How the tech sector could move in One Direction
In 2010, five boys auditioned as individual contestants for the British version of The X Factor. None of them made it to the final rounds, but Simon Cowell decided to put them together to form a boyband, and entered them in the groups category.
Harry, Niall, Zayn, Louis and Liam became One Direction. They didn’t win, but Simon signed them as recording artists anyway.
Five years later, and down to four members, the band had performed 368 shows in 36 countries and sold over 8.2m tickets. Their 2014 tour was the highest-grossing tour ever by a vocal group, generating $282 million.
They were the first band in the U.S.history to have their first four albums debut at number one, and despite being one of the highest-grossing, most successful musical acts ever, I didn’t pay any attention to them. I couldn’t tell them apart. I certainly couldn’t have told you any of their songs.
However, I really like rabbitholes on the internet. The stranger the better. Clickholes you can fall in for a day or two at a time before emerging, blinking, into the light.
One day, a couple of years ago, I fell in a particularly strange rabbithole about One Direction, and in particular, Larry Stylinson.
Larry Stylinson, a portmanteau of the names of bandmates Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson, is the conspiracy theory that says that the two boys have been in a secret, closeted gay relationship since the band was formed. The fans who believe in this theory called themselves “Larries”.
I spent a full day clicking around, marvelling at the analysis posts, grainy zoomed-in paparazzi shots, “proofs” that the boys may or may not have kissed, held hands, or just looked at each other for more than a second. It was amazing. I was slack-jawed. I raved to all my friends about it. And then I promptly forgot all about the Larries.
Fast-forward to December 2014, and tech podcast Reply All did an episode about, of all things, the Larries. And the theory that Louis’ then girlfriend, Eleanor, was fake.
Several of my friends pinged me after hearing it, saying “Hey, isn’t this that crazy-ass conspiracy theory you were banging on about a few months ago.” And I was all, “YES! OMG! THE LARRIES! I had forgotten!”
Meanwhile, in real life, I’d made a seed investment in a company called This Data, which does some really amazing stuff with login anomaly detection and contextual authentication for SaaS companies:
However, when the founders first started out, they were offering cloud-based backups of cloud services. So you could back up your google drive, or your dropbox, or your tumblr, in such a way that you could restore individual files yourself.
So, in February of last year, when they’d just started this service, and hadn’t done much of the way of promo or anything, they woke up one morning to find all of their sign-ups were off the charts. Once they put out the fires, they tried to work out where all the new traffic had come from, and discovered, amazingly, that it was the Larries.
Tumblr had started doing automated takedowns of infringing audio content, and some Larries had had their blogs deleted. A Larrie had said she used this service to back up her tumblr, and panicking fellow fans hit the site in droves.
I was amazed and delighted, because how often does the Venn diagram of “weird internet rabbitholes you once fell in” and “companies you have invested in” overlap. NEVER!
So, I went off to Webstock last year, which is a wonderful conference in New Zealand much like this one. And I kept telling people this story, because I thought it was so great. Except, it was a web conference. And most of the people there knew even less than I did about boybands, and so I had to start every conversation back at the beginning. “Have you heard of a band called One Direction?”
I became a bit like a door-to-door canvasser. “Have you got a moment to talk about One Direction?”
Now, of course, I could just link them to a Vox explainer. Unfortunately, I was an early adopter, I didn’t have those sorts of fancy resources at my disposal.
So my friends started teasing me about always talking about One Direction. And I like to embrace that sort of mockery, so I started replying to tweets with nothing but gifs of 1D.
From there, things started to spiral a little bit out of control
One of my friends and I had a fight. He sent me this One Direction stickerbook in the mail to make up.
What I discovered, as I spammed my friends with increasingly ridiculous numbers of 1D gifs, was that there was a reasonably universal reaction:
“You don’t really like them, though, do you?”
I mean, it was okay if this was all deeply ironic. Even my mother asked me if I had embarked on an elaborate practical joke, but she did buy me this for Christmas.
But underlying all the hilarity, there was this hint of concern. You’re not really a fan of a boyband, are you?
Unfortunately, I’m the sort of person who has a really knee-jerk reaction to being told I can’t do something. It’s why I’m terrible at dieting. If you tell me I can’t have carbs, it’s literally all I want.
