Please follow by email! Instead of an annoying popup to ask you this, I put it here. Pretty please?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Escape Rooms for Education: Portable Puzzle Boxes in a College Communication Class

by Steven S. Vrooman

I did an Escape Room class. Well, okay, no matter how much they wanted to they could never escape class, so instead I built Puzzle Boxes they had to get into. 

The thermos is just for my tea. Only I could earn the caffeinated treasure inside that.
There was a pirate doubloon somewhere inside each one. Get it to get the points.

I was motivated to try this based on a session I attended at SXSWedu, where we worked in interdisciplinary groups to figure out how to build Escape Rooms for education. I wanted to make it more portable and containable, so I tried to build Puzzle Boxes instead.

It turns out that an actual Escape Room is easier to plan than this kind of thing. For one thing, you can just set things out all over the room, which makes it a bit easier to manage the puzzles. I have been hunting for ever smaller and smaller boxes and locks for a month now to prep for this. I am reminded of this scene in that ridiculous genius, Flann O'Brien's, crazy novel, The Third Policeman:

And making the boxes fit a narrative is harder than if I can lay down bear rugs and have a saloon with a player piano:

Each box I use has a theme, like what's inside the carry-on or the pink backpack or the boat emergency box. Sometimes it is easier to carry off the idea as things get smaller, and sometimes not.

Also, you also don't have to have so many things embedded inside other things in full room. I was constantly convinced I had locked the combination clue which opened the key bag inside the box the key in the bag opened, and such. That kind of thing gets easier as you do it more, but it was still nerve-wracking. My colleague and partner in crime, Dr. Chris Bollinger, kept track of it all by taping keys or combinations to papers with the boxes labelled:

I think we'll get something more like a key-sorting tackle box for that for next time.

Anyway, they solved the puzzles in about 40 minutes, which included doing an online quiz on the reading content, a small scavenger hunt in the room to get more of the Escape Room feel, and a bit where they had to demonstrate their application of concepts from the reading to a case study to one of us, "The Wizard."

These were the easiest puzzles we could do and still have 3 or 4 layers deep of boxes/bags, with some "here's a key, but it doesn't fit any of your locks yet" sorts of moments.

I had hoped to make them harder puzzles and to make the students utilize more content to solve them, but I ran out of time.

This is an activity I plan on using in my classes going forward, and I also hope to be bringing this to association meetings and corporate retreat sorts of things, so this was a test of prep time, administration challenges, how well adding learning objectives to these puzzles works, and whether or not an Escape Box is actually as fun as I thought it would be.

The short evaluation is that it worked well. The students had quite a bit of fun. Here they are figuring our how to use the black-light one of their boxes provided to find invisible messages on a case of business cards from the briefcase that had simply seemed like "flavor items":

I know this is revealing secrets to the puzzle, but if you've ever done an Escape Room, you've used the black-light trick.

Hearing them get excited to open a box and then groan when they see two locked bags inside was pretty great. The first group to hold up the doubloon was really stoked. I think amping up the between-group speed competition in the future will be a good thing. That will be interesting, since I also want to build puzzles where they have to trade keys to finish, either as a surprise they have to figure out without prompting, or as a negotiation bit to add more communication learning outcomes, or as an artificial way to even the timing of completion out so one group doesn't get too far ahead.

They were *really* motivated to perform on the online quiz, which they had to get 100% on in order to get the key, and the performance task. That's the kind of engagement we want.

We were also able to take the content, in this case group dynamics and leadership, and really debrief using the things that happened during the activity itself, as well.

And that was one of the great takeaways from this, for me, for the class, and perhaps looking ahead to working with this kind of thing in the future: The groupthink was very strong. The boat box group, for example, after they opened the main locked compartment, were stuck:

They had two brands of locks which shared a key size. In other words, the key went in but didn't turn. That was as it should be for the puzzle, but they were convinced I had messed up the puzzle, even through the key had a different brand etched on it than the lock's brand.

I had to give them a hint and I tired to talk them out of the hint. I said, "You guys are gonna feel pretty dumb when I show you." But they were desperate.

I closed the lid of the box.

Still nothing. I gave them a bit of time. I had to open this compartment for them:

They were LOOKING RIGHT AT IT, BUT THEY COULD NOT SEE IT. Their groupthink had literally led their culture to write over reality. In fact, they convinced Dr. Bollinger and myself, for a second, that there had been some mistake. We had been primed for this, as we were a bit uncertain whether or not we'd made a locking error, but they still convinced us, PEOPLE NOT IN THEIR GROUP, that their groupthink version of reality was true. #FakeNews. That was a really important takeaway. Each group had their own moments of this, just a bit less intense.

