Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Myth of Meritocracy

As I've been reading the literally hundreds of posts written in the aftermath of BlogHer, I've been struck by something.

Of the people who actually attended the event, the overall feedback has been tremendously positive. Do some people have constructive feedback for next time? Sure. OK, we know the WiFi was overloaded (more on how future organizers using TechMart should fix that.) We also heard that it was just too much packed into too little time. People hated having to choose sessions, and hated having to leave the sessions they were in. Of course, that's the negative outcome of a positive thing: great conference content, but still it's something to try and figure out.

I have yet to see one person who was actually at the event complain that we spent too much time discussing rankings and popularity and Technorati and A-Lists. Yes, the Debate that started the day for one hour dealt with the game of getting visibility and extending your influence...and BTW: the vast majority of people who stood up and spoke told the rest of us not to care about it. I felt in the minority that I do care, because I feel it's part of my business to care.

The rest of the day was spent learning new ways to improve our blogs, both technically and creatively, spent discussing new ideas and perhaps best of all, spent connecting face to face with other bloggers. And in the conference's aftermath it's been exciting to see people compile and post their "Post-BlogHer To-do Lists." These lists are filled with technical enhancements to be added, vows to improve and focus their blog's content and relationships to be maintained.

What is interesting is that a good bit of the feedback coming from those who were not there is about the whole "Play by the rules or change the game" session. If you read only the posts of those not in attendance you would come away thinking that was the focus of the conference.

And you will find something else: a lot of people who repeat the meme (distilled by me of course): "If you write it (well), they will come." Or, in another words, the blogosphere is a meritocracy. I find myself both amused and bemused by such a statement. What world are people living in?

I have worked in several industries in my checkered past, and I have yet to work in one, blogosphere included, where it was only the best and brightest who rose to the top while the less talented and less skilled were kept back. This was true when I was in the arts; it was true in high tech; it's true in blogging.

There is always some combination of skill, luck, timing, relationships and networking, personal charm etc. that contributes to a person's rise or fall. The Peter Principle is an old concept, which lives today. It's not inherently good or evil that qualities other than talent help a person succeed or fail. But it does explain how that doofus became your boss or how that brilliant person always gets passed over. And the blog world is no different as far as I can see. Does no one else see the irony in people dissing the content quality of the most widely read blogs, while still linking to them and clamoring to be properly accounted for on them? Does no one else know a fantastic writer who toils in obscurity? Are there no Van Gogh bloggers out there?

Now, I can understand why people who are already at the top would love to believe they got there on pure merit. And I can understand why other people would also like to believe talent will win in the end. Believe me, I did my time living in New York being a starving artist...I really really wanted to believe it was a meritocracy. Because you have some measure of control over your own output right?

But when I see and hear someone like Tom Foremski, an extremely bright and sophisticated man, utter the meritocracy line I find myself really shocked. It sounds so naive. And I'm also a little taken aback when he declines to enumerate how many female bloggers he reads because he doesn't think of the blogs he reads as gendered.

It just sounds disingenuous. You can say "on the Internet no one knows you're a dog" but come on, how many people really fake their gender online? I've met in person many bloggers, "popular" and not. None's gender took me by surprise. Blogs do have that whole ethos of authenticity, and gender is as much a part of that as anything else. More pointedly: how many men pretend to be not men? I've known women who de-gender their blogs to be, in their words "taken more seriously." Love to find a man who thinks it would be beneficial to do the same.

My point is that in the real world many factors contribute to one's success and failure. If you care about amplifying your voice, extending your reach, persuading the masses to share your political opinions, then trying to improve in all of those areas is smart. And why people are so threatened that we dared to talk about it is another post altogether. Suffice to say that if you want to have anything that really resembles a meritocracy, then you better thoroughly examine and, if necessary, pull down, those who would present themselves as superior authorities.

I came here over from the comment you left at the Blog Herald. I have read some of these posts with interest, and I found your post here to be both thoughtful and very relevant. I have to agree there seems to be a focus on the one topic, and most of it, by people who were not even there. As for meritocracy and its myth, as someone who has worked in a few places as well, I could not agree more. Very often it is the doofus who ends up the boss. Overall, it is a matter of various factors when working to get to the top. Then again, I am just going with the Zen of things. And if the conference got so many people to network and come out with new ideas and products, new learning and meanings, I can only say, more power to them. I can only hope they will teach me a few things along the way. Best.
Thanks for not only stopping by, but for commenting, Angel.

I have never been the person who sees blogging and the blog community as something entirely different from the brick and mortar world, something "revolutionary." Therefore I think I'm less emotionally attached to it having some kind of purity or homogeneous ethical spine that the real world certainly does not have.
Hi Elisa,

Tonight I went to our Thursday Night bloggers meeting in Cambridge, MA and I saw a woman that looked familiar and it was Jory!

You asked a question: Do some people have constructive feedback for next time?

Here's my two cents:

* make it a 1.5 or two-day conference and add more time for socializing/networking, formal and informal.

* I work in the nonprofit world and one thing we've done at our tech conferences is a "Day of Service" - a way to give back to the local community and for conference attenders to get some peer to peer experience. I also remember the person that commented during the ending session about "Each one, teach one." Okay, so wouldn't it be really cool to a pre-conference session where women with lots of experience to work shoulder-to-shoulder with those who are new to blogging? I have some ideas about how this might work and I'm sure others do too.
Id note that although the post at the Blog Herald referred to by Angel did focus on the A-List debate I had noted in previous posts some of the other things at BlogHer, and there is little doubt that the majority of the things at BlogHer were positive, but in the same way other conferences provide similar items as well: they were great because of the sharing of skills and ideas, and I'd note from my readings that they didn't all obsess with this whole "women are badly off/ A list" argument.

