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

Comments

Chris Garrett said on September 19, 2011 6:33 PM

Interesting thoughts Andy, and I certainly agree with the general tone. However, as someone who has no desire to speak or be published (my best possible contribution is open source code, I’m not a words guy), what of those who speak not out of jealousy or status-lust, but just want a higher quality of content at the mainstream conferences we pay to attend?

Susan Robertson said on September 19, 2011 6:45 PM

Dang, Andy, another great post!

Everything you’ve said I’ve found to be true. I started blogging last spring and a few posts got picked up by people I admire and it was crazy to me, that they would even read my thoughts. It’s all about just being yourself and sharing that with the community and then letting it go. I don’t speak or anything, but that’s mostly because I don’t know that I want to at this point. But I’m enjoying the blogging and the interaction that comes from a longer form of expression.

Dan said on September 19, 2011 6:51 PM

I dont seek the limelight. I’m not really into hero worship so the whole x-factor thing is lost on me. At the end of the day we all make / design / project manage websites. Some people are good, some people are bad. Some are modest, some have a God complex.

I just go about doing what I do and I’m happy.

Its that simple for me really.

Frederick Townes said on September 19, 2011 6:52 PM

An interesting point Chris, to that I respond, there is more than enough room in the industry to create new conferences and events perhaps with more velocity than some of the known establishment has done in the past over the past decade. Moreover, to your point, there are lots of extremely talented folks with extremely valuable contributions to various projects who have almost no time to talk or often document their code. I think the thinking around what notoriety today definitely depends on point of view. In the end, attendees of established conferences might need to increase their awareness to make more room for the innovators?

Louise Hewitt said on September 19, 2011 7:24 PM

I agree with the point you make about the rights of the elders to take their seats at the table - I’m just keen to stress what you taught me once: “You don’t have to do it”.
Taking your seat at the table isn’t the only goal. Knowledge sharing is an important and necessary part of our industry’s training structure, but participating in this activity is not the only thing that makes you a ‘Good UX’. The majority of UX work is being done (and done well) by people you and I have never heard of.
The ‘X-factorisation’ is a problem because lazyness and uncertainty on the recruitment side mean our twitter influence, our linked in profiles, our blog hits, our appearances in magazines etc are becoming the basis for our credibility in the employment market. No one really understands how to assess a UX candidate who isn’t already an expert in the field.
I believe it was Carlton Douglas Ridenhour (thanks Wikipedia) who summed it up nicely…
“Don’t believe the hype
(d’ d’ don’t believe the hype - yeaaaaaaerrrrrr)”

Gavin Starks said on September 19, 2011 7:30 PM

Interesting post Andy. I started off wondering if you were going to adopt a “grumpy old man” stance that “these dang kids no nothing of what we went through”, but fortunately it’s the opposite - we’ve just been here longer, if we’re lucky developed some skills and have something to share: we’ve failed more. Promoting more trying (and building up from small fails to bigger ones) means more potential to do something interesting. You need the small fails to learn from so you can navigate the bigger ones.

On a related note, I often reflect on a sage comment made to me in early-90s web: that being in at the start means you know not only why certain choices were made, but why 10,000 choices were not made. The 10,000 failed or untimely ideas that meant you understood the context of one that had traction… and keeping going means you learned something.

Kev Mears said on September 19, 2011 7:52 PM

I’m reminded of Alain De Botton’s book - Status Anxiety. It explains very well why we are all functioning in a Status economy.

I guess that the nebulous concept of fame is bound to creep in to all industries to some degree at some point. One thing that strikes me is that a reason certain people become opinion formers and industry leaders is that they are prepared to put the effort in to thinking, writing and publishing. Many a time I’ve found myself mulling over a post and what to write and then finding that someone has expressed it better and more confidently than me. Good luck to them.

Perhaps the duck analogy is apposite here? - Serene on the surface, and paddling furiously below.

ngassmann said on September 19, 2011 8:23 PM

@Gavin Starks: The quote you are alluding to was an Edison one that has been misquoted for years “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.” Either way, the point rings true. Those who are picked to talk at conferences have just failed more times than the young guy who learned all this stuff yesterday.