On the whole, they learned a huge amount from the process elements, which in a communication class or first-year experience class or a corporate or teacher retreat or something would be really valuable. I think in other contexts, where those lessons were not so key, that their deep engagement with the puzzles really had them learning the content they were using to unlock things. If I were a math teacher, for example, I would do this kind of thing a lot. Numerical answers are perfect for this sort of thing, especially with so many programmable combination locks out there.

The downside is the time it takes in planning. And you can't really have them put the puzzles back together how they found them, since they don't actually always remember how. I think I will try to incentivize that as part of the next time I try this out and see if I can do that to save myself prep time. (You need master keys and a combination cheat sheet to do that so they don't lock something away forever by mistake!). I think leading them to design their own puzzles for each other or for future groups would also be a nice exercise, especially for certain classes (communication, education, leadership, etc.). I certainly benefited from that at SXSWedu.

I am also going to take pictures and create a visual guide for myself for each puzzle next time so they are easy to make again. Obviously if I do this more than once a class I will need to develop more than one option for each box to reduce boredom, but I did this with five groups of five people, so I could rotate all 5 puzzles and get extra mileage.

The last thing I really want to do is to deepen the narrative a bit more. I already have some flair on the carry-on, especially, to make it seem real. I need to do more with the other boxes and have non-puzzle flavor text and objects to build a story they can unravel for deeper engagement. Maybe all these people disappeared or something? They solve a mystery of some kind? Gotta think further. If I make it engaging like that on multiple vectors (puzzle, story, etc.), I can capture more interest. 

I think then I can make really hard boxes they can't finish in time. They leave class and need to do some homework to be able to finish? Because they are in boxes we can have them put it all away and then have another crack at it next session? This was part of my thinking in making Puzzle Boxes instead of Escape Rooms. I am a college professor and do not have the luxury of my "own" classroom. 

I think this all has a lot of promise. I will update with future blog posts on this. If you do this kind of stuff, yourself, please let me know and we can compare notes!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Diversifying Rhetorical Methods, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Hubris

