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Popularity Breeds Contempt

Last year I talked about The Koolaid Point -- the point at which enough users become passionate that others accuse them of "drinking the koolaid." I offered no ideas for what to do when it happens other than "celebrate" and--the focus of yesterday's post--be brave. Don't give in was my main point then. But there is something else we can do when detractors start criticizing our users. Something so simple I was too thick to see it.

The tricky part is that the criticisms aren't always wrong. It really might be all hype. It might be BS. It might be just a fad, or the same s*** with a new name. But things are rarely that black and white. Where there is passion (not just fad or fashion), there is something real there. Something that some people see and feel. But the key point to keep in mind--and the one that offers a simple solution--is this:

People will sometimes diss things they know very little about.

They'll diss things they haven't tried.

They'll diss things based on sketchy, incorrect information--or the equivalent of urban-legend data ("My sister's friend's brother's girlfriend tried it and it was a disaster...")

Most importantly, the things people diss most passionately are often the things that challenge beliefs or ideas they're heavily invested in. They'll diss things because embracing those things might force them to re-examine thoughts and assumptions they care about, or because those things represent a change they don't want to make. And yes, sometimes they diss things simply because they are jealous, although most of us tend to dismiss critics as "just jealous" way more than we should. [Note to critics: snarky slams are far more likely to get written off as "jealousy" than specific, less emotional critiques.]

How do you deal with this challenge? The challenge faced, for example, by Seth Roberts, whose Shanri-la diet I've helped hype. The challenge our books have faced, where one prominent tech book author said--to my face--that the only reason my books were selling was because all the smart programmers had already learned it somewhere else. The challenge faced by Pat Parelli, whose "Parelli Natural Horsemanship" program drives intensely polarized fights in forums, where followers (or non-followers) are often outcasts at their stable, and where a Google search on parelli+cult returns over 1,000 hits.

So, I asked the guy who knows a whole lot about it--Pat Parelli. "What do you when your users are accused of being card-carrying, koolaid-drinking, Parelli cult members?"

He offers two simple suggestions we can use:

1) "Give users the tools to represent what you do accurately." (He gives his users a free-for-the-asking DVD that clearly demonstrates what the program is about.) "Don't expect--or ask--your users to defend you."

But the most important one--the simple 'doh-slapping-the-forehead' one for me--was this:

2) Ask the critics, "How long did you try it before you came to these conclusions? Because the feedback is really important to us."

With the Shangri-la diet, it was obvious how many people were slamming it without having read all of his research (or tried it themselves). With our books, we found early on that the strongest critics were those who had never actually tried to learn something from one of them--they'd never experienced it as a target-audience reader/learner would. With Parelli, 95% of their harshest critics have never actually tried it. Or perhaps someone has tried something, but in the wrong context--not in the way it's meant and designed to be used!

This "how long did you try it?" question will be met with, "I don't need to try something to know it's wrong." And for a ton of things, that's true. But as a sweeping statement, it doesn't hold up for most of the koolaid point, because until you've tried something or at least gotten all the facts, you cannot fully understand what others have found so compelling or practical or effective or engaging or productive or delightful or...

And I'm just as likely to be a koolaid accuser as koolaid drinker. I have never golfed, for example, and I cannot imagine why anyone would spend that kind of money and time hitting a stupid little ball with a ridiculously expensive stick on grass that in Colorado costs a fortune in natural resources (water, in most cases) to keep green. To which my co-author Bert says, "You just don't get it." ; )

Posted by Kathy on May 11, 2006 | Permalink


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Your golf analogy rings true for me because it’s one I use a lot (I don’t get golf either..). I do quite a bit of work with arts and cultural organisations who are forever telling people that if only they would participate in arts/cultural activities then their lives, in some way, would be better. Various schemes are devised under the guise of “audience development” reinforcing the idea that there’s something “wrong” with the people who “don’t get it” and “they” need to be “educated” in order to join the club.

Sometimes the uninformed criticism is a reaction to being patronised and I think advocates and evangelists for various products/services need to be careful that they don’t cross the boundary between enthusiasm/passion and being patronising. Ultimately, we have to make it possible for people to say “I don’t like that” or “I don’t know” without imposing a value judgement. I’ll never get golf…I don’t think my life is in any way diminished as a result…the more I can admit that then the less I am likely to take a cudgel and bludgeon golf lovers to metaphorical death!

Posted by: annette | May 11, 2006 2:14:15 PM

"I don't need to try something to know it's wrong."