You are only as good as what your peers consider you to be. And even then, you’re never as good as the person who’s failed more times than you have, yet still does a good job. Experience goes a long way in this world.

For every kid who feels like they are getting shafted by the in-crowd, there are 100 who qualify but keep doing what they do without any notoriety.

Andy Pimlett said on September 19, 2011 8:23 PM

Hi Andy,

Your point is understood but I am curious as to your thoughts on the extent of this problem? The article is quite vague in this respect as it’s difficult to know if you are targeting a small minority of irritating individuals who frequently critique your opinions, articles, tweets and conferences or whether you speak globally of all those freelancers, and agencies who working towards wider recognition, and in so doing chomp at the coattails of the more visible amongst us (you).

I certainly sympathise with what must, with your degree of visibility, become a disheartening volume of criticism or just plain rudeness and a lack of respect, but some would argue this is the price of success, regardless of industry.

The situation is not entirely dissimilar to those celebrities who complain about the attitude of press, or public, only to invite them in as and when needed.

My personal feeling is that much of the ‘bad blood’ can come about as a result of glib tweets which are so often an inadequate forum for debate. Twitter seems to bring about a terseness that wasn’t previously evident in [public] communication and the fact such exchanges take place in plain sight can, I feel, bring problems.

Or, as recently suggested by @sazzy, do you guys literally get people walking up to you at conferences saying ‘I could easily do what you are doing?’.

ngassmann said on September 19, 2011 8:24 PM

@Gavin Starks: The quote you are alluding to was an Edison one that has been misquoted for years “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will work.” Either way, the point rings true. Those who are picked to talk at conferences have just failed more times than the young guy who learned all this stuff yesterday.

You are only as good as what your peers consider you to be. And even then, you’re never as good as the person who’s failed more times than you have, yet still does a good job. Experience goes a long way in this world.

For every kid who feels like they are getting shafted by the in-crowd, there are 100 who qualify but keep doing what they do without any notoriety.

ngassmann said on September 19, 2011 8:29 PM

Sorry about the double post, I hit a server error on first attempt.

I forgot to mention, anyone in this industry is just a normal person. A few let the notoriety and “fame” go to their head. For them, I just ignore unless they put something out that’s worth while. I’m reminded of the most reason WordPress San Francisco, when I saw a tweet on the #wcsf stream that said “Matt Mullenweg just sat next to me #blushing”. He’s just a guy that is good at what he does, found a niche and filled the need. If someone needs a shirt that says “I’m Famous on the Internet” to illicit some sort of “are you someone famous?” response, isn’t famous. Being starstruck around them looks even more goofy than someone meeting Brad Pitt in real life.

Tom Morris said on September 19, 2011 8:30 PM

Pedant mode activated. “The industry doesn’t own you a living” should be “doesn’t owe you a living”.

George Katsanos said on September 19, 2011 10:50 PM

Andy, I think you either accidentally or deliberately misinterpreted some of the comments made in your previous blog post in order to base this one. No-one said he consider himself “genius at the waiting”. People made some solid complaints, based on facts. I talked about the healthy competition and the pluralism of opinions. I expressed my worry that when all leading members of a community have direct or indirect business ties, innovation/evolution may be influenced, negatively. Don’t just take all that and make it personal which cheap shots like “fame” and “x-factor”/

This post, and many of the tweets exchanged in the last past week, seem like a clumsy reaction from a group of people who feel threatened, and quite frankly, some of them are quite disrespectful towards boring ordinary designers like us who spend a big portion of their 25k/year to buy books and attend conferences written and organized by all these infamous “web-influencers”.

I, for one, am rather disappointed (besides offended) about the level that the debate is being done, and would expect a more honest and brave follow-up post as compared to inaccuracies and generalizations like - “so most folks did it for love not money”, “create a more personality driven focus which in retrospect may not have been so helpful”, “The real reason…they’re good at what they do and bring in the crowds” etc. - from the guy who’s written the most enlightening CSS book I’ve ever read.

But then again, it’s your blog.

