The Conflict is the Point

The greatest hack of all

Ranjan here, and today I"m talking about our collective discourse, Trump and trading floors.

There was a lot about working on a trading floor that was Liars Poker-y. For the uninitiated, just imagine big male egos fueled by really big paychecks doing and saying really ridiculous things. Making bets, trading insults, and a lot of slamming phones. In my 1st year, I ate a baseball-sized clump of wasabi over the course of an afternoon to win a good deal of money, and used part of the proceeds to buy the first ever available camera phone from Verizon, which became affectionately known on the floor as the Wasabi Phone.

One thing that always amazed me was the caliber of asshole wit. This wasn't some intro-level "that's a stupid shirt". This was a constant barrage of searing, cutting, brilliant, what-I-imagine-a-British-playground-to-be level banter. You were always kept on your toes. You were always looking for your own opportunity to strike.

The nickname-generation was a thing to behold. An intern walked in one day who went to the University of Miami. He was short, but not even that short. One of the guys started calling him Pebbles. I asked how he got to that and he laughed,"The Rock went to U Miami, but this kid ain't no Rock. He's a pebble." The name stuck. The kid even stuck around, coming back after his senior year. I went to look him up on LinkedIn, but I seriously forgot his real name, because we all just called him Pebbles.

Growing up outside of Boston, my friends prepared me for this environment. The insult-trading was relentless, and it was fun. I also did high school policy debate, an activity that basically gives you a masterclass in being a dick.

When I left the trading floor for business school I realized I needed to tone it down. "Normal" people didn't speak like this. There was decorum and decency out there in the real world.

Little did I expect, thanks to algorithmic social media platforms, the real world would take on the culture of a global trading floor.


I just finished reading this Buzzfeed profile of Lauren Duca and the article is a thing of beauty. A couple years ago, Duca was suddenly everywhere in my feed, with funny and biting #resistance-y posts. I was never quite sure what propelled her rise and the profile informed me that it was the combination of a marquee pre-election Trump analysis that got her to "the stage", but then a segment where she called Tucker Carlson a "sexist pig" that really took her to the next level.

That's just how the game is played today. The platforms are designed to reward conflict. We all know it. If you don't have a go at someone, you don't exist.

You’ll say, “but Ranjan, this is always how media worked. Sensationalism and conflict have always been at the heart of successful media.”

Yes. Agreed. Reality TV certainly mastered the art of quasi-manufactured conflict. Pro Wrestling has done it for decades. I get it. But it didn't consume the totality of our discourse. It didn't touch every realm of what was previously a place for "seriousness". It was diversionary, not drowning.

And most importantly, we didn't have massive platforms that systematically rewarded this conflict on a global scale.


Bringing it back to fried chicken, in that Popeyes post, I had wondered about the backstory of how "the tweet" came to be. Thanks to the good folks at the NY Times for doing the digging:

At 1:43 p.m. on Aug. 19, Bruno Cardinali, a marketing executive for Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, got a WhatsApp message from a colleague: That morning, one of Popeyes’ fast-food rivals, Chick-fil-A, had tweeted what appeared to be a thinly veiled critique of the new fried chicken sandwich that Popeyes had started offering nationwide a few days earlier.

Mr. Cardinali quickly convened a group of marketing officials in a small room on the fifth floor of the Popeyes headquarters in Miami. A high-speed brainstorming session ensued, and before long, the team settled on what seemed like the perfect response: “... y’all good?”

The tweet appeared on the official Popeyes account at 1:58 p.m.

There was part of me that almost hoped the chicken sandwich launch was a carefully crafted, multi-million dollar social ad purchasing, big agency-led campaign. Nah. It really was a really good, really snarky tweet, worthy of my trading-floor brethren:

As the chain’s sandwich supply rapidly dwindled, top Popeyes executives working behind the scenes in Miami were ebullient: A two-word tweet had turned the chicken sandwich rollout into the most successful product launch in the company’s history.


It was estimated that the approach got Popeyes $65 million in free (earned) media. I had previously written how Gillette's "best a man can be" conflict got them tens of millions in free publicity. As a refresher, the simple idea here is any major marketing campaign will allocate some budget to promote the effort (paid media). For all the tweets and other posts that are organically generated, they call it earned media.

image via titangrowth

Whether you're an individual writer looking to boost your profile or a private-equity fueled global fast food conglomerate, everyone is being trained in the easiest of hacks. Stoke conflict. Be kind of a dick. Go at someone. If there's no one to go at, build a strawman. Or just subtweet no one. Whatever you do, structure your communication in a conflict or the feeds won’t listen.


