Schopenhauer said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”
I’ve always loved that quote. I’ve lived with ridicule and violent opposition once or twice myself. Schopenhauer came in useful again not so long ago.
The thing is, challenging can be a lonely and exposed way of life, and this reality is not discussed often enough in amongst the celebrations of success we mostly see on this site. If your idea is currently being ridiculed, read on. This may not help you sell it, but you may get some solace from the familiarity of the situation.
Early in 2011 eatbigfish began talks with a startup challenger to Facebook. We were to provide strategic guidance as to how to challenge the world’s latest Goliath. Once properly framed, we were also to offer a sneak preview of the site to some of our clients in the hopes of securing their interest in becoming founding strategic partners in the new venture.
Now, the venture ultimately failed. It had a dumb name, a worse UI, a rather unsubtle sense of how to market the thing, and a CEO who was hard to coach. Safe to say this project was not one of my favorites from last year.
But it was the second part of the deal — taking the idea to our clients — that was the risk for us. We work hard to earn the trust of clients, creating bold ideas together, over time, built on insight and the business case for the challenge. This would require us to put some of our trust equity on the line, showing up cold with something kind of out there.
So this is a story not about specifics of the idea, but about:
• How unconventional and audacious ideas are nearly always received with skepticism, even hostility
• How the circular logic of herd behavior is nearly always ‘right’ in its own self-fulfilling way
• What it feels like to be the messenger up against all this
• How timing is always critical (as has been discussed over here)
This model sounds quite reasonable now, doesn’t it? But this was the idea that was met with some ridicule and not a little hostility just a year ago.
The audience just did not see the issue with Facebook’s model. Partly because they had an advertisers lens on it:
“I want to create even more opportunities to advertise to Facebook users, not less”
“The user experience is FB’s issue. We want to do homepage takeovers!”
And partly because they thought the premise was wrong:
“This generation doesn’t give a shit about privacy.”
Neither of these points of view is wrong per se, it was the absolutist view of the situation that surprised me.
How about “most of this generation don’t give a shit about privacy” leaving open the possibility for an alternative, one worth backing because it puts you on the side of those people and they will love you for it.
(This alternative seems to be gathering steam as the funding of DisconnectMe seems to bear out maybe that particular idea is moving into it’s ‘self-evident’ phase. My own prediction is that those of us who can afford to will some day pay to play and keep our data private).
Unlike the Challenger, who only ever needs a committed few to get a business rolling, big brand owners and their agencies do feel the pressure of ‘everyone thinking’ and not just in terms of audiences. ‘Everyone’ also thought Facebook was the shiznit. Stories of successful social media marketing campaigns had been documented and celebrated and all were focused on that. They were competing relentlessly to make the next success. The herd mentality was:
“This is where we need to focus. This is where everyone else is focused. Please don’t distract me from my focus.”
It’s hard to argue with this, “No one ever got fired for building a kick-ass Facebook campaign” logic. It worked for IBM all those years ago. It is the irresistible, circular logic of incumbency. And it is the bane of any Challenger.
So I stood there, soaking up the ridicule and the opposition, slowly burning down the wick of trust equity, wondering if and when the self-evidence stage would arrive. (And, of course, as we now know, it never did in this instance).
My admiration for all the Challengers I know and love grew in that moment. Next time you see a Chris Lindland, a Jane McGonigal, a Julia Hu, an Eric Ryan taking their plaudits, take a moment to consider how much ridicule and opposition must’ve come their way at some stage in their journey, where no one could see what they saw.
But back to the story . . . Incumbency is not what it used to be. In the pre-IPO hysteria of recent months we have spent an ungodly amount of time parsing FB’s business model — we know it better now, and the potential ‘conflict’ has been outed publicly. And with the IPO flop, it has become not just okay to diss FB but more a schadenfreude-driven national pastime — at least in the MarketingPlex.
Maybe the herd is shifting around Facebook. No doubt they will continue to be fantastically successful, but the door is open for a Challenger now for sure.
Good luck to Diaspora. I hope they keep hiring great designers, keep resisting the urge to talk about privacy but lead with ownership and sharing value, and slowly but surely edge their way into being self-evidently a kick-ass Challenger to Facebook.
And good luck to you if you’re sitting there staring at an idea that the herd has so far only been able to ridicule.
(Thumbnail cartoon Copyright Tom Fishburne. For more excellence visit http://tomfishburne.com)