A Word About Self-Promotion

Sites like Wikipedia and many subreddits on Reddit have rules that prohibit self-promotion. I know from experience because I ran into a life-long ban on the Dutch version of Wikipedia and on the subreddit r/startups. It seems that self-promotion is really frowned upon by some people. Unfortunately, such aren't able distinguish selfish from selfless self-promotion.

Let's take a look at how I was banned, and then come up with a well-founded opinion on self-promotion.

Wikipedia

Once upon a time, there was a Dutch Wikipedia moderator named Kleuske. She didn't make a secret of her real name; she took great personal pride in her activities to "keep Wikipedia clean."

I made the mistake of thinking her real name was a public secret, while I now suspect it was actually a smart ruse devised by Kleuske to get people banned from Wikipedia. See for instance what happened to Michel Vuijlsteke in 2014. I knew Michel as one of the contributors on the city blog Gent Blogt; we met on different occasions in the early years of my career with iText.

Michel's problem with Wikipedia was slightly different from mine, but the end result was the same.

Whenever he tried to improve an article, he bumped into a veto from Kleuske who claimed that his changes were "too commercial." Discussions got heated, especially when Kleuske involved Michel's professional contacts into the debate. Michel complained that this was an infringement of his privacy, but Kleuske responded with a canon by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Köchel-Verzeichnis 231. In the heat of the discussion, Michel called Kleuske by her real name and he was permanently banned from the Dutch Wikipedia because "he didn't respect Kleuske's privacy."

It shouldn't surprise anyone that this decision was overruled; but it's shocking that it took so many years. Today, Kleuske is no longer active on Wikipedia; she seems to have left in June 2016.

Goodbye by Kleuske

Her last words on the site translate as "For all those who might hope I'll come back... Forget it! I'm not a masochist."

It wasn't the first time she left, as we can tell from a post on Michel Vuijlsteke's blog dating from January 2015.

Ding Dong The witch is dead

Kleuske's behavior was also instrumental to my permanent ban from Wikipedia. The events that led to this ban are documented on the Proposed for Deletion page of February 13, 2011. That page is in Dutch, but let me summarize what happened.

Someone—I don't know who—created a Wikipedia page about me. Although a (new, more recent) Wikipedia-page exists about me today, that page was up for deletion in 2011 because a Wikipedia user didn't consider me worthy of being mentioned in an encyclopedia.

Kleuske agreed, and she made strange comments open my open source project: "Not only the software, but also the developer can be downloaded."

That was harmless until someone said "He wrote books for Manning Publications." Kleuske got nasty saying "One good book is sufficient. A thousand bad books aren't enough [to be worthy of having a page on Wikipedia]." She also argued that Manning wasn't a renowned publisher, certainly not when compared to Addison-Wesley and Prentice Hall. I never knew what her problem was, but she clearly had issues.

There was a long reply by someone I know because I recognize his alias, explaining why Kleuske was wrong—the main argument was that she was judging a book without even reading it. That didn't help; the page was deleted.

So far, so good. I didn't really care about having a page on Wikipedia—I still don't. I didn't think much of it, especially since all of this happened on the Dutch Wikipedia. However, I made the mistake writing a—no longer existing—blog post about the whole situation. In that post, I used Kleuske's real name, assuming that everyone knew who she was.

Kleuske found out and had me banned for life from the Dutch Wikipedia by the same moderator who banned Michel Vuijlsteke.

I didn't do any efforts to have the ban removed after Kleuske left, but my ban still has (minor) consequences.

You can't expect me to respect an organization that engages people who don't treat people such as me, Michel Vuijlsteke, Bruno Peeters, and many others with the respect they deserve, can you?

Reddit

I blame Wikipedia for allowing bad moderators spoil the platform by starting personal vendettas and using rude language. I don't blame reddit for what happened to me on r/startups because I understand that each subreddit has its own rules and its own moderators enforcing those rules. Nevertheless, if someone at Reddit reads this, there may be ways to improve the user experience.

When I released my book Entreprenerd in May 2021, I created the Reddit account Entreprenerd21, but then I discovered that I already had an account in my own name, BrunoLowagie, that was over three years old—I had forgotten all about it. I decided to keep both accounts and use the Entreprenerd21 one to talk about topics such as startups, open source, venture capital... My personal account was useful to discuss topics such as writing, self-publishing, and books, but also to share personal opinions in general.

I used my personal account to air my personal opinion regarding unpaid internships to learn a job and I included a reference to the part of my book where I wrote about the unpaid internship I did at the start of my career. This wasn't to the liking of the mod of the subreddit, GaryARefuge. He rejected the content (unpaid internships are evil) and he qualified the link to my book as self-promotion. He permanently banned me from r/startups without any up-front warning and I was told that using another account to return to the r/startups subreddit would result in a site-wide ban.

It's kind of ironic that someone who succeeded in bootstrapping a company from zero to an eight-figure exit gets banned from a subreddit about startups, but I didn't consider it a great loss for myself, given the profile of the person who banned me. I won't make the mistake I made mentioning Kleuske's real name a second time, but I hope that GaryARefuge's professional activities will give me a chance to discuss his behavior with him face-to-face, for instance at a start-up event.

Incidentally, I had previously posted another comment in r/startups with my Entreprenerd21 account in response to the following question:

A question on r/startups

Someone replied that it was important to build long-form content.

I agreed, and I gave some examples:

Answer on r/startups that got me banned

On Stack Overflow, answers get deleted if they are considered poor. Three-word answers are likely candidates for deletion, because their quality is usually low. The same goes for answers that consist of only a link. Answers on Stack Overflow should be "standalone" in the sense that they provide an answer without requiring a visit a website outside of the Stack Exchange realm.

Based on my experience on Stack Overflow, I chose to elaborate on the importance of building long-form content mentioned in the three-word comment. I explained how a tutorial I wrote resulted in getting a book contract, and how that book resulted in good marketing. I considered this a good addition to the initial three-word comment.

I also mentioned Stack Overflow as an example to make my comment more complete. As I assume that the term SSCCE isn't widely know, I added a link to the SSCCE website. As an additional example, I added a link to the site of my book to show how my advise would work in practice. I made a "tongue-in-cheek" comment about that.

Apparently, GaryARefuge doesn't have much of a sense of humor—I honestly feel sorry for him; lack of humor is a serious handicap in life. He didn't like my comment and temporarily banned Entreprenerd21 from his kingdom r/startups. I had been banned permanently with my BrunoLowagie account, which meant that I wasn't allowed to post anything with my Entreprenerd21 account on r/startups anymore—which I didn't. After seeing the temporary ban for that second account, I decided to leave the subreddit completely.

Imagine my surprise when this incident resulted in a site-wide temporary ban "for using alternate accounts to evade a subreddit ban." Clearly that accusation was false. I assume that GaryARefuge wasn't satisfied with kicking me from his own subreddit, and found it necessary to have me banned from the whole Reddit site for three days, giving me the time to write this article.

I used the rules that I was familiar with on Stack Exchange. Having a 70K+ reputation on Stack Overflow, I have quite some moderation rights, and I use them to keep Stack Overflow clean. I would never abuse my privileges to hurt other people in the idle hope that would make me feel better. That would eventually boil down to masochism, as you can tell from Kleuske's farewell words on Wikipedia. Hurting other people only makes you feel worse yourself.

Who moderates the moderators?

My experiences with Kleuske and GaryARefuge raise the old question Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Since the issue was already discussed by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, and since we're still confronted with the problem, I don't think there's an easy solution. The question usually arises when people get intoxicated with power and use that power to create a situation where you have those who have to follow the law and those who are above the law. The way the Kim family (Il-sung, Jong-Il, Jong-un) ruled and rules over North Korea comes to mind, but the problem is much more common than we suspect among people who never make the news.

The problem also exists among moderators on social media platforms, especially those hiding safely behind nicknames. Forgive me if I'm wrong, but I suspect that such people enjoy being moderator because it allows them to abuse that easy-to-obtain power to satisfy their personal needs. When you dig deeper into their behavior, you discover that many carry a deep frustration with them, a failed start-up, a missed career as an author... Such people are toxic, you should stay away from them.

Allow me to quote Jill Blakeway: "When a toxic person can no longer control you, they will try to control how others see you. The misinformation will feel unfair, but stay above it, trusting that other people will eventually see the truth, just like you did."

