Crabby. Snarky. Hero-less.

I feel winded by the force of the venom (see below for links) directed at a 28-year-old Brooklyn-living Bulgarian who could or should be held up as a role model and pioneer. A woman leading a simple life, working damned hard at something she dearly loves. A woman who gives away the refreshingly-positive and deeply-detailed result freely, but yet dares to ask for donations, and who has made a few crucial mistakes for which she will apparently never be forgiven. (Chief of which, of course, is being successful.) Of course, that woman is Maria Popova — she of the yellow-and-black, Milton Glaser-inspired, love-infused Brain Pickings.

Sent out every Sunday, the newsletter of the blog’s weekly highlights is a tome, a rabbit hole. Press on that link, and I’m lost in Wonderland for hours. I don’t have the time to read more than a fraction of the heavily-linked content, and so always wondered where the author found the time to create it. And there’s the rub: Maria Popova claims to have no other life, but her tally of hours for the creation of this product are certainly a tad exaggerated. And she’s supposedly vehemently anti-advertising (or at least highlights the ‘ad-free’ nature of her product), though had neglected to mention the Amazon Affiliate program she benefits from until her detractors made a song and dance about it. Rightly so, certainly, but such an emotional reaction!

The snarkiness. The irritation with her success. The sheer crabs-in-a-bucket nature of it all. At a time when we desperately need fresh media business models, why are we so quick to pull down the success stories? (I’ve written with frustration about this before, and the sordid outcome of that event didn’t change my mind about the principles I was flailing to articulate.) Dan Pallotta’s TED Talk, ‘The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong’, highlights many of those same double standards and hypocrisies. Our confused equation of frugality with morality… Our irrational thoughts on who should be hailed for profiting and who should be slandered… On when we should talk about money and when we shouldn’t…

Yes, crabs. In a bucket. Tall Poppy Syndrome all over again: we can’t get out of this, but we sure as hell won’t let her.

Crabs. Lice. It was all so sexy to begin with. Then they feed on your blood. They cause you to itch. They’re contagious…

It doesn’t have to be like that: passion-based knee-jerk responses reeking of sloth, avarice and envy. Surely we can find a more nuanced point of view in which we acknowledge that our heroes make mistakes. That a saint is also a sinner? That role models should be lauded while yet noting where they could do better? That pointing out their failings does not make us any more successful?

I believe criticism is very important. But it should be done with the aim of taking the discussion forward; it should reveal the critic’s interest in the subject, and should suggest further application of the knowledge. To use two very over-traded analogies: this is not about pulling a fellow crab down, but being the giant who lends their shoulder for others to stand on. Two writers have impressed me with their abilities to do so on this story. Felix Salmon of Reuters, and Tom Bleymaier of On Advertising. Salmon outlines the entire story and its issues from a fact-based and rational point of view while yet divulging his personal thoughts. His journalistic integrity, despite this being clearly branded an opinion piece, stands strong. Tom Bleymaier, whose tone still undermines his argument slightly,  makes a detailed and transparent commentary that achieves the dual task of stopping me hitting Popov’s ‘donate’ button, and inspires me to analyze the nuts and bolts more carefully.

Now I’d like to see both Salmon and Bleymaier’s heroes. To be inspired by those they hold in high regard. To find those giants on whose shoulders they stand. And I look forward to seeing those who will come after, and the heights they will reach.

Dominique’s Reminders to Self:

  • Don’t tear down the role models; learn from them.
  • Criticism is important and exciting, but channel the energy towards creativity rather than destruction and disease.
  • Fight the haters by focussing on what can be, rather than on what should have been.


My trail: Google, Wikipedia, then follow the ‘criticism’ citation. That’s how I quickly found this post by a person who’d put effort and negativity in criticism. Who chooses to focus on what they dislike. Who does it all without the courage to reveal their own name. Sad, don’t you think? Sad to me because I think the anonymous writer makes some important points, especially with regards to highlighting the Federal Trade Commission’s ‘truth in advertising’ principles. (“If there’s a connection between the endorser and the marketer of the product that would affect how people evaluate the endorsement, it should be disclosed.”)

A simple, fairly superficial Q&A with Popova in The Observer which lead to an outpouring of negative responses.

An article in The New York Times on Popova.

Popova’s talk at Tools of Change in Feb 2013.


Tall Poppy Syndrome: Kony2012

(“Emotions recollected in tranquillity.” That was Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry. Well, last night was a “spontaneous overflow of emotion”. Tonight is tranquillity. Cutting and pasting last night’s lines here does not make them poetry, that’s for sure. It just makes them unedited.)

Kony2012: Thoughts on Like

Form follows function.
Facebook gives us the option to ‘like’ or to ‘comment’.

What does this tell us about ourselves – after all, Facebook does not mould our behaviour; it’s just art imitating life, just reflecting what we are like already. And this is the way we think: Liking is simple. It’s easy. It’s one click. But those who are sophisticated, profound, literate. They comment. It’s no longer the chattering classes. It’s now the liking classes vs the commenting classes.

If you are sophisticated, erudite, or have delusions of being so. Or if you simply don’t want to be an Invisible Child, you comment. Scathingly. You like nothing. You think your simple act of criticism shows you’re somehow something more. You’re obviously a deeper thinker. You’re obviously more profound. You’re a wise old citizen of the world. You’re not just a naive, easy-to-impress liker.

And so we have the Kony 2012 campaign. A modern media phenomenon. And we all live our stereotypes:
* Those who view the YouTube early will passionately advocate it. The early adopters will champion the cause. They were there when the gold was discovered, and they will polish its worth.
* Those who discovered it later will come with more cynical hearts. If they, by nature, are of mass persuasion, they will take to it just because of its populist patter. The Bieber effect. If so many others think it’s good, it must be…
* And those who come to it last will be ever resentful. It shows them up. It is competition for their inherent value in a zero-sum world. If they can’t criticise the product, they will look for fault until they find it. And that is what they will trumpet. In Kony2012’s case, they can’t fault the facts, so they’ll say it’s a single story. Forgetting they’re telling a single story. Their insecurity will make it all about them: they’ll say it’s whites/Americans/foreigners/Westerners wanting to ride in as saviours. Without discussing whether there is an enemy to be saved from. They’ll say locals/Ugandans/Africans are not given credit for what they have achieved. Without themselves indicating whether anything much has actually been achieved, and by whom. (Never by whom.)
And then it will come back to money. Here on the poorest continent, it always does. They’ll complain that that organisation is not spending all its money here.
And that’s the real issue, isn’t it?
If all the money were spent here, without any question asked about what exactly we Africans are doing about the problem, we’d ‘like’ them a whole lot more.
But they’re not singing our praises, and they’re not simply handing us their money.
So we shoot them down.
They have no right to be here. They are the root of all evil. 

There’s a #1 enemy at the top of the list. And it’s not Joseph Kony.

PS: One notable exception stands out boldly: Greg Marinovich chooses to put his personal dislikes aside and to tell the real story in a column in the Daily Maverick. Kudos to him.