We all know who's the master of this stuff.

I was home a few months ago and my parents were watching CNN, who were talking about Trump calling Biden, "Sleepy Joe". There were seriously multiple people on the screen having a serious discussion about "what this meant", effectively repeating Trump's history of nicknames, from Little Marco to Crooked Hillary.

Trump is good at the nickname thing. In terms of earned media, there's a great Rolling Stone piece that calls him the "Earned Media President” and it was estimated his assholery resulted in $5 billion in free promotion.

That's the thing about our current predicament; there have always been elements of media that are built around conflict. But nowadays, the feeds feed into CNN, which feeds into the serious publications, which feed back into the feeds, and suddenly our phones are getting buzzed with a notification that Rudy Giuliani said "of course I did" and Vox is writing an explainer titled, "Rudy Giuliani’s viral CNN meltdown over Trump and Ukraine, briefly explained", and there's some emergency podcast being planned somewhere and there's probably more blackface and I just want to smash my head into a rock.

It's exhausting. But it's become the default for public discourse, and you really can't fault anyone because the hack is so damn obvious. Influencers get to influence, cable news anchors get ratings, journalists get clicks, advertisers get eyeballs, we feel good about typing #MoscowMitch and Silicon Valley beats another earnings report. Everyone wins while we all lose.

I had hoped this loophole would've been arbitraged away back into a state of relative discourse equilibrium but I don't see that happening. We're not moving away from this game. We're collectively doubling down.

And it's not just exhausting for us watching. It's exhausting for the players themselves. This paragraph from the Buzzfeed Lauren Duca profile nailed it:

But Duca didn’t become a representative of the millennial resistance entirely on her own. It happened almost accidentally: a simple but apropos piece that went viral from a publication not otherwise expected to deliver such a message; a television appearance where she was condescended to and got heaps of people coming to her defense as a result; and a harasser who zeroed in on her, garnering her even more empathy. And because Twitter fame is mercurial, her milkshake-ducking was also inevitable. No one can possibly live up to the expectation of perfect wokeness at all times. If you play the game too much, and in some ways too well, you risk alienating your followers because they no longer trust that your politics are anything more than performative.


A quick, related note on why I love newsletters. I know this post might sound like a "get off my lawn" old man rant, but I see this data across a wide variety of contexts. I wanted to re-up something from a few months back about Substack newsletter analytics. They allow us to clearly see how posts perform within our subscribed audience, and outside it (driven primarily by social media sharing).

Can and I were trying to come up with a name for the ratio of Total Views to Total Subscriber Opens, because it's an incredible reflection of how engaging something is to our core newsletter audience, versus the posts that people will be sharing around (in this case a ~32:1 ratio meant it was widely shared):

I can tell you that going after Sweetgreen or WeWork will be shared. A self-reflection on what it means to be a Product Manager or an insider-y dive into newsletter analytics, not so much.

But we will often see those posts having much higher Total Subscriber Opens. Those are also often the ones that get thoughtful direct responses from our regular readers.

All I'm saying is, newsletters can still save us all from this algorithm-driven media hellhole. And if anyone has a good name for this ratio, please send us an email!


Last thing - each holiday season I'll choose the best book I read that year and buy copies for some friends. The 2016 gift was Tim Wu's The Attention Merchants. It’s an incredibly compelling and definitive history of the attention trade, and provides much-needed historical context of where we are today.

Final Random Concluding Thought

I was talking to someone the other day about this topic, and their argument was that if you’re trying to get a message out, or just a career in the public eye, this is the only way it’s possible. You can’t fault anyone because these are the rules that have been agreed upon. If you don’t play the conflict game, you don’t exist.

Is there a ridiculous argument to be made that boring posts (or people) are getting censored? That the algorithms are actively preventing calm, thoughtful and non-dopamine inducing content from being allowed to breathe. That the boring among us are not properly being given their 1st amendment rights?

Okay, things are getting too weird and I’ll stop there. Have a great weekend!