You won't catch me writing a blog post entitled "Ding dong, the witch is dead" but I do blame the organizations that use the "services" of such mods for not intervening. They should help such people channel their frustrations in a more positive way. Instead, they allow them to open up a jar that increases negativity.

I am no longer active on Stack Overflow because I left the software business a couple of years ago; I don't know anything about the current atmosphere on Stack Exchange, but I liked how moderator privileges were unlocked automatically the more reputation points users accrued as a reward for providing good answers, while bad answers could result in loss of reputation. Allegedly, Wikipedia also has some kind of meritocracy, but I have my doubts about it, as the "scoring system" isn't as transparent to outside users as it is on Stack Overflow.

This brings us to the topic of selfish versus selfless promotion.

Selfish versus Selfless Self-Promotion

Arvid Kahl is the author of books such as Zero to Sold and The Embedded Entrepreneur. To promote the latter book, he recorded a four-minute podcast that you may find interesting: Selfish vs. Selfless: Self-Promotion in Communities. He starts by saying: "I used to think all self-promotion was wrong — at all times." That is probably also what mods such as GaryARefuge think.

But Arvid identifies what causes that attitude, and why that attitude is bad: "It’s an eclectic mix of jealousy and self-limitation, and I have realized just how destructive it can be not to promote yourself for this reason. Self-promotion is a necessary part of building something meaningful in public. People won’t find you or your work when you don’t share it with the world."

He discovered what makes selfless self-promotion different from selfish self-promotion: "A selfish self-promoter says, I made this!, while the selfless self-promoter says, I made this for you! ... If people understand that you’re not promoting yourself alone but are actually promoting something for them, they will meet your messages with encouragement and support."

That's exactly what I meant with my comment that led to my Entreprenerd21 account being banned from r/startups. My comment was useful for whoever asked the question, regardless of whether I added a link to my book. I just wanted to help by giving advise that had helped me in the past, based on my personal experience. What helped me in the past, could help someone else in the future.

Arvid continues: "Many communities still consider all self-promotion to be selfish. They have witnessed too many veiled attempts by marketers trying to subvert their communities into an advertisement channel. ... Reddit is the archetype of a “no self-promotion” platform. Most Reddit communities have stringent rules and will quickly ban people who promote their products or services. In fact, Reddit is known to apply these rules strictly to the very administrators who enforce those rules."

I wish I had known this before, including Arvid's tips on how to avoid what happened to me on Reddit. It's too late for me, but it might not be too late for you, so click this link and listen to Arvid's advise. I know: asking you to click this link is against the rules of many communities, but this website is meant for publishing my personal musings, it's not a community platform ;-)

The world isn't fair. When you publish your own book, you often have no other choice than to self-promote your work. How can you not self-promote yourself? You've been working for months to produce the best book you had in you. It would be cruel to forbid you to talk about your achievement. You are entitled to feel proud.

Unfortunately, there are many people out there who will never understand what you've achieved because they have never written a book. You will bump into people who will judge your book without any intention to ever read it. Such people usually hide in tribes consisting of people who think alike, and who echo each others opinions. While they would probably benefit from reading your book, remember that "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink." As soon as people start showing tribal behavior, get out of their tribe.

You may think it's your responsibility to protect others against the abuse of "bad moderators," but it isn't. It's the responsibility of the community as a whole. It helps if you find people who have experienced the same problem to unveil systematic abuse. Your best bet is to approach some "tribe members" individually and confront them with fact, not with feelings. If you succeed in convincing a couple of tribe members, they might become your best ambassadors to get you accepted in their tribe, and to stop the bad behavior of the moderators.

In my opinion self-promotion is necessary, and it should not be frowned upon if it's selfless.

Personal experience has taught me that not everyone shares this opinion. I am sharing my experience in the hope that:

  1. The people who bump into the same problem find comfort in the fact that they are not alone.
  2. We help each other when we face this issue.

Wherever authors are trolled for self-promoting their book, we can come to the each other's rescue.

Let's ask the trolling moderator: "Have you read this author's book? If not, why are you acting so hateful? You don't even know what you're talking about!"

Granted, that can result in a ban from the troll's community, but so be it. At least, we have tried to make that community a better place.