If you tell me I can’t like a boyband, well, it doesn’t matter that I still can’t tell three of them apart, I’m going to become the biggest boyband stan you’ve ever seen.
I was annoyed. And I realised that we do this all the time. Dismiss the things that young women are excited about.
Laura Moss wrote a great article last year called “Why must we hate the things that teen girls love?” in which she discusses our belittling of things like One Direction and Twilight and Taylor Swift. It’s okay to like mindlessly bad action movies, but not simpering romances.
She also points out that this belittling of teenage girls for their interests and fandoms isn’t a new phenomenon.
At the height of the Beatles’ popularity, Paul Johnson wrote in New Statesman that, "Those who flock round the Beatles, who scream themselves into hysteria, whose vacant faces flicker over the TV screen, are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures."
The gendered aspect of it kept bugging me. It seemed like it was okay to be hysterical about some things, but not others.
And it seemed like it was okay to be obsessive online about some things, but not others. This obsessive project, which took eighteen years to complete, is amazing. Someone tracked down every single song ever sampled by the Beastie Boys. 286 tracks, 22 hours of music. All beautifully encoded. It was shared really widely on social media.
This collection of 3,419 videos of One Direction? Every single interview and appearance and live performance? Well, that’s just “crazy”.
As an aside: when I needed to remake a gif at a higher resolution for this presentation, it took Megan about three minutes to identify the clip and send it to me. Just from a photo of Louis’ outfit. That’s an archivist.
Then, something even more interesting happened.
The more time I spent trawling tumblr for 1D gifs with which to troll my friends, the more I started to marvel at the really creative work that was going on online.
The Larries weren’t just obsessively scrapbooking 11,000 photos of Harry Styles’ hair.
They were, for example cutting together videos of their favourite moments.
They were creating gorgeous art.
They were manipulating images, so that their favourite boys appeared to be together.
They were creating their own memes. This is the now-famous Larry Hug, from One Direction’s last concert in Sheffield.
They were writing. Oh MY GOD were they writing.
And this fiction was LONG.
To give you an idea, if you haven’t yet completed your first novel and it’s still in a drawer. These are the word counts of some books you might be familiar with. You can see, you’re aiming for somewhere around 100-150 thousand words.
And now, some of the Classics of the One Direction literary canon.
These are fully wrought novels. Stories with thousands of readers, and comments and fans.
Then you get the fan art about the fanfiction. This is a fan-produced trailer for a story another fan had written, in which Louis is an English fashion designer, and Harry is an American football player.
This was an enormous, engaged community. Unsurprising, given the band’s popularity had been fuelled by social media.
When Twitter turned ten last year, most of the retrospectives that were written overlooked the fact that six of the top ten most retweeted tweets of all time were from One Direction members.
The second most retweeted tweet in history, second only to Ellen Degeneres’ famous Oscar Selfie, is this one. A Larry tweet. Retweeted over 2.2 million times.
Last year, Project “No Control” was started as a way to promote a favourite track off the One Direction album FOUR. At a time when fans were discouraged due to Zayn leaving and a perceived lack of official promotion for the album, four fans took it upon themselves to run with an idea for ‘releasing’ “No Control” as a single. These fans used the social media tool Thunderclap which describes itself as an "online flash mob." Join a Thunderclap, and you and others will share the same message at the same time, spreading an idea through Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. In about a week, these fans had organised the fifth largest Thunderclap ever which boasted 34,000+ participants for a social media reach of over 55 million.
They set up a system for fans to gift “No Control” to those who could not afford to buy it themselves. They planned and oversaw a system of hashtags, mass-streaming of the song on Spotify, and united fans to call in to radio stations to request “No Control”. This effort was a huge success, leading to worldwide airplay and media attention from mainstream outlets including Billboard and Pitchfork.
They were passionate, creative, completely engaged in what they were doing. And they had enormous reach.
Anna Leszkiewicz, writing in the Independent, points out that these fans are “alchemists”, uniting hearts and minds over miles, creating something from nothing.
We might think of them as “stupid” or hysterical.
But in actual fact, they are the sole engineers of the band’s unbelievable success.
