Christian Heilmann

The true king rules without a crown – yes, you matter on the web

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Going through the Twitter feedback of my closing keynote at Smashingconf I read a lot of “this is awesome, I feel so ready to do stuff, but what can I do – I am not a known entity on the web.”.

I guess everybody has songs to listen to when need some perking up. You know, the ones that make you tap your feet or, if you are like me, bounce a bit. Friday I’m in Love by The Cure is a classic for that. One of my favourites is the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ Everybody’s better:

The lyrics of that one have some wonderful moments:

Everybody’s better than I am
I think everybody’s better than me
And everybody’s swell I guess
They’re doing well some more or less
Everybody’s better than I am I think
You know to be king you don’t need a castle
To row back to shore can sure be a hassle
Why you walk around with your head low down
The true king rules without a crown
If your boat’s afloat after the typhoon
Row it safely back to the lagoon
And nevermind the green grass you won’t mow
Or what it is you have or don’t to show
Or what it is you can or can’t afford
The good are good without reward

I think there is a lot of truth in that – especially on the web. So if you are not a known entity on the web, so what? You are still very much invited to participate, your actions can speak for you and bit by bit you will get people thanking and encouraging you.

Lower profile = less pressure

You can get the warm fuzzy feeling without getting the pressure of having to be perfect in all you do. Once you are known on the web it can be quite annoying that something you throw out as an idea or a concept or a hack gets quoted out of context as the best thing ever and something to use immediately. As a part of the “making” web crowd you can play, get others to improve and build upon what you did and get feedback – good or bad – that is untainted.

With know web entities I find that not enough people challenge what they do and give constructive criticism. Instead there is a lot of polarisation going on – either people love your work or they try to show that you are wrong and their other heroes are right. Or people will attack you personally and disagree just to be part of the conversation and appear as someone in the know.

Everybody else is better

As mentioned in my keynote, there is quite a tendency in people to compare our behind the scenes footage with other people’s highlight reels. There is no need to go from zero to hero in a fortnight and it is not a natural thing to happen. I blame all the “talent” shows on television giving us that impression – it is the Tinseltown dream and the old from dishwasher to millionaire illusion pushed to a seemingly more achievable goal. Only seemingly, though.

Communication is a key

I don’t consider myself a web entity or a celebrity, but here is how I got where I am now: a lot of work. And not only paid work – on the contrary. Most of my connections and learnings happened outside the delivery cycle in my companies. They happened on mailing lists, IRC, forums, conference hallways, in cafés when people commented on my computer or what I did on the screen. It boils down to communication and being not afraid to ask questions and to talk to people.

It is not about a breakthrough product

One big mistake people make is thinking that quick products will get you known and a following. That can happen, but as they are quick products they are also a dime a dozen and hundreds of links on hacker news a day. I’ve made that mistake – a lot:

  • A PHP templating system to allow for HTML/JavaScript documentation
  • A “Learn to let go” PHP script that allows for users to define the page layout
  • The “Obsoletely famous” blog to name and shame outdated web resources and re-link them to better ones
  • The “CSS Toolshed”, a CSS Zen Garden but with a simulated CMS output – asking designers to come up with flexible CSS to support changing content and variable navigation item numbers
  • A PHP script to allow for CSS variables by precompiling the CSS - in 2005

All of these were massive failures, and frustrated me quite a lot and ask myself what is wrong with me that nobody calls these awesome and mentions them in talks. There can be many reasons why they failed, but the main one was that I thought I’d build it and people use it. This is not how it works.

Collaborative work wins

All the products that got people known in the last few years were works of collaboration: Modernizr being probably the most shining example. So if you want to go that route, don’t go for the quick win and call it finished, throw out an idea and a stub instead and call for people to work with you.

The best way to get known and to have fun and achieve things though is to collaborate with existing projects, give feedback, write documentation and examples – in short, get yourself out there visible as a helpful person who knows their stuff. The MDN documentation is a great starting point as it is an open Wiki and needs some love in many places. And as soon as you edit your name will be under it.

when your flesh and blood is gone your actions will remain

So here’s to all the kings without a crown – you are doing great work, even if it doesn’t look it and the immediate success is yet to come. Have patience, share, communicate and give constructive feedback in the form of feature requests, pull requests and patches. Your work will be visible and speak for you – even if you are not yet a loud voice.

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