Public and Open Debate is the Highest Form of Democracy (and Blogging)

Posted on Mar 13, 2010 | 66 comments


tony blair parliamentary debate

I lived in the UK for nearly a decade.  I loved my experience there and wish I got back more often now.  As a political junkie one of my favorite things to do was to watch Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs).   If you’ve never seen PMQ, it’s worth worth 2 minutes to watch this short video of Gordon Brown debating David Cameron and then check out the Wikipedia link I previous provided.  I wish US politicians had to go through these kinds of public debates.

Somehow we’ve lost that ability to have real and meaningful debates in this country.  At the presidential level we have them every four years and even then it’s so controlled and contrived.  In my mind public debate is the highest form of democracy.  It proves that you really have freedom of speech.  And there is relationship between public debating and blogging.  Let me explain.

I started blogging in 2005 and then re-started blogging about a year ago.  It’s a great experiment for me.  I love learning first hand about the differences in analytics platforms, social media conversions, the effectiveness of copy, how to cultivate an audience, etc.  Mostly it’s been one huge creative outlet for me.  I’m loving it and would encourage more people to consider trying it.  You can start in a lightweight, community friendly way like on Tumblr or Posterous without much effort.

The most important experience I have in blogging is the debate it encourages.  I’ve always believed that you learn a great deal when you’re presenting, teaching or writing about what you know.  It’s not only the “consumer” of this information who learns, the “producer” also does.  Part of the reason I always found presenting to people so compelling is that it forced me to put into writing (a PowerPoint deck) what I thought I knew about a topic.  This is a process I call “consolidating your knowledge.”  You have all of this implicit knowledge in your head but you only draw interesting conclusions when you’re forced to put structure around it and define what your belief system is.  7 years ago when I used to publicly present what we learned at BuildOnline, team members would come up to me afterward and say, “Wow, we really have learned at lot.  I knew everything you presented but I didn’t realize just how much I knew.”  So true.

So it goes with blogging.  I have learned lots of lessons over the past 20 years about technology, entrepreneurship and investments.  My points-of-view are not always right and at best nearly all of them are subjective.  I like to put them out into the ether and test their validity.  Several times a week I offer conjecture and get instant feedback about how others feel.  Sometimes it’s in the form of user numbers.  If I write about something that isn’t compelling I can see it in the unique reader numbers.  But I can also measure it in retweets, facebook shares and comments.  People who like what you say are much more likely to hit the Tweetmeme Retweet button to tell other people (I always appreciate that).  And they tell me in private emails saying that I made good points or that I’m full of shite.  Friends and random people alike.

After every post I’m willing to defend my points-of-view in the comments and willing to cede where people make points I hadn’t considered.  The net result of my posts plus the comments forms a tighter view of my evolving belief system.  An example of this was when I wrote the “App is Crap” post arguing that mobile apps were the best form of mobile interactions available today but that in the long-run if mobile apps “win” over mobile browsing it’s a net negative for our industry.  I was willing to state a controversial point of view.  Every now and again I get personal attacks or people saying that I choose controversy for “link bait.”  Frankly, that’s just stupid.  This isn’t my day job, it’s my hobby.  If I had link bait with stupid ideas then entrepreneurs wouldn’t want to work with me.  I’d rather have smaller readership and better ideas.

But the reality is that most “conventional wisdom” is a bit like Hollywood films.  Conventional wisdom is often a bit lazy it reaches the masses of audience that are often not as informed on issues as those that live on the inside of companies and industries.  When you hear conventional wisdom you should always stop to ask yourself, “why is this view held by so many and how did it become so?  And how do I really think independently about this issue.”

If Hollywood = conventional wisdom, I’ll take “indie films” or foreign films any day of the week.  They make you think harder.  The world isn’t “all good” or “all bad” as it is in Hollywood films.  Life is complex. Apple has great products and occasionally bad motives driven by profit maximization.  I don’t blame them for this – I’m a capitalist.  But I think it’s fair to point out when I believe that the profit motive is a net negative for startups or for our industry.  Think Hulu is done by the studios for all good reasons?  Think it’s purely evil to fend off competition?  The answer is obviously neither or both.  Venture capital is neither “evil” nor benevolent.

