Hack Circus and the dignity problem

HC2Is dignity the only thing standing between Hack Circus and success? I’m pretty sure too much dignity has never been my problem. But I won’t email people again and again until they ask me to leave them alone. I just won’t. Maybe *that’s* the problem? I could try different emails, or different people. Maybe that’s the problem? I’ve been obsessing over what the problem is, as you can tell.

“Oh do you still want to be successful?!!”

Someone I know sneered this at me recently, when I said something ambitious – then immediately apologised. And, ha, god knows I’m not going to apologise for THAT. Of course I do, more than ever, as I feel conscious of time twisting in on me (maybe I shouldn’t still want things like that at my age? Maybe I should’ve bowed out years ago? Maybe that’s the problem?)

Actually, it’s amazing how many people think there is dignity in giving up. A friend shook his head at the mention of a performer friend’s name. “Why is he still at it? He had some success 20 years ago, his partner became much more successful, he should just do the decent, dignified thing and quit.”

I suppose it makes people feel more comfortable when “failures” go away, rather than flapping on, twitching around the floor like injured birds. There’s an overwhelming urge to crush the weakling aspirant for the sake of the strong. We have no psychic space for something that isn’t just somehow born into the world magically, stridently successful – and allows you to see its weakness. However much we like to think we root for the little guy, we fundamentally will not reward visible effort. Do or do not, there is no try. Effort makes us uncomfortable – it’s too real. It brings the constant threat of failure. We will pay good money for the magic of effort disappeared.

Hack Circus as a magical object and event does disappear some of its constituent effort, but – and perhaps this is part of the problem – I’d rather be honest about what’s going on. It’s not in my nature to obfuscate; I’m not a salesperson. I want human help, and I’m at the point now where I’m prepared to try total transparency.

The reason I will not give up on Hack Circus, the reason it is so important, is this: it has the potential to prove a point about what’s possible. If people will get behind things like this, I think something quite amazing could happen. I think we will have an example of a genuine creative alternative to both mass-scale corporate media and 25-year-old, white male Shoreditch start-up culture. We will have people being paid for something they do really well without their fees tracing directly back to corporate evil. We will have people supporting and working for a world where the most influential voices and ideas don’t fit the mould we’ve come to expect from the powerful and privileged people behind the UK media and publishing industries. Hack Circus could become a point of proof that we are living in an enlightened age, that people don’t just buy what they see advertised on the sides of buses, that they will go in for originality over derivatives, and get behind things not because they tick enough cool boxes or solve an obvious problem but simply because they think these things just should happen in the world.

Hack Circus is not hip. I think this is a major stumbling block. Hipsterism is about the ironic appropriation of the little-known, the uncool, the dull – and at its best is does regenerate these things to some extent. But Hack Circus is about stuff everyone finds interesting even if they can’t really admit it, because it’s no longer fashionable to find actually interesting stuff interesting. Everyone publicly hates “link bait” because everyone wants SO HARD to click on those goddam headlines. Not that HC is link bait – but it is a celebration of the stuff you always thought was interesting but have trained yourself to be too good, grown-up or sophisticated for. I mean for goodness sake, who doesn’t love thinking about illusions and A.I and quantum physics and time machines and life without a shadow, and submarines and tanks and holographic universes and ghosts in SPACE?

Naturally I am idealistic. But why would anyone go into anything like this not imagining it’s immensely important? For me, it’s not a game or a hobby or even an art project. I’m trying to see if the world works a certain way. And I think, maybe naively, that if enough people behave like it does, then it will. Most people don’t behave like it does, and that makes me very angry, sometimes. In fact it makes me want to publish a list of everyone I’ve tried to talk to about it who has ignored every word I’ve said. It makes me want to compose a tumblr of loads of amusing comparisons: ‘I pitched this story to this section of this paper, they published this the next week.’

It’s interesting to find yourself in a position of immense gratitude for every crumb. Interesting and fantastically disempowering. Personal charity doesn’t feel like the path to the scale of influence I want HC to have; of course I AM grateful – it’s all I have and a really big deal – but to begin with at least, it makes things feel smaller.

I am arriving at the grim conclusion that you can’t get people, en masse, to buy into an unironically interesting world that isn’t powered by media giants unless you have a powerful influencer behind you. As you can imagine, I don’t like this conclusion, so this, these writings, everything I’m doing right now, it’s all a kind of stalling before I get there. Just in case some unforeseen intervention occurs. It’s weird to find yourself waiting for a miracle, but I’m seeing more and more advantages to a credulous life.

If you want to do something properly, you can’t set out with the notion it’s a hobby. You might remember my (often mis-attributed, to various men) tweet, a couple of years ago: “Any sufficiently advanced hobby is indistinguishable from a job”. I remember some wags replied, “Except a job usually pays!” If a hobby is good enough, I replied, it’ll be making money for you. But I think I was wrong. I think you have to go into things with a sense this thing is much bigger than you are; that you’re not always going to enjoy it as a casual leisure thing.

I’ve been saying for years that passion and excitement translates into meaningful stuff, but I’m almost certain I’m wrong about that now. Meaningful stuff is powerful stuff, powerful stuff has influence, and whatever you’re making – if you want it to be influential, you need money. After all, we are living in a society.