One day, it hit me.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the pipeline problem as it relates to getting young women engaged in technology-related careers. A lot of the solutions seem like blunt instruments: coding camps; one-size-fits-all programmes in schools.
I realised that I was spending all this time trying to think about how to engage women with technology, and I was ignoring the fact they already were. They were essentially already video editors, graphic designers, community managers. They were teaching each other CSS to make their tumblr themes look more gorgeous, and they were using Chrome extensions in anger to make tumblr do what they wanted. These were basically front end developers, social media managers, they were absolutely immersed in technology, every day, and we weren’t paying attention, because they were doing it in service of something we don’t care about.
Worse than that. Because liking One Direction was embarrassing, most of them never revealed to anyone in their real life that they did this online.
I decided I had to find out more.
So, I became a Larry.
I created an online identity, and made my own tumblr.
I reblogged cute photos of Harry and Louis, and made friends.
Great friends, actually. Shoutout to my groupchat Larries.
It took a couple of weeks. You can’t just turn up on tumblr and ask a question. It’s like being an egg on twitter and hoping someone sees what you have to say. But eventually, I had a tiny number of followers who might have been prepared to share something that I’d made, and so I threw together a survey.
People who do research for a living will probably weep about my scientific method. I’ve had nearly 600 responses, and if I’d had any idea the response rate would be that high I would have agonised more over the questions, but hopefully you get the idea.
First, I asked them what platforms they used to participate in the fandom. As you can see, asking the question on tumblr skews the demographics. The second most popular response there is AO3, or Archive of Our Own, where fanfiction is hosted. I’ll talk more about that in a second.
Then, I asked them what works they’d created or contributed to. Again, you can see writing is the most popular but there are a range of more technical contributions.
I asked them if they had ever considered a career in technology. Overwhelmingly, they said no.
Then the important question. I gave them a free text box, and I asked them “If not, why not?” The answers are heartbreaking.
“I'm tech savvy but self taught. haven't taken classes”
“I do not have the education.”
“Despite the modern world I've grown up in it still seems as though I wasn't made aware that tech is a field of work and study. I couldn't name a job position/career or course that would be considered 'tech'.”
“I don't think I'm good enough to actually get far enough ahead that I would be hired over someone else”
“I'm intimidated by technology”
“When I was at a career-picking age tech was not for girls. I taught myself some html, but there really weren't opportunities for women who were less than 100% certain and willing to fight for it. “
“I just don't think I'd be good at it. I can make videos that I enjoy but in the real world for a job I can't make a dumb little four minute Larry music video haha”
“I don't feel skilled enough to enter the industry”
“I don't think i'm talented enough”
Bear in mind - 70% of these respondents are aged 15-24. All but five of the respondents identified as female or non-binary. 65% identified as a sexuality other than straight (recognising that has something to do with tumblr as a platform). That’s our diversity pipeline. Right there. Glued to their computers. And not telling anyone about it.
It also turns out that they’re wrong:
We’ve thought for a long time that our young women underperform young men in STEM subjects, particularly at high school.
In 2014, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) administered the first-ever nationally representative assessment of technology and engineering literacy. Eighth-grade students were presented real-world scenarios involving technology and engineering challenges. Students were asked to respond to questions aimed at assessing their knowledge and skill in understanding technological principles, solving technology and engineering-related problems, and using technology to communicate and collaborate. Eighth-grade female students scored higher on average than their male peers in TEL overall.
We also know now that diverse teams are critical to building successful products.
The New Yorker did a great profile of a hackathon held by the developers for AltSchool, an education startup in the US that makes significant use of technology. The hackathon was designed to come up with new solutions for teachers in the classroom.
One of the teams had focussed on bookmarking video. The team had decided to try to find a “fun route” to help teachers request a video clip of a moment in class. “The idea is that the teacher could, in theory, just knock twice on their phone,” one team member said. He patted twice on his device, which was buried in the front pocket of his jeans, to demonstrate the ease and unobtrusiveness of the gesture.
From the back of the room, a woman spoke up: “Did you test it with a woman?”
Many participants laughed.
"I’m serious,” the questioner went on. “A lot of our teachers are female, and they carry phones in different places.”
