Superfan!

This is a talk I gave at Codemania in Auckland in May, 2018.

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This is the cast of the most popular tv show you’ve probably never heard of, Skam, which is Norwegian for “shame”.

It was created by NRK, Norway’s public broadcaster, and set in a high school in Oslo, following the lives of a group of teens, with a focus on one character each season. 

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I want you to picture in your head what you imagine a fan of a show like Skam might be like.

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The show did some things in a new way - each episode would be screened scene by scene on the show’s website during the week. The characters had instagram accounts, and you’d see their text messages. By the time Friday rolled around, the audience felt immersed in their lives and couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Despite having no promotion in the lead up to its launch, it was an absolute runaway hit. By Season 3 it had broken all streaming records in Norway. The show didn’t screen anywhere else, and wasn’t translated.

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It had a kick-ass contemporary soundtrack and the music hadn’t been licensed for other countries. It would have been an entirely local, Scandinavian success story.

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If it wasn’t for the fans. The fans began to translate the text messages and clips, and share them online.

 

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Gifs and images of the show flooded tumblr. International fans were captivated and the popularity of the show began to increase through word of mouth. 

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The episodes themselves were uploaded by fans to google drives, transcripts of the episodes into English were crowdsourced and made available online, and then the fans began to subtitle the episodes themselves.

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International fans were captivated. Local fans began to teach them Norwegian.

 

 

[Skam: how a cult teen drama has fans invading sets, stalking characters’ Instagrams and learning Norwegian - Anna Leszkiewicz]

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The show’s release schedule during the week was unpredictable. You never knew when new content was going to be uploaded to the official site. Fans wrote bots to tell them when the main site had been updated.

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Over the shows four seasons, the international fanbase became so enormous and integral to the show’s success that NRK had to geoblock its streaming site. One of the teen actors performed in a play where tickets sold out because Korean fans had travelled across the world to see him.

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Prince William and Kate even visited the cast on set during a state visit.

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And now, determined to try and replicate the show’s overwhelming success, international versions are underway in six countries.

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When I asked you to imagine Skam’s fans, did you picture people with this level of power, technical capability, creativity and influence?

Last year, the Harry Potter books turned 20.

When I ask you to picture Harry Potter fans, what do you imagine?

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People who dress up in costumes at conventions?

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People who play quidditch in real life?

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The thousands of fans who turned up to Kings Cross Station earlier this year to mark the day Harry Potter’s son would have set off for Hogwarts?

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The truth is they're all those things and more. They've written millions of words of fanfiction, created gorgeous art.

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Here’s just one example. Tales from the Special Branch is an ongoing series of police procedural novels set in the Harry Potter universe which has just tipped over a million words and counting.

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If that achievement was remarkable enough, check out the murder board another fan made to keep track of what was going on in the Special Branch series.

(@daysundercover)

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Fans have used transformative work to re-interrogate the series - depicting characters as people of colour...

(@tuffuny)

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... as queer ...

 

(@fae-vorite

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And they’ve done it in beautiful and interesting ways.

(@littlechmura)

 

AND their fandom has brought them together as activists.

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When fans learned that Warner Bros. Harry Potter-branded chocolate was being sourced from suppliers involved with child slavery in 2008, the Harry Potter Alliance - a group of fans - embarked on a campaign demanding Fair Trade chocolate instead.

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The campaign “Not in Harry’s Name” followed from the belief that products inspired by the series should not be complicit in the injustices it criticised.

The Alliance partnered with Free2Work, who determined that the chocolate products had earned an F grade for worker conditions that violated human rights.

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Hundreds of thousands of fans took action from signing petitions to sending letters.

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The campaign continued for years, with ongoing discussions taking place and contributions from J.K. Rowling, anti-slavery organization Walk Free, and prominent YouTubers.

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In late December of 2014, the Harry Potter Alliance was finally notified that Warner Bros. would make all Harry Potter-branded chocolate Fair Trade certified, marking an unprecedented victory for fan activists.

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And yet we're still so quick to dismiss these things, and the people who love them.

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Those of you who have seen me speak before will already have an answer to this question, but for the rest of you, what do you imagine when I ask you to picture a fan of a boyband?

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Someone like this?

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Or this?

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What's the difference between that and this?

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Or this?

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I’ve spent a lot of time writing and speaking about the networked, technical, creative and amazing work these fans do online, but I wanted to highlight one more example.

Radio play is still an incredibly important part of promotion for an artist. One amazing fan of One Direction has built a tool that simplifies the process of making radio station requests for songs through Mediabase and twitter.

