Sometimes Kool-Aid Is Okay

You’ve heard the variations on the phrase “Drinking the Kool-Aid”. People boasting that they didn’t, people criticising others for doing so. Ragging on someone, even, for drinking their own Kool-Aid.

I want to take a moment to draw a very important distinction between blind, sheep-like following or zealotism and true enthusiasm. I think we’re killing the latter in favor of quashing the former.

Emotion matters, dammit.

Passion and emotion are critically important, even in the cold, clinical world of business. Passion is what drives people to focus attention on what they love. Enthusiasm is what keeps people coming back to an interest or a cause, even in the face of challenges. I think we can probably all agree on the role of these elements in doing something well.

But we’re establishing a bit of a bad habit in lumping in those that are passionate about something into a pile of “Kool-Aid Drinkers”. Most especially, once someone becomes known for their field of expertise, applies their knowledge with passion, and develops a following of enthusiasts, we’re awfully quick to label their fans as those who’ve sipped the intoxicating beverage, and implying by default that their enthusiasm is based on something lacking substance. As if the person or thing they’re excited about loses their value the minute more than a handful of people discover what they’re doing.

It’s the indie band analogy I’ve heard a few times: you love your obscure little band until they hit the mainstream. Even though the music is the same, being popular suddenly makes them uninteresting. Huh?

The Blind Following the Blind?

Okay, I completely understand the Lemming Principle. There will always be a contingent of folks that blindly latch on to something, either because they lack the originality to come up with something of their own, or because they want to belong to something bigger, or simply because they understand something on the surface and it sounds like an okay idea.

Perhaps they’re impressionable. Perhaps they’re lost. And yes, sometimes they’re misguided, easily turning from a follower into a zealot preaching off of someone else’s notes (and notes that are either lousy to start with, or that they may not understand).

But what the heck says that just because I like something or someone that’s popular, I’ve somehow sold out? That I’m basing my enthusiasm on “being cool” or chasing something mainstream when, in fact, I may really and honestly like and be passionate about what they represent?

I’m Cool with Kool-Aid

I like and am enthusiastic about a lot of popular things. I’m a fan and an advocate of Apple products, regardless of their clever advertising. I think Chris Brogan does incredible work – and he did that kind of work long before anyone knew who the hell he was. I think David Armano is gifted, and Seth Godin has an amazing ability to articulate true marketing better than anyone I’ve ever read otherwise.

I listen to and love big ticket bands like Rush, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, and even Kelly Clarkson (though you can keep your Coldplay). I drive a Honda, and I love it. I read New York Times bestsellers. I shop at Target. (And to bring this full circle, I still utterly and completely believe in the power and impact of social media and yes, Twitter. I don’t give a rip if Oprah showed up and CNN won’t shut up about it.)

And the key? I think all of these people, companies and concepst have retained their value even once they hit the mainstream. I’m proud to be a fan of their work.

Sometimes, products or people become well known because they’re of high quality. They’re good. They’re helpful. They’re compelling or interesting or fun to be around. And whatever the tipping point for moving from unknown to well known, I don’t think that progression negates the quality that’s there in the first place. In other words, just because something’s popular, it doesn’t mean it’s automatically without value.

Is the sticking point that we think with popularity comes less of a focus on quality? Is it that we believe that true quality doesn’t scale? Does someone or some other business’ mainstream success make us envious, so we rail against it because we can’t duplicate it? Do we think we’re less unique individually – less likely to stand out ourselves – if we join a mass following?

You can call me a Kool-Aid drinker if you want, I don’t mind. I’m still passionate and enthusiastic about things that lots of other people like, too. Because to me, value begets popularity and attention. Not the other way around.

photo credit: chrisdlugosz

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  • http://www.fyindout.com/blog/ Brett Kopf

    Hey Amber,

    Well written, especially the part about the main streamers who maintained their value system. It’s nice to see that some of the leaders in the social media / marketing field have stayed true to their values.