by Steven S. Vrooman

Presented at the Engaging Pedagogy Conference, Seguin, TX, May 17, 2017

Aristotle’s three modes of rhetoric were ethos, pathos and logos, but these are, with apologies, inexact.
Although rhetorical criticism has often been taught as an application of various “methods,” these tend to produce, in the words of my doctoral advisor, Cheree Carlson, “cookie-cutter” projects that stamp the pentad or Symbolic Convergence Theory. This is not the same as what Janesick (1994) calls methodolatry, but it is in the same family. Janesick is talking about the kinds of specific methodological practices in ethnography, which, in contrast to most rhetorical criticism articles, is usually far more honest about how it does its work. Rhetoric, by erasing the conditions of practice by which a piece of criticism is undertaken, shifts its methodolatric burden onto its theorists, who become magic totem words that are supposed to tell us exactly what is happening. You know the words. Burke. Bohrmann, Fisher.
We diversify this list, when we do so, by carting over loads of ideological criticism, which, to be fair, people like Burke were doing on the sly anyway, but this leaves us with a decidedly problematic set of methodolatries. As Grossberg (1997) argued years ago, in between NCA panels where he wondered why so much cultural studies work was “so fucking boring,” we typically just find domination and resistance exactly where we expect to find them.
What is the epistemological status of a Burkean critic who sees the world as ripe for slicing with Burke’s box of knives? We can build an alternative rhetoric using, say, Anzaldua, but all of these approaches verge on hagiography. Anzaldua at least has cool words we can use to label our practices for us and allow us to explain to advisers what our “method” is. But what of lesser-known scholars, who don’t have five keywords to bold before the abstract? We risk the possibility that there is “real” rhetoric, with systems and models and names for things, and “fake” rhetoric, which is clearly an attempt to open up the canon, but seems to carry a different standard for how much it can lift. If it were good, wouldn’t there be steps like this other stuff we see in the Foss books, a student might ask?
And they will ask that even more in my class, which has, by this time, already taken students through a set of detailed tables of options for exploring and applying schemes, figures and tropes, as well as argument structure and fallacy (see the vast charts at I do find that students experience everything to follow in the class as less intellectually rigorous than what they’ve worked through in the tables.
So I feel it my task in this to generate those tables. There is something to struggling with Butler or West or Irigaray and then leaving them to float in a pool of confusion when asked to pick a method out of the bunch. And Stacey Waite’s (2016) hilarious account of reading passages from Judith Butler with her students shows that struggling through those moments with them can be pretty great.
This semester I played both sides by doing this intellectual kick into the deep end of the pool that reminds us all so fondly of graduate school seminars but then moving to the clearer set of charts. I know. I know. Butler’s approach cannot be reduced to such blankety blankety schemes, and it just reifies the kind of blankety blankety privilege her work stands against by reducing it in this way.
Does it, though? How do you teach Butler? Make them read? They don’t, btw. You give them some ideas before they start to guide their reading? Critical guiding questions? Then you do reading groups or pull the class into a circle for a discussion? Maybe you eventually are dramatically compelled to rise to the chalkboard in a moment of transcendent joy which you will use as your Facebook status about how wonderful your students are later that afternoon. You grasp the chalk and begin to . . . what? Write words. Then more words. Now you have a spatial diagram. Perhaps you use an arrow or two. Maybe you even number some concepts for them so that you have an answer when they tell you, “I’m still not sure exactly what we are supposed to do for this project.”
See what you did, with all the haze of constructivist and dialogic and postmodern and decentered teaching? You faked it. You made it look, to the students, like they did the work. But, you know, they don’t buy it. Either you explained it clearly enough that they think you are a genius and are so glad for the privilege of taking courses with you, or, worse, that you are a bore and they left confused. Rarely, as a classroom body, do they think they did this or could do it again without you.
This drives me nuts. This is fake pedagogy. Fake democratization.
I would prefer to cut out that bit, read the hard texts for them, process it into outline form and provide it to them in a form that they can immediately begin applying. I see that as far more empowering.
And I regularly see nonmajors in my introductory rhetorical methods class do better work with these tools than what I see in the journals or in conferences.
Back to Aristotle.
I break the pieces of rhetoric into interlocking funnels:
Schemes build structure (think Michael Leff). Narratives build genre. Arguments build ideology. Okay. But we know that’s not the whole story. Ideology, for example, is composed of, well, everything. So that’s what the grey circles are for. We start the class with schemes and they figure out how to do original research to analyze a structure. Same for arguments, although their theses tend to be of fairly small scope. All the rest of rhetorical criticism builds accounts of how all of this fits together, but so often it seems a kind of narrative + genre + ideology + structure question.
In the bad old days I used Burke and a social movements rhetoric textbook to explore these issues.
To build a version of the good new days, I, as I indicated, first just gave them articles or chapters and we struggled, disingenuously, as a class, to develop methods from them. Plenty were about being excluded from the rhetorical canon or even from public discourse, so that helped to process the perceived problem of “Why don’t we have these in chart form if they are so great?” We built methods with them:

For their final project they simply had to choose one of the 9 articles to use for what we were calling the MashUp section of the course. The project, which is course cumulative, used schemes, Perelman’s argument typology, fallacies, the material which used to be Burke (now MashUp) and the social movements book. This had, in the past, been a different social movement for each student. This time, all students had Black Lives Matter. Each student selected a different set of data (some social media content, some video content and some press coverage). They did a final presentation and paper, which they uploaded to a shared class blog ( for potential aggregation into a larger project.
At a basic level, given that before 100% of the students used Burke, a dead straight white male theorist, this time around only 12.5% did. I included a Burke reading as part of the diverse MashUp.
A more complex analysis of these results requires a bit of understanding about Burke, Burke’s connection to social movement theory, and the unique structure of the Black Lives Matter movement. Burkean analysis has many parts, but given his dramatistic framework, the typical elements used for the final project are either his frames or his notion of perspective by incongruity and its relationship to rhetorical bureaucracy. A quick and vaguely inaccurate version of these ideas is that Burke values either tragic framed movements (like the peace movement of the 1960s, morally rejecting the evil Establishment) or the comic (Gandhi, MLK, etc., which use civil disobedience to educate the foolish, not evil, system). Perspective by incongruity is akin to Gramscian hegemony analysis, which is interested in how power-laden discourses are stretched by power structures and cracked by resistance. In Burke’s case, he highlights the use of irony and satire in such cases.
This all connects with social movement theory largely built on a Burkean framework that privileges clear moral conflict. Other, non-Burkean elements of social movement theory involve clear leadership structures, internal communication rituals, etc. When it is all put together, the ideal movement is almost exactly the opposite of the less-structured, social media-driven, just name their names style of BLM, what my students called “hashtag salad”:

I had a feeling that if I had assigned this kind of movement using Burkean analysis, as usual, the result would have been just like the two previous times individual students chose BLM or three times they chose similar less-structured movements (WTO, Occupy Wall Street) for their final project – they suggested the movement was unclear and disorganized and thus would not be successful. In this case, the results were more mixed, with 5 students concluding that BLM was making errors that were in keeping with Burkean judgments, 6 suggesting that their different structure was an asset and the other 5 members of class arguing more complex theses like:

There is a boomer-millennial divide in terms of strategy, and suspicion of old leadership style, “respectability politics,” is important, because those models led to civil rights settling for not enough. They are stuck in mestizaje stage in connections between generations, but are struggling to develop nepantla.


