Blogging without responsibility

Last night I re-watched The Social Network. I fell asleep the first time I watched it, because I’m a bad person and don’t do movies well. But since then I developed a love for Aaron Sorkin’s work, I needed to rest some old injuries, and the do-over was long overdue.

I started blogging in 2002. It was a pretty active hobby, I wrote a lot, I messed with my layout and theme a lot, I was active in communities a lot. It’s a major reason why I do the work I do now, albeit a fortuitous one. But in 2008 something happened, I backed up everything and deleted it off the face of the internet as much as I could. From 2011 to 2018, I kept a local instance of WordPress, blogged privately here and there, but it was never the same. By then blogging had transformed into a way to make a living, get published elsewhere, get promoted, get famous. Also by then, it had become fashionable in some circles to call up swat teams to the homes of people folks didn’t like.

So when I made my blog public again, I did so only after I was 99% sure I was detached from all of those fears. And this blog, Digging. It made a big difference to seek out blogs that were unrelated to what has become my work life, to rediscover blogging as a standalone hobby, and stop feeling guilty about not wanting to use it as a proxy for something else in my career.

When I first started blogging, it was a hobby for most of us. It was natural to mix in our personal lives in the middle of working out a CSS kink, or to design your website in the open to share with friends. That is not the case anymore–and most people in design or tech who claim they’re doing something purely as a side project with no ulterior motives are probably lying to you or themselves. People either keep their lives guarded for good reason, or are curating what you see, hard. This culture really soured my own existing hobbies and motivation for seeking new ones. Not only that, it made me feel like I had lost a sense of community and potential friendships.

That’s why you haven’t seen posts like the ones that I closed out 2019 with, or these kinds. It’s not the pandemic, I have not run out of ideas, it’s not because my 100-day project is over.

I just don’t care. I like that the topic of my posts vary, I don’t schedule posts, I intentionally do a half-assed job at cross-posting, and I don’t check my stats page unless something gets triggered. There are lots of serious, silly, and memoir post ideas I draft out, but I am detached from them. Primarily for reasons I described above, but if I do decide to write, it produces a much better post.

The last thing I held off on though, were the comments. I wouldn’t turn the comments back on. All fear.

F* that. I’m Mexican. I’m from Santa Ana, for goodness’ sake. My so-called “Jesus year” ends next month and so far, it’s included:

  • absolutely no plane rides
  • giving birth to a baby
  • burying my cat (three days later, too)
  • driving cross-country with said baby, her 2-year old sister, and the spouse
  • going back to work
  • all of us almost dying in a car accident
  • a new cat
  • the beginning of a wonderful mentorship
  • a totally voluntary, very well-discerned, aka heartbreaking job search
  • the week I take off between jobs there is a pandemic
  • starting a new (also distributed) job during a pandemic
  • people very dear to me almost dying in the pandemic
  • the beginning of a wonderful mentorship during a pandemic
  • catastrophic job loss across my extended family of 99.9% low-wage essential workers who cannot work from home because of the pandemic
  • my marriage turning 10 years old during a pandemic
  • three bottles of tequila, one shitty bottle of mezcal, and many bags of Barrett’s coffee, because of the pandemic
  • thank God for plants
  • Texas being Texas in spite of the pandemic
  • [update later] despite a pandemic and [update later] during a pandemic
  • and no schools or daycare for the foreseeable future because, pandemic

I didn’t even think of not seeing colleagues in person or wondering when I’ll get to meet my new ones. And most ironically–I’m certain that posting this here, today, on my own public domain, will end up being more private and civil than posting it over there.

I can definitely turn the comments back on.

Why does this have to do with The Social Network? Our misunderstood little anti-hero allegedly posted to his blog as a little warmup to “wiring in” while the rest of the kids went out. Albeit drunk and angry, because he has no friends (because he is an asshole). But this was the nerd zeitgeist of the early aughts before everyone moved their personal lives over to Facebook. I was part of it, and I’m glad this aspect of it has largely come to pass: blogging without responsibility–trashing the lives of others masked as the sharing of one’s interests and personal life.

If that’s your thing, though–there are new places you can go.

