The X-factorisation of the Web | September 19, 2011
Over the last few years I’ve noticed a strange and disturbing trend amongst web practitioners.
There was a time—not so long ago—when passionate individuals would blog about their work for no other reason than to share their discoveries. The more prolific of these individuals built up an online reputation and became seen as experts. Some of the more articulate ones were asked to write books or present their thoughts at conferences, and received a modicum of success.
After years of sharing their knowledge freely, some were able to capitalise on their notoriety by securing jobs at interesting companies or setting up small agencies. A few even managed to make a living off publishing books and speaking at conferences, although how they managed this is anybodies guess. However unlike many professional vocations, being a well known designer wasn’t especially well paid, so most folks did it for love not money.
The early web was a meritocracy. Some people became nodes in the network, sharing information freely, and everybody benefited.
As the industry matured, more blogs started popping up, making it harder to get noticed. Micro blogging services like Twitter favoured the early adopters and amplified the voice of a small group of established “names”. This helped create a more personality driven focus which in retrospect may not have been so helpful.
Those arriving late to game didn’t understand the effort that had been put in. To them it must have felt like the industry was already sown up. That there was an existing hegemony bourn not from merit but from being part of a specific cast or social circle.
Many of these people were angry at the elders, crying foul and blaming back room dealings. “The only reason you’re invited to speak at conferences or write articles” they would argue, “is because you’re friends with the organisers.” While it is true that this can help remove some barriers and give people a way in, it’s not the real answer. The real reason why these people continue to be engaged is simple; they’re good at what they do and bring in the crowds.
Iconically what seems to be a long standing hegemony is changing all the time. There are plenty of “usual suspects” on the speaking circuit who were unknowns just a few years ago. However a chronic lack of talent means that once somebody shows a small amount of aptitude, they are pushed into the limelight and quickly become over exposed. So in a few short months you can go from being a new face on the circuit to part of the establishment.
Without seeing or understanding how people got to where they were, a sense of entitlement started to form. “Why should these people get all the fame and fortune” people would think, “when I’m almost certainly as good as they are”. This is said with no irony considering there is little fame, and almost no fortune to be had. Some of this comes from a sense of youthful ignorance. The Dunning-Kruger effect writ large.
Even if you happen to be a genius in the waiting, there are no Svengali’s to pluck you from obscurity and put you on the pedestal you know you deserve. No Simon Cowell’s in the web equivalent of X-factor. Success, as the saying goes, is 1% talent and 99% effort. So if you want to contribute to articles, write books and speak at conferences, you’re the only person in the way.
Just like the bands of old, you need to play the small gigs first. So tweet interesting thoughts, write good content on your blog and speak at local community events. Don’t wait to be asked to speak as these people aren’t mind readers. Instead approach conference organisers with proposal. My first ever public speaking opportunity was at SXSW, not because I was asked but because I offered.
The cream rises to the top so if you’re good, there’s a strong chance you will be discovered eventually. However if you’re mediocre, don’t expect to get noticed and don’t blame others for you short fallings. The industry doesn’t owe you a living and you have to make your own luck.
More importantly, you should consider your motivations. Are you wanting to write books, submit articles, talk at conferences or run a successful start-up because you have a burning desire to share your knowledge and experience with the world? To push the industry forward in some tangible way? Or are you simply doing it to make a name for yourself?
Just like musicians, fame is the medium for sharing your talent with the world, not the end goal. Otherwise you’ll end up like just another X-factor hopeful—tomorrows chip wrapper.
Posted at September 19, 2011 6:01 PM