To orient myself to Santa Rosa when we arrived two years ago I attended a couple of city council meetings. At one of them I heard a man introduce himself in a way that got my attention. “I’m Matt Martin,” he said, “and I get to be the executive director of Social Advocates for Youth.” I interpreted that as: “It is my privilege to be the director of SAY.” Last week at a different local event I heard the same thing from another SAY employee. “I’m Ken Quinto and I get to be associate director of development for SAY.” I asked Ken if I was interpreting that figure of speech correctly and he said I was.
Well, I get to be director of partnership and integration for Hypothes.is and also a blogger. Former privileges include: evangelist for Microsoft, pioneering blogger for InfoWorld, freelance web developer and consultant, podcaster for ITConversations, columnist for various tech publications, writer and editor and web developer for BYTE. In all these roles I’ve gotten to explore technological landscapes, tackle interesting problems, connect with people who want to solve them, and write about what I learn.
Once, and for a long time, the writing was my primary work product. When blogging took off in the early 2000s I became fascinated with Dave Winer’s notion that narrating your work — a practice more recently called observable work and working out loud — made sense for everyone, not just writers who got paid to write. I advocated strongly for that practice. But my advice came from a place of privilege. Unlike most people, I was getting paid to write.
I still get to tackle interesting problems and connect with people who want to solve them. But times have changed. For me (and many others) that writing won’t bring the attention or the money that it once did. It’s been hard — really hard — to let go of that. But I’m still the writer I always was. And the practice of work narration that I once advocated from a position of privilege still matters now that I’ve lost that privilege.
The way forward, I think, is to practice what I long preached. I can narrate a piece of work, summarize what I’ve learned, and invite fellow travelers to validate or revise my conclusions. The topics will often be narrow and will appeal to a small audiences. Writing about assistive technology, for example, won’t make pageview counters spin. But it doesn’t have to. It only needs to reach the people who care about the topic, connect me to them, and help us advance the work.
Doing that kind of writing isn’t my day job anymore, and maybe never will be again. But I get to do it if I want to. That is a privilege available to nearly everyone.