Keeping the Lights On

I work in a room in my basement. It works well enough, but it’s small and quite dark. The only source of external light is a small window that looks out underneath our front porch.

Contrary to what Hollywood may have you believe about the “developer in a basement”, I actually do enjoy light. So I have spent a decent chunk of time researching how to properly light small, windowless rooms.

It turns out the one of the most important pieces is finding a nice balance of different light sources. Mix a desk lamp with an overhead lamp and a floor lamp or two. Better yet, make sure those floor lamps are different heights. You need variety to produce quality lighting.

The results are rewarding. Working in a poorly lit environment feels depressing and lonely. It’s energizing to step out of the shadows.

But sometimes working in the light doesn’t go so well, as has been the case for Kathy Sierra:

Life for women in tech, today, is often better the less visible they are.

Damn.

This sort of thing has happened before, of course. It still happens. Many, many times. Sometimes we don’t hear about it. Sometimes we do.

I remember a particular exchange of a prominent person in our industry attacking another in a blog post because he felt her position was unwarranted. Despite the many people who spoke up against his post, he didn’t seem to comprehend the damage he had done. He instead boasted of all the people who had privately thanked him and agreed with him.

The impact of these attacks extends far beyond those two incredible women on the receiving end of them. There’s a ripple effect.

In both cases, many came to the same conclusion as Kathy: it’s safer to stay in the shadows.

I have seen tweets from people I know and have incredible respect for saying that they fear that this will happen to them.

I have talked to people who were excellent speakers or writers, but now don’t do it because something like this happened to them.

I have had private conversations with people who point to situations like this and say this is why they don’t put themselves out there. Fear of this happening to them is why they don’t write more, or give more speak at conferences.

We’re losing their voices. We’re turning off their lights.

Each time we follow someone, share their blog post, invite them on our podcasts or to speak at our events, we are giving that person a platform. We’re giving them an opportunity to share their voice.

We have a lot of say in who gets a voice and who doesn’t in our community. That’s a huge responsibility and a tremendous amount of power. We need to use it wisely.

A couple months ago, Andy Baio sent out a tweet:

A yearly reminder to everyone making stuff: For every anonymous idiot trashing you online, there are thousands more that quietly love you.

Let’s flip that around. Let’s make it a point to tell people that we value their contributions, they they are loved and appreciated.

If someone writes something that resonates, gives a talk that alters the way you think, shares some work that you find useful or provides a helpful hand—let them know you value it. Send them a friendly tweet, leave a comment, write an email, send a postcard—how you do it matters less than that you do it. Actively seek opportunities to tell people they’re appreciated.

We’re never going to completely eliminate the trolls, but we can drown them out. We can show them that our community values respect and appreciation. That trolling and harassment are things we will not tolerate. Those voices are not the ones we wish to give power to.

As we do this, we tip the power scales. We make it safer for those who hope to contribute in earnest to come out of the shadows, while making it all the more uncomfortable for those who would try to dim their lights.

Because what’s true of lighting a room is true of building a vibrant community as well. We need a variety of different voices and perspectives.

And right now, that’s exactly what we risk losing.

Thanks to Sara Wachter-Boettcher for helping me connect some of the dots with her wonderful feedback on this post.