BLM and others use fallacies, and their unorganized hierarchy allows them to exploit fallacies that are popular and funny enough to get attention but to be able to deny the ineffective or things that cross lines, which is a kind of turn to mdw nfr instead of Aristotle, which helps to pull in people who see news and just get angry.

In these kinds of examples, students were able to use the MashUp article concepts not just as an alternative to the traditional 60s-fetishizing vibe of classic rhetorical social movement theory, but as a key lever in mediating a more complex conversation between that and BLM, and, in many cases, other methods in the class, like fallacies.
Okay. All good. But….
In talking with other faculty interested in diversifying readings and ideas in their classes, there was some resistance to my idea of simplifying these texts down into a set of tools in a table. So I sought to open the class process and let them develop it. I remain skeptical of both the honesty of that approach and the relative lack of agency it gives the students. Although my more top-down table method has problems, it is the better option, all the things considered, I think. My plan is, for Spring 2018, to give the students the table and some of the readings and problematize the whole concept with them. The idea is that I admit that my readings and table entries are simplifications and the class is based on testing them out as much as using them, with the students rewarded for what they can read or generate for the readings that are new. This style can work exceptionally well if the instructor is committed to it. Let them know that all of this is contingent and incomplete. There is always more to do.
I am going to produce a draft of a table below here for you, but I struggle with all the things that I think you’d hope I’d be struggling with here:
1.    Does he have sufficient training to represent these ideas with any degree of fidelity?
2.    Especially given that his embodied experience in the world has been one of vast rafts of privilege.
3.    And the hubris of this table is EXACTLY the sort of reductive thing we’d expect in that case.
Let me take these totally legit criticisms in turn. Not to dispute them, but to explore their implications a bit.
One. I have had a lot of training. My coursework, teaching and research in Cultural Studies, Women’s Studies and African American studies have helped me here. Of course, I’ve been doing Burke stuff for 25 years, so I will likely reduce him to table form far more accurately, so this is a fair point. However, I’d like to underline that this is just not my problem alone. Part of the reason I want to do this project is that NO ONE has the right training for this if we entertain the possibility, even for a bit, that critical academic work does not have to exist in non-step-oriented postmodern form. We have to give it form for the students. We also hope we teach them to supercede our training wheels. And we put those wheels on for other methods. The Foss textbook give plenty of steps to even such mush as “genre criticism.” Why does the Burgchardt textbook give us a history piece and a cultural studies/ideological criticism piece as 2/3 of the “feminist criticism” section? When we strip diverse critical practices of the possibility of being abstracted into method, we reify something terrible. All our postmodern huffing and puffing will not blow down the methodological parts catalog of positivism. Thus we have “real” rhetoric on the one hand and something squishier on the other. It’s what we heard about feminist theory in an unfortunate graduate seminar years ago. The prof suggested that it would be more accurate to call feminist theory poetry or something instead, since it didn’t have the specificity and rigor one would expect of “real” academic work. I swear Kristin Hibler actually had steam come out of her ears, like in the cartoons, in response to this.
All of which reminds me that we are also putting an enormous burden on young faculty and graduate students to prepare, anew, every time, this stack of methods that swirl in their heads and experiences, this orbit of complexly written text that they need to sift and choose to help students to sift and choose. Of course, they also have other things they’d like to apply their skills and consciousness to, as well, in their departments, schools, communities, the world. Maybe they need to have a bigger voice in the union or faculty governance or a community organization. Maybe they need to have more time to write and publish and compete in a positivist model of scholarly presentationpublicationproduction that unfairly allocates privilege. Maybe they need to, as my friend was told at a Research One school, “spend less time with his students” in order to get tenure. He didn’t. So he didn’t. What if we could be better about not policing our own reductivism in the extended form of ideological purity texts we like to inflict on each other in the left.
Two. My privilege has been a titanic raft. This is true. Thus, it is entirely likely that I will get the nuances of nepantla wrong. But EVERYONE gets Burke’s Pentad wrong. Everyone. I have never seen or heard a piece of pentadic criticism that doesn’t have giant howlers of errors in the method. We just don’t care about that as much, I guess, although old Burkeans will read you the riot act if you happen to define “division” in a new-ish way, so maybe I’m wrong. This critique is true. But only someone with my unique combination of hubris and privilege would try this thing. Most others out there diversifying rhetoric kind of abandon the systematization gig in their syllabi. I think this is a waiting game. Eventually all the ancient Burkeans will die off, leaving their lumbering reptilian methods to the fossil record. But that ultimately abandons rhetoric to cultural studies and ideological criticism. And I don’t like that. I find so much of that work just dishonest enough to be grating. It lacks methodological openness while preaching openness and thus Grossberg’s twin critiques tend to be true: it’s boring and predictable.
