.Net Awards 2012 - from @ubelly

Web Celebrities - a bad term for a good thing

Ever since I got involved in the design and dev community online, the whole ‘web celebrity’ thing has been a topic that keeps coming up. Not only does it seem frowned upon to be someone tarred with this brush, like it was even their doing, but also can open up those people to some pretty nasty stuff. I’ve talked about it briefly online before, and posted something on Designer News last month around those action figures, but I thought I’d jot down my thoughts on the whole ‘web celebrity’ thing…

For those who didn’t know, before I picked up the creative mantle at 33 Digital, I was one of their social media folks, helping companies find the right people to talk to online and then advising how they could talk to them (and sometimes even doing the talking). As you’d expect, the finding is a big part of the job, which meant that we spent loads of time not only building influencer lists, but also monitoring and analysing the way they talk (to the point where 33 actually built their own tool to do it). It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, there will always be people online who have a greater amount of influence than the rest. From a brand perspective it’s easy… if you can get one of these guys to talk about your stuff in a good light, it’ll reach more people’s ears and carry some weight. This works wonders for product-based industries, where most of the influencers are commentators, writing about things that are happening or being sold, but it’s a much more nuanced thing when it comes to a service or skills-based industry like ours.

This is because the influencers in our industry haven’t developed their profile by commentating, but through actual working in the industry. Generally, a profile is raised in one of three ways: Consistently designing or building amazing or useful things, either as part of their job or as a side project; Sharing their ideas or insights in a way that teaches and inspires; or being an active member of the community and building networks of people over a considerable amount of time. Interestingly, none of these are usually born of a desire to be ‘internet famous’ (I haven’t met an influencer yet who doesn’t cringe at the term ‘web celebrity’), but a passion for their craft and a desire to see others do better work.

The criticism that is levelled at the influencer is usually around them not fitting into the first category, as if building and designing things constantly is the only way to warrant having a voice. However, the other two types of influencer have equal, if not more, value than people who are constantly building or designing. This is because sharing is such an integral part of maturing our industry, and just because someone has the skills to design or build amazing things, doesn’t mean they can effectively communicate the how and why of their process, or postulate on what might make their skill better. Similarly, they may not have the networks to amplify their work across the industry, informing others of their techniques, tools and processes.

There’s one person in particular who is often targeted in these barbed comments, with questions raised about what makes them qualified to speak, write or teach (or influence) when they haven’t ‘shipped’ something in almost ten years. I’ll admit I questioned the whole thing myself until I saw them speak a number of times and realised that what made them so popular on the speaking circuit was their ability to communicate and connect with an audience. They are a good teacher, and obviously have enough passion to keep up with the industry that it doesn’t matter that they hadn’t built or designed a product in a few years.

That’s where I think the distinction is with this argument. These people aren’t celebrities, but influencers. As long as they are using this influence ‘for good’, by sharing their ideas, practices and learnings to teach and inspire, our industry will continue to flourish, with more young designers and developers ‘coming up the ranks’ to continue the cycle of sharing and learning.

These people haven’t asked for this title to be thrust upon them, and some carry it better than others. I’m pretty sure 80% of the influencers in our industry wouldn’t think they are necessarily influential, but the things they share and the people they inspire is worthy of a bit of admiration, and we shouldn’t judge them because of that.