...to which I'd respond, "Do you have to learn Spanish in order to speak it? If you speak Spanish now, then at some point you had to learn it, otherwise you can't speak or understand Spanish and have no idea what millions of people are talking about."

This is really a semantic point about separating wisdom, knowledge, and understanding but I think it's a really important point.

My understanding (which may be dead wrong) is that wisdom, but is usually the result of a brain-database of events which query out into certain patterns and can thus be absorbed and accumulated from related experience without any actual hands on knowledge. But knowledge is knowing because you've done it, or gone to the trouble of having looked it up from a credible source. But even looking things up doesn't build a meaningful understanding, merely knowledge of a narrow concept. Doing is knowing. Doing builds understanding. Wisdom comes from the interconnection of knowing and understanding across enough varying contexts.

To the point: I don't think the above quote IS true for a ton of things. In fact, I think that's true for very few things.

As an example, you can tell kids over and over not to stick a fork in the light socket, or climb up a snow hill where they're likely to fall off and break their head open, or put their hands over an open flame. And for a while, you may be successful. But when it comes down to it, kids are stupid (fascinating, and revealing, but stupid; adults being only slightly better :D ).

I don't mean to diss kids, they have an innocent frame of mind which is often quite illuminating, but really haven't learned much by experience.

Even if you can hammer the "no fork in the light socket" mantra into their heads, they'll eventually find some other way to zap themselves. They have no respect for electricity because they have no experience with it. They've only heard about it from their parents and told "BAD."

Equally, kids will keep climbing snowhills (or whatever) until they fall down and give their brain a good whacking. Even if they didn't fall off of a snowhill, when they've fallen hard, they treat the next situation which carries a similar pattern with a much more sober attitude.

Kids who do submit to instruction without having some hands on knowledge tend to end up quite shy, harboring a tremendous amount of anxiety regarding new things which no one hammered into their brains.

Home-schooling, virginity pledges and abstinance programs are a few other examples of this type of wisdom versus knowledge versus understanding conundrum that people seem to get caught up in. But I'll forgive you if you don't want to comment on those topics in particular. :p

The long and short, if EVERYONE got it, then it would become conventional and useless, and by extension unprofitable. People are different enough that even if they get it, they may still hate it, but there will always be enough people who think differently in a similar way that they'll come up with something else that other people don't get and hate. There's no cure. Only damage control.

Sorry for the enormity of the post... couldn't 'hep myself.


Posted by: Samuel deHuszar Allen | May 11, 2006 2:41:05 PM

I'm just surprised that you had a book author say that to yuo about your book. While I learned Design Patterns from other books originally, I found yours to not only be the most refreshing but an invaluable resource to pass off to some other developers who wanted to learn design patterns. As a learning tool (which is what you intended the book to be), there's no comparison.

Posted by: Justice | May 11, 2006 3:12:09 PM

I like this framework for understanding the koolaid point. For example, the Ruby On Rails vs. Java flame war is much more understandable with this in mind.

As an engineer with 10 years invested in programming Java, I've got a lot to lose if suddenly another tool comes along that has much higher productivity. Suddenly all my knowledge, not to mention a huge amount of software I've actually built, is under threat of being obsolete.

I HAVE been trying Ruby on Rails at home, and it's tough to say if I'm approaching it with an open mind. Of course, I was ready to criticise it long before I had actually tried it :-)

The really galling things to me are the things that the 37 signals guys say about programmers getting to have "joy" in their life, how R-o-R exemplifies an aesthetic of "programmer happiness". The corollary, that Java programming is joyless drudgery is a bit infuriating to someone who is quite enjoying it, thank you very much.

Another reason it grates is that the "joy" part must necessarily come after the "I suck at this" part of learning something totally new. So just starting out I'm mostly feeling lost and confused and not very joyful. ("Where is my code completion?!...")

Still, it does seem like many of the critisms of Ruby coming from the Java camp are not really founded in knowledge (scalability, etc.)

One more thing. I bought the Shangri-la diet book and I've been trying it for about a week now, without much success. I certainly am not going around forgetting to eat. (I am seriously hungry right now!) I've been using both sugar water and now I have a bottle of ELOO in my desk drawer.

Damn! I really NEED that koolaid to work...

Posted by: Charlie Evett | May 11, 2006 3:41:33 PM

Couldn't help but share that your "Koolaid" point relates closely to some of the concepts in "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference" by Malcolm Gladwell. Good Post!