Three. Look, tables, right? It’s not ideal. I can only speak for my students. Know how many people learn Perelman in their classes besides me? I am not all-seeing, but there are almost no other examples. He’s, as Dr. Carlson said back in the day, quaint and too hard. Ha! Aristotle is quaint but we still teach that stuff. Perelman is too hard to make accessible so we don’t try. We turn to methods that we can easier gloss for our students. It’s why we still use psychoanalysis in feminist cultural criticism. It’s wrong. But it has clear methods. And if we know how wrong it is going in, we can use that as a helpful lever even as the method illuminates stuff for use to critique. We are building a toolbox of methods, as another old prof of mine, Dr. Hasian, used to say. Except, it’s not enough to know when to use a wrench and when a hammer. We have to know that the whole box is a problem at the outset. But, really, don’t you already think that about EVERYTHING anyway? Anyway, I turned Perelman into method and am preserving the Mishnaic tradition of Judaic argument analysis for the WASPish world of most rhetorical method, with some error. Always some error. Tables work. They help students to do work faster. Our job is to help them process the implications of what the tables leave out. But remember, they are NOT reading for your classes. You are doing that with chalk daily anyway. Or on a PowerPoint. This version gives the students more power in the equation. And, to bring the shibboleth of assessment to critical scholarship, aren’t student outcomes the things that matter most here?
My old philosophy prof, Jasper Blystone, who taught a class called “Postmodernism,” gave us Lechte’s 50 Key Contemporary Thinkers book. It’s like a Cliff’s Notes to current theorists. He admitted, sheepinshly, that this wasn’t the same as reading, say, all of Foucault, but, who does that anyway if they are also reading all of Derrida and Freud and Haraway, etc. He argued that that’s what the European model of graduate education does. The ideas are more important than struggling with every text. He might have been right. But he taught postmodernism, so we will never know J.
Plus, this only works if we give them the texts. I’ve got hyperlinks below. These usually exist on the interwebs. The students get a quick summary from me and if they want to use a method they have to drop in on the full, complex text and have a longer visit.
Thus, the table, in its current form is below. It is not at all complete. It will, honestly, never be complete. But it’s a start. Note that we could throw the usual suspects like Burke and Bohrmann and Fischer on here, too, and I will, but we already know what that looks like.
Biesekcer’s techne
“by scrupulously working within and against the grain of the the word's historically constituted semantic field, techne can be used to refer to a kind of "getting through" or ad hoc "making do" by a subject whose resources are necessarily located in and circumscribed by the field within which she operates, but whose enunciation, in always and already exceeding and falling short of its intending subject, harbors within it the possibility of disrupting, fragmenting, and altering the horizon of human action out of which it emerges.” (p. 155)
Perfomative queer sensibility with special focus on:
1)    Irony
2)    Aestheticism
3)    Theatricality
4)    Humor
Cyborg theory
We are cyborgs, multiple and contested. Look for:
1)    Places where boundaries bleed. Infections.
2)    Signs of excess. Appendages.
3)    Trickster narratives of flows of control.
Double jeopardy
If oppressions multiply effects instead of add effects, how do those play out?
The queer practice of “illicit imagination” involves reading into texts, between the lines, etc., for things that could not be said.
We live with “complex personhood” and are haunted by contradictions. The ghost is the mostly hidden visitation of organized structures  of power that work to be removed from memory
Medu nefer
Ancient Egyptian “good speech” suggests that ethics and truth are, unlike Aristotle, not separable – rhetorical effectiveenss and ethics are inseperable
Multiplicity is a new subjectivity – a synthesis of structures of oppression and freedom.
Multiple definition
Persuasion requires definition of concepts mutually acceptable to all before further proceeding.
Mestizaje identity pivoted to critique all categories.
Vocal speech in the African tradition creates worlds, and both build community while also delivering imperative to it, call and response. It is not separable from the concepts “behind” the word, as in the European tradition.
Rhetorical conversation
Women, excluded from the public sphere, developed a particular rhetoric which expands the values of good private conversation to public discourse directed to “gaining the audience,” not “gaining the applause.” Key values are:
1)    Wit: Gentle humor allows strategic, planned communication to enter with goodwill and spontaneity
2)    Elocution: Attention to politeness and truthfulness matching idea, voice and body.
Madame de Scudery via Jane Donawerth
Ruthless critique
Radicalism is therefore the epistemological work of shattering the political
unconscious of terror that structures the boundaries of common sense and consensus.” (p. 182)
shame paradox
Decreasing visibility from others serves to actually increase visibility of self/acts.
The ethic of caring
Black feminist wisdom offers these three things for us to care about in interacting with the world
1)    Individual uniqueness
2)    Emotion-laden dialogue
3)    Empathy
I know. It’s not nearly good enough. Wanna give me a hand? I am feeling a textbook in this.

