Unfiltered ≠ Crazy

Over at Forbes, blogger Susannah Breslin wishes to suggest that crazy people make better bloggers, and likewise volunteers herself as an example of a crazy person who is one of those better bloggers. Her argument, basically, is that crazy people are willing to be unfiltered, honest and entertaining, which makes them more interesting than sane people.

I’m not particularly persuaded by her argument. I am neither here nor there with her opinion that she is crazy; she may be, and I have no reason to doubt her self-assessment. But I don’t buy the argument that being crazy means that you are inherently more interesting as a blogger than the average neurotypical human being. I know a fair number of people with diagnosed mental disorders of one sort or another; as a class, they are no more or less unfiltered, honest or entertaining than anyone else. Conversely, I know a fair number of people who pass for “sane” who are perfectly happy to be — depending on one’s perspective — either the guy who’s just saying what everyone’s thinking, or the guy who delights in dropping the turd in the punchbowl. Likewise, speaking as someone who’s done his share of ridiculous things simply because he felt like it, being diagnostically mentally disordered is not a prerequisite for such behavior.

It’s possibly more accurate to say that Ms. Breslin is as crazy as she says she is and she’s also gleefully unfiltered. Good for her; I hope both bring her joy. But as far as her thesis is concerned, the only thing I think she’s 100% correct about is that no one wants to read your blog if you’re boring. You don’t have to be crazy not to be boring. You just have to be not boring.

40 thoughts on “Unfiltered ≠ Crazy

  1. Since the word “crazy” has been played by Ms. Breslin, and I’ve also used it, ground rules for discussion:

    1. Let’s keep in mind that “crazy” is not a scientific term and covers a lot of semantic ground, some of it not particularly useful;

    2. Let’s try to avoid making blanket statements about what crazy people do, because there are lots of ways to be crazy, and they don’t all exhibit the same way;

    3. As I have several friends and at least a couple of family members who qualify as “crazy,” slagging on the crazy simply for shits and grins is not likely to make me happy.

    Thanks.

  2. Heck, I’d argue that certain types of ‘crazy’ inhibit blogging. I’ll use myself as an example: I have an anxiety disorder that tends to be triggered by social situations. When it’s bad, I don’t blog because I worry that any interaction, no matter how inconsequential, and whether it’s with a stranger or my closest friends, will be taken the wrong way. This means that, at best, everything will be couched in language that pretty much says ‘not a threat, don’t eat me’, and at worst, you get silence because I lack the spoons to deal with people. Add in that talking about depression feels about as exciting as being depressed — it’s a slog, and it feels frustrating to tell my friends and readers ‘nope, still depressed’.

    Now everyone is different: some people might be more open on the Internet because Internet people don’t trigger their anxiety like face-to-face interactions do. And that’s not even touching the many other varieties of mental illness there are — I’m only qualified to talk about how my crazy affects my blogging, and that’s usually for the worst.

  3. My take on it, as someone who’s mentally ill (or “crazy”) – I find it works both ways. I’ve been diagnosed with depression (I suspect I actually have bipolar II) and one of the things I’ve found since going off the meds is that I’m much more prolific than I was when I was on them. That’s great. But then again, given I’m effectively writing without any brakes on my brain, it tends to mean my tendency to blather on at great length is also unrestrained. I have a strong suspicion I’m a bore.

    So while I write a lot, I don’t post much, because I just don’t think other people will be interested in what I’ve written.

  4. Now I’m wondering how much planning has to go into sourcing the turd for the punchbowl. I suppose you’d have to turn up to the event that had the punchbowl with a turd in some sort of tupperware container as sourcing it on site might be challenging.

