Why you need enemies
Don't go out and make an internet tribe hate you for no reason, but a healthy back and forth with a nemesis has surprising advantages (for both sides)
I’ve been a huge fan of Robert Greene as long as I can remember and believe have read all his works (some more than once, they’re that good). His seminal book, “The 48 Laws of Power” is a timeless read and worth grabbing a copy if you haven’t. Law 2 is a potent one with how the web and world are structured today. In brief, it states:
Never put too Much Trust in Friends, Learn how to use Enemies
Be wary of friends-they will betray you more quickly, for they are easily aroused to envy. They also become spoiled and tyrannical. But hire a former enemy and he will be more loyal than a friend, because he has more to prove. In fact, you have more to fear from friends than from enemies. If you have no enemies, find a way to make them.
The idea of using enemies is something most never even consider, but using them as part of your digital strategy can be potent.
This law is crystal clear when you look at some of today’s most popular brands of media and personalities online.
Think about it, on the web enemies are a shortcut to attention. The strategies of some of most popular sites can actually be defined in one word: conflict. There is a reason certain publications and podcasters have risen to meteoric heights of popularity. They’re not making any friends by telling stories through a polarizing lens. That’s not their purpose. And in a world where every company is a media company, the approach most potent for you may not be so different.
Yet most business and people shy away from this. They’re afraid of what others might think: their bosses, peers or industry. But try and push that fear aside for a moment. As strategists we should not be closed off to an approach because it carries certain stigmas or taboos. Just the opposite, we need to be open to any and all possibilities.
If you are truly passionate about your category your opinions about it will naturally be strong. This will inevitably run counter to what others think and that’s perfectly OK. Don’t shy away from it. I’m not saying to be disingenuous or not true to yourself. I’m not saying to lie or make things up for attention (please never do this, will come back to bite you). I’m saying to let your raw passion for what you do shine, whether that runs in opposition to others or not.
If your communications involve walking on eggshells and you’re afraid you might make an enemy or upset someone, you’re not really embracing the modern social web (or even being true to yourself). Making enemies is a natural byproduct of being a part of our society, and thus if you’re truly being social this will happen organically. If not, how much personality are you really injecting?
This is not a negative thing so don’t take it as such. The web and the world itself involve balance: between enemies and allies, friends and strangers, supporters and defectors. We need enemies to push us to the next level, challenge us and cause us to think and improve. They give us perspective and reminds us of our purpose. If everyone around us blindly agrees with all we say, we’re never going to build up anti-fragility and will be ill prepared for the day there are real stakes at play and we must defend a position.
Embrace the full range of emotion and possibility in your ideas and interactions even if it might involve creating an enemy. Letting that stop you inevitably means falling short of your potential as a creative and editing out some of the best stuff.
I’m not going to tell you how to use enemies today, we’ll leave that to you to orchestrate. But I am going to share a few key reasons why if you have no enemies, you should make some.
Enemies can and will link to you & talk about you
Simply put, if you have a nemesis, (or several) they are going to be watching you closely to wait for their moments to pounce. On the web, this means links, mentions, and attention. So if you push some hot buttons and have already created a group of enemies, they’re going to link to you and pick apart the details of what you say. This is a great thing, links are the lifeblood of the web and if you can create enemies of those within your niche that have authority, you’ll benefit greatly by their links to you. Search engines are agnostic why someone is linking to you, so they play right into your SEO and social media strategies. If you’re not a jerk about it (you can create healthy debate without doing this, shocker right) followers of their side might even become vested in hearing your future thoughts, whether they fully agree or not (and that’s okay). FOMO to miss the next great debate is real.
If you have an enemy you can engage in ongoing debates with, you both win
Notice the digital banter between A-list personalities in any niche that happens so frequently. In actuality, from this banter both sides win. The rest of the people within the industry join in to offer their thoughts, media and social conversions invariably reference all sides (even the ones they disagree with) and both parties ride the wave. It is irrelevant who is “right” or “wrong” because in the end they both will break through the clutter. I’d rather have attention (the scarcest resource we have left) – even attention from those who disagree – and figure out what to do with it than be lost in digital oblivion. So don’t be so quick to block that person you disagree with on Twitter, consider trying to form a civil debate instead - the benefits will surprise you.
A former enemy turned-friend can be a powerful ally
As Greene notes, a former enemy will be more loyal than a friend, because they have more to prove. After any stretch of time where two people disagree, rapport is still being built between those two individuals. And by channeling that disagreement and ill-will in a new direction, an enemy can flip to an ally quite easily – it’s just part of our nature. We don’t survive if we never cooperate, and it is a sign of maturity to be able to patch things up with a former foe, especially if you start a conversation with “hey, I may have been wrong here on some of this” or “I’d really like to better understand your position and I’m sorry if past debates were unnecessarily heated.” This is the type of message that if done thoughtfully might even get you unblocked by someone on social who previously decided just to turn you off (not everyone gets why disagreement is actually a good thing). Anyway, with this new-found camaraderie, that enemy is likely to become a powerful ally, now potentially willing to speak positively about your cause as you’ve shown openness to theirs.
