What Happened Ten Years Ago…. is Still Happening Today

  Don't see_don't hear_don't speak

“We like lists because we don't want to die.”

[Umberto Eco]

    It all started quite innocently in August 2007 with the idea of publishing a list of top women in PR we knew about in our circles to help spread the word. This site was barely a year old, and it was a place to put ideas out there, think out loud with others when people started reading, and build on the resulting ideas.   

    The list gained velocity as people started spreading it. Then all hell broke loose. There's a very good reason why the phrase “you can't please everyone is a cliqué, because every person interprets the world somewhat differently. Blame mixed with push back mixed with controversy — a Shakespearean brew. It was a situation where men resented the omission, and a prominent women blogging association wagged the digital reprimand — “how dare?

    Never mind that I explained the thought process that went into it, that the intention was noble, that many of these people knew me for real and otherwise had been reading my thinking for at least a year. Never mind that men do this sort of thing online, in government, on boards, in the top ranks of organizations all the time, every day. Never mind that to me treating women differently because of gender is such a missed opportunity on the humanity side of things. And that at the same time, reports of women being like men are greatly exaggerated.

    It was a battle over turf. Something that holds little interest to me because it's about making the opportunity bigger, not playing smaller. As a society, marketers especially, we have embraced the war metaphor fully. But we keep forgetting people die in wars, they are displaced, they witness and experience things that are unspeakable… and yet survive. Which bears witness to our incredible resilience even as it breaks our hearts.

    Physicists understand well what the fragmentation of thought is doing to society and civilization right now. How it encourages a focus on truth rather than meaning. How thought tricks us and how we get stressed out our brain is pouring neurochemicals into our system, “as if we were being attacked in the jungle.” We think we're different because we see some differences, but we're all flesh and blood, nerves and bones.

    It was a good lesson, publishing that W-List. My next list was a comprehensive list of 100 people worth following on Twitter, which was shared 4,000 times in the first 30 minutes, on a Sunday. Then I posted a follow up to the reactions, useful to those who study online behavior and good to know at a human level.

    Author Jane McGonigal shared a status update on Twitter that has a familiar ring recently. The tiny rant, which I reproduce here as a quote, reads as follows:

If you are given a high-profile platform to list people who inspire you, especially if it is a list of people in technology or science who inspire you, and yo talk about only men, I want you to know that many women (and maybe some men too!) will read your list and notice.

Some women may feel that all-too-familiar twinge of demoralization that is a constant undercurrent of women's contribution being under-recognized, and you've just made their efforts to feel included and stay engaged in their field just a tiny bit harder.

Other women, maybe women with influence, power, funding, or platforms themselves will notice, and be less likely to think of you as a potential ally in the future, because they prefer to work with people for whom women who do great work easily spring to mind.

And if you are a friend or colleague of mine, and I point out to you that you are using a high profile platform to praise exclusively men in your field of technology and science and ask you to be mindful of how this might affect others, or even affect you if you're perceived as only seeing value in the efforts of your male peers, don't hear it as criticism. Hear it as a constructive, concrete opportunity to do something small and positive in the future that could have a ripple effect on many people's lives for the better.

Because at the end of the day, including women and POC in any list you make about people you admire is just how things should work in 2017.

    It reminded me of another evergreen conversation about influencing panel and speaker decisions at events. Plus we're never a prophet in our hometown — looking at you Digital Tech event organizers in Philadelphia. Ah, the missed opportunities…

    My colleague Anne Libby tweeted a response, with many more sharing names to add to the new list. But why are we still having the same conversation ten years later? Because things have not changed. In biology as in life, we cannot stay still, every organism is constantly moving not to die. When we're not moving forward and progressing, we're moving laterally, or backwards.  

    Brands and businesses are made of people and people buy products and services, invest in the companies, work in those organizations. Same people, which may explain why we're over optimistic about the role of automation, artificial intelligence, and robots.

    For example, when Twitter came up with the idea of publishing a collection of stories about the platform, and decided to call it Twittertales in 2010, it totally ignored how one of its potential customers had published that very project in November 2009. It also ignored the person on its own platform. How did they not see the tweets, the hashtag, the participation? It was a sad display of not seeing.

    Isn't it time to start thinking differently? When we seek first to understand we make a difference. Noticing things — all things, not just what is convenient — would help us with humanity, not just with board issues, business problems, and the next viral video.

    All things are not equal but they exist and we exist. The difference between despair or misery and a spring in our step is often a matter of being heard, being seen, receiving acknowledgement, and speaking up.

    Learning from history is useful — reading widely can help here, not just history books (they say the victors write them), but also biographies, literature (many a blog of yesteryear was a book, a poem, a play), and watching documentaries, going to museums.

    Our mistakes are part of history, too, even as we're so close to it. The Greeks were amazing thinkers and have left us with a treasure trove of fables, myths, and writings on so much that is fundamental to life, especially our relationship with pain and death. There's a reason why many of those ideas have endured over the centuries. The evidence is clear, we are going to die.

    The paradox of our age is that though we are all connected, our culture is highlighting and encouraging individual credit rather than collective contribution. Learning from and with each other is the opportunity. That's not where the incentives are today.

    But we should remember that the map is not the territory, it's a representation. Imagination is the territory. If there is anything at all that we have learned from digital is that it is both more permanent than we suspect (and visual), but it's also more adaptive and suitable for change. What kinds of maps are we drawing?

What to notice

    I'm all for practical advice on this sort of thing. So next time you're coming across promotions in social, make it a point to notice a few things:

* Does that eBook everyone is promoting include just the usual suspects? Not any one group has all the answers, even experts. Reality and business are more complex, even scientific papers are now co-authored by larger groups to provide a more rounded and in depth view of the issues.

* Are contributors a cross section of professionals from different industries and points of view? This is how we get from “best practices to most practice, which extracts broader and more applicable lessons.

* Is there just one woman (or zero) in there or a more balanced representation? In the first case, it was an afterthought, in the second it was thoughtful planning.

* Did the people providing advice actually do the work? Did they serve as brand marketers, did they serve a community of practitioners? We can learn a lot from research, in which case the previous points are more important. Doing the work for oneself leads to figuring some stuff out, but there is tremendous value in drawing insights from doing the work on behalf or with brands. We should use the same criteria we use for hiring here.

    In my experience, the people doing the work and the people doing more talk are not one and the same. There isn't enough time in a day to do both well, at least not all the time.


P.S. Here's an incomplete list of verbs, they're better than words, which are important, verbs get us moving.

[image via Pixabay