The members of the bookmark team, all of whom were male, looked deflated. In coming up with their apparently elegant solution, they had not visualized a female teacher slapping her bottom to activate a phone tucked into her back pocket.
Google's speech recognition software, which is currently being used to autocaption YouTube videos, is capable of correctly captioning a female voice less than half that time, but can correctly caption a male voice over 60% of the time.
We all laughed when the Washington Post made this epic blunder on their cover in relation to the Women's March.
But how many of us stopped to ask why Wikipedia defaults to the male symbol even when you're searching for the female one?
We see it all the time in software, when teams aren’t diverse.
We even see it in hardware, VR headsets that make women nauseous, or touchscreens that don’t take account of women having a lower core temperature. Women buy or influence 85% of all consumer purchases, while 85% of product designers and engineers are men.
And that’s just talking about gender.
When Pokemon Go swept the world, it didn’t take long for some players to discover that the pokestops and gyms were concentrated in predominantly white neighbourhoods. Thinktank Urban Institute in the US found that the difference was stark. Looking at data for Washington DC, they found that in neighbourhoods that are majority white, there are 55 portals on average, compared with 19 portals in neighbourhoods that are majority black.
Why? Because Pokemon Go’s dataset came from the earlier game Ingress. Ingress players tended to be younger, white, English-speaking men - tech early-adopters, and because Ingress’s portal criteria biased business districts and tourist areas, portals ended up in white-majority neighbourhoods.
But in launching Pokemon Go off this dataset, no one noticed, or cared enough to address the bias.
At home in New Zealand, our own passport photo recognition software can't recognise Asian faces.
All the studies show that companies with racial, gender and ethnic diversity do better overall.
And yet we’re still struggling to change it, and one of the things we often blame is the “pipeline”. People who are hiring don’t want to “lower the bar”, and claim there just aren’t enough qualified, diverse candidates out there.
So here’s my challenge.
How do we get these young women to see themselves as skilled and talented enough to work in our industry, and how do we change the way we think about hiring and qualifications so that there’s a path for them to join us?
We’ve already seen fan writers enjoy runaway success as “real” authors.
What’s the dev equivalent of that?
Before, I was talking about fan works uploaded to Archive of Our Own. It’s worth chatting about that for a second.
The Archive of Our Own (AO3) is a noncommercial and nonprofit central hosting site for transformative fanworks such as fanfiction, fanart, fan videos and podfic. The Archive entered open beta in November 2009. In December 2015 the Archive passed two million uploaded fanworks, and in 2016 it is used by over 900,000 registered users, and has fanworks in over 22,000 fandoms.
The Archive was entirely built and designed by volunteers from fandom. Many of the volunteers acquired skills in coding, design and documentation through their work on the project. When the project started, they asked volunteers who had never coded before to read an intro to both Python and Ruby, and then to write a very short programme. They asked the volunteers what their experience was like. They chose Ruby as the language based on that. When the project went in to open beta, it had over 20 contributors, all of whom were female, and it remains a shining example of an open source project that has created an inclusive environment that welcomes people without “traditional” experience.
In a similar vein, this is my friend Maciej. He loves this conference, and he’s the one who suggested I come here. You can see copies of his talks at his website idlewords. This is him in Havana a couple of months ago, and it was a face-melting 34 degrees, but if you follow him on twitter you know that he refuses to wear shorts. So here he is, toughing it out in jeans.
One of the talks he gave a few years back is called “Fan is Tool Using Animal”, and it was about when Delicious, the bookmarking site, made a bunch of changes that made the site unusable for the fans who had been using it to meticulously tag their fan fiction collections.
Maciej also runs a bookmarking site, and so he tweeted fans to ask what they might need. You should go read his talk, but basically over the next couple of days, fans came together anonymously to collaborate on a google doc, and produced for Maciej a 52 page tech spec.
“Having worked at large tech companies, where getting a spec written requires shedding tears of blood in a room full of people whose only goal seems to be to thwart you, and waiting weeks for them to finish, I could not believe what I was seeing. It was like a mirror world to YouTube comments, where several dozen anonymous people had come together in love and harmony to write a complex, logically coherent document, based on a single tweet.”
