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What we love matters: a unifying cultural theory to fix tech’s diversity problem

In November 2016, Auckland tech investor Sacha Judd delivered a talk in Berlin which became an internet hit. It was titled ‘How the tech sector could move in One Direction’, and it argued that 1D fandom contains a lot of clues to the lack of diversity in tech. Last week she delivered a follow-up talk at Creative Mornings in Auckland, which we’re proud to republish here.

In the last six months I’ve become weirdly internet-famous for talking about Harry Styles. So much so, I was going to call this talk “How a former partner in a law firm came to be quoted in Teen Vogue about Harry Styles” but that was a bit long for a promo tweet. So I want to talk a bit about how on earth this happened – tell you a bit about my secret double life – and convince you that if we’re going to make our industries more equal, we need to get back to embracing our first loves.

So to begin with, I thought I’d tell you a bit about my public journey and my private journey, and how they eventually collided.

My public journey followed a pretty traditional path – at least outwardly. I graduated law school, climbed a very pre-determined career ladder, worked and studied internationally, and on paper I was a corporate finance success story who did large-scale mergers and acquisitions.

My private journey was a little different, and it wasn’t something I really talked about in public. I’ve always been a giant nerd. I’ve loved computers and what we can do with them since I was ten years old.

And when the internet came along I fell in head first. I convinced my parents we needed the internet at home in 1994, even though it was pretty expensive. That was early by New Zealand standards. And the very first places I started to hang out online were fannish spaces. Sites dedicated to TV shows, books, movies. I devoured fiction and art about the things I loved.

And to do this, to participate in these spaces, I taught myself all kinds of technical skills. At one point, I was living in Hong Kong, which at that stage had really terrible English-language TV, and I was obsessed with the West Wing. I mean obsessed with it.

So I paid a guy on the internet to record The West Wing to VHS and post it to me from the US. In the actual mail. Then I worked out how to hook my VCR up to my computer, convert the file to avi, burn it to a CD, and post it to a friend in the UK. I was a terrible pirate.

In the early days of the web, I learned to use Usenet groups. And later mailing lists, and then I joined livejournal. Taught myself basic photo editing to make avatars and banners. Taught myself html to build my first website. To, yes, host my fanfiction.

But always, ALWAYS, these things were in secret, because it was embarrassing and deeply uncool.  I lived in fear that someone would “find out” that this is what I spent my spare time doing online. That I’d accidentally print something I’d written to the office printer, or send a friend an email logged in to the wrong account.

Meanwhile, in my public life, about six or seven years ago I began to build a legal practise working with companies in the tech sector. It meant a period of overcoming “impostor syndrome” because I didn’t credit the skills I had taught myself. What did I know, really? I wasn’t a technology lawyer. Those were lawyers who had spent years negotiating large scale licensing agreements for enterprise software and satellite procurement and goodness knows what else.

But it turns out I was a “technology lawyer” (in as much as there’s any such thing) – because I’d lived and breathed the online world for years. It was my native habitat. And a new generation of founders in NZ were starting to build world-beating companies and they needed a professional adviser who understood what they were doing. And that was me.

As I spent more time working with tech companies and founders, I soon realised I’d built a career I no longer wanted, and that lead to a period of soul searching about what it was I really wanted to do.

So when this guy offered me a job, I jumped at the chance to change tack. This is Rowan, and I now run his family office, which combines investments in early stage and high growth companies, a philanthropic foundation, and a really awesome feijoa orchard.

One of the amazing things that my new career lets me do is talk openly about the things I really care about.

And last year, that meant giving a talk about One Direction and how it might hold the answer to tech’s pipeline problem. Some of you might have seen it – if you haven’t you can find it on my site. I’ll give you a 30 second overview so you can follow the rest of this story.

It’s a talk about how these five boys went from being failed contestants on a reality TV show…

To being one of the highest-grossing, most successful musical acts ever. A musical act I completely ignored, by the way.

Until I stumbled on the epic online conspiracy theory about a secret gay relationship between Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson.

It’s a talk about how I discovered that if you bang on enough about a boyband conspiracy, your friends are going to start to think that you’re crazy. But also that everyone around you is going to start asking you if you’re for real, or if this whole thing is an elaborate example of hipster irony.

And it’s a talk about how that’s not new – how we’ve been dismissing out of hand the things that young women get excited about for eons.

Creating this weird double standard, where it’s okay to be obsessed and hysterical about some things, but not others.

And in the midst of all of that – it was about me rediscovering the simple truth that fans make gorgeous digital art…

(@claudiyah @fayestardust @ablyablya)

And teach each other technical skills to manipulate images… And make memes…

(@yourssincerelylarry)

That right under our noses, there’s a generation of young women who are video editors, graphic designers, community managers. They’re absolutely immersed in technology, every day, and we aren’t paying attention, because they’re doing it in service of something we don’t care about.

We’re missing out on a pipeline of creative, hardworking young women who should be in our industry and aren’t.

And why? Because we’re still teaching them that what they care about is embarrassing. And they still don’t believe that the skills they’re teaching themselves are worth anything in the real world.

I didn’t really expect that this talk would hit home quite as much as it has. I’ve been fortunate enough to give it Berlin, London, San Francisco, and in house at companies like Twitter and Slack.

People started emailing me, and talking about their own unconventional paths into tech.

And confessing their own ‘secret’ fan obsessions…

And even more amazingly – the first things they built and shared online.

The variety was incredible.

And yet there was this theme underpinning it that we should hate these first things…

Be embarrassed by them…

And here’s the crux of it, right. Why are we embarrassed about these things?

This is a blog post someone wrote after seeing my talk at Webstock – and this hit me right in the gut. I don’t who this is, but she writes about how seeing me talk about fandom in a work context left her feeling unnerved. How she didn’t feel she could go back to her work and chat to her colleagues about it.

How she worried about what the guys around her were thinking. How exposed she felt.

This is outrageous, right? Why are we making each other feel this way?

I realised that we all had something that we loved that was the first thing that inspired us to make and share.

Mine was dinosaurs. Here’s the first book I wrote. It’s a non-fiction masterpiece, because it covers both later ones AND early ones.

Flipped it around for the design of the frontispiece – Early ones and later ones.

Including a chapter on my fave dinosaur, the brachiosaurus.

It seemed incredibly obvious, once I thought about it for more than a moment. Of course we first create out of and in dedication to the things we love. The first things we paint or draw as children. The first stories we write. And yes, the first things we make and share online. They’re going to come first from the things we love most. Dinosaurs. Sports teams. Musicians. Movies. Video games.

But somewhere along the way, about the time someone first tells you that something you like is lame, we start to learn that it’s cool to be a fan of some things, and not others. We’re all EQUALLY passionate about things, but our passions aren’t treated EQUALLY.

I love this scene from a movie I’ve never seen, where one character is trying to understand why the other likes reading Twilight.

 

So we create this “hierarchy of cool”. Liking One Direction is embarrassing. Liking Harry Styles’ solo album, on the other hand, might be okay. Because he’s leaving behind the “teen girl hysteria” that followed him around like a “screeching shadow”.

Because now Harry has a “retro rock earnestness”. He’s shaking off his boyband past.

Just don’t give any of those young women credit for being a fan of his all along. What do they know about music, really?

Harry understands this, perhaps better than anyone. In his Rolling Stone profile launching his solo tour, he said…

So what does all this condescension lead to? What Aurynn Shaw calls “contempt culture”. We earn credibility in our communities and our workplaces and online by dismissing things as lame, uncool, or not-as-good. The New York Times can use “demented 12-year-old’s Tumblr feed” as an insult and we all know exactly what it means.

But the things we’re dismissing? They’re the things young women get excited about. Young artists of colour get excited about. Young queer writers get excited about. And what does that lead to? An industry that’s still predominantly male and overwhelmingly white. An industry that celebrates a single vision of what’s cool.

Here’s an example I’ve been thinking about this week. Many of you will have seen the amazing interactive fiction project 17776 – What Football will Look Like in the Future, from Jon Bois. If you’ve not looked at it, that’s what you should do immediately on returning to work today. It’s this amazing project involving text and gifs and videos, telling the story of space probes who have gained sentience and are talking about what American football is like in the year 17776, when no-one dies and humans play football over hundreds of years and millions of miles.

It’s amazing. Everyone raves rightly about it.

Here’s what it reminded me most of. A piece of fan fiction written in 2005, which cast the actors from the Lord of the Rings movies as members of a Belle & Sebastian-style beloved indie band reuniting for a new tour. This story is long, intricate, well-written, and though most of the multimedia artefacts that accompanied it have been lost to terrible photo hosting over the years, some of it remains – down to photoshopped inboxes that let you read the email.

One of these projects – instant cool. The other? Lord of the Rings Real Person Fiction AU? Are you sending that link to your friends or Twitter followers?

Young people are taught early on that their work is secret, embarrassing, not as good, not to be shared. We’re all equally passionate. Our passions aren’t treated equally.

And you know what? We’re missing out!

Because ferociously talented artists are out there depicting the Hermione Granger of the books, not the movies.

(@tuffuny)

They envisage worlds in which Harry and Draco realised they were obsessed with each other when they were still at school.

(@fae-vorite)

They imagine what Dana Scully would have been like if she’d been into nineties grunge.

(@lisa_sterle)

They don’t see themselves in the white character set of The SIMs, so they create their own.

(@boldruefro)

They know that neither Betty nor Veronica are really that into Archie.

(@ofsparrows)

Fans are passionate and creative and hardworking and talented and exactly everything we need in the tech and design world.

The Teen Vogue article I mentioned at the start is this great piece by Arabelle Sicardi in which she talks about how her first fandom was fashion. While I talk about One Direction fans teaching themselves technology skills, Arabelle talks about how loving Kawakubo made her learn more about pattern making and fashion design techniques so she could more fully comprehend why what she did was so radical.

“Teen girls are criticized for loving the wrong things and loving them in weird and unproductive ways. But the criticisms couldn’t be more off base. They love things with a brilliance and curiosity that makes them better for it. Loving things makes them smarter and braver.”

I have some hope for a generational change – when I started out the idea that people would find out you did things like this was unthinkable. I have whole other secret identities online dedicated to the idea of separating my real life from my fan life.  Now, on tumblr, people happily post their selfies alongside their art.

Self publish their fan novels to kindle. Sell their art on Etsy and Redbubble. It’s a start.

And once there’s a path that people understand to legitimacy, then these things start to cross over. In the same way that fan writers are becoming real authors.

Hulu’s recent campaign for The Handmaid’s Tale involved them reblogging Tumblr artists’ work. It’s the first I’d seen “ads” happily reblogged into my timeline.

Now, we’re not at the point where those artists are being properly paid for their work, nor is it likely to be showing up in their portfolios when they apply for jobs – but it’s a start.

What if, instead of giving up the things we love, or hiding them away online.

We embraced our joy, and encouraged others to do the same.

Found things we loved, created things from that love, and shared that joy with one another.

And kept doing that our entire lives.

So today I want you to confess to someone your own dinosaur. And then I want you to ask them about theirs. And I want you to reassure them that you think it’s equally cool. Maybe that way, we’ll start to create an industry that a more diverse range of talent finally wants to be a part of. Hiring processes where we ask candidates to show us the work they’re most proud of, regardless of what it’s about. Office cultures where people feel like they don’t need to keep the things they love secret. Where our passions are treated equally – so we never feel like we’re out on our own. Imagine what we’ll be capable of then.


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