Anyway, this seems to be turning more into an essay than a tightly knit topical point of view.  But I’m enjoying it and if you’re not then by now you’re probably no longer reading ;-)  My main objective in this post was to discuss the nature of debating.  I’ve stopped debating politics with most people because I find it too often turns into a debate about whether the Yankees or the Red Sox are better.  People get dug in on supporting their “team” (read: political party) rather than dissecting an idea and trying to learn.

My favorite person I used to love to debate was Bill Eggers (brother of the now famous Dave Eggers, who incidentally is one of my favorite modern writers), my college fraternity brother and former roommate.  He was a fellow at the Heritage Foundation and an important conservative thinker.  For what it’s worth I’m a socially (very) liberal, fiscally-moderate libertarian that isn’t easily defined by the party system.  When Bill and I debated topics it was never personal.  Where I made points that I thought were well argued, it solidified my thinking.  Where he made good points and I could no longer defend my own views, I changed my view.  I grew up in a household of Democrats.  It is my discussions with Bill that made me realize I’m more of a Libertarian.

So it goes on my blog.  Yesterday I wrote about a controversial topic that bothered me.  In attacking “fail fast” I wasn’t trying to say the “lean startup” movement was wrong.  It’s not.  I just think that people in Silicon Valley have gotten carried away and taken some of the precepts a bit too seriously.  I made my point a bit too sarcastically, which probably doesn’t help the debate.  It’s just my writing style.

I was delighted that so many people agreed that the fail fast mantra had gone too far and thanked me for saying out loud what they were privately thinking.  I was impressed by the professionalism of 99% of the people who disagreed with me.  I personally got a lot out of the debate.  I moved my thinking a bit and got to explore why people who didn’t agree with me feel so attached to the word “failure.”  I haven’t changed my opinion but I understand their view better.  I enjoyed it.  I never delete comments that disagree with me and I never take it personally even when the comments are harsh (the only comment I’ve ever deleted was anti-Semitic).

So please continue to debate important topics.  Please don’t be offended if I make an assertion against a belief system that you hold – I’m not attacking you.  And please feel free to tell me when you think what I’ve said is bollocks.  That’s how I learn, to0.  And the beauty of the debate is that others can read both sides of the argument and start to form their own educated points-of-view.  I would far rather step a little bit too far over the line than write politically correct posts or be a wallflower.  The worst insult when I lived in England was to be called “boring.”  That stuck with me.

Thank you for being a part of this community.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Very cool. Just went over there and did a few searches. I've known of Blinkx for a long time. If I'm not mistaken you're based on Autonomy's technology stack, no? And I seem to remember Blinkx being publicly listed on AIM. ?

  • http://twitter.com/piplzchoice Gregory Yankelovich

    It seems politics, science and religion are merging into one. Arguments are so loud about personal opinions and beliefs that nobody can hear or consider any evidence or observations.

  • http://lmframework.com/blog/about David Semeria

    Bollocks is one of my favourite words.

    Did you know it originally meant “priest”. A fact usefully employed by Virgin Music when they were unsuccessfully prosecuted for displaying an advert for “Never Mind the Bollocks, the Sex Pistols are Here”.

    And proving people in the past were as cynical as we are today, the common meaning of bollocks gradually mutated to mean “nonsense” – presumably reflecting common displeasure with overly-long and out-of-touch sermons.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Too funny. I didn't know that but can confirm it via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bollocks

    And, yes, one of my favorite words as well!

  • http://www.wac6.typepad.com William Carleton

    Mark, you probably know this, but PM's Question Time, or a good half hour excerpt from it at any rate, is on CSPAN weekly. I think they run it live on Wed. mornings obscenely early, but I always catch the rerun at 9pm on Sunday evenings (8pm Central, I think). I rarely miss it!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    awesome, isn't it? Imagine if US politicians had to debate weekly!

