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The writing style of aggressive business gurus

- September 12, 2013

Co-blogger Henry Farrell just published an article about what he calls “our new breed of cyber-critics,” arguing that to understand their typically tech-optimistic content we need to understand their economic incentives. In the current era, Henry argues, the economic point of writing is not to get a well-paid job as a journalist or to sell lots of books but rather to make money giving paid lectures. Thus there are various large niches for writers/performers who celebrate big business and rich people (after all, these are the people who pay for most of these lectures) and various small niches for provocateurs (“trolls”) who build a name for themselves by eliciting angry reactions from public figures. Farrell is echoing an argument made by Stephen Marche in the context of celebrity historian Niall Ferguson.

This all makes sense to me, even though the argument doesn’t quite apply in my own case: I’m among the subset of intellectuals who write books and articles on the side, as an adjunct to a steady job. I do give talks at corporate events but, maybe because I don’t rely on that extra money, I haven’t felt the need to adapt my message to what I think the audience wants to hear. I’m not saying that I’m more virtuous than these other people; I’m just in a different circumstance. And, on the substance, I find Henry’s argument persuasive: earlier I objected to one of Seth Godin’s stories as being “bit too glib in treating pop success as some sort of moral arbiter, a kind of Santa Claus that punishes the bad and rewards the good.”

But here I want to talk about something slightly different, which is the annoying (to me) style of these internet business gurus: they’re always getting in your face, telling you how everything you thought was true was wrong. I can’t take being shouted at, and I get a little tired of hearing over and over again that various people, industries, etc., are dinosaurs (even if, sometimes, they are). My guess is that this aggressive style is coming from the vast supply of “business books” out there. These are books that are supposed to grab you by the lapel and never let go.

I also wonder whether there is a stylistic difference: Journalists tell stories; bloggers rant, hector, and explore. Professional journalism is closed; internet writing is open. A newspaper or magazine article is supposed to come to a pat conclusion and to demonstrate certainty. An online article can demonstrate certainty—and, when it does, you often get that obnoxious over-certainty of Jarvis/Greenspun/etc—but it can also reflect uncertainty and a search for truth, something you don’t find much in the professional press. Those annoying internet gurus are in some way combining the style of blogging with the assumed certainty of journalism, the worst of both worlds.

Anyway, I wonder what Henry’s thoughts are on all this, perhaps he has some insight on the connections between the style and the content of internet business writing.

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