Enemies keep you laser-focused
Having a nemesis is one of the better motivations to stay heads-down on producing the highest quality results. If you have enemies who keep you focused and motivated, consider yourself lucky. They provide balance to an equation which can otherwise go unchecked when you have none. After stretches of time unbalanced, with no active competition or counter-notions, it’s possible to become complacent and suffer stagnation. Without some struggle, we grow weaker and more vulnerable to future threats.
Having enemies is a social proofing signal
Social proofing, aka informational social influence, is a psychological phenomenon that occurs in vague social situations when people are unable to determine the correct mode of behavior. Simplified and in plain English, what this means is in unfamiliar circumstances, we look to each other for cues on what is credible and worthy of our attention.
If you have made it to the point you are known enough in your niche to have an enemy or two, consider embracing it for the social proofing benefits. It’s a signal to others that you are worth paying attention to. People will be compelled to pay attention since someone else worthwhile is taking the time to respond, even if they disagree. If you’re ignored, that’s far worse than being at the end of hearing from 100s of members of a digital tribe that are on the opposing side why you might be wrong. For one, you’ll never get to better understand the counter arguments, but further it casts you in a light of irrelevancy, or perhaps just not notable. For example, Bitcoiners have an ongoing, almost mythical adversarial relationship with longtime goldbug Peter Schiff. And even though Schiff may be wrong on certain items and the crypto bugs right (and vice versa) they still love participating in conversations with him as relates to money and macro economics. And the thing is, no matter who is ‘right’ on a given issue, it’s all a signal the conversation is a relevant one and worth having that day. In an algo-driven world, this actually means both sides win the (very scarce) attention game.
Enemies are a shortcut to sparking controversy
Controversy can short-circuit your road to popularity if you are able to properly orchestrate it. It is better to be known for something, anything – even if it is slightly controversial – than to be lost in obscurity. In a world of long tail media, you will be perpetually lost if you don’t create ideas that spread, and controversy is a devastatingly effective approach.
Artfully directed, it can lead to some seriously powerful outcomes. With trying to be “resourceful” and offering warmed over tips and ideas anyone can just google, the boring and easily glossed over strategy of so many these days (I swear to god if I read one more Twitter thread that just copy-pastes a wiki entry) controversy is a great way to position yourself against others and actually become memorable/stand out.
An Indian Fable provides a metaphor for the efficacy of this strategy:
A wasp named Pin Tail was long in quest of some deed that would make him forever famous. So one day he entered the king’s palace and stung the little prince, who was in bed. The prince awoke with loud cries. The king and his courtiers rushed in to see what had happened.
The prince was yelling as the wasp stung him again and again. The courtiers tried to catch the wasp, and each in turn was stung. The whole royal household rushed in, the news soon spread, and people flocked to the palace. The city was in an uproar, all business suspended.
Said the wasp to itself, before it expired from it’s efforts, “A name without flame is like fire without flame. There is nothing like attracting notice at any cost.”
We all enjoy having a story to tell and something to talk about, especially if it’s controversial. You’re making this innate quality of our species work for you.
Will you conjure the next big story everyone talks about?
Having enemies will organically pull media and attention to you
Naturally between enemies there will be a division of thought, with people drawn to both sides. By being the known, go to “enemy” (likely the wrong word for how this is perceived in the minds of others, contrarian is a better term to how you’ll be viewed) of a certain persona or stance on an issue, you position yourself to capture the attention from the other side in a consistent fashion. Do this well and for long enough, large media brands, podcast hosts and other arbiters of attention will call you up on stage and use their platforms to give you a voice.
Think about who CNBC calls regularly when they want a market bull/bear on the air, who political news outlets bring on repeatedly to represent specific sides of issues, who is invented to share guest blog posts and op-eds on prestigious sites. They get to show up everywhere, as the world thinks to call on them. The only reason these people are given such amplification to be a voice is because they’ve worked hard to forge a name and reputation, and in majority of cases a pillar of that involved playing the role of provocateur. Hopefully this is done tastefully, as we seem to have a glut of people who do this in a most uncouth manner these days. No matter, the measured contrarian voice will always be a respected position. If you’re a mature, thoughtful human and understand your subject matter it’s easy to do this without being an attention troll while still having a strong point of view people will want to hear.
Despite what you’ve been taught, enemies are a positive. And as stated at the beginning – if you have none, find a way to make some. I know the social web for many of you is all warm and fuzzy, but the reality is it’s simply a reflection of our physical world where power dynamics, reputation and hierarchies are very much a reality. Learn to participate in the game and be a player in the court of public opinion, or ignore it at your own risk.
Quick end note / disclaimer: I don’t mean to make enemies randomly or simply piss people off and damage your reputation. I mean to go about it as a planned, strategic measure, likely more with topics in mind than specific individuals (they’ll find you, don’t worry about that part). If you do approach this without thought you’re going to potentially create a much worse situation.