Grossberg, L. (1997). Dancing in spite of myself: Essays on popular culture. Durham: Duke University Press.
Grossberg, L. (2005, Nov.). Comments. In J. Hay (Chair), Critical and cultural studies now – A forum. Panel conducted at the National Communication Association Annual Convention, Boston, MA.
Janesick, V. J. (1994). The dance of qualitative research design: Metaphor, methodolatry, and meaning. In. N. K. Denzin, & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.) Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 209-219). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
            Waite, S. (2016). The unavailable means of persuasion: A queer ethos for feminist writers and teachers. In K. J. Ryan, N. Meyers, and R. James (Eds), Rethinking ethos: A feminist ecological approach to rhetoric (pp. 71-88). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Inbound or Outbound?: Automated “Thanks for the Follow” Messages Are Terrible

As I develop my breakout session for INBOUND17, I am working to hone my critical judgments about the vast field of marketing social media phenomena down to some of the technical practices involved in inbound marketing. Outbound marketing is making ads and pushing them, whether on Facebook or TV or a blimp. Inbound marketing is making content that pulls people to your stuff. You don’t go them, they come to you, is the idea.

Photo by Mack Male
First, this is not new. Anyone who does local marketing or customer retention does this kind of stuff and has for decades. You build a trustworthy (Washington landmark!) presence (since 1958!) and they come to you when they need you.

Second, I’m not sure I buy that there is much a distinction. Hubspot’s page, linked above, suggests that blogging, keywording and social publishing are the opening steps in inbounding.


And festooning an Instagram post with two dozen hashtags or SEO keywording your content to death or buzzfeeding your titles (You know, “You’ve Got to See These 7 Amazing Marketing Techniques from Successful Gurus” and you share with “Number 4 blew my mind!”), exactly how is this not really just outbound marketing? A hashtag pushes your content to new eyes. So does SEO.

I’m not saying that the difference between inbound and outbound marketing is a lie. I’m saying it’s fuzzy and mixed up, at best. The reason this matters is that I think we do all kinds of inauthentic crap in our work when we believe in this dichotomy. I think we feel like we can be more manipulative when they “choose” to seek our content. “Well, they opted in . . . ."

Just because I subscribe to your email list to download your free book chapter (ahem) doesn’t mean I want to get spammed. Just because I use your free app doesn’t mean I want updates from 12 different email addresses (“Kim from” and “Dave from”) so that I can’t them or spam filter them.

There are lots of examples.


If I choose to connect with your content, shouldn’t you treat me better? There’s a reason why we get so few “conversions,” to use inbound marketing speak. If I don’t like you, I won’t stay. My next blog post in this series will explore the ways we co-create those narratives, in case you are curious (See? That statement would be considered inbound marketing, but doesn’t it feel as yucky as watching a commercial if you are one of the vast majority of readers not interested enough in this topic to try to find a way to read my next post?).

To focus on the thing I hate the most, let’s talk about automatic “Thanks for the follow” messages, usually on Twitter. Crowdfire,, justunfollow,, statusbrew, etc. all offer this service.

I hate these so much I did a small Instagram series on it (inbound pitch alert!):

A post shared by Steven Vrooman, PhD (@morebrainz) on

I also created my own performatively contradictory robot DM:


You expected a "Thanks for Following . . . oh, yeah CLICK MY LINKS!!!" message.
Don’t those stink?

I know, making an auto message that critiques auto messages feels a bit like hypocrisy. Fine, I get that. But I'm not offering something for FREE (lol) or a reminder to check out my websiteblogfacebookinstgramgooglestoreyoutubechannel or wishing you a happy Thursday, or whatever, to give you a microsecond illusion that I am actually connecting with you for real.