    Brett Kopf
    Community Manager
    FYIndOut

  • http://www.fyindout.com/blog/ Brett Kopf

    Hey Amber,

    Well written, especially the part about the main streamers who maintained their value system. It’s nice to see that some of the leaders in the social media / marketing field have stayed true to their values.

    Brett Kopf
    Community Manager
    FYIndOut

  • Karen

    Amber,

    Your post does a fantastic job underlining the difference between really believing in something (an idea, the value of a product, etc.) and following just for the sake of following. I agree that many people use the “You’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid” phrase to describe both categories in a way that is unfair and undercuts the fact that some things become popular because they simply are good.

    The Kool-Aid analogy seems to come up a lot in politics as well, which is unfortunate. Should I support a candidate just because my friends do/she’s on Twitter/she has charisma? Certainly not. But, if I do support that candidate because I believe in her competence to do the best job for those she represents, my support for her should not be answered by, “oh, you’re just drinking the Kool-Aid!” simply because of her popularity/charisma/5 million Twitter followers. Lines like this that are used indiscriminately against people who disagree with you do not help the debate process in any forum.

    Thanks for your post!

    Karen Evans
    @karenevanstm

  • Karen

    Amber,

    Your post does a fantastic job underlining the difference between really believing in something (an idea, the value of a product, etc.) and following just for the sake of following. I agree that many people use the “You’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid” phrase to describe both categories in a way that is unfair and undercuts the fact that some things become popular because they simply are good.

    The Kool-Aid analogy seems to come up a lot in politics as well, which is unfortunate. Should I support a candidate just because my friends do/she’s on Twitter/she has charisma? Certainly not. But, if I do support that candidate because I believe in her competence to do the best job for those she represents, my support for her should not be answered by, “oh, you’re just drinking the Kool-Aid!” simply because of her popularity/charisma/5 million Twitter followers. Lines like this that are used indiscriminately against people who disagree with you do not help the debate process in any forum.

    Thanks for your post!

    Karen Evans
    @karenevanstm

  • http://sweetpaperdoll.wordpress.com SaraKate

    *smacks red Kool-Aid lips together* Tastes good. ;)

    SaraKates last blog post..Follow Friday: The Smart Blondes Edition

  • http://sweetpaperdoll.wordpress.com SaraKate

    *smacks red Kool-Aid lips together* Tastes good. ;)

    SaraKates last blog post..Follow Friday: The Smart Blondes Edition

  • http://www.impactwatch.com/blog Hannah Del Porto

    I think the issue is not so much the people who are enthusiastic about popular platforms, but those who take advice from top users as gospel and actively berate others who are not “doing it right”.

    To me, “drinking the kool-aid” is thinking that Kawasaki, Solis or even that little smartie @ambercadabra have all the answers and that there’s one right way to use social media – or that you have to use it at all. For all of the listening, engaging and kumbayaing, there’s quite a bit of judging going on as well.

    I think it’s great to love something, but not so great to think it’s the only thing worthy of love or that everyone else must love it, too.

    Hannah Del Portos last blog post..Top Social Media Monitoring & Measurement Posts of the Week

  • http://www.impactwatch.com/blog Hannah Del Porto

    I think the issue is not so much the people who are enthusiastic about popular platforms, but those who take advice from top users as gospel and actively berate others who are not “doing it right”.

    To me, “drinking the kool-aid” is thinking that Kawasaki, Solis or even that little smartie @ambercadabra have all the answers and that there’s one right way to use social media – or that you have to use it at all. For all of the listening, engaging and kumbayaing, there’s quite a bit of judging going on as well.

    I think it’s great to love something, but not so great to think it’s the only thing worthy of love or that everyone else must love it, too.

    Hannah Del Portos last blog post..Top Social Media Monitoring & Measurement Posts of the Week

    • Amber Naslund

      Hannah, you’re absolutely right, and that’s why I mentioned the bit about lemmings and zealots. There’s always, *always* more than one way to do something.

      The zealots, to me, are the ones that do just what you’re talking about – spit out a few bullet points handed to them by others and use them as a bludgeoning tool. I don’t condone that kind of behavior.