Jason Mesut said on September 20, 2011 6:00 AM

@Andy, thanks for writing this so close to my Euro IA talk on Friday that will touch on this issue. I have a slightly different take, but won’t share it all here right now.

@Louise, think you’re spot on when you say “The majority of UX work is being done (and done well) by people you and I have never heard of.” I actually believe that the best people don’t go to conferences. It’s funny that the case studies put up in people’s conference presentations are unlikely to embarrass those that actually made them such a success. Also, thanks for making the Public Enemy reference - you have stopped me from using that to open my talk up and making a tit out of myself. Do you mind if I quote you?

Andy Budd said on September 20, 2011 8:07 AM

Hey George,

Thanks for the feedback. However I think you may be confused as this post is about a general trend I’ve witnessed over the last few years, and one I’ve had in my drafts file for some time now. So while it’s interesting that you see yourself reflected in the message, it wasn’t about you or any specific individuals.

As to the points in your comments, I don’t think anybody feels threatened. It’s more like mild irritation that some folks opinions are so divorced from reality.

I think most people in the web design industry welcome a pluralism of opinion. In fact this is one of the reasons I like getting out from behind my RSS feeds and Twitter streams and talking to people at conferences. It’s also why I attend so many events (both community and professional), as a means of finding new ideas. Not just from speakers but also from other attendees. It’s also why I try to attend events outside my direct field of experience and learn from similar fields like games, architecture, hospitality and industrial design.

As for your concerns that close business ties may prevent some people from speaking their mind, I suppose it could happen but it’s not something I’ve ever witnessed. Speaker fees are so low as to not be a sufficient inducement to collusion. If anything I think most of the people I know actually overcompensate to make it obvious that what they are saying is an individual and unbiased opinion. For instance, only the other week a colleague of mine was paid to speak at a big London event where he was openly critical of the business practices of the host company. I couldn’t see that happening with a Doctor paid to speak at a Pharmaceutical conference, but it’s fairly common for speakers to say negative things about sponsors in this industry.

However that’s all by-the-by as this post really has nothing to do the questions or concerns raised in your comments. Apart from the vague tangential relationship to the perceived lack of new speakers.

Instead it’s about a general trend I’ve seen amongst some people who want to be successful speakers, bloggers or start-up founders, and expect that its somebody else’s job (conference organiser, employer, VCs) to discover that talent and push them into the limelight. When in reality it’s down to individuals to push themselves forward.

Darren Taylor said on September 20, 2011 8:42 AM

For me Chris said it all that we “…just want a higher quality of content at the mainstream conferences we pay to attend”. Exactly why I won’t be attending Build conference this year, having sat through regurgitated presentations last year I’m really sick of hearing the same thing. What any conference I’ve attended lacks is someone with war stories, someone prepared to speak from experience, tell us their ups and downs and give opinion based on that. Instead it’s some talking down in a high and mighty fashion which frankly becomes very very tedious after a while.

Andy Budd said on September 20, 2011 9:16 AM

Hey Chris,

I think your comments are probably more relevant to my previous blog post that this one. However as there is a general continuation of discussions between posts I’ll answer your question around speaker diversity here.

As somebody who cares greatly about the quality of the events I put on, the boom in cookie-cutter conferences really annoys me. When dConstruct started back in 2005 it was only the 2nd web design conference in the UK. Now lanyard is following 454 conferences, events and meet-ups around the country. With the volume of events rising faster than the appearance of new talent, a reliance on “the usual suspects” is inevitable.

I do think conference organisers have a duty to find new speakers. This is one of the reasons I attend so many events each year. Sadly, there just aren’t that many good speakers around, so when one does come along they are quickly snapped up by all the other events. This means that new speakers quickly become part of the establishment.

There definitely is a market for seeing well known speakers. Otherwise half of these events wouldn’t survive. As experienced conference goers it’s easy to forget than many people have never been to a conference before and really want to see the people who have shaped their thinking. As such, there will always be a market for these kind of events. This doesn’t mean that you have to patronise them. So if you’re fed up with conferences featuring the same old line-up, vote with your feet.