Posted by: Earl Moore | May 11, 2006 6:49:26 PM

Annette: "Sometimes the uninformed criticism is a reaction to being patronised and I think advocates and evangelists for various products/services need to be careful that they don’t cross the boundary between enthusiasm/passion and being patronising. "

GREAT advice! Thanks.

Sam: You hit a button for me I'll have to address another time, but I agree with most of what you said. Especially about kids and experience...

Justice: I wish I could say he was the ony one to think this ; ) But we used to hear that a LOT. Less and less, now, though, as more people *have* experienced it and made their decision one way or another about whether it works for them. We don't claim to be a format for everyone, but it does bother us when people slam the format based on skimming the pages or reviewing a book on a subject they already know (which means they cannot evaluate whether it would actually help them learn). Or, we get people who assume that if it was horrible for them, it can't possibly work for ANYONE. We tend to like those, because they're usually passionate, 1-star reviews.

Where the Koolaid Point comes in the most is when people assume anyone who reads one of our books must be an idiot. That dropped off dramatically when some of the leaders in the software industry endorsed it (Ward Cunningham, the Gang of Four, etc.), but even then... we now have people who find that fact deeply disturbing, as though their software dev heroes have completely lost their minds... ; )

Charlie: "[to say] Java programming is joyless drudgery is a bit infuriating to someone who is quite enjoying it, thank you very much."
I agree! It's getting harder and harder to make any claim about "Java", though, since the differences between someone building a Swing app vs. a Mobile app vs. a Servlets/JSP app vs. and EJB app are so dramatic. I NEVER had fun with EJB, for example, but loved the little bits of J2ME I got to do, and I'm one of the few who seems to enjoy building rich GUIs, yes, even in Swing ; ) Like anything else, I guess one man/woman's "fun" API is another's joyless drudgery...

Some of what I see the RoR folks do are the same mistakes my co-authors and I did in the beginning -- we "demonstrate" our benefits by dissing the alternatives, when there's no need to do that. Something can be inherently good without something <>else having to be fundamentally bad. It took us a while to figure that out, and we pissed a lot of people off needlessly.

I'd keep trying the whatever you're doing on the diet, perfectly [the two-hour thing] for a few more days. My co-author is on it and it took him almost two weeks before it kicked in. One reason it's easy for me to "forget" about eating is that I'm just never around food. If I had people eating in the house all the time I'm sure I'd be reminded... but the difference for me now is that it's out of sight/out of mind, where before I had cravings out of the blue. But the author did acknowledge that there are quite a few people who just don't experience the effect, or for whom it takes much longer.

Earl: Yeah, when I first made this, it was kind of a play on The Tipping Point (Gladwell is my hero), and my original Koolaid Point post was mentioned in Wired with something like, "Forget the tipping point, if you want passionate users look for the Koolaid point..." ; )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | May 11, 2006 7:21:22 PM

Thank you for the post. This was great. I appreciated the point you made early on that the criticism may be true. The hard part is to step outside ourselves and listen to the other persons point and add it to our undertanding and then process - vs - toss it as it is different.

Posted by: Stephen | May 11, 2006 11:08:26 PM

Go on Kathy, I dare you to try playing a round of golf! Maybe you don't know what you're missing out on. ;)

Posted by: Keith Pitty | May 11, 2006 11:38:44 PM

People are good at dissing on hearsay.

The city I live in has had a really bad press. Not for being violent or ugly or... well, anything that anyone can put their finger on - just, well, er soulless. A traffic sign showing the turn off to our city was used in an ad campaign as a metaphor for going nowhere.

When we were moving here, anybody who heard about our plans said, "Milton Keynes? Are you mad - it's nothing but concrete cows and roundabouts". Yet not one of them had ever actually been here. When challenged on this point, they would become very haughty and claim not to need to. This seems to be the defence of many of these hearsay dissers. I guess they have no choice - they have no other leg to stand on!

We have been here for a few years now and, yes, there are concrete cows (a sort of sculpture, thing - not very inspired or inspiring, I agree). And yes, there are roundabouts (traffic circles). Loads of them. Because the city is laid out on a grid system. Once you get the hang of it, there's no getting lost, here!

There are facilities for people of all ages and interests, and a melting pot of cultures and nationalities the like of which I have never encountered before.