      I *do* think everyone is entitled to their views and opinions, and I personally think there are certain practices that work better than others, but there’s an element of respect for others that needs to be applied. Narrow-mindedness never wins.

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  • http://www.wsg.net Justin Cresswell

    Right on, Amber. Drinking the Kook Aid is an oft-repeated phrase at our offices, and it is seen as as a positive thing. To us, drinking the Kool Aid means buying in, investing ones self in what we’re doing, jumping in with both feet and giving what you can give. Drink our Kool Aid because it tastes good and you want to drink it – not because we told you to. It also means we accept you, and we want you to be in our group, and we value you.

  • http://www.wsg.net Justin Cresswell

    Right on, Amber. Drinking the Kook Aid is an oft-repeated phrase at our offices, and it is seen as as a positive thing. To us, drinking the Kool Aid means buying in, investing ones self in what we’re doing, jumping in with both feet and giving what you can give. Drink our Kool Aid because it tastes good and you want to drink it – not because we told you to. It also means we accept you, and we want you to be in our group, and we value you.

  • http://davidarmano.com David Armano

    Nice post Amber.

    Sometimes Kool Aid is Ok. Example, I love the iPhone.

    Sometime’s it’s not. Example, Ignore Everybody from Hugh MacLeod

    http://darmano.typepad.com/logic_emotion/2009/06/ignore-everybody.html

    Like any healthy diet, we all need variety. :-)

    David Armanos last blog post..Stephen Wolfram: A New Kind of Science [del.icio.us]

  • http://davidarmano.com David Armano

    Nice post Amber.

    Sometimes Kool Aid is Ok. Example, I love the iPhone.

    Sometime’s it’s not. Example, Ignore Everybody from Hugh MacLeod

    http://darmano.typepad.com/logic_emotion/2009/06/ignore-everybody.html

    Like any healthy diet, we all need variety. :-)

    David Armanos last blog post..Stephen Wolfram: A New Kind of Science [del.icio.us]

  • http://www.stevewoodruff.com Steve Woodruff

    Thoughtful passion is just that…thoughtful passion (like @armano, I’m totally passionate about the iPhone. VALUE and DESIGN). Blind and thoughtless allegiance is KoolAidishness. Maybe we need a new expression for the former – something coffee-based instead of a sugary fruit drink…

  • http://www.stevewoodruff.com Steve Woodruff

    Thoughtful passion is just that…thoughtful passion (like @armano, I’m totally passionate about the iPhone. VALUE and DESIGN). Blind and thoughtless allegiance is KoolAidishness. Maybe we need a new expression for the former – something coffee-based instead of a sugary fruit drink…

  • http://www.onemann.blogspot.com Kneale Mann

    Amber,

    I do like Coldplay, I drive an Acura, I read you, Chris, David and Seth every day and love it, I revel in the fact that we all have a voice and that we all have a choice to listen or not listen to each other – that’s democracy, I enjoy coffee and ice cream, social media rocks and despite the press it represents less than 5% of the world’s population, green is my favorite color and I will not shut up about all the awesome people I have met in the last three years through drinking some wildly delicious Kool-Aid. I have made a few batches of my own and that’s the point.

    Everyone is afforded the right to have their opinion. We don’t live in Tehran or Bagdad. But simply because someone – who may or may not know all the facts – wants to complain about something doesn’t mean it’s valid.

    There are spam, scam, and scammers everywhere. We can’t be that arrogant to think they all reside in social media. The large bag of direct mail lobbed on my driveway this past weekend is proof of that.

    Sip Sip.

    @knealemann

    Kneale Manns last blog post..Free Beer and Pool Tables

  • http://www.onemann.blogspot.com Kneale Mann

    Amber,

    I do like Coldplay, I drive an Acura, I read you, Chris, David and Seth every day and love it, I revel in the fact that we all have a voice and that we all have a choice to listen or not listen to each other – that’s democracy, I enjoy coffee and ice cream, social media rocks and despite the press it represents less than 5% of the world’s population, green is my favorite color and I will not shut up about all the awesome people I have met in the last three years through drinking some wildly delicious Kool-Aid. I have made a few batches of my own and that’s the point.