Hobbies, side projects, making–all have consequences. There is no such thing as doing something for its own sake if you want people to find it on the internet.

Intentional Internet 2020

And so it’s already here, imposed on us in the most unfortunate of situations. Could the throwaway culture that the internet played such a formative–albeit aloof–role in fostering be slowly withering away? The way showy, trendy plants do when they’re left to fend for themselves in a garden they had no business in to begin with.

Earlier this year, I had to prune the plants in my garden. I planted boring, native species last year. Not willing to invest much energy or money in something that wasn’t going to give me instant beauty, I purchased small specimens that knew how to survive in the horrible Texas soil, and essentially neglected them through a brutal summer and an erratic winter. It was no surprise that, by the end of the year, they were still alive, but lackluster.

So, like many things I unexpectedly had to prune already this year, I pruned my garden, because that’s what a good steward does. No gardener can become a good gardener without getting over the fear of pruning, and no good gardener can become a great gardener without approaching pruning as part of the craft. Chop, whack, snip. It hurt, to see everyone almost exposed to their roots, not knowing whether they’d make it or not–driving home the guilt that was admitting that I had not taken good care of them. If they didn’t succeed, it would be my fault.

Two long weeks of staring out the window, walking up to them each morning to give them an encouraging poke or two. Then suddenly, they began to swell, and last week, burst in ways I had not imagined possible. Every leaf, bigger. Every stem, longer. Buds too many to count. I popped open the rain barrel and gave them the water I had withheld out of my own perverted sense of frugality. And then, the compost.

My plants didn’t really need me. They focused their energy on their root systems, preparing for challenge, growing the thick skin they would need in the face of uncertainty. But unlike humans, they don’t hold grudges, they are full of gratitude. I repaired my relationship with them, and now they feel safe to blossom and grow. Holy shit the birds that are going to show up!

Who knew that the things we took for granted in our midst could bring us so much joy and sense of place in a time of need. Netflix parties. Virtual happy hours on Zoom. Finding delightful new uses for features we took for granted. Yoga classes streamed live. Restaurants selling you eggs and milk tonight because you both need it but you also just want to see each other be okay.

We’re making it work because we remembered that life is fragile, because it doesn’t have to be. And so we’re freer to say no to the bad parts of the internet because it’s so obvious how awful they are. But we’re also saying no to the mediocre or bullshit ones because they are just in the way. Perhaps we can also realize that making it a better place doesn’t mean we have to hold onto the past, but rather, being very present and in tune to what’s going on right now.

Don’t get me wrong, most of gardening is still pulling weeds. But it helps if you have a clear vision, and feel some pressure (that’s rooted in reality, of course). I am optimistic that, despite everything that’s about to get worse before it gets better, the era of useless meetings and content is on its way out forever. Have you ever seen the wildflowers in bloom?

It was something from Jorge Arango’s post today that got me thinking about this.

…a feeling I’ve had over the past few days: that the current crisis is an inflection point in how we meet and collaborate. It’s not just that we’re working online; we’re experimenting with all types of social interactions. (This evening I’m planning to attend my first virtual happy hour.)

It’s still too soon to tell what the effects will be in the near-term. That said, some seem obvious. Digital communication platforms (Zoom, WebEx, Messages, WhatsApp, Skype, Slack, etc.) were already important before this crisis, but now they’re essential. How long would we stand the isolation if it weren’t for these systems? The companies that operate these systems are now central to our social infrastructure.

My thoughts on meetings and similar events both online and IRL:

Priya Parker writing in The New York Times:

It’s possible to make remote gathering a worthy competitor of traditional events. The bittersweet truth about all the gatherings and meetings and parties and conferences being canceled is that many of them would not have been particularly meaningful to begin with. And so if we are willing to bring to the time of Covid-19 a level of intention that we too rarely visit upon our regular gatherings, this heavy time could be leavened by the new rituals it created, the unlikely intimacies it fostered and the ways in which it revealed that convening people is a special privilege that ought never to be taken for granted.

Also, we must be more mindful of what should be a meeting. Now that most communications are happening in information environments, the choice between synchronous and asynchronous communications seems less stark. It’s all happening on the same plane, after all. Why not just start an email thread, or reach out to folks on Slack, instead of scheduling a meeting?