We can do better than this.

If you are going to bother people with spammy DMs like this, maybe say something real about you that doesn't fit into your bio? Give people a bit more of your story. They followed you for a reason. Remind them.

Use this space for good.”

Click here to tweet this
I still have mixed feelings about it. But really, if you work in social media, don’t you usually fee at least half-bad about almost all of your practices? We bear a weight from all becoming explicit and constant marketers of ourselves. We have not yet reckoned with what that is going to mean.

To keyword/buzzfeed/clickbait this up, let’s call what happens next 

“The 5 Surprising Ways You Are Being Manipulated by Twitter!” 

See? Blech!

These are all robo DMs I’ve received over the past two years, sorted using my extreme, PhD-level qualitative data sorting skills (no, really, that’s what I do). I’ve pulled good examples in each section for you. I’ve replaced actual links with “…” in order to protect the quasi-innocent.

1.  The Basic Link Pitch

Okay, this is simple enough. You drive people to a link, no rhetoric, just a plain old simple sell. You might tell yourself that since they followed you on Twitter they probably want this. Yeah, no. Your links are all over your feed, dude, and IN YOUR BIO. I think we will not get lost trying to find the rest of your content you are pushing.

“Thanks for the follow! Like my Facebook Page …”

“Welcome! Subscribe to our YouTube channel …”

“Thanks for taking the time to show some love and follow us on twitter. Check out our Instagram…”

“Thanks for following. If you're interested in learning more about …, please visit …(website)…”.

“Thanks for following. Have you played our new game …”

“Thanks for the follow! Check us out on LinkedIn…”

"Thanks for the follow - if you get a minute - well 90 or 180 plz check out …"

"Thanks for following! Feel free to like our Facebook page as well! … :)"

Well, one of them was funny.

The last one is my favorite. I read this in a snooty Maggie Smith voice: "Although our Facebook page is quite exclusive and filled with the best followers, I hereby grant you permission to soil it with your 'like' since you have thus far proved not too disappointing." Maybe we are supposed to restrain ourselves from liking business pages that exist only to be liked by as many people as possible?? 

I always wonder about the calculus of how many links to try. And the arrangement. Facebook and LinkedIn plus the website. Your blog and Instagram? All of that? At what point, when adding more links, do you begin to feel like a bad person? The most I’ve seen in my DM inbox is 5.

Of course, that competes with the personal attempt. Sometimes people try their best to make the inbound link pitch sound personal, like a favor or an invite:

2.  The “Personal” Link Push

“Thanks for the follow please support me … don't be a stranger :)”

“Hey thanks for following me. I'd love you to check out my … podcast and let me know what you think.”

“Thanks for connecting on Twitter! I also blog on LinkedIn, so let's also connect there if you like: …”

“I'm glad we're connected. Hope you have a … day! For ways to … with joy, visit my site…”

“Thanks for following! Let's chat sometime & introduce ourselves!? My focus is ….”

“Hi ya! How you doing? I hope your well, let me know if i can help you out? I generally reply in 24-48hrs, if you need any design thinking, creative work, off the wall ideas, or strategy take a look at my work …”

“Hi, thanks for connecting! My name is …and I'd love to help you tap into the power of social media marketing for your business or personal brand. Learn more at…”

I'm just not sure the force of those greetings is quite enough to make me bite. It's like the person who comes to your door with a sample case and just wants to say "Hi" and talk about the weather. I'm not sure you can do enough smiling and nodding on my porch to make me forget why you are there.

3. The “Just Personal”

I figure people think this is either ethical or slick (OR BOTH! #ftw!!). They are spamming DMs that DON'T spew links, so that means they are cool, right, and thus not so much spam. But they are inviting a relationship (cue inbound rhetoric), so that's cool, too. 

I guess.

But then you add in the creepy auto call-out to exactly what day it is and these DMs just blow over the uncanny valley toward robopocalypse. 

"Thanks for following me"

"Thanks for the follow. Regards, …"

"Hello thanks for following."

"Thank you for the follow! Have a fabulous day."

Thanks for following me! Much appreciated!"

"Thanks for recent follow, have a great Sunday :)"

"Hey - thanks for the follow! Have a great Tuesday :)"

"Thanks for the recent follow. Much appreciated! Have a great Wednesday :)"

Not feeling it.