    Everyone is afforded the right to have their opinion. We don’t live in Tehran or Bagdad. But simply because someone – who may or may not know all the facts – wants to complain about something doesn’t mean it’s valid.

    There are spam, scam, and scammers everywhere. We can’t be that arrogant to think they all reside in social media. The large bag of direct mail lobbed on my driveway this past weekend is proof of that.

    Sip Sip.

    @knealemann

    Kneale Manns last blog post..Free Beer and Pool Tables

  • @CharityHisle

    Amber,

    I’ll drink the Kool-Aid with you girl! Why do some people think the only ideas worth listening too are new ones? I’m all about the relevance. And I still love Twitter!

    Charity

  • @CharityHisle

    Amber,

    I’ll drink the Kool-Aid with you girl! Why do some people think the only ideas worth listening too are new ones? I’m all about the relevance. And I still love Twitter!

    Charity

  • http://thelostjacket.com Stuart Foster

    Best argument I have seen thus far for counteracting the social media “lemming” philosophy that a lot of executives have taken about the movement.

    Sometimes things are just interesting and useful because they are exactly that. The value is there…why not utilize it?

    Stuart Fosters last blog post..Why Exclusivity Rules

  • http://thelostjacket.com Stuart Foster

    Best argument I have seen thus far for counteracting the social media “lemming” philosophy that a lot of executives have taken about the movement.

    Sometimes things are just interesting and useful because they are exactly that. The value is there…why not utilize it?

    Stuart Fosters last blog post..Why Exclusivity Rules

  • http://feeds.feedburner.com/MackColliercom Mack Collier

    I’m noticing that we in social media tend to ‘corrupt’ meanings and breakdown positive communication. Your post here is the perfect example of this, it has now become a ‘bad’ thing to be excited about social media. Because we have decided that anyone that’s passionate about social media, is ‘drinking the koolaid’, which means we’ve lost all objectivity.

    Other examples: We’ve been told that self-promotion is a BAD thing in social media. So the end result is that the people with true expertise are less likely to put themselves out there, so the only people that get promoted are the hacks that don’t care what others think of them. (BTW I don’t follow the thinking that there are no ‘experts’ in social media. I see the experts as people that are knowledgeable and also are actively TRYING TO LEARN MORE.)

    Another one, we always hear that social media is ‘all about the conversation’. So we have mid-level managers that go to their bosses and tell them that they need to start using social media. When the boss asks why, they remind them that it’s ‘all about the conversation’, and promptly get through out of the office.

    We need to stop drawing lines in the sand in social media, stop saying THIS way is right, this way is wrong. That this phrase means this, that this phrase can’t be used. This post is a great reminder of the need by all of us to chill the hell out ;)

    Mack Colliers last blog post..Ten steps to helping your business kick ass on Twitter

  • http://feeds.feedburner.com/MackColliercom Mack Collier

    I’m noticing that we in social media tend to ‘corrupt’ meanings and breakdown positive communication. Your post here is the perfect example of this, it has now become a ‘bad’ thing to be excited about social media. Because we have decided that anyone that’s passionate about social media, is ‘drinking the koolaid’, which means we’ve lost all objectivity.

    Other examples: We’ve been told that self-promotion is a BAD thing in social media. So the end result is that the people with true expertise are less likely to put themselves out there, so the only people that get promoted are the hacks that don’t care what others think of them. (BTW I don’t follow the thinking that there are no ‘experts’ in social media. I see the experts as people that are knowledgeable and also are actively TRYING TO LEARN MORE.)

    Another one, we always hear that social media is ‘all about the conversation’. So we have mid-level managers that go to their bosses and tell them that they need to start using social media. When the boss asks why, they remind them that it’s ‘all about the conversation’, and promptly get through out of the office.

    We need to stop drawing lines in the sand in social media, stop saying THIS way is right, this way is wrong. That this phrase means this, that this phrase can’t be used. This post is a great reminder of the need by all of us to chill the hell out ;)

    Mack Colliers last blog post..Ten steps to helping your business kick ass on Twitter

  • http://fumblingtowardsepiphany.wordpress.com/ Susan

    Bravo, Amber!! People need to work together versus arguing. If you disagree with something, fine. If you agree with something, fine. People don’t always remember that they are the ones who can make the decision about what they do or don’t like.