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The tool randomizes the stations requested. 

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Fans have provided translations into other languages of the tweets that are sent. And now that it’s built, adding a song to the process is as simple as adding another line to a spreadsheet.

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These fans build out automated tools to connect people going to concerts with one another.

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And to automate the process of fans giving copies of songs to other fans who can’t afford to buy them for themselves.

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In London this year, Harry Styles performed at the O2. Fans decided to turn the stadium into a massive light up rainbow in support of LGBT rights.

They divided the stadium in advance, assigned colours to different seating blocks, got volunteers to make light filters in the colours to stick over the flash on a cellphone.

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They distributed the filters in bags along the night passed along the row and you each took your filter with instructions for what to do and when to hold it up.

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And just like that, the stadium turned into a rainbow.

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20,000 people, organised by a handful of fans.

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Fans are organised, motivated, creative, technical, and frankly flat-out awe-inspiring.

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I love this stuff because I’ve been in fandom since I first got online.

I cut my fandom teeth in usenet groups like alt.tv.x-files 

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Saw the first fights with studio cease and desist letters, the first "wars" on fandom. And encountered ‘shipping for the very first time.

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I migrated from there to Yahoo! mailing lists.

Here’s me in 2002 explaining my excellent retro piracy strategy for catching up on The West Wing

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And then to Livejournal, where I kid you not, my first avatar was two pieces of Microsoft clip art that I stuck together in Microsoft paint. This is not my livejournal by the way. Some things should stay buried.

This only _my_ journey. And it is white, and straight, and cisgendered. I was extraordinarily privileged to have a computer in my home from the age of ten and the internet from the time it first became available.  I’m acutely aware that’s not true for everybody.

My point with all of this is that my journey, like so many young fans, happened in secret. I never told anyone in my real life, at my real grown-up job, that this is what I was doing online. Why, because I’d been taught that it was embarrassing.

This a clip from a film in which one character is trying to describe to another why she likes the book “Twilight”.

I’d been taught that the things I loved and cared about. The things that inspired me and made me creative. The actual act of that creation, the writing and the art. Those things weren’t cool. They were weird hobbies, never to be spoken about in public.

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And I think we dismiss these things because we think the content is frivolous. A teen drama on tv, a children’s book series, a boyband.

Philip Ellis wrote a great piece recently for Man Repeller called The problem with “not caring” about popular culture:

There is almost always an element of prejudice behind this kind of pop culture shaming. It is easy to imagine that, in the hive mind of these sorts, “real” music is the province of anaemic-looking dudes with guitars, not young women; that “important” storytelling belongs to Aaron Sorkin, not Shonda Rhimes; that “highbrow” novels are unreadable tomes about college professors who think about cheating on their wives, because any book about the inner lives of women needs a cartoonish high-heel shoe on the cover.

This perspective is shared and accepted by many. Whether it’s a rap song or a reality show, there is this notion of widely enjoyed media as “junk food” something to feel bad about consuming.

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Public is for proper hobbies, where people are definitely not hysterical, or crazy, or obsessed.

Like sports.

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Harry Styles fans camping outside the stadium? Definitely mockworthy.

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But if it’s turning up 12 hours early for a sports game?

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Or a dramatic tattoo?

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Queuing overnight for a new Apple product?

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Or the Yeezy 350 Boost sneakers?

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The thing is we all care passionately about different things at different times in different ways.

But somewhere along the way, we’ve decided there’s a hierarchy of “cool”.

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And that it’s okay to judge people who are into stuff that doesn’t fit that hierarchy.

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So why does any of this matter?

Well, we all work in an industry that's in crisis.

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An industry characterised by unprecedented wealth creation.

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And unprecedented power.

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And we keep making mistakes.

We automate photocropping on social media platforms to the “most interesting part” meaning photos of women are always cropped to their boobs.

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We teach our AI to be sexist, assuming anyone in a kitchen is a woman.

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We teach our soap dispensers to be racist.

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And these things happen over, and over, and over again

 

Some of these things you could argue are intentional, and some of them seem like fuck-ups and some just seem…inexplicable.

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And now we have Google proudly demoing a voice assistant that can make calls pretending to be human, and everyone in the room seems delighted?

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My colleague Rowan Simpson recently wrote a post in which he argued that there are basically only three ways to be wrong: neglect, error or malice.

So if we assume none of us are malicious, how does this nonsense keep happening?

Because we start with assumptions that might be flawed, we use training data that is incomplete, or too narrow in its focus, because we assume everyone is like us.

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We ALL have blindspots. The way we see the world is shaped by where we’ve come from, what we’re interested in, our personal journey. We pattern-match all the time. 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.  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.