4. The Quid Pro Quo, Agent Starling

This one is a straight-up trade. I like the honesty of this approach, but I still hate seeing these in my inbox. It makes me feel like we are making a deal in the back of an alley:

"Cheers for the follow! Feel free to tweet me your thoughts about … I'll gladly RT if it's reasonable."

"Thank you so much for following! If you would retweet me, I will do the same for you!"

"Thanks for following me, check out my yt … pls sub and i'll return :)"

"Looking forward to staying connected! #Happy to follow you. On #instagram? More… pics here: …"

"Thanks for following me,automatically followed back"

"Thanks for connecting! I look forward to our discussions. What would you say is the biggest obstacle in your business?"

"Thanks for following me! I look forward to your Tweets!"

The last one is my favorite. Their DM robot says they will be paying close attention to my tweets, so . . . . . (hint, hint).

The second-to-last is interesting, too. I'm sure a business strategy consultant is offering you a FREE conversation here and not a pitch. Surely...

5. The Bribe

This is fun. "Here's something for FREE that is in no way content I created just for inbound marketing, which I am, now that I am pushing spammy DMs, outbounding. I swear it is valuable in its own right and not just a simple shill for my paid services."

Still, free is okay. I guess. But in an information overloaded world sometimes FREE is just too expensive:

"Thanks for the follow. Here's a link to 2 chapters of my novel …"

"Thanks so much for the follow. Check out our latest super bundle of… for ONLY $29"

"Thanks for the add! Visit our website for a chance to win a free shirt! … Our app is coming in May!"

"Hi MoreBrainz, Pleased we've connected, look forward to your tweets, Andy PS, Grab FREE Book on …."

"Thanks MoreBrainz 4 the follow! We'll keep you posted on everything you need to know to stand out from your competition with the best branding and marketing strategies. Reserve a free strategy session. :) …"

"Thx for joining me, I'm looking forward to learning more about you. If you're wondering how to access the ….(no charge) and our other resources for authors click here: ….You can also ask me questions on that site... just click the button in the navigation menu on my website that says "Ask." I only answer questions through my website because I can reply more thoughtfully there... and I can include links to helpful articles and other resources if/when needed (Twitter often blocks me when I try to do it in a DM)! …."

"I am offering 60% off … TODAY ONLY. Order TODAY, then use your Order at ANY TIME, there is NO TIME LIMIT to when you want to use your Order! Click the link NOW to Guarantee your 60% Discount Order…."

The last one kills me with its coupon. A coupon?? Really? "TODAY ONLY"!! You're not even gonna wish me a "fabulous Tuesday" first to demonstrate that your DM robot actually knows what day it is?

6. The Sell

Sometimes people just rob-pitch in these DMs. Seems unlikely to work, but it also seems like almost all of these are fake Twitter accounts that only exist to firehose pitches into the ether and hope for a .000000001% hit.

"Hi friend, are you want to be a ROCk on Social Media? View my cheap services:  …"

"Discover an easy … system to make money online. Watch this Video..."

"Increase profits with expert web development, website design & online marketing solutions."

"Thanks for following me! If you need the assistance of a virtual administrator or social media manager or know anyone that needs help managing their business please get in touch. Thanks!"
"Hello Increase your twitter 660 followers ||||-VISIT SITE-|||| ...Thank you for following …."

"Get more 619 free followers site Visit ⇒ …"

"Thanks! If you ever want help creating inbound sales send me a note! What is your blog or website address? I would love to check it out!"

"Great to meet you. Let me know if you need any ….for you or your business. Thanks so much for the follow :)"

"Hi ya! How you doing? I hope your well, let me know if i can help you out? I generally reply in 24-48hrs, if you need any design thinking, creative work, off the wall ideas, or strategy take a look at my work …"


If you are reading this and do these kinds of DMs, tell me why. Maybe there is something I'm missing here? Maybe they work for you? 

I'll bet that for every nebulous lead they generate, though, you burn a number of possibles by being spammy and obnoxious. And you don't get that chance back. If I follow you because I look at your tweets and it seems worth it, that is the good essence of inbounding, yes? But you just ruined it with ham-handed outbounding.

We can do better.

Maybe actually look at some new follows and communicate with them for real? No time for that? Use interns for that, maybe, instead of for buffering a content queue when they don't fully know your story. They can't be as bad as your robot DMs, and they will learn the story quickly under those circumstances.

Or maybe, if you claim you are "PASSIONATE ABOUT CONNECTING" you should actually, um *connect*. It's like the recent graduate in their first interview who says, in answer to the "What's your greatest strength?" question, "I'm a people person," and then silently waits to be asked questions.

We are not buying it.