    Susans last blog post..The Blog Pitch

  • http://fumblingtowardsepiphany.wordpress.com/ Susan

    Bravo, Amber!! People need to work together versus arguing. If you disagree with something, fine. If you agree with something, fine. People don’t always remember that they are the ones who can make the decision about what they do or don’t like.

    Susans last blog post..The Blog Pitch

  • http://wordswillsaveme.wordpress.com Teresa Basich

    That last point you made, about value begetting popularity and attention — that’s it. Granted, there are definitely those valuable things out there that never get any attention, but in a sea of products, services, and information, something is bound to be missed.

    I mentioned this in a recent blog post and I think it bears repeating: How we get from Point A to Point B is our own choice, but if it creates the result we’re looking for, who the eff cares? There’s no right or wrong way — there are more and less effective and “moral” ways of getting to Point B, but who am I (or anyone else) to say what’s more or less effective or “moral”?

    I’ve tested the waters and found that Kool-Aid is the drink for me because it quenches my thirst better than any other drink out there. So what if a ton of people love it? Isn’t that just another sign that I’m drinking a good thing?

    Teresa Basichs last blog post..It’s Teresa. WITHOUT AN ‘H.’

  • http://wordswillsaveme.wordpress.com Teresa Basich

    That last point you made, about value begetting popularity and attention — that’s it. Granted, there are definitely those valuable things out there that never get any attention, but in a sea of products, services, and information, something is bound to be missed.

    I mentioned this in a recent blog post and I think it bears repeating: How we get from Point A to Point B is our own choice, but if it creates the result we’re looking for, who the eff cares? There’s no right or wrong way — there are more and less effective and “moral” ways of getting to Point B, but who am I (or anyone else) to say what’s more or less effective or “moral”?

    I’ve tested the waters and found that Kool-Aid is the drink for me because it quenches my thirst better than any other drink out there. So what if a ton of people love it? Isn’t that just another sign that I’m drinking a good thing?

    Teresa Basichs last blog post..It’s Teresa. WITHOUT AN ‘H.’

  • http://12commanonymous.typepad.com/ Lauren Vargas

    Unfortunately, I think a lot of us were traumatized in school and are projecting those resentments in the social sphere of social media. Popularity contests and endless lists of “those-who-must-be-followed-or-else,” anyone?

    Before making a judgment, we have to turn the digital mirror on ourselves. It is too easy to lash out in social media. We have turned into vicious bees stinging each other. But, alas, what happens to the bee after the stinger is gone? Death.

    We can agree to disagree without getting ugly and denouncing each other and theories. Put those theories into practice, then we’ll talk. As Arthur Page promoted in the booming 20′s, Performance = Reputation (applicable for both individuals and organizations).

    Lauren Vargass last blog post..APR: Study Time!

  • http://12commanonymous.typepad.com/ Lauren Vargas

    Unfortunately, I think a lot of us were traumatized in school and are projecting those resentments in the social sphere of social media. Popularity contests and endless lists of “those-who-must-be-followed-or-else,” anyone?

    Before making a judgment, we have to turn the digital mirror on ourselves. It is too easy to lash out in social media. We have turned into vicious bees stinging each other. But, alas, what happens to the bee after the stinger is gone? Death.

    We can agree to disagree without getting ugly and denouncing each other and theories. Put those theories into practice, then we’ll talk. As Arthur Page promoted in the booming 20′s, Performance = Reputation (applicable for both individuals and organizations).

    Lauren Vargass last blog post..APR: Study Time!

  • http://www.thechrisjonesgroup.com Chris Jones

    There’s a bit about this in “All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” – the stage show – where the teacher asks a class of kindergardeners “do any of you dance?” and all the hands go up. And then the teacher asks a class of 5th graders, and no hands go up. Somewhere in there we stop believing that it’s a good idea to be passionately sure about something, even if nobody else sees what we see.