But if everyone on our team is making the SAME set of assumptions, we run into problems.  And that’s much more likely when we’re working in homogenous teams.

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I feel like there must be enough photos of grinning all-white teams where you know all the women work in customer support now for us to start a tumblr.

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If your team looks like this ...

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....  your chances of producing copy like this are much higher.

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So how do we fix the fact that our industry is turning into a dumpster fire?

 

There’s two parts to this, right? There’s how we hire so that we don’t wind up hiring the same people over and over again. 

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And if you’re interested in some practical tools and techniques around that, I recommend you check out my previous talk How the Tech Sector Could Move in One Direction - there’s a lot more Harry Styles in it, you’ll enjoy it. I promise.

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In that talk, I walked through some of Project Include’s recommendations on improving diversity in your teams and your organisations, which will help you with job descriptions, thinking about where and how you advertise, blind resume reviews and so on.

And if you succeed in that process, the diversity of your team will improve. 

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But I want to talk about the other piece of Diversity and Inclusion - what’s your team like once they get there?

This has a lot less to do with the race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation of the people you’re working with, and a lot more to do with how they’re made to feel at work.

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Why does it matter?

Here I want to acknowledge the work done by Heidi Grant and David Rock at the Neuroleadership Institute in regularly pulling together various scientific studies on this and presenting them in a really digestible way.

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Recently, Great Place to Work surveyed more than 79,000 tech workers to find the Best Workplaces in Technology. Their results found that up to 30% of the workforce feels that they're unable to be themselves or participate as full members of their teams. This is true even at leading tech companies known for positive workplace cultures.

Many of the groups wrestling with being themselves at tech companies are the very groups that the industry struggles to recruit and retain. I want to stress though that it's not only white women and racial and ethnic minorities who feel like the “other” in tech. Both personal and professional characteristics - such as being disabled, outside the gender binary, or even a long-tenured hourly or part-time worker - lead to a significant portion of the workforce not feeling like they can bring their whole selves to work.

This may seem like an inconsequential problem but the study finds real implications.

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When employees feel able to be themselves, they are six times more likely to innovate.

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They're six times more likely to recruit on behalf of their company from their peer network.

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Five times more likely to commit to a long-term future at their organisation.

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And twice as likely to work on highly productive teams.

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What would it look like to bring your whole self to work?

A couple of months ago I asked people what they were super passionate about that hardly anyone around them knew they were into.

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The answers were amazing. Flight simulators, knots...

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Roman history...

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Long distance train travel, charcuterie...

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Those things aren’t necessarily secret because the person is embarrassed, but they’re also not chatting about them daily with the people in their lives.

And I kept getting stuck on that. On all the times I’d kept the things I’d loved to myself because I was worried about other people’s reactions.

And yet, we KNOW how to be cool about the things people love.

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In NZ every year we have a giant Secret Santa on Twitter. Thousands of people are matched with a stranger and asked to send them a gift. The fun and the joy of it comes from trawling back through your Santee’s tweets and trying to work out what they’re into - what they might enjoy getting a gift about.  And you know what? People nail it. Here are some of my favourites from this past Christmas.

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Agatha Christie novels...

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A gay heart made happy...

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...by a gay rainbow of gin.

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And maybe my favourite....

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A dark bear drinking dark beer watching strange movies on a 2XL shirt

 

THIS is what it looks like when we embrace the things other people love.

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So what happens when we change things at work?

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We now have enough science to know indisputably that increasing workplace diversity is both a moral imperative and a good business decision. 

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A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that those in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry mean, and those in the top quartile for gender diversity were 15% more likely to have returns above the industry mean.

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All the studies since back this up.

 

But here’s the more interesting thing...

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In recent years a body of research has revealed another, more complicated benefit of workplace diversity: nonhomogenous teams are smarter. 

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Diverse teams focus more on facts.

Studies have compared diverse teams with homogenous teams on everything from mock juries to trying to price company stocks. And have shown that diverse teams are significantly more likely to constantly reexamine facts, remain more objective, and challenge one another’s biases.

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And they process those facts more carefully. The studies show diverse teams take more time, and may feel less confident with their joint decision making, but that care actually results in better, more accurate decisions.

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And they’re more innovative.

The studies show that teams with greater gender, cultural and ethnic diversity are more likely to introduce new products to market, and more likely to innovate within their companies.

Even lifestyle diversity is important. The rock n' roll lore says that once a bandmate gets married, the party's over for the group. But recent research says that the blended mix of married and unmarried bandmates improves creativity, innovation and collaborative thinking (and, that the same results are true for working professionals).

