If you clicked on the link, you were not alone. According to the latest calculations of Dan Pearce, the guy who writes the megapopular dad-blog-that's-so-much-more-than-a-dad-blog, Single Dad Laughing, upwards of eight million people have read that post. The little icon next to the title indicates that almost 300,000 people (probably many more by the time I publish this) have shared it on Facebook.
In case you don't want to check it out for yourself, here's the premise:
Dan wrote a post a couple months ago called "I'm Christian, unless You're Gay," in which he exhorted everyone to be cool to The Gays, even if their religion recommended otherwise. As is often the case with his "deep and powerful" (his words) writings, it went mega-viral and was shared all over the web. Then, just as the buzz from "I'm Christian..." started to level off, Dan posted his latest blockbuster, "A Teen's Brave Response to 'I'm Christian, unless You're Gay'," which consists of what was supposedly an anonymous email from a mother whose son came out to her after having completed a high school class assignment that required him to read "I'm Christian..." and write a response to it. The mom had always been just the kind of fundamentalist Christian homophobe Dan portrayed in "I'm Christian...", but after reading her kid's essay (which is pasted into her email) in which he comes out of the closet, and more importantly, Dan's "I'm Christian..." post, she does an about-face, accepts her son's sexual identity, and begins working with the boy to fight prejudice in the unnamed bigoted hellhole where they lived.
When I read the "Brave Response" post, my first reaction was, "Seriously? An anonymous email that paints Dan as savior and superhero? A teacher in a small conservative town who assigns a pro-gay blog post as class reading? A lifelong fire-and-brimstone bible-thumper who is converted by a single Single Dad Laughing post? Now who could have dreamed this one up?" (It was Dan. Dan dreamed it up. That's what I was thinking, in case I wasn't clear just now.)
Let me also be clear that I am 100% behind the general message of these posts. I don't want any kid or adult to ever have to suffer because of the gender of the people they are hardwired to be attracted to. I want same-sex couples to be afforded every legal, financial, and cultural advantage that straight couples enjoy. By sheer coincidence, a dear real-life friend and fellow dadblogger came out to his blog readers at almost the same time as this Single Dad Laughing post exploded. My friend's post, however, was indisputably real.
Dan, Me, and the Parent Blogging Community
You might know that I have a history with the internet superstar behind Single Dad Laughing. I wrote a post about a year-and-a-half ago when Single Dad Laughing suddenly blew up and Dan started bragging about his huge traffic numbers, the love that his readers had for him, the book offers he got, and all the people his powerful words had prevented from committing suicide (I'm not exaggerating at all.) In a fit of pique, I ranted about his terrible writing, his sanctimony, his pandering, his self-promotion, and his self-aggrandizement; and I suggested that he was somehow gaming the system. He had gone from a regular dadblogger who started a few months after I had, on the same platform, running in the same circles, and not standing out in any way, to an internet juggernaut, all within a month or two. I honestly thought that the parent blogosphere would turn on me after I hit "publish" on that post, but I didn't care. I didn't want anything to do with a genre where Single Dad Laughing was the gold standard. But to my surprise, virtually every blogger who commented on that post agreed that his writing was saccharine and preachy and his self-importance utterly staggering. Most assumed he was involved in some kind of shenanigans that made his traffic seem more impressive than it was, and/or he was buying followers and paying some sweatshop in China to click on his links.
Since I wrote that post, I've become friendly with a lot of established parent bloggers through reading each other's work, meeting at conferences, and working on projects together. I haven't talked to every one of them about Dan and his super-blog; but during the many, many conversations I have had concerning Single Dad Laughing, not one other blogger I've talked to has argued against the assumption that Dan is involved in some shady business, whether that be somehow inflating his stats, or just shamelessly milking trending topics (about which he seems to have an inexhaustible supply of "deep and powerful" personal stories) for all the pageviews they're worth.
So I wasn't surprised when the chatter started up about this mysterious email from "One Proud Mom" that formed the basis of Dan's latest chart-topper. Sure, we all agreed with the message and that it would be wonderful if this kid's story were true; but it was just too convenient, too topical, and too engineered for maximum SEO and social media shareability, all of which, along with cringe-inducing sentimentality, are hallmarks of Dan's writing.
Were we really supposed to believe that no one involved in this story--the mom, the kid, all the other students in his school who had to do the assignment, the administrators from the kid's school--that none of them would have come forward to bask in the glory or shake their heads in disapproval or share their stories of SDL-inspired redemption? One or two commenters on the site, out of the thousands who responded, pointed out the credibility problem, and were promptly shouted down by the Dan-faithful who said (predictably) that even if it were fiction, the important part is the powerful message.
Although I had tried, with some success, to refrain from bashing on Dan in public since I first posted my screed (I didn't necessarily want to be that guy forever), this "Brave Response" post really got under my skin and I wanted to write something, if only because it seemed like very few outside my circle of blog-friends had even considered that an anonymous email with a Lifetime movie plot might be anything less than the genuine article.
Suspicion among the Civilians
I soon found out that it wasn't just other dad-and mom-bloggers whose bullshit detectors went off when they read this post. I started seeing traffic heat up on my old SDL diatribe, and much of it was coming from a community blog called Metafilter, where a lot of smart, civil folks were engaging in a very level-headed discussion about the questionable credibility of this "inspirational" post that seemed to be popping up on everyone's Facebook feed.
Virtually all of the commenters on that Metafilter thread agreed that the One Proud Mom email was fiction created by Dan to generate pageviews. The conversation goes in several directions, including the obvious question of whether it makes a difference that something is fiction-passed-off-as-fact, as long as it has a desirable effect on the reader. I'm not here to try to solve that one today, but I'm inclined to agree with one of the well-spoken Metafilter folks on that account: "And really, if he'd chosen another topic--reconciling with estranged family or quitting your job to pursue your dream--for this self-aggrandizement exercise, I don't think I'd much care. But this is a real fucking issue that this guy has no right to appropriate for narcissistic glurge."
I was still contemplating writing a response to "Brave Response"--something that simply urged critical thinkers to consider its credibility--when a friend sent me a link to an article in the Daily Beast that did just that. The author of the article, Jesse Singal, brought up some of the issues about the post that I've mentioned here, and managed to contact Dan on the phone. Dan admitted that the email could have been fake, but laughed and denied it when Singal asked him point-blank if he had written it himself. Dan also claimed there was no way for him to track down the anonymous emailer because of the limitations of his contact page software. If there was a possibility that this was a hoax, Dan suggested, he was the biggest victim of it.
Out of all the speculation regarding the credibility of the epic OPM email, Dan is the only one I've heard who entertains the possibility that some prankster was behind it. I have a hard time imagining what possible motivation someone other than Dan could have to perpetrate this SDL-deifying hoax, if it is one. Shouldn't they be popping out and shouting "Gotcha!" right about now?
Past Instances of Shadiness
Strange emailsAs I mentioned earlier, in my communications with other bloggers (and non-bloggers), the topic of SDL shenanigans pops up from time to time. It's usually along the lines of "Oh my God did you see what he just wrote?" or "Guess who just sent me a crazy email?"
One of the dadbloggers I've discussed the SDL phenomenon with at some length is Jim Griffioen of Sweet Juniper, one of the most popular and long-lived dadblogs, and for my money, one of the greatest and best-written things to ever appear on the internet. Among our many conversations about SDL weirdness were a couple emails Jim received during a period when Dan, as he explained on his blog, was trying to "reach out" to the parent blogging community, which he felt was turning against him.
Rather than explain it myself and cobble together passages from emails, I asked Jim to tell the story in his own words. Here's what he said:
SDL's site immediately set off alarm bells of suspicion for me, having grown my blog organically to the point where it became a truly professional endeavor. Aside from the legions of Potemkin villagers populating his comments, in December 2010 I received two strange e-mails, including one from a woman named "Jenny Goodsend" (a name that has no online presence or record in various people searches) saying that "[my] blog, of course, is the highlight of [her] day" while promoting one of the typical schmaltzy SEO posts for which SDL has become notorious. Suspicious that this was actually Dan himself, I wrote back graciously thanking her for the e-mail and asking what she loved about my blog so that I could continue to deliver such content. I never heard back. The very next day I did receive an impersonal (i.e. mass) e-mail from Dan, apologizing for "alienating other parenting bloggers" with his rapid, widespread "success" and asking me if I'd like to do a guest post on SDL. It was obvious Dan had written both e-mails himself and was simply extending his efforts of self-promotion into the world of established parenting bloggers.
Photo shootIn November of 2010, Dan wrote one of his epic posts, called "The Small Side of the Numbers," which "looks at the power that each individual has to overcome often impossible obstacles." One of the stories he wove into this sermon involved his experience comforting a couple women who had been in a fender-bender. He pulled over and gave them some bottles of water he had in his car, and chatted with them while they waited for emergency personnel to arrive. Here's a snippet:
It took emergency units more than fifteen minutes to get there, and when the first responder finally arrived, I was still the only person standing with these women. The only damn person. I bet more than 5,000 vehicles passed the wreckage in that short amount of time (it was a busy stretch of the interstate). Almost every one of them slowed down to sneak a peak. An incredibly small handful of them stopped. Only one person stayed (me).Accompanying this tale of heroism was a photo of Dan, collar turned up against the wind and look of grim determination on his face, walking down the breakdown lane, a semi whizzing by, with bottles of water in either hand. Below it were hundreds of weepy comments about what how amazing Dan is.
I lost it. I wrote in the comments something to this effect: "WTF is wrong with you people?! He gave some ladies some water, then spent ten hours writing about how awesome he is! It's nice that he gave them water, but he didn't actually save their lives. The other cars didn't stop because they saw that someone was already there! Would it have been better if a couple dozen cars pulled over and everybody milled around in the emergency lane so the EMTs couldn't get in?! And what about that picture? Who took the picture? Did he ask the poor traumatized accident victims to take some shots? Did he whip out his tripod? Aaaaaaarrrrgghh!"
I left the comment anonymously out of laziness, haste, and my desire to not be known as the guy who can't stop blasting SDL. But Dan's software must have been working better that day than it did last week when he was trying to track down One Proud Mom, because he almost immediately emailed me and asked me why I was trying to destroy him and his blog.
This wasn't the first time Dan had contacted me. I have a long, twisted string of emails with him in my inbox, dating back to when I first went off on him on my blog. As I always do, I smoothed things over with Dan and told him I would try to keep my distance, that I didn't have anything against him personally, but that his shtick drove me crazy.
Once we got past the initial awkwardness, I got him to explain where the Road Warrior with Water Bottles photo came from:
My brother is in town from England, and after I wrote the post I asked him to read it and come up with a photograph that he thought would go well with it. It wasn’t taken at the scene, and in fact was taken 15 miles away two days later. [...] The post was in no way meant to show “heroism” (there was absolutely nothing heroic about it). Only to show that one person can make a difference when thousands of others aren’t doing anything at all.This might not fit into the "shady" category to you, but it is at the very least undeniably cheesy. I also think it illustrates the lengths Dan goes to to amp up the drama on his "power posts."
Quid pro quoThe next spate of amicable email exchanges I had with Dan began when he wrote to me out of the blue in May of 2011, thanking me for not having criticized him online for seven straight months. I joked that I had a flip-chart at my desk that said "___ days with no harshing on SDL!" We exchanged pleasantries, and he said that he would be happy to help me out with any blog-related matters.
My ears perked up at this, because one of my motives in playing nice with Dan (aside from being a mostly decent guy) was that I wanted him to somehow slip up and confide in me the terrible secret of how he cheated the system and rose to internet super-stardom.
"Sure," I replied. "If you could hook me up with a couple thousand more pageviews per day, I would greatly appreciate it."
Dan proposed that if I "permanently removed the anti-SDL post" from my blog, he would promote one of my "funniest, most popular" posts on his facebook page, which "usually pushes anywhere from 3k to 10k visitors." I hemmed and hawed, acting like I would do it if he sweetened the pot; and he eventually suggested we do a joint-post on the theme of burying the hatchet. After that, I let it go for a while because I couldn't figure out how to proceed with my sleuthing. And also I kind of lost interest and had better things to do. It may not seem like it, but this is not the only thing I ever think about.
Again, an offer of some Facebook promotion ("pimping" in bloggy parlance) or a guest-starring role on "one of the top blogs on the internet" in exchange for expunging a critical post may or may not be unethical, but to me it seemed, well, shady.
Most RecentlyThe most recent exchange I had with Dan was shortly after the "Brave Response" post came out. This was before I had read the Metafilter thread and before the Daily Beast article had come out. I told Dan that there had been talk about the One Proud Mom email, and some people were skeptical. Wouldn't it be great, I said, if you could get that mom and kid to reveal themselves, maybe make a video or something? Imagine how much good it would do in the fight against homophobia! He should email them back and make that happen!
If he picked up on my underlying question/suspicion (did you write it, Dan?), he didn't let on. He answered me in pretty much the same way he would answer the reporter from the Daily Beast: "To be honest, I should have, but didn't scrutinize it very well before posting it, and there are definitely some uncanny similarities between mother's and son's parts of the post. I hope I wasn't duped. I realize that I may have been." And, predictably, he downplayed the importance of the genuineness of the email: