January 14, 2016

Listen Different And Learn

For most people, new ideas and perspectives make us uncomfortable. It’s easier and less taxing to surround ourselves with people who agree with our worldview, and reinforce our way of thinking, to make us believe we are correct. We self-select our communities, both in the physical world, and the online space, and these friends or peers become an extension of our own identity.

A byproduct of this selection process is that our communities end up looking a lot like us and behaving like us. Techies follow techies. White guys talk to white guys. Democrats engage with Democrats. While the Internet has a virtually infinite pool of people and ideas to choose from, we easily ignore, unfollow, mute or block those voices and appearances that we don’t identify with or make us question our position.

A Divided Web

Ten years ago, I saw this polarization coming, saying the web was dividing in what I called a “bifurcation”:
“It is human nature to seek out a community of peers and equals, of those who yearn for the same things or have parallel experience… (and thus) polarized and wholly separate communities will grow and thrive.” — Feb. 23, 2006
As a white male in Silicon Valley for the better part of two decades, my world view is a very specific one. I know that my experiences don’t always match people who don’t look like me, or whose LinkedIn profile looks vastly different. And over the last decade of participating in many different social channels, (Google+, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) my established audience I’ve curated has ended up looking a lot like me. It’s very white. It’s very male. It’s full of people from Silicon Valley, who love tech, and, in most cases, vote Democrat.

But I know that’s not good enough. To close ones eyes to the rest of the world means also closing my ears, and my mind. Last May, I was especially struck, and angered, honestly, by how the Silicon Valley community seemed especially blind and silent on the topics of racial bias in our country’s police forces, which sparked unrest in places like Ferguson and Baltimore. While protesters loudly called for improvements in their world that begged for equality, millionaire VCs speculated about unicorn valuations and other techies complained about high rents in San Francisco — which don’t seem all that important in comparison.

Amid this noise and seeming tone-deafness from the public profiles of many active Valley participants, we have an ongoing cry for help and recognition and value from women in tech, who correctly see an uneven playing field that throws roadblocks at their career progress, polluted by landmines of sexism, bias and the good old boy networks — as well as a call for an expanded level attention to increase diversity in all our ranks, with diversity meaning not just women, but people of color (POC).

 Exploring New Streams for New Voices

So over the last year-plus, I’ve actively tried to do a much better job of listening and engaging with people who aren’t like me. And this simple act of listening opens my eyes every day to things I may have missed — while making those topics that I might have previously ignored become critically important to me as an individual.

Twitter Analytics shows my audience is overwhelmingly male. Not a surprise.

As I still love tech, and still identify a geek, my bias and interests remains there, but I’ve aggressively opened my eyes and ears to more women voices and more black voices — especially on Twitter, where the following model is very lightweight, and the stream’s recommendation system smartly brings me new people who I may never have previously discovered.

On Twitter, as of today, I follow just under 600 accounts, including brands. But by no means is my stream a perfect picture of diversity and equality. So I created a list that explicitly expunged all the men and all the brands from my stream — carefully only showing tweets from the 170 or so women I choose to follow, as well as those retweets they found interesting (No Men. No Brands.). And by dipping my toe in this curated stream, the view is remarkably different.

While this may not be rocket science, women don’t always want to talk about what the loudmouthed ego-driven men want to talk about. They bring in topics and conversations that often get otherwise lost in the testosterone flood, and introduce me to even more interesting ideas and initiatives. So when the men annoy me too much, I turn them off by following that list instead.

But as I said above, it’s not enough to count my streams as diverse just because I made a list that follows a bunch of women — because diversity means diversity of thought and backgrounds.

 Diversity Doesn’t Just Mean Women

As the conflicts in Ferguson and Baltimore extended to cover alarming incidents in Cleveland, Texas, and so many other places across the country, those leading the social justice movement, like Deray McKesson, Shaun King, and Johnetta Elzie spoke loudly to me, as did others speaking up about inequality everywhere, like Bianca St. Louis, Jacky Alcine, Yukio Strachan and Trilly Stardust. I started adding them, and each new person brought me a new voice. And, unlike the old days, where the lack of a return follow may have felt like personal rejection, I’ve left the ego at the door, and not expected the same. I have to earn my way into the conversation, and can’t just expect a seat at the table.

In July, I saw many in my stream go in euphoria over Drake and Meek Mill.
But most of you missed it.

Now, it’s not uncommon for my Twitter stream to be overwhelmed by updates from women, and people of color. And it’s excellent. The increased diversity of voices and topics means it’s not a monotonous echo chamber, but one that’s vibrant and has me seeing things I would never likely otherwise see.

All of us who participate online, even if we’re not in tech, have a responsibility to keep our eyes, ears and minds open to people who don’t share the same backgrounds, and may not look like or sound like us. But so many times, that’s the trap we fall into. We may not like looking into a mirror, but we are surrounded by our clones.

 We Have a Responsibility and Challenge

My colleague and great friend, Rick Klau, also spoke on this issue last summer in his post “My unconsciously biased address book”, where he stated the downside of keeping our world homogeneous:
If the majority of leaders at most companies are men and if the majority of their networks are men (as mine are), then this is a self-perpetuating problem.
We have an opportunity to choose our networks. When we unconsciously choose for our network to shut out a segment of people, we are doing a disservice to them and to us — and we extend the issues, which are very real, one generation further, rather than confronting them head-on ourselves.

Without listening, we can’t be learning. If you think you’ve built your networks with blinders, take them down. Cast them aside and rebuild. It’s beautiful over here.