    I love Twitter and think it will change (is changing) the world. I also love gardening and can spend all day weeding without trauma. Neither of these things are particularly universal, but I re-learned a bit ago not to care too much about that. It’s a good thing, too, because in my industry about the only thing that differentiates me from the competition is the fact that I just LOVE doing what I do. My willingness to be enthusiastic about mortgage finance is the main thing that’s kept me alive this long.

    Your passion for what you do is what makes you so compulsively readable. Drink up, girl.

    Chris Joness last blog post..What to Do When You Get Fired

  • http://www.thechrisjonesgroup.com Chris Jones

    There’s a bit about this in “All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” – the stage show – where the teacher asks a class of kindergardeners “do any of you dance?” and all the hands go up. And then the teacher asks a class of 5th graders, and no hands go up. Somewhere in there we stop believing that it’s a good idea to be passionately sure about something, even if nobody else sees what we see.

    I love Twitter and think it will change (is changing) the world. I also love gardening and can spend all day weeding without trauma. Neither of these things are particularly universal, but I re-learned a bit ago not to care too much about that. It’s a good thing, too, because in my industry about the only thing that differentiates me from the competition is the fact that I just LOVE doing what I do. My willingness to be enthusiastic about mortgage finance is the main thing that’s kept me alive this long.

    Your passion for what you do is what makes you so compulsively readable. Drink up, girl.

    Chris Joness last blog post..What to Do When You Get Fired

  • http://www.themurr.com DaveMurr

    When did Kool-Aid become this taboo beverage? Man, I love Kool-Aid. Especially the kind that changes color when you mix it. Fantastic!

    If we are looking through the value kaleidoscope then it seems that all energy gravitates towards having an instinctual talent for sniffing out what provides said value and what does not. Kool-Aid provides value. The trick may be to recognize what is Kool-Aid and what is Generic Punch Flavored Beverage. That to me leads to social media folly.

    Curious, do you think drinking the Kool-Aid is a form of Douchebaggery? Or are those two separate social media sins?

    DaveMurrs last blog post..Grand Traverse Pie Company, A Great Michigan Business

    • http://www.thechrisjonesgroup.com Chris Jones

      The historical reference is to a certain Jonestown incident in which a large number of people literally drank the Kool Aid, with unfortunate results. It’s quite a good metaphor, really, although as Amber correctly points out, inaccurately applied most of the time.

      Chris Joness last blog post..What to Do When You Get Fired

  • http://www.themurr.com DaveMurr

    When did Kool-Aid become this taboo beverage? Man, I love Kool-Aid. Especially the kind that changes color when you mix it. Fantastic!

    If we are looking through the value kaleidoscope then it seems that all energy gravitates towards having an instinctual talent for sniffing out what provides said value and what does not. Kool-Aid provides value. The trick may be to recognize what is Kool-Aid and what is Generic Punch Flavored Beverage. That to me leads to social media folly.

    Curious, do you think drinking the Kool-Aid is a form of Douchebaggery? Or are those two separate social media sins?

    DaveMurrs last blog post..Grand Traverse Pie Company, A Great Michigan Business

    • http://www.thechrisjonesgroup.com Chris Jones

      The historical reference is to a certain Jonestown incident in which a large number of people literally drank the Kool Aid, with unfortunate results. It’s quite a good metaphor, really, although as Amber correctly points out, inaccurately applied most of the time.

      Chris Joness last blog post..What to Do When You Get Fired

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  • http://babblingb.wordpress.com Brandi Heinz

    Great post, and great blog. There are tons of flavors of Koolaid, some good, some not so good – but most are refreshing. I’d like to think enthusiasm is too! Raise your glass… :)

    Brandi Heinzs last blog post..You can find me on Vitamin IMC

  • http://babblingb.wordpress.com Brandi Heinz

    Great post, and great blog. There are tons of flavors of Koolaid, some good, some not so good – but most are refreshing. I’d like to think enthusiasm is too! Raise your glass… :)

    Brandi Heinzs last blog post..You can find me on Vitamin IMC

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