Win:win situations, infinite possibilities, and lemonade

I’m trying to avoid uncritical me-tooism (and I’m really trying to stick to my resolve to “Take the high road”), but I do feel the need to link to very recent posts from two libloggers who I respect, frequently disagree with, and have never felt any desire to steamroll or slag. They’re semi-related posts.

Dorothea Salo talks about ‘Infinite Success’ here. I’ll particularly call attention to this paragraph (following some discussion of people who seem to feel the need to be King or Queen of the Hill, which of course means that others have to be less successful):

But what if success is—at least potentially—infinite? The entire equation changes. You have to decide which flavors of the limitless abundance you care for, and you have to sort out for yourself how much is enough. At that point, you can happily and without the least whisper of personal loss lend a hand to others who are doing the same.

While admitting that the “C” in “Walter C. Crawford” (the only time I’m likely to use my driver’s license/passport name in this blog!) does not stand for “Consistency,” I certainly agree with and try to live by this as a general rule. And I will claim that I’ve done my part to “lend a hand” at least by quoting and pointing out newish voices who have interesting things to say–even when I’m disagreeing with them. I do that mostly in Cites & Insights, to be sure, but I try to do it elsewhere as well.

It feels good. It particularly feels good when a “discovery” turns out to be a gem. And since I’ve probably had more than my share of traditional high-profile gigs (particularly for a pseudo-librarian in the library field), I’m only too happy to see (real example) Meredith F. getting a column in a magazine that dumped my own column [there's absolutely no connection], (not real example as far as I know) Joshua Neff or Steve Lawson or Sarah Houghton-Jan or Sandra Stewart or… getting a keynote at an association I’d love to speak to, or, well, you name it.

Caveat: I do not claim that I’ve ever had any role to play in making any of those named more visible or getting such gigs–well, with one exception, where I submitted a list of three outstanding people in the field for a possible keynote. They all happened to be women, the first one on the list accepted, and I couldn’t be happier about it.

I’ve never been a formal mentor and probably never will be: The whole contract and formal agreement thing doesn’t work for me. I don’t believe I’ve ever been a formal “mentee.” But I’ve certainly been on both sides of informal help.

The first I-believe-publishable study that I ever did was, at the time, taken over by the head of the department as something that had to appear under that person’s name; it never reached the light of day. The second possibly-publishable piece that I did was while working for Sue (Susan K.) Martin (Ph.D.) in the UC Berkeley Library Systems Office; she nudged me to make it happen and suggested the place for it, and Sue would never, ever try to claim credit for someone else’s work. It did appear; it’s one of very few peer-reviewed articles I’ve ever done, and I believe the only post-college publication bearing the fuller form of my name. At other key stages, I’ve been nudged by people to take a chance on some activity–sometimes by people who could easily have done it themselves.

With web publishing, outlets for professional activity really are effectively “infinite.” Even without it, though, we benefit from a broader range of voices and ideas. I’ve probably seen 50 articles and 5 books in the last decade where I have two reactions: “I could have done a great job on that” and “Didn’t they do a great job on that!” When the author is a relative unknown, the second reaction is particularly pleasant. (OK, once in a while there’s a “They did an awful job on that,” and sometimes I’ll try to do a better one. Because I’m inconsistent, human, occasionally mean-spirited and all that I might even take a public swipe–ideally but not always at what they did, not at who they are.)

The second post, also from yesterday, is Charitable Reading by Meredith Farkas. She quotes (with permission) email from Joshua “Goblin” Neff, which I’m in turn going to quote as fair use:

Having spent years on web forums where people got in the pissiest, snarkiest arguments I’ve ever seen (and sometimes been a part of), I’ve picked up on one thing that I think is crucial for any kind of internet discussion: charitable reading. Read what I’ve written assuming that I mean the best possible thing, not the worst