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BUT DIVERSE TEAMS FEEL WEIRD!

You know what it’s like when you start working with a bunch of people you don’t know well, or who you feel like you can’t relate to for whatever reason. It doesn’t feel comfortable, right? That’s almost always the push-back I get - “YES we know diverse teams are important. But we’re moving fast and breaking things. And to do that we need people who think alike.”

Diverse teams feel slower and with more friction, but it turns out that matters a lot.

One study had homogenous teams work on problem and arrive at a joint answer. Five minutes into the discussion some of the teams were joined by an outsider. The teams that had an outsider join rated their team discussions less effective and they had less confidence in their decision than the homogenous teams.

But guess what - the outsider teams were twice as likely to get the right answer.

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Homogenous teams feel easier, but that’s bad. You get better outcomes from diverse teams precisely because you have to work harder.

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When you’re building a high-performing team, as Sarah Mei said recently, you’re looking for culture add, not culture fit.

You want people who bring a perspective you don't yet have.

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Finally, what can we do!

 

This isn’t really about having a company-wide “wear your hogwarts sweater to work day”. Although that could be cool.

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It starts with all of us who lead teams - and it starts with building trust. I never wanted to come to work and talk about the things I was passionate about because I didn’t trust that it wouldn’t be used against me, seen as “unprofessional”, make me stick out, get me discounted or trivialised in some way. And I was already fighting to prove myself as a woman, and as someone who was seen as too young. I didn’t need another strike against me.

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And when people feel this way, they try to make themselves fit in - adopting the behaviour and the culture and the humour of the people around them regardless of whether it’s really what they’re into or not, or they leave.

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Trust and psychological safety are core elements of high performing teams. 

Trust is the willingness of a party to be vulnerable someone else. Trust implies that you respect your teammates abilities and you respect their intentions. Psychological safety builds on trust and is more about how you feel about the team dynamics. What are the risks of blame if you try something and fail. 

Trust is about individuals and psychological safety is about the team. And when we build teams that have that trust, where people feel like they can be their whole selves, and they feel safe enough to raise their hand, to offer contradicting opinions, to think differently and work differently and contribute in their own way. That’s when we get a high-performing team.

Here’s the really challenging part.

Diverse and inclusive teams need that shared sense of safety to be themselves, but you can't create that by treating everyone the way you’d expect to be treated. 

As Professor John Lee, an expert on human factors in design at the University of Wisconsin- Madison puts it, one person’s honest discussion might be a felt as a devastating attack by another. The more diverse the team the more diverse the expectations of psychological safety. Ironically, the diversity that makes teams successful depends on a shared sense of psychological safety, and that diversity makes ensuring psychology safety more challenging.

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So we’re going to have to work at this. It's not going to be easy. This isn't a soft skill.

But you know what? When has this industry ever enjoyed easy problems?

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Google's re:Work site has a whole range of resources the company has developed around leadership, management and teams. This isn't to suggest Google has this solved, but they've done a lot of work assessing their internal teams and pulling in external research. And they have a whole guide for managers on the sorts of things you can do to increase psychological safety in your teams based on this research.

 

It's not rocket surgery.

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As a leader you need to show confidence and conviction without being inflexible. That means:  

●  Supporting and representing the team (e.g., sharing team’s work with senior leadership, giving credit to teammates)

●  Inviting your team to challenge your perspective and push back

●  Modelling vulnerability; share your personal perspective on work and failures with your teammates

●  Encourage teammates to take risks, and demonstrate risk-taking in your own work (and by risk-taking, I don't mean recklessness, I mean smart, strategic experimentation).

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You need to demonstrate engagement which means being present and focused on conversations and meetings. Frances Frei gave a talk this year at TED about the work she did at Uber to rebuild trust. One of the first things she noticed was that employees in meetings were texting each other in the meeting about the meeting. Who all has done that in a meeting? I sure as hell have. There’s no trust or safety there. Put the devices away.

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High performing teams value certainty and fairness. Communicate the purpose of a meeting in advance.  Make sure people aren't interrupted or talked over, by you or by anyone else. 

Communicate the reasons behind decisions, and acknowledge the contributions people make publicly.

Now let’s look at some examples of how this might work in practice.

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Imagine being on the team building this API, that thinks it can detect gender to … make your onboarding easier.

There are so many things to criticise here, it’s hard to know where to start. First of all, there are virtually no reasons why you should be collecting user gender at all - and for a great analysis of this you should watch Nat Dudley’s Webstock talk this year on inclusive design.