I guess I've reached the koolaid point, but them out there remain unconvinced. The problem is that "a man who is persuaded against his will is of the same opinion still" (Robbie Burns, apparently)... and it applies to women, too :-)

Posted by: Karyn Romeis | May 12, 2006 2:13:20 AM

I must say, I was guilty of that, dissing something when I only had a fairly sketchy idea of what it was - in my case it was MySpace.com, though I'm still mildly irritated by people who embed music in their MySpace pages that automatically plays, so when you're browsing the net after the kids are asleep and suddenly you get Motorhead's "Ace of Spades" thundering out of your speakers, and your partner comes racing in with a face like a thundercloud, that's not so great - but I can now see what's so attractive about MySpace.

On the other hand, I do tend to diss a lot things that are made by organisations that shall we say show less than a decent level of corporate responsibility, or less than decent ways of dealing with competitors. The product may be excellent, but my money won't go to help them.

Posted by: Matt Moran | May 12, 2006 2:14:29 AM

The thing that I am not getting is how we are to try all the newest fads that are getting promoted down our throats , in our really short life.

With something like the diet. I think it is a real shame that you label anyone who voices doubt, but has not had the priveledge to get a free book from the publisher, or the time/ability to work "trying" it into their own personal marketing activities, as simply uninformed naysayers.

If I am seriously considering it, I may ask my nutritionist. And even if my nutririonsit has not tried it personally, I am inclined to listen to their oppinion over yours, an uninformed person who simply "tried it" for a week or two.

The point is, trying something does not make an expert, and having a valid oppinion is possible without trying something.

Posted by: Guliko | May 12, 2006 2:18:12 AM

Rejection of a good idea is common in almost any field of activity or interest. Sometimes it can take quite a number of recommendations from different sources for people to decide to 'give it a go'. There can be a fear of change, and don't we all just like to be right?
See my post.
Noel Kingsley

Posted by: Noel | May 12, 2006 3:29:15 AM

I find myself laughing now everytime I see a reference to "drinking the koolaid" and what the implied meaning is...

Just a week ago I used the same phrase with a co-worker a couple years junior (not that I'm that old anyways).. and he had that blank stare (I would have said deer in the headlights... but if you haven't seen a deer in the headlights, you might not get that either).

Kinda takes the effect off the phrase once you actually have to explain it's origins to someone in the middle of the conversation.

I didn't get a chance to find out if he had never heard the phrase... or just never asked before.

Posted by: Graydon | May 12, 2006 9:27:20 AM

A mass murder-suicide in which 913 people died (including 276 children) by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid is the PERFECT marketing analogy.

Posted by: Matt | May 12, 2006 10:46:16 AM

So what is 'koolaid'? And why would anyone want to drink it?

(Must be an American thing...)


Posted by: Wally | May 12, 2006 2:17:04 PM

With the Shangri-la diet, it was obvious how many people were slamming it without having read all of his research (or tried it themselves).

Especially since it is so easy to try.

So what is 'koolaid'? And why would anyone want to drink it?

A religious sect was being investigated and they all drank poisoned flavor-aid (a non-carbonated flavored sugar water) which is a clone of the more expensive/popular brand Kool-aid. Since then, whenever someone appears to be following a group mind into something stupid, it is referred to "drinking the koolaid" -- taking poison because everyone else is doing it.

(Though, in Jonestown, they actually had guys with M-16s shooting the people who wouldn't drink).

Posted by: Stephen M (Ethesis) | May 13, 2006 8:18:13 AM

What about the Nintendo Wii? You have people who want to have it with a real passion, and you have people who hate it. Yet it isn't on sale yet, most people have never been able to play with it.

It really goes both ways. Passion and criticism is able to exist without any experience with the object itself.

Personally I'm pretty passionate about the Nintendo Wii. Yet I have never played with it. I'm not a Nintendo fanboy, my last nintendo product was the original game boy. (10 years ago). My last video game I played was Half Life 1. So I'm not even a gamer. I'm more of an ex-gamer.

So where does this passion come from? No hands-on experience, not a gamer, not a "nintendo fanboy",.. Why would I be interested in a game console? Yet somehow Nintendo was able to spark my imagination. I'm checking out all the videos, reading E3 experiences, checking out forums..

I'm kinda surprised with myself here.

Posted by: Jan Sabbe | May 13, 2006 8:48:50 AM

People who accuse others of "drinking the Kool-aid", often are busy drinking their own brand. Just as they have no valid arguments against something, they likewise are not always clear on why their position is the better one.

In science, ideas can become unquestioned facts. But, when one bothers to look at the original papers, the papers that keep getting used as references, the evidence is not always as compelling or conclusive as one has been led to believe.