Like him, I expect an IRL resurgence after all of this passes. But not before we weed, prune, and yank out all of the superficial shrubberies in our lives, and on the web.

The Web They Lost

There is no shortage of people out there trying to tell me what my story is as an underrepresented this and that in tech. Yes, their grievances probably reflect my reality. I know how much less I make than my white friends. It took eight years into my career to work with a Latina woman who was in a senior leadership role. Managers have assumed that I don’t want to be as engaged when coming back from maternity leave. I have totally been passed up for promotions for reasons that did not apply to those who did. And yes, I’m probably the only this || that in the room, and for sure the only this && that on the team.

One of the reasons I backed off from doing speaking engagements for “diversity topics,” was because most organizers hoped for talking points reflecting a journey that would make it through 2020’s hoops, not 2002’s. They assumed I went to design school, or majored in CS, or would be able to recommend a bootcamp. Sometimes they weren’t aware that I was a designer (because at one point I wrote code) or how that was still a tech role. If they could guess what my dream job was, they’d probably say it was to have my own startup, or work for Facebook.

What a lot of these well-intended people usually don’t consider is the context in which I was able to sneak into this industry. It’s hard, because this advocacy is good and needed, whether it’s coming from entities specifically created for this, or a random person with a lot of followers on Twitter. But more often than not, they’re on the sidelines and not actually doing the same type of work as the people they want to help. Or they’re just running into the industry right now and assume that disenfranchised people only have a certain set of experiences.

Crossing over and coming in was easier back then. There was work, and we would do it. It was work that some people thought they were too good for (but couldn’t handle if they tried to anyway). We used counterfeit software and basic PCs and no one checked or cared so long as the work was done. We formed communities where we taught each other how to work and helped each other make sense of our new lives.

Today, the terrain has become virtually impassable for those who try to go it alone. There are plenty of people who promise to bring you in and hook you up with a job, who might just take your money and leave you stranded instead. It’s hard to tell, because you have no idea. The price to be let in “the right way” is ludicrous, too. It’s gamed to benefit others, not you. By the time it’s your turn, the rules of the game might have already changed.

It’s been two decades and we are comfortable and well-integrated. You’d think we’d be kind to newcomers, but now some of us are the the ones who are talking about issuing tests and only letting people with papers be here.

Amnesty, or the gift of being in the right place at the right time, is why I’m here. It’s a special type of luck that bestows immense privilege. But it’s still luck, so you can’t prepare others for it. And even if you could, amnesty is unlikely to happen again anyway. The walls we’ve watched get built to enter this industry are as tall as the walled gardens that confine us away from each other online and in real life.

There are generational facets to the diversity and inclusion situation in the industry in addition to the broader systematic ones, and there are even fewer people around who can speak to it. Past generations screwing over the future ones. It matters how you came to the internet and when you got into this work. I 100% believe that if I was born ten years later, I would not be working in this industry. Even with the benefit of knowing what my job was so I could take a direct path, and with people willing to help me succeed. If my portfolio from back then showed up on my desk today, I would not hire me.

These dots hadn’t connected for me until today, when this tweet showed up at the top of my feed:

By the end of the thread I wondered what could have been if I was ten years older. What would my career look like? Would I be in “senior designer purgatory” or the leadership friend zone with my own generation?

I totally messed around with MySpace layouts (and was damn good at it), but it was just something I did as a kid, because I didn’t have anything better to do. At no point did I think, “This is how I am going to break into the next big thing or get rich.” When I got to college, Notre Dame was one of the first schools who got Facebook. I immediately noticed that none of it was customizable. But I didn’t feel disenfranchised, because by then I already was making money doing websites, or I could just go tinker on something else. I even liked the idea of only a few people being on the platform too. It didn’t occur to me what I was taking for granted and how okay I was with shutting people out.

Contrition and the road of atonement for our shortsighted good intentions begins with representation but it also includes our work itself, and what we idolize in the industry. We hire to check a box, but set people up to fail. We want to move into the future, but we aren’t willing to let go of the glory days. It’s not just about what we have done, but what we have failed to do.