This post is about two things:
- Every time you mention someone’s name favourably, to anyone, on any medium, online or in real life, you’re doing a bit of promotion for them. Every time you choose someone’s name to say, there are a thousand other people whose name you could have said.
- If you believe yourself to be in support of a cause, an idea, or a sort of person, and yet don’t actively do things that support that belief, you might as well be indifferent to it. Not only that, but your indifference may well be contributing to the problem.
I’ve noticed more and more events making an effort to feature less-heard voices. This is a really good thing. Gender balance (for example) in event-booking is a big, clear metric. It’s apparent exactly how much work the organisers have done on this, just by looking down the list of bios. It’s really, really good to see people making much more of an effort in this area over the last few years. The danger though, is it’s so visible and so talked about, it could look like events or conferences are the most significant ground on which this battle is fought.
I think there’s another place… and once you see it, you’ll see it everywhere, and it’ll drive you mad.
It drives me mad, anyway.
Online, at least, mentions are power. Mentions and recommendations get you booked, they boost you to the top of social and expertise trees, they get you connected and followed and thought about by people who might one day be your customer or boss. Most people don’t speak at conferences, but many make great work which has some kind of presence online.
Maybe you can see where I’m going with this.
If you believe you support a particular group – if you think it’s unfair they are unrepresented – your belief demands that you do something differently to the people who absolutely don’t care. Otherwise your belief contains no integrity. It’s not like saying ‘I believe everyone in the world should have free health care or use public transport or be conscripted at the age of 18’. It’s not like those kinds of things, because this conviction is actually about you and you are complicit in it. The belief could be phrased as something like “I believe groups of people should be treated more fairly, taken more seriously, and publicised more often by the people with the power“, but somehow disconnecting yourself from the responsible party. ‘I believe something should be done by someone else who is like me, but not me… because I have my excuses ready.’
This all seems quite obvious, really, but I feel it’s misunderstood or poorly addressed. The reason I feel this is because, when people who claim to hold these beliefs are asked to mention any person in any public recommendation situation, they will almost always mention the community-famous one… the one who is not lacking privilege, the one who is getting plenty of publicity. Even when talking freely about their industry or interests, getting someone to mention anyone other than the very successful and well-mentioned names can be like pulling teeth.
It’s natural, but it means that you forgot! For a moment you forgot that thing that was so important when you were at that conference last week. In the moment, it became totally unimportant. All these little moments where one’s belief is totally unimportant add up to the grand importance of something no one ever quite wanted to be that grand. Every time we don’t water the seeds, we feed the thing out of Little Shop of Horrors instead.
Some of it stems, I suppose, from fear. People are afraid to take a risk on an unknown person or project, and afraid to be associated with something that might fail. People are also afraid of losing their own perceived personal status by not saying the cool names. It’s unimaginably depressing, but I think it works. Ridiculously, I think just saying cool names does buy you some kudos in some communities. ‘Did you read that book by X? Did you see that blog post by so-and-so?’ What a grim and transparent way to curry power in a community. How desperate we are to be liked.
If we can learn to treat every mention as our power, we might be able to break out of some of these echo chambers, and inch ourselves towards something a bit more fair and a whole lot more interesting.