There are conferences like dConstruct, which go out of their way curate an interesting and unusual mix of speakers. We try to find high profile speakers from different parts of the industry or ones who don’t regularly speak in the UK. So even if they’re well know to some, they’re not over exposed. We match this with new and upcoming speakers you may not have heard of, or at least not seen before. We try not to repeat our speakers and don’t invite folks to speak if we know they’ll be at another big UK conference that year. This is all done in an attempt to craft a unique programme which doesn’t look like every other conference. It’s a risky strategy and doesn’t always work out. However we’ve built up enough trust in our audience over the years, that we feel it’s worth the risk.

With a conference like UX London, we have a much smaller pool to work with. So rather than going for up-and-coming speakers we aim for industry leaders. These are folks our attendees will undoubtedly have heard of, but probably never seen before. Not unless they’ve been to one of the big overseas UX events.

So while not every conference is going out of it’s way to curate an interesting programme, some are. It’s time consuming, hard to do and doesn’t always come off. But when it does, it’s a hugely satisfying feeling. So if you want to see more diversity is conferences, avoid the obvious me-too copies and patronise the ones that really care.

Andy Budd said on September 20, 2011 9:32 AM

It’s also worth noting that different people want different things from their conferences, so it’s not possible to craft an event that satisfies everybody. Some people want to see big name speakers, others want to see up coming talent. Some want to be educated, others want to be inspired. Some want code, others want ideas. Some people get lots from their conference experience, others get nothing.

Darren Taylor said on September 20, 2011 11:03 AM

Have a read of The Journey http://2011.buildconf.com/conference - its prattle like this makes me wonder why anyone would even consider paying for a ticket. What I would prefer to pay for is to listen to the experience of and lessons learned from the likes of the BBC or The Guardian, are these people ever invited to speak I wonder or perhaps have I missed?

Andy Budd said on September 20, 2011 11:39 AM

Hey Darren,

Well the BBC and the Guardian are both big companies, so it’s not quite as easy as asking them to speak. You need to find somebody within the company who is a) an interesting speaker and b) has a useful story to tell. That may sound simple, but it actually cancels out the vast majority of folks. Also, a lot of companies aren’t that keen about speaking openly about their projects as it may reflect badly on the organisation or individuals therein. So getting something more than a PR piece can be tough. But I generally agree that it would be nice to see more case studies. In fact, we’ve got 3 mini-case studies happening at UX London this year, on Twitter, BankSimple and Air NZ, so let’s see how these go down.

Gordon McLachlan said on September 20, 2011 1:02 PM

Very interesting article and I probably agree with most of it - building a reputation or a following or fame or whatever you want to call it takes years of hard work and that should never be doubted. Having a true and honest passion for the industry, combined with talent and skill, is no doubt the best way to get noticed and gain the respect of your peers.

Perhaps on another note though, I do find the whole speaking at conference thing quite curious. Surely the main reasons for doing so are to raise your public profile with either the intent to become more famous or find more work/clients? Yes, there is definitely an educational aspect to it but we all know there are far more elegant and efficient ways to teach people and disseminate knowledge. Likewise, attending conferences may increase fame but it also decreases time available to actually, y’know, do the stuff your talking about.

Of course, on the other hand, I suppose if no one knows anything about what you’re doing then it will never be embraced or go mainstream and that’s no good to anyone. One has to market what they’re doing as to make people aware of it in order to even let them judge the merits of it.

Anyway, I’m rambling ;)

Great post - and may I say I’m a huge fan of Clearleft and love your work!

Andy Budd said on September 20, 2011 2:09 PM

While I have no doubt that some people speak purely as a means of raising their profile and getting more work, I rarely if ever come across these kind of people. In all the years and at all the design/development conferences I’ve spoken at, I can safely say that I’ve only met a handful of folks that fall into that camp (although I have met a surprising number at marketing, SEO and social media events).

Everybody on the conference circuit who I regard as a friend and a peer (probably into triple figures) talks primarily because they love what they do and what to share that with people. So while it’s true that some work may come out if it, that’s not the primary motivation. After all these folks have been blogging and talking at small conferences for years before becoming “well known” and will continue to do so when their limited celebrity fades.

So no, for the majority of people that’s not the goal. So please don’t go to conferences under the assumption that it is, or you’ll be doing the speakers a massive disservice.

Justin said on September 20, 2011 6:53 PM

Best two speakers I ever saw are Dan Cederholm and Jeffrey Zeldman.

Darren Taylor said on September 21, 2011 9:26 AM

Andy, I just read an article on the BBC Internet Blog this morning by Yasser Rashid, Senior Creative Director responsible for the user experience and design team. Surely people like this who write articulate and informative blog posts would be willing to speak? I just think many conference organisers just don’t try hard enough and bring in the same old faces. The whole conference circuit needs a complete revamp as this growing dislike for “the clique” is only going to continue to grow.

In any case, I get from your article that you’re saying it’s up to people to push themselves forward. I disagree. There are many good people who for various reasons don’t blog, don’t contribute articles online etc but are intelligent and are capable of delivering enjoyable and valuable presentations. Like I said above, it’s up to organisers to start seeking these people instead of continually taking the easy option.

fudoki said on September 21, 2011 9:34 AM

Enjoyable post and responses. Having been to more than a few conferences, I’ve changed my approach to picking sessions twice. In the early days I went to see sessions on topics I was interested in. Once you’ve been to a conference or two you tended to be more aware of the thought leaders in the various web disciplines so at subsequent conferences I gravitated towards sessions with those speakers, perhaps being less bothered about the topics. I’ve since come full circle, picking my sessions based solely on my interest in the topics, in the process becoming aware of some darn fine speakers.

Of course, if my favourite speakers are also presenting the most interesting topics, all the better. Getting onto the speaker list at conferences can’t be easy, but neither is selling tickets for the conferences. Organisers want a smattering of experts in the field, but beyond that they need people with insight and drive. It’s inevitable successful bloggers & tweeters get booked - they’ve already shown their smarts, not just to present information, but to converse with people interested in what they’ve presented.

Organisers need to keep finding those operating in the niche, less fashionable areas as well, as often they prove most interesting.

George Katsanos said on September 23, 2011 8:41 AM

Spambots vote Yes then! :)

Chris Garrett said on September 23, 2011 12:33 PM

Thanks for the response Andy, I’ve written a few thoughts on the whole conference “scene” over at https://gist.github.com/1237090. For me it’s less about the speakers, and more about the content they deliver and tone with which they deliver it. I’d appreciate any thoughts Andy…

niko221 said on September 24, 2011 12:34 PM

You are only as good as what your peers consider you to be. And even then, you’re never as good as the person who’s failed more times than you have, yet still does a good job. Experience goes a long way in this world.
It’s also worth noting that different people want different things from their conferences, so it’s not possible to craft an event that satisfies everybody. Some people want to see big name speakers, others want to see up coming talent. Some want to be educated, others want to be inspired. Some want code, others want ideas. Some people get lots from their conference experience, others get nothing

Andy Budd said on September 25, 2011 1:40 AM

I’m sorry Darren, but with 10’s or even 100’s of thousands of people in our industry, how do you expect conference organisers to find these mythical needles in a haystack? Being smart or being able to write a good blog post doesn’t mean that you’ll have the skills to present an interesting and engaging presentation. The number of dull presentations I’ve sat through is testament to that. Sadly you can’t go around picking people at random hoping that they’ll make a good speaker, and you definitely can’t force people who you think may make a good speaker to speak, unless they rally want to. Conference organisers do put a lot of effort into programming their events. Well the good ones do anyway. But it seems that what your suggesting is some kind of precient sixth sense, which is a little beyond even my abilities.

Rick Monro said on September 26, 2011 9:23 PM

In the spirit of egalitarianism outlined here Andy, could you see your way to reading this blog post - in part inspired by your own - and perhaps retweet if you feel it is a worthy contribution to industry debate?

‘Rockstars, preachers or craftsmen. Time to choose.’
http://blog.rickmonro.com/design/rockstars-preachers-craftsmen/