teacher with a particular perspective. I’ll fight for bootstrappers and independent creators any day. There’s enough privilege and inequality in entrepreneurship alone.
At least, that’s what I tell myself. I keep the more general stuff to myself. I don’t want to stand out from the safe confines of our mostly apolitical community.
And this is pretty common among my peers. Removing any noticeable edge makes us more agreeable. We still enjoy controversial opinions in our field of expertise, but we hold back on more general views. Why invite friction that has nothing to do with what we know anything about?
But is this authentic?
The Problem With Authenticity
Hah, authenticity. The more I think about this concept, the more it evades me. Authenticity is something internal that remains inaccessible even when it’s present. I can’t know if someone is authentic. Without reading someone’s mind, all we can do is trust someone that they are authentic.
And as humans, being able to determine trustworthiness is a substantial survival factor.
I do this by looking for behavior markers. When I see inconsistent messaging, an alarm bell goes off. I regularly check people’s affiliations with known entities that I have pre-formed opinions about and quickly take notes about them if I have any scheduled interactions. Podcast guests or Twitter celebrities come to mind. When I see people regularly take actions with suggestive power —things that suggest self-interest, deception, or fraud— I get very nervous.
One thing is for sure: particularly in the indie hacker community, we have developed sensors for being sold to. We can spot transactional exchanges from a mile away.
Reddit is a classic example of a community that has gotten so good at spotting self-promotional “contributions” that it’s now built into their default self-governance approach to forbid all marketing whatsoever. Even administrators are dethroned for peddling their wares.
It creates a safe space for exchange without community members having to fear being sold to.
At least, that’s what they claim.
But that comes from a very negative perspective of marketing. Maybe being sold to would be the perfect thing for some people in there, provided it came from an honest place of offering something valuable. Perhaps not everyone talking about their work is a cheesy marketer.
Yet we have a hard time seeing genuine, authentic interactions without mapping our pre-defined categories onto the people taking them and assigning collective attributes to them from the start. It’s unsurprising that the discourse in the media we consume often is more about what divides us than unites us.
Categories make things easier. Easier to filter out. Easier to oppose.
Res Publica and Res Privata
And, for the worst, easier to restrict ourselves.
The Romans have a wonderful phrase for the things that concern everyone: “res publica.” The things that are of public concern. The phrase the word “republic” comes from. The Greeks have an equally important word: “polis” — the city. We got “politics” from that — things concerning the city, our society.
That makes almost everything that concerns our lives political. And it also means that anything political likely impacts our lives. It used to be commonplace for political discourse to be an entertaining way to spend the night with friends.
Not so sure about that now.
We’re getting very good at pushing our personal opinion into the realm of “res privata” — the private domain. It’s a safety mechanism: we can’t create friction when there’s nothing to rub up against. But public concerns affect us all in many direct and indirect ways. We should talk about them more.
I should talk about them more.
And it’s right here where I find myself incredibly torn. I’d love to share my views on immigration —being an immigrant myself—financial regulation or social policy, but I don’t want to dilute my audience’s already limited attention for my work. I don’t want people who come to me for founder insights to put me in a “category of opposition” just because my political view doesn’t match theirs.
This is why I severely limit controversial topics outside my field of expertise.
I would love to know how you deal with this. Where do you draw the line? Have you regretted sharing too many of your personal opinions?
I’m sure it’s a struggle we all have, and it gets harder as more people keep an eye on what you say or do. Let me know. You’ll find me on Twitter, where I —quite likely— will be talking about entrepreneurship. And not much more.