Many fans don’t value their skills, in part, because they’re self-taught. But let me ask you a quick question. How many people in this room, whether you’re designers, or developers, how many of you started out on a self-taught pathway with computers?
My self taught pathway started with this baby. My first computer was a Commodore VIC 20
I taught myself BASIC out the back of a magazine when I was ten years old.
I taught myself HTML to build my first website several years later.
(Check out those sweet tables)
Know what it was for? A place for my fanfiction. Know how many people in my “real life” knew that I’d done it? None. I've never talked about this publicly until today.
I’d been socialised out of using computers at high school, because there weren’t any girls in the computer classes, and it wasn’t cool, and I just wanted to fit in. I wound up becoming a lawyer, and spending the better part of twenty years masquerading as someone who wasn’t part of the “tech” industry, even though basically all of my time was spent online.
And I can’t begin to tell you how common it is.
So what if your first experience of “code” is cutting and pasting something to bring back replies because Tumblr took them away and broke your experience of the site.
Is that any more or less valid than any dev cutting and pasting from Stack Exchange all day long?
What if your first online experiences were places like Myspace and Geocities. Or if you started working with Wordpress and then eventually moved into more complex themes and then eventually into plugin development? Is that more or less valid than the standard “hacker archetype”? Aurynn gave a great talk recently about the language we use to describe roles in tech. How “wizards” became “rockstars” and “ninjas”. But also, and crucially, how we make people who haven’t followed a traditional path feel excluded. Because they haven’t learnt the “right” programming language, or they haven’t been programming since they were four, or because, god forbid, they use the wrong text editor.
There might be really good reasons why super talented candidates haven’t been programming since they were four.
So when we’re hiring for roles, for junior graphic designers, and junior front end developers. Photo and production editors. For social media managers.
What do we need to change?
Our first problem is pattern matching: When we look for traits in candidates that we think will point to successful hires, because we’ve seen those patterns work before.
But it's like trying to put together the Avengers, and only hiring Hawkeyes.
Pattern matching is a problem found while reviewing resumes, from universities to previous companies worked. And again when we’re interviewing. It’s not so much just that we hire people who actually look like us. But that we hire people who have been on a similar journey to us. Who are interested in the same things we are. Who pass our invisible “culture” tests, like would we want to grab a beer with them? Or sit on a plane for 12 hours with them?
It’s what Mitch Kapor calls the “mirrortocracy”. We think we’re hiring for merit, but we’re hiring mirror images of ourselves.
We’ve started throwing around the terms “unconscious bias” or “implicit bias” - and for some people they’ve started to be seen as codewords that mean they’re just being called out for being sexist or racist.
But it’s actually a cognitive tool that helps us get through every day. It’s all the tiny assumptions that we make as we navigate the world because we’re bombarded with too much information and our brains sort it quicker than even we can recognise. And if we keep thinking of unconscious bias as an insult - or as something we can fix or eliminate by going to a single workshop - we’re missing the point.
Project Include is a group effort to make specific recommendations to tech companies around improving diversity and inclusion, not just gender and not just in terms of hiring but company culture, remuneration and so on. It’s a great site, with a lot of amazing resources. Including for small teams.
There are a couple of specific recommendations that are useful in this context. One of these is to try and eliminate bias in resume evaluation.
They link to studies that have shown systemic unintended bias when reviewing resumes that are identical with the exception of names that signify a racial background or gender or a resume entry that signifies LGBT status.
Recently, venture capitalist John Greathouse got in a pile of hot water for this tone deaf op ed he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, in which he acknowledged this unconscious bias, but suggested the answer was for women to hide their gender to get ahead. It was met with predictable ridicule, and to be fair, he apologised for it unreservedly, calling the article dreadful.
There are actually a range of ways we can use technology to remove signifiers off resumes before reviewing them, and services that will do that for you.
But I think the more interesting question is what would it look like to really hire blind? Not just to take names and genders and ages off CVs, but to do away with resumes altogether and hire people who can do the job.
There’s a startup that’s come out of Y Combinator called TripleByte that’s trying this with developers on the basis that most programmer interviews are broken. As they say, credentials should not be used as a proxy for talent. Education and work history are meaningful but relying solely on them results in missing good programmers. Good programmers come from all types of background. It's what you can do that matters, not where you went to school.