  5. Wait, you can’t generalize from a single data point. There goes an awful lot of rant material. Grump.

  6. I have several Livejournal friends who are either physically or mentally disabled. They twitch at the casual way the words “crazy, insane, neurotic” et al get thrown around in conversation. I’m disabled myself, and I’ve had brain surgery on numerous occasions, so I can sympathize with their POV. Too many “normal, healthy” people in this world seem to think that mental illness is an issue of willpower or self control. Depression isn’t a “real” illness, you see, it just gives lazy, selfish people an excuse to wallow in self-pity and not contribute anything productive to society. Or, people who “claim” to suffer from hallucinations are “just doing it for the attention” (that, or they’re drug addicts looking to excuse their behavior). Even if you’re trying to put a happy/positive “spin” on mental illness, as Ms. Breslin seems to be doing, in the end you’re not helping yourself by reinforcing stereotypes, nor are you helping the people who follow behind you. Maybe being “crazy” does help her to be a better blogger. But it doesn’t “help” the similarly afflicted when they’re expected to just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and conform to society’s norms, as if that’s all they had to do to overcome their legitimate difficulties.

  7. I don’t really think that in the quote that she starts with that Steve Jobs had really meant crazy as a person with a mental illness as much as people who think outside the box, and outside of societally accepted perimeters in general. For Steve Jobs, I imagine it more comes from the experience of being told he or his ideas “were crazy”, for being unique, untried and beyond the expectation of his audience. A person may or may not be neuro-atypical, but an aberration from statistical average does not imply a mental illness.

    For Ms. Breslin though, she, through her examples, goes with a value to mental illness far beyond what Steve Jobs appears to have been advocating.

    As far as mental illness goes, the results may vary. For instance, studies have shown that depressed people are better at gauging odds, but with without the irrational optimism of normal people don’t succeed through a lack of risk taking. Also, people studying schizophrenic conspiracies state that there is a flatness and a lack of logical structure that can be pretty boring in the sameness. People with mental illness can have valuable an important things to say, and this can at times be partially informed through their mental illness but there does not appear solid correlation, let alone causation, that says these people are generally more valuable or more interesting than people without those issues. People have actually studied this a lot for it is a myth going back at least hundreds of years.

    Really, I think that Ms. Breslin falls for the Romantic myth of the troubled artist that is really best stated in “The Anatomy of Melancholy” by Robert Burton in 1621. Though the ideas go back further (see “A History of Madness by Michel Foucault). It is a very old yarn.

    I wouldn’t care except that this sort of thinking is a limitation that unfairly tears down the sane for being uninteresting, unimaginative and of lesser worth. It is can be viewed as a valiant attempt to place the ideas of the mentally ill back into the realm of value when society often places the mentally ill people outside it. Not on the value of the idea, but on a judgement of the brain. The thing is that Ms. Breslin does not rest on the idea that mentally ill people have good ideas but that they should be considered to have better ideas. Not on the basis of the idea but of the person. Sadly in using is the same categorical error we are left with two poorly reasoned acts of discrimination (the original denigration of the mentally ill and Ms. Breslin’s denigration of the sane).

  8. The idea that not being neurotypical means someone is a rebel and a troublemaker have always struck me as odd. I’m incapable of getting angry and break psychology tests measuring neuroticism. The result is I don’t come across as aiming to cause trouble or being unfiltered in any way. I come across as calm and quiet.

    There are a lot of ways that someone can be atypical. I don’t think they inherently make someone more or less interesting. It’s not like you need to be atypical to have funny stories to share or new ideas.

  9. While I certainly don’t mind fellow crazy people calling themselves crazy, that term covers a lot of ground. Some mental illnesses do reduce inhibitions, other vastly increase them; some might make you more productive at times, others make you unproductive most of the time. This certainly doesn’t make me more or less interesting!

  10. I didn’t find her blog interesting nor am I interested in looking for more examples of her work. So, on some sort of level, her argument fails, no?

  11. I’m not sure paid bloggers are really ‘bloggers’ anyways. Blog lately just seems top be a new name for paid opinion pages…

  12. O Crazy Scalzi, how else might the Executive Committee of The Official Ghlaghghee Fan Club describe someone who hasn’t posted a recent and satisfactory picture of the Beauteous Ghlaghghee but crazy?