But back to this post: the blogosphere is a "meritocracy" and the notion that we should promote women just because they are women is actually arguing in favor of a different flavor of segregation, but its still segregation none the less. I will concur to some extent though that the means of measuring the meritocracy of the blogosphere is flawed, and I point to Jason Calcanis' arguments in relation to the Technorati Top 100 as the best articulation of this problem. Yes, this list favors men because men were generally in the majority in the early days of the blogosphere because of its emergence out of geek culture (which is dominated by men). A measurement of infuence based on the last 12 months as proposed by Jason Calacanis would automatically present a list that was far more diverse and gender inclusive if you like, then what is currently offered by Technorati, but again I emphasize that the problem is the methodology in compiling such a list, and to some extent the obsession with such lists, not an actual reflection on the presence, place and acceptance of women bloggers in the blogosphere.

viva la meritocracy :-)
Beth: That is just a wacky coincidence huh?

Duncan: How are you extracting anywhere from my post that we should "promote women just because they are women"? Or are you, hopefully, referring to someone else entirely?

Because we are in violent agreement that the current tools suck, and I am simply saying that as long as they do, women who WANT to extend their influence and/or amplify their voice should recognize it and do more networking, more community building and more technical enhancements, to go along with their great quality blogging.
I am fully in agreement with most of your post. The blogosphere is certainly NOT a meritocracy. Without meaning to sound like sour grapes, I believe that a substantial majority of the Technorati 100 are there not because of their writing skills, but rather because of the self-perpetuating nature of being popular as early adopters. The folks that started on top (because they got in early), stayed on top. Plus there are many other factors (work for a popular company, see your ranking skyrocket, etc.)

Indeed, I was nodding my head throughout your post until I got to the part about gender.

Of course, I'm a guy so I "just don't understand" as I remember the mantra being spoken by many womens' organizations in college, but I firmly believe that in the blogosphere, gender largely doesn't matter.

Do I notice gender online? Absolutely. Does it change my opinions of the writer? Not perceptibly. Does it affect the likelihood of a link from me? Definitely not.

And frankly, I think your genderfication of the concepts of dominance and power in the blogosphere frustratingly muddies the many fascinating facets that really DO control who links to whom, who reads whose blogs, and so on.

Is the blogosphere a meritocracy? Hardly. It's just as capricious and random and frustrating and confusing for men as it is for women.

Oh, and lastly, on the topic of gender obfuscation and/or crossing -- I have NO DOUBT that many men have posed as women bloggers online. Why? Because blogs by women seem to get a considerably greater amount of participation than blogs by men, at least from what I've seen. What guys wouldn't want to increase the poster-to-lurker ratios on their blogs? :)
Your post totally changed my view on this subject. As someone working in Hollywood for years, I would be blind to not see how much luck, connections, and networking play into a person's success. In fact, most of the really talented people I know do not work very often because as artists, they never really developed good social or networking skills. I'm sure the same could be said for bloggers.
Adam: I guess you could say my post confuses two issues:
1. Meritocracy is a crock for men and women, agreed. Any man or woman who really wants to increase their blog influence has to worry about a lot more than writing well.

2. I still think that pretending gender is a non-issue is also a crock, BUT I should clarify that when I'm talking about blogging and gender-awareness, and gender-masking, I tend not to think of the large number of personal, diarist-style bloggers, who frankly seem to care not at all about ranking etc. and are insulted by the very idea. There is probably all sorts of pseudonymous fun going on out there. But when you talk about business, or techie, or political, or journalistic etc. blogs...then I would still be very surprised and like to see examples of men posing as women.

Neil: Oh yeah, I was in the NY Theatre scene. How frustrating even as just an audience member to see mediocrity on the Broadway stage, when I personally knew people with more talent in their little finger toiling away in obscurity.
You know, it's funny how the successful people who worked for what they have are the ones who say it's a meritocracy. Call me jaded, but it seems like most of those who complain about a lack of fairness spend more time complaining about how they are left out due to bias or being unpopular and less time working on doing something of merit. Hm, I don't know, but it seems to me the concept of meritocracy is about recognizing merit.

And as far as all the cracks on belittling "A listers" at the same time as linking them, well, being reviled is as good as being loved for getting attention. The best example of that was Howard Stern's career. I don't remember the statics, but I clearly remember the fact that the people who hated him listened longer, because they wanted to hear what he'd say next. While that may not seem like merit, that is definately success. He's saying things people want to hear, whether to attack him, or support him, so people listen.

I'm sorry other people feel put upon and attacked, but in a large part, outside of the consultant world at least, I've found the tech field to be extremely meritocratic. The big problem is that during the dot com boom, far too many unqualified people got jobs, because there weren't enough bodies and someone half qualified was better than no one doing the work. A lot of those folks became unemployeed and many were forced kicking and screaming out of the tech market when the crash happened, which has led to a lot of screaming on unfairness.

Welcome to life. Sometimes it is the rich, powerful, popular and pretty that get things. Companies wouldn't stay afloat if they hired on those characteristics tho. Sometimes, a duck is a duck, and just because you feel you deserve something more, doesn't mean you get it without putting in the work and having the skill required.
Squrl: where you and I agree is that you have to work to succeed. But I include networking and community building and relationship-developing in that definition of work. To define merit as purely about writing skills (in the blogging world anyway) is to only see part of the equation.

And people get very, very threatened by that idea.
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