  • http://www.wac6.typepad.com William Carleton

    Indeed! Not sure many US politicians think that well on their feet.
    But they'd learn to!

    Sent from my iPod
    My blog: http:// wac6.com
    Twitter: @wac6

  • http://www.altgate.com/ fnazeeri

    +1

  • http://twitter.com/piplzchoice Gregory Yankelovich

    It seems politics, science and religion are merging into one. Arguments are so loud about personal opinions and beliefs that nobody can hear or consider any evidence or observations.

  • Laurent Boncenne

    Thanks for this post, I'm dying to read the ones on France !

    I won't add any comment related to politics because it's not something I'm interested that much into, but I like the debate thing.
    I always found that a good debate is when both sides have mutual respect for each others no matter the subject. I've unfortunately never experienced it that much here in France when it comes to politics, maybe because I'm not really into it.
    There is though a big taboo here about money and everything related to it. I find it very hard to speak of money as a casual subject. Even if it can serve a good purpose to prove a point. Speaking of salary or the cost of things is never easy, except if it is to complain.

  • http://www.rts.edu/ Seminary

    Thanks for this wonderful post, the seminary will check this.

  • Laurent Boncenne

    Thanks for this post, I'm dying to read the ones on France !

    I won't add any comment related to politics because it's not something I'm interested that much into, but I like the debate thing.
    I always found that a good debate is when both sides have mutual respect for each others no matter the subject. I've unfortunately never experienced it that much here in France when it comes to politics, maybe because I'm not really into it.
    There is though a big taboo here about money and everything related to it. I find it very hard to speak of money as a casual subject. Even if it can serve a good purpose to prove a point. Speaking of salary or the cost of things is never easy, except if it is to complain.

  • http://www.rts.edu/ Seminary

    Thanks for this wonderful post, the seminary will check this.

  • alexandrafleur

    We've been speaking to an entrepreneur/writer from the Huffington Post who is interested in using our Critique Engine for an up-and-coming political debate blog so people can insert text, voice or video into the content. One thing we've discussed is whether people would use the voice/video tool appropriately. It seems that in American culture, not only is true debate lost in writing, it is especially gone askew verbally. Television culture espouses that to be angry and get emotionally riled up is “debate” regardless of content, and people tend to accept it.

    I think you're right, Mark. There's a vulnerability in stating what you believe and inviting people to test and challenge it. I know for myself, I'm no great debater, but am learning the importance in asking the right questions. That in itself is an art.

    Thanks for your posts. They always make me think. I appreciate your honesty.

  • alexandrafleur

    We've been speaking to an entrepreneur/writer from the Huffington Post who is interested in using our Critique Engine for an up-and-coming political debate blog so people can insert text, voice or video into the content. One thing we've discussed is whether people would use the voice/video tool appropriately. It seems that in American culture, not only is true debate lost in writing, it is especially gone askew verbally. Television culture espouses that to be angry and get emotionally riled up is “debate” regardless of content, and people tend to accept it.

    I think you're right, Mark. There's a vulnerability in stating what you believe and inviting people to test and challenge it. I know for myself, I'm no great debater, but am learning the importance in asking the right questions. That in itself is an art.

    Thanks for your posts. They always make me think. I appreciate your honesty.

  • alexandrafleur

    We've been speaking to an entrepreneur/writer from the Huffington Post who is interested in using our Critique Engine for an up-and-coming political debate blog so people can insert text, voice or video into the content. One thing we've discussed is whether people would use the voice/video tool appropriately. It seems that in American culture, not only is true debate lost in writing, it is especially gone askew verbally. Television culture espouses that to be angry and get emotionally riled up is “debate” regardless of content, and people tend to accept it.

    I think you're right, Mark. There's a vulnerability in stating what you believe and inviting people to test and challenge it. I know for myself, I'm no great debater, but am learning the importance in asking the right questions. That in itself is an art.

    Thanks for your posts. They always make me think. I appreciate your honesty.