    Here are some possibilities: uncultured, abusive, vulgar, despicable, criminally negligent and arrogant.

    Or we can just settle on crazy.

    If you correct this terrible thing immediately we may forgive you.

    The Official Ghlaghghee Fan Club

  13. Interesting that she uses “crazy” for herself, then references “mentally disabled” later on. I wondered if it’s a synonym to avoid repetition, or if she defines them separately.
    I don’t know that there is a correlation between a mental condition and continuously interesting (enough to bring readers back repeatedly).
    I know in my own blogging, I am probably frequently uninteresting, but I enjoy the writing, and hope I will be able to hone that skill through practice and repetition…
    The fact that I am anecdotaly slightly unbablanced doesn’t mean all my stories are good ones.
    @Edward Brennan – nice reference to Robert Burton

  14. Frank:

    “I’m not sure paid bloggers are really ‘bloggers’ anyways.”

    They’re bloggers in the same way people who write for newspapers are “newspapermen” (or “newspaperwomen”). As someone who got paid to blog for several years (and depending on how you view my FilmCritic.com column, still does), the name describes the medium, not the payment.

  15. Seems like she may have an observational problem based on intelligent actors. It’s not hard to ACT crazy at least in the self-controlled limited focus of a blog (is there an equivalent of the Turring test for Insanity? Oh, I guess that’s what psychology is, right?). And saying off the wall things is certainly one way to not be boring. Not to mention that insanity is seen as a moral defense (hey, I didn’t know what I was saying. I’m crazy, everybody knows that, and nobody takes my comments at face value etc).

    Take for example, this blogger Breitbart who, over the weekend, called for the Tea Party to start shooting liberals first. Of course, he couched that in “Sometimes I start to lose my mind and think we should start shooting liberals first”. So he certainly understands that acting crazy gets hits (to his blog, not on liberals! No really, I’m not telling you to hit liberals!) but he’s sane enough to realize that he can’t be too crazy because otherwise he’ll be inciting people to violence. (Note that I use this example, not so much to condemn his actions, just to illustrate my point about crazy blogging).

  16. Oh, for heaven’s sake. So somebody discovered that you can get a lot of attention by oversharing and being melodramatic. That is not a sign of mental illness. It’s a sign of being an attention whore. She is correct that writing is entertainment and that bloggers need to not be boring. She is wrong if she thinks that the only way to accomplish that is to turn your life into a public train wreck. There are many other ways to be interesting, and none of this has anything to do with major mental illness, which is pretty much the most devastating thing that can possibly happen to one’s creativity, productivity and success in life. Grumble grumble grumble.

  17. I am bi-polar. I am categorically *not* crazy and in fact consider it to be a horrible, demeaning slur.

  18. While reading the linked Breslin blog entry, I was thinking *exactly* what Catherine Shaffer just wrote. And I’ll add to that this thought: I find attention whores annoying, off-putting, and ultimately boring, and avoid giving them my time. Which means not only will I certainly not be reading any more of Breslin, but I will likely not be reading any of the blogs to which she so helpfully linked. Actually, I found the examples she cited more horrifying than intriguing. It might be difficult to look away from a train wreck, but I object to being encouraged to seek them out–or even worse, cause them–as a form of entertainment.

  19. Having a mental illness, myself – I see two meaning of the word “crazy”. One being related to my mental illness and if someone called me “crazy” to refer to that, I’d be hurt.

    The other meaning of “crazy”, which is the meaning I’d use it in, is anyone not fitting the very narrow norm which nobody really fits into anyway and when it comes to that meaning, I heartily encourage embracing it as the healthiest thing you can do. Today we have such a narrow social norm that the only people who would appear normal are the ones you just don’t know very well. Realising how you don’t fit into this narrow norm and embracing it, in stead of trying to suppress it can easily make you more interesting. I call that being true to yourself and daring to deviate. As Frank Zappa said – Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible. When someone calls me “crazy” in that meaning, I take it as a compliment.