Secondly, the nonsense idea that a computer can do this accurately.

Thirdly, when you hit the FAQ, you can see that this is not a company that has a good handle on gender. I went there hoping for a nuanced discussion of why the product had limitations given gender isn’t a binary, and names can be genderless, and instead found: What happens if a name can be male as well as female? (the answer is, tell them which country your data comes from and it will make a better guess)

This is not a product launched by a diverse and inclusive team.

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It gets worse though. Imagine being on the team that thinks launching this into the world is a good idea.

No-one at this organisation apparently asked the simple question "What could possibly go wrong?"

 

(And I challenge you to come up with a single legitimate use for this, by the way)

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Imagine if, when they were putting the demo for Duplex together, Google did in fact have someone in the role of VP of gut checks?

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What if we were all Vice Presidents of Gut Checks!

This month Artefact Group released these gorgeous digital Tech Tarot Cards to prompt good discussions. You can click to get some of them dealt or look at the full deck. They have questions to kick off good discussions about things like, what happens if your product is incredibly successful?

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And what are the ways in which it might be mis-used or go wrong?

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Now imagine a homogenous team full of people trying to fit in answering these questions?

 

Then imagine an inclusive team with high levels of trust and safety doing it.

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Imagine teams in which everyone feels free to be 100% themselves, where the things they care about and get excited about and are passionate about are embraced, and they don’t feel singled out. 

Those are teams who would discuss and refine and critique and sometimes even trash products or features or services before they get out into the world and start doing harm.

Those are teams that would build excellent and ethical software.

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Here’s just one recent example. 

Pinterest, as most of you know, is a site where you can bookmark clips of things you’re interested in. A lot of people use it to store things like design inspiration when they’re renovating, or mood boards for their wedding, and lots of users store inspiration for hair and beauty and fashion ideas.

What Pinterest realised was that while their recommendation engine was really good at showing users things similar to what they’d already bookmarked, their search engine had a problem. Even if your boards had images of black women, and you’d saved hair tutorials for black hair - when you searched for “hair ideas” you got pictures of white women.

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This isn’t a new problem. One study found that 80% of results for searches on both google and bing for “beautiful women” will get you white women. So Pinterest decided to tackle the problem.

Almost immediately they ran up against a challenge.

Skin tone taxonomies lump complexion into broad categories, many of them are based on a historic chromatic scale that in the past had also been used as a defence of eugenics, a way to definitively separate “white" from “non-white" in the forced sterilisations committed in Germany. 

Naturally, that history horrified Pinterest. They definitely weren't going to use that.

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Instead they started from the work of Brazilian artist Angélica Dass, who had photographed hundreds of people and identified their skin tones by Pantone colors. Unlike other taxonomies, Dass' project divorced skin tone from ethnicity.

From there the pinterest team tried to work out if there was a way to think of skin tone as a digital value. 

There’s a great write-up on this in WIRED if you’re looking to read more.

They worked from the biological elements that make up skin color. Melanin determines how light or dark skin appears; hemoglobin influences rosiness, and carotene influences yellowness. Those elements matched up pretty well with a mathematical system that perceives color on three axes: light to dark, green to red, and blue to yellow.

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From this system, they devised their own spectrum of 16 shades. A beauty software company helped Pinterest to build a machine learning system to decode skin tone in images.

Like all systems, it's a work in progress. They want to be sure skin tone categories don't get conflated with racial stereotypes. They also never save the skin tones you've selected. Information about someone’s race or ethnicity can easily be used against them online, even if it comes from something as simple as a search for hair ideas or makeup. So Pinterest promises not to store information from the feature, nor to use it to target ads, nor to use it to produce a user’s personal information.

But, now, when you search for “hair ideas” there’s a filter that invites you to pick a skin tone to narrow your search. It’s a small first step towards greater diversity on Pinterest’s platform, through showing different complexions, body shapes, disabilities, and ages. 

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Creating diverse teams where people feel like they belong is just one small part of the solution to improving inclusion in our industry.

 

But if we can create work environments and teams that model this behaviour, maybe we'll start to create an industry that a more diverse range of talent finally wants to be a part of.

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Office culture where people feel like they don't need to keep the things they love secret. Where our passions are treated equally - so we never feel like we're out on our own or that we need to change to fit in.

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Where we build teams where people trust one another, and feel safe and empowered to challenge each other and to take risks and to be vulnerable and to ask more questions.

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Imagine what we'll be capable of then.

 

With grateful thanks to Alice, meriko, Jess, Nozlee, Rob and to Su Yin for the gorgeous slides.