Bill Brown bio photo

Bill Brown

A complicated man.

Twitter Github

If there’s one personality type that I hate most, it’s sycophants. These people are constantly trying to ingratiate themselves with you through flattery, praise, and recognition. I’ve encountered quite a few of them in my own life since I’ve been a student club president, a trainer, and a web developer of some skill. These people heaped praise on me in a way that seemed to beg for acknowledgment and acceptance of them.

It was pathetic and was about the only time in my life that I actually felt pity. How demeaning to supplicate yourself to another person—it’s almost inhuman! One gentleman even asked me to become his life mentor in a final, desperate plea to get me to acknowledge him in a way that might bring him into some sort of peer status. Unfortunately, he (and most sycophants I’ve met) don’t seem to understand that peer status isn’t something that you can beg for: it must be earned through your own effort. Moreover, that effort shouldn’t be expended towards the goal of equality but should arise from self-motivation and self-direction.

Sycophancy is much different than respect. I’ve known plenty of people who respect me and offer praise or flattery as appropriate. How do you spot the difference? The self-assured person offers praise as recognition in a one-way transaction, expecting nothing in return. The sycophant offers praise and expects something back, usually reciprocal praise or some other form of display of equality. When someone I respect recognizes an achievement of mine, I feel pride and appreciation. When someone obsequiously flatters, I feel revulsion.

Interestingly, sycophancy is a pernicious attendant of genius. Clingers-on seek reflected glory and believe that some self-worth will transfer in a process of osmosis. Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals chronicles several instances, but reading the biographies of such luminaries as Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises will illustrate the same phenomenon.

Geniuses sometimes fall in with their hangers-on and start believing the stuff they’re selling. I’ve heard of many geniuses who flame out because they start believing in their own self-importance and focus on the fact that they’re geniuses instead of their work. Many geniuses use the Web to highlight their achievements since the Web represents a fantastic new medium of communication, one that transfers messages and achievements far and wide.

It also seems to breed sycophants. Your words are spread across a much more diffuse area and the currency of the Web is the link. Google bumps your PageRank based on them, Technorati expands your link cosmos because of them, and your site’s traffic grows through referrers. If you’re a high-traffic blog, you attract groupies who rise and fall based on your recognition. They’ll snivel, carp, and whine about the things you hate and praise and sing the praises of things you like. Their attempts to curry favor can be met with indifference or recognition. If you’re indifferent, they’ll move on to the next blogger to try to obtain the validation that they need. If you recognize them with a link, they’ve got an objective assessment of their worth and you’ll never shake them.

You can either shruggingly accept your groupies or you can make use of them. Some on the Web take the latter approach and use their public soapbox to start email campaigns among their entourages directed at people that offend them. Or they can use their online solicitations for recognition to their advantage as a sort of public self-serving display of agreement. Worse still is when they start believing that this unrepresentative sample reflects the general mood.

It’s sad when you see a genius taken in by this vicious circle. There will always be yes-men surrounding anyone great. It’s the tough duty of every genius to step away from this inner circle and really evaluate themselves objectively, instead of looking in the vanity mirror of sycophancy.

[NOTE: I am not arguing that I am a genius and I am not arguing that the sycophants cited above are through-and-through sycophants. They may be perfectly achievement-oriented in the rest of their lives. In this one instance, however, they seem to be acting like link whores. And some are definitely worse than others.]

[UPDATE: The list of examples above is by no means exhaustive. They are just a few that I had handy at the moment. Also, I said previously that this was the last entry on Dave Winer. This entry on sycophancy is only peripherally about Dave. I promise that Dave will only rarely appear in this blog—and by rarely I mean practically never, but I reserve the right to use his very public pronouncements in the future. This blog will now resume its normal programming.]