  20. What Nikitta said.

    Also, there are many mental illnesses; check out the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual sometime. Anxiety disorders are different than mood disorders which are different than psychotic disorders. Plus a person can have more than one disorder at a time. One of the primary symptoms of psychosis is the disorganization of thought. People who are acutely psychotic are generally not able to write or speak coherent sentences — sometime to the point of catatonia. Interesting perhaps, but it doesn’t help one communicate and usually, the psychotic person is suffering.

  21. Oh no, you have named my, “That guy” behavior. I love blurting out the awful unspoken train of thought that others have the good sense and taste to leave unspoken. I’m a mook, its true.

  22. There are levels of “crazy”, and I think that as long as you don’t act on all your thoughts you are OK. Some of us loves the healthy-crazy people that says what they think instead of just walking around the subject. Maybe that’s why some of us loves to watch the British Top Gear with Jeremy Clarkson.

  23. The things she deigns crazy aren’t really. They’re mental conditions, simply put.

    And as much as I love me some Susannah Breslin this article makes me think, “Nice Try But No Cigar.” For all the points you mentioned. The mere fact that she can state it as a topic is proof enough she’s not really that crazy, to me.

  24. In agreement with Catherine Shaffer @ 9:03am. The blogger seems to be confusing “crazy” with “gregarious AND dealing with mental illnesses”. I know several people who deal with mental illness, but are the LAST people you’d find oversharing on a blog, and in fact are very closed except to those with whom they share intimate friendships. The blogger also seems to be assumptive about things like “hearing voices” and the like, as if that’s a universal.

    Overall, I find her article poorly researched and it comes off as little more than “bring more hits and ad revenue to your blog in these simple steps!”

  25. I think what she is describing is, simply put, lack of inhibition. That is a common description of ‘crazy’ behavior, like ‘Jackass’ crazy. You can diagnose Steve-O with all kinds of mental conditions or illnesses or whatever, but the behavior is crazy, not the person. And the lack of inhibitions can lead people to take serious risks. In her case, her risks are mainly ‘professional’, e.g., not getting a job because she posted about her own behaviors and attitudes that were unprofessional. For jackassery, the lack of inhibitions can be (and have been) life-ending.

    We like to watch people leave their inhibitions behind – it is a common theme of literature and populist fare alike. From the ‘return to savagery’ of lord of the flies or survivor to gossipy tales like the scarlet letter or any soap opera, establishing a norm and then neatly stepping outside of it is a common source of dissonance. Since there are a wide range of disinhibited behaviors and attitudes, you can display them with and without personal risk.

    I am very interested in this because I dislike watching the Id displayed so prominently intellectually but am drawn to it viscerally. Thus, this blog is especially good for me because the mix of intellect and emotion are so nicely balanced; I actually had to stop reading boing-boing because the bloggers there have a varying approach and one of them – much like Ms. Breslin – would err too much on the packaged-like-intellect-but-really-my-extremely-emotional-opinion postings.

  26. In my humble opinion it takes three things to be a successful blogger.
    1) Talent. A blogger must write well. (I’m sure there are exceptions, but for the most part, a rudimentary grasp of spelling and grammar is needed.)
    2) Passion. If you don’t love what you do how can you sell it to others?
    3) Worthwhile subject material. If you possess 1 & 2 but write about the growth rate of your toenails, my hunch is that your page hits will be limited. (Assuming page hits = successful.)

    During my first read of this article I applied the authors suggestion to my point 3 in that “crazy” people had more interesting things to share. This is not a bad hypothesis but she directly links “crazy” to being willing to share publicly. Citing examples of ones “crazy” behavior is not enough to make one a better blogger. I thought the article made a better argument when I used the following definition.

    Crazy: Informal, intensely enthusiastic; passionately excited.

    Of course anyone would be better at their vocation/avocation if they were intensely enthusiastic & passionately excited.

  27. ## “….the only thing I think she’s 100% correct about
    ## is that no one wants to read your blog if you’re boring. ”

    ‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad.
    You’re mad.’

    ‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.

    ‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’

  28. Nikitta has it right, I think there are two definitions of crazy. They boil down to:
    (a) you don’t tend to think the same way as most other people do, i.e. you are a weirdo comparatively speaking.
    (b) you are mentally living in a different reality from the rest of us.

    Unfortunately, we don’t really differentiate between the two in conversation.

  29. I once worked on the periphery of the mental health field (I got court orders to allow the state to hospitalize and medicate the severely mentally ill). In my experience, people who were manic often thought they were incredibly interesting and were sometimes quite amusing, but not for the reasons they thought. They also frequently believed they had unusual or “god-like” powers. This was not so much true for the severely depressed (I include bipolar depression here). But all of this is really a side issue. Being “crazy” may be more interesting, but it doesn’t make someone automatically a good writer and good writing is what makes a blog interesting.

  30. Ed @ 11:30

    Nicely put, though you did make me wonder about the growth rate of your toenails :)

    Some of the best things I have ever read are where the writer makes me feel passionate about things I would otherwise not. That may be the difference between a good blogger and a great one though.

  31. I agree that crazy in this context is not necessarily mental illness but just acting outside the acceptable norm. Crazy is merely the act of NOT blending in.
    And as noted by folks above, being an attention whore” and acting outside the boundaries gets “hits” and in TV and Radio it gets ratings.
    All the most “crazy” pundits are the names everyone knows whether they actually follow them or not.
    Some people do it because its their personality enjoys pushing the boundaries and surprising people. TheBloggess is an example.
    Others do it because they like to leverage the behavior into influence and money. Jon Stewart, Rush Limbaugh come to mind. I don’t follow any bloggers who meet that criteria, but I don’t doubt some exist.

  32. Have to say I agree with Catherine Shaffer. Kudos to Edward Brennan for putting the now rather boring myth in its proper historical perspective.

  33. I’m not touching the semantic definition of “crazy” discussion with a ten-foot pole. Just want to point out that yes, people read Whatever because you put a lot of time and energy into making it an entertaining and welcoming place to hang out, but they also read it ’cause you’re John Freaking Scalzi (meaning, you put a lot of time and energy into being awesome in non-blog-related areas, too). Do people read your blog because they buy your books, or do they buy your books because they read your blog? I might be wrong (I haven’t done a search on the examples Breslin cites), but I feel like a lot of the people to whom she linked are known to the general blog-reading public because of what they write on the internet. Their blogs are not topic-related either; they aren’t solely about cooking or kids or economics (all of which are part of the social and informational communities the topics fit into).

    Then again, she is not clear about whether she is taking the entire population of the blogosphere as a whole or a certain subset thereof as her sampling base. If we wished to quantify her argument, comparing pageviews, comments, readers, etc of blogs run by “crazy” people to those…erm…not, I doubt her argument would hold up. If she were arguing that, of all the personal, non-topic related, non-career related blogs, the ones written by “crazy” people are the most interesting, then she might have something there. On the other hand, “better” sounds like an awfully subjective measurement. In which case I read her post as being in support of her own blog-reading preferences.

    They certainly aren’t mine.

  34. Honestly, I read 2 blogs – this one and Slacktivist. My response to this article was – she’s not crazy, she and arrogant ego maniac and (as Catherine said) an attention whore. Furthermore I did try to read Penelope Trunk and found her annoying as all get out for many of the same reasons. In fact, I respond to most writing like that with “Get OVER yourself!” I deal with too many arrogant ego maniacal attention whores in my job to ever want to read stuff from the same type of people in my leisure time.

    Incidentally – 98,719,391 people in the United States are at least 1 standard deviation from the mean. Assuming that “people who act outside the accepted norm” ONLY include those people who are a full standard deviation or more from the mean that’s still a hell of a lot of “crazy” people so, Ms Breslin, you really are not that special.

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