TripleByte vets the programmers themselves, and then recommends them to the companies hiring. Importantly, they’re not interested in your cv. For the companies that use TripleByte to find them candidates, they trust that they’re going to be recommended people who can do the job.
GapJumpers enables companies to host “blind auditions”. Their data shows that women are taking blind auditions at a rate comparable to their representation in the US general population - around 54%. Blind auditions are also taken by applicants from diverse educational backgrounds. i.e. state schools and universities, community colleges, MOOCs, coding bootcamps, and self taught candidates. Women make up almost 60% of top performers in their blind auditions. So, what GapJumpers sees is that by interrupting implicit bias in real-time, blind auditions allow employers to hire from a skilled and diverse slate of talent.
More than that though - we need to actively look for candidates in non-traditional spaces. Project Include notes that the location of job advertisements can make a big difference. If ads are placed in locations frequented by the industry and conventional networking groups, diverse applicants may not find them. We need to think about local open spaces, like coffee shops, community centres, and libraries. Online posts in different communities. Building a network of people who will recommend different candidates to us.
And if we want to attract a different kind of candidate, we need to think hard about our job descriptions.
The point is not to hire diverse candidates because they’re diverse. The point is always to hire amazing candidates. But if only men are responding to your ad, you have to ask yourself? Was there something about the ad that only men were interested in? Did I put the ad somewhere only men would see it?
What if instead of saying “7 years plus experience” you tried “experience solving these kinds of problems” and listed them?
Do you really care if the person has a compsci degree? Or is that just on your wishlist? Because if you put it in the ad, you’re turning a bunch of people away.
Textio uses machine learning to compare your job post to more than 40 million others to predict how well it will perform before it’s ever published. A high score on their platform attracts applicants that are more qualified, more diverse, and the positions are filled faster.
The team at Buffer changed just one word.
Developers at Buffer all used to be called “hackers.” They had front-end hackers, back-end hackers, Android hackers, iOS hackers, traction hackers.
They started using the word “hacker”in Buffer’s early days because it felt like the most inclusive way to describe the work developers were doing. The CTO said:
“I think the original reason why we liked that word was because hackers are just people who get things to work well and fast. A ‘hacker’ doesn’t necessarily need a computer science degree or a lot of experience or need to be excellent in mind games, puzzles etc.”
But as they began to grow, Buffer was seeing a very low percentage of female candidates for developer jobs—less than 2% of candidates. When they dug in to this challenge, they discovered the “hacker” title wasn’t as inclusive as other titles and could be tough for many to identify with.
They opened up the discussion inside the company, and tried to brainstorm what better words they could use: Engineer, Developer, Maker, Builder, Programmer, Specialist, Artisan, Architect, Helper, Code experimenter
In the end they went with Developer, but they also decided there was a lot more work for them to do. One of the cool things they now have up on their site is a Diversity Dashboard, so candidates can dig in and see the kind of company they might be joining.
LinkedIn has gone a step further, offering a six month full-time paid internship for software developers from non-traditional backgrounds. They encourage applications from candidates without computer science degrees who are self-taught, re-entering the workforce, starting second careers, veterans, or those who have attended bootcamp-style programming courses.
If there’s one thing I know for sure it’s that diversity doesn’t have a single solution. We need to work on culture and unconscious bias, we need to make our computer science degree courses practical and interesting and welcoming so that more people want to take them, we need to improve technical education in our schools so that our kids are as excited about a possible career in tech as they are anything else. We need to improve access to technology in our communities in the first place.
But when it comes to just this one aspect of the problem, our pipeline, maybe we also need to recognise that that it’s already full of talented, creative, passionate, dedicated, hardworking young women online.
We just have to find a way to include them.
With thanks to fan artists: @yoursincerelylarry @ablyablya @larryswand @stylinsinz @fxckingunicorn @claudiyah @firsova @fayestardust @alistruecolors @ifhalocouldfly @stylinsonarchive
And clique Larries: @allegedlymags @scrufflecake @allthelivelonglarry @ellemem @niallgoestothezooalone @jewleeahhhh @sammie4jones
And to @ksuyin for the slide deck