A book which deals with these types of issues in biology is 'Where the Truth Lies: Franz Moewus and the Origins of Molecular Biology' by Jan Sapp (1990).

When we start to vehemently oppose something, we also need to understand why we support our own position and have good reasons for that choice.

Posted by: Mary-Anne | May 14, 2006 1:14:28 AM

Strange. I did a search on wired.com for your quote, your name, this blog's name.... nada. Nothing. Zilchola.

Posted by: Abe | May 15, 2006 3:27:00 AM

Gulko: "The point is, trying something does not make an expert, and having a valid opinion is possible without trying something."

I agree-- I said it was true for a ton of things that one need not necessarily "try" it in order to have an opinion. And simply trying something does not make one an expert, My point is that not everything can be reasonably evaluated without at least having some information. Too many things are dissed by people who don't know enough about it to make a reasonable evaluation. Not that someone can't form an opinion ("Based on everything I know, this sounds like BS"), but there's a limit to how much weight that opinion should have. Then again, the opinion of someone who's tried it... barely... shouldn't carry much weight either. I agreed, and that's why I said in my diet post that I did NOT have enough time with it to recommend it. So, I'm with you on that one -- two weeks is hardly enough time for anything but an initial impression, which for me happened to be dramatic. I still give it a big thumbs up though : )

Mary-Anne: "When we start to vehemently oppose something, we also need to understand why we support our own position and have good reasons for that choice."
Well said!

Abe: You're determined to prove something... just not sure what, and this is the last time I'm going to play this game with you. Go to your library and look in the October '05 print edition of the magazine, page 93. The quote is titled "The Kool-Aid Point", so you can't miss it. Abe (or whoever you actually are), unless/until you email me directly to have a conversation about your personal concerns, I'll be deleting your comments from now on.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | May 15, 2006 10:29:53 AM

I don't want to evangelize the game of golf to Kathy or anybody. However, hitting the stupid little ball is so loved because of these simple five things:

1. it is a hand-eye coordination thing. (great)
2. It requires us to be highly imaginative. (fantastic)
3. One is out-of-doors with the stupid thing. (good)
4. It is very fun to use your imagination and hand-eye activity in a competative way. (excellent)
5. For those who love the game, it is an interactive metaphor generous with lessons about oneself and, very much so about others. (priceless)

For those who thrive on hand-eye activity, using their imagination extensively (up to 104 times a round), being competative, being outdoors and, learning of oneself, not to mention others, it is vastly rewarding. And...we pay for the water.

The real criticism about it, for those who play, is more a function of the time committment. Can we have this much fun...for this long?

Posted by: argos | May 15, 2006 2:42:32 PM

Thank you so much for making this point. It's so easy to dismiss critics as "jealous" or just "not getting it," when we could actually quite easily either dissolve the critique or learn from it with that very simple question, "How long did you try it before you came to these conclusions? Because the feedback is really important to us." Brilliant!

I was so inspired by the possibilities of this one phrase that I wrote a bit about it in my own blog here: http://talkitup.typepad.com/weblog/2006/05/how_long_did_yo.html Thank you for the inspiration!

Posted by: Heidi Miller | May 15, 2006 2:56:03 PM

There are probably very few people who go through a gradual metamorphosis from indifference to drinking the Kool Aid. It seems that most jump directly to one end of the spectrum or the other. Polarization is safe. It allows you to have a clear identity. You're either a lifelong Kool Aid detractor, or a full-out swiller. You hear very few people say, "Well, I tasted the Kool Aid..." Just the fear of being thought of as a Kool Aid drinker keeps those people from ever approaching it, and those pro-Kool Aiders believe it is the Nectar of Life. The truth about golf, consumerism, politics, religion and other passionate human undertakings, lies somewhere along that line, and one must be able to accept it may never be fully realized. Those who are true to themselves will experience, investigate, reason, experiment, discover, and never be too comfortable buying into the dogma of either side.

That said, I still think that big smiling Pitcher is creepy.

Posted by: Bob Karson | May 15, 2006 11:14:01 PM

I've written a short piece in response to this great post Kathy - it will go up on my blog tomorrow

Posted by: annette | May 17, 2006 9:33:51 AM

Kathy, most of those gorgeous golf courses here in Colorado are kept green using non-potable water... and have signs posted to that effect. So, you CAN start golfing (frankly, I don't understand it either), but if you want to go for it, go forth without guilt!

Posted by: cyn | May 31, 2006 4:10:32 PM

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