It’s a cute idea, but I’m afraid you can’t try to make good stuff with no money and with no influential ‘man on the inside’ giving you the thumbs up, and this is the advice I would give everyone, now. Everyone! Having seen absolutely no evidence to support the alternative, I am increasingly convinced that it’s just not possible. Even vanity projects only work out if you’re from a privileged background (and let’s not underestimate the influence family privilege has historically had over big cultural achievements.)

I’ve been over it all in my head this week, and given everything I’ve done so far, I think there a few things that might increase my chances of success for Hack Circus.

1) Posting more stuff to the HC blog. When I post material from the back issues I get a few retweets. Well, it’s a start.

2) Get the ear of someone, somewhere, more influential than I am.

3) Change what it’s about. Go completely commercial. Make it about consumer tech.

4) Become a free PR for celebrities and get them involved as a ‘big name’ to support the small names, despite having no interest in them and it totally changing the tone and point of the project.

5) Abandon the independent dream and try to find a corporate sponsor.

6) Focus on the press push and beg more.

So what should I do? Make my choice for me. Go on, think of my life as a choose-your-own-adventure.

6 thoughts on “Hack Circus and the dignity problem

  1. Andrew Sleigh

    Or (7) Reframe the proposition. Maybe that sounds like awful brand-speak, but there is a truth in there about how people get excited about things. Successful brands are powered by this.

    I also had a minor epiphany when I was working in environmental behaviour change, and I read The Green Marketing Manifesto (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Green-Marketing-Manifesto-John-Grant/dp/0470723246), which takes this approach to an even more formidable problem.

    How you do that is another problem. But it is a solvable one.

  2. Gilbert

    I’m slightly hesitant to comment because I fall perilously close to your 25, white male shoreditch start-up category, only with an art degree a hatred of shoreditch and no money.

    I do think this matters.

    Part of what strikes me about you writing about the process of putting Hack Circus together is what seems to me like your unrelenting view that people can and should be able to find things interesting without needing to be told that they are interesting.

    With things like consumer tech articles or buzzfeed linkbait it’s almost as if people are going out there in search of an opinion or a gadget to have thrust at them, while you’re trying to get genuinely passionate people to talk about things that captivate them and let people decide for themselves. I almost wonder if some people are a little bit scared in having to think so much for themselves about subjects that aren’t totally straightforward and presented in a format designed for the shortest of attention spans.

    I’m absolutely sure people who like that are out there, I came to your first event and there were lots of people enjoying it, it just seems like the current ways of finding other likeminded people on the internet who want to support something like that are either agonisingly slow or still revolve around existing, well, brands for want of a less corporate word.

    I guess I’m hopeful in that I think that probably the two best areas to get people interested in things purely for the sake of them being worth the time are science and art, which is what you’re about. People do go and look at nicely designed stuff because of design and scientists do research things for the pure joy in finding things out (if they’re any good anyway).

    As you say it’s very easy to make things now and by making it so easy people are awash with tweets. I wonder how many people actually saw you trying to give copies of the magazine away. I’m sure you know better than I do that it becomes this hard loop to escape from. Most things are shouting out to a few people that are already interested in what it is you’re saying and going beyond that is far, far harder.

    I don’t think the scale of idea is wrong exactly, but one criticism I suppose I have is that you can’t force something to be bigger than it is. You can want to have more reach but that always seems to be such an obtuse process that it can’t really be made to happen unless you’re in a powerful position already (and even then, often, it fails). What you’re making is worthwhile, it just seems like it might be something that has to be a slow burning buildup, rather than a grand rush. Which doesn’t pay the gas bill.

    I’m not now sure how much of this makes sense but, At the risk of it being personal charity, there is at least one person out there who wants you to succeed.

  3. Richard Crewe

    I know that in a previous post you said that each issue costs £2 to print and I guess postage is another £1 on top of that . Have you tried e-publishing? This is a tenuous example, but people lying awake in bed at night might fork-out a few quid for something to read, but the same people are going to be unwilling to pay £7 for something they’ll get through the post sometime in the future when they’ve found something else to do.

    1. leila Post author

      Thanks, good thought. Unfortunately I’m tied in to a deal with the printer for three years so I can’t really change the format. I have had feedback from readers that they enjoy the novelty of a physical thing through the post, and generally people suggest digital mags as a way to make it easier for *me* rather than something they want. There is still a thriving physical mag market and I feel like there must be a reason why, and that there is an opportunity for printed media to offer something that digital can’t. Actually, if I had one fairly modest sponsor I could break even very easily each month *and* massively reduce the price tag for the public, but no luck as yet.

  4. Jane Johnston


    Do you want a crit on all this, like what you gave to my website? Everything you’ve said, I’ve used. I’m family, I’ve six years in marketing including conference sales, I was tutored by the most corporate money machine in global events then gave it all up to go out on my own. Just ask me. Please. You can ignore everything I suggest but at least give it a go? Sometimes I read your posts and feel like an untapped resource, without knowing why you’ll not ask. If you never want to hear from me again on this, that’s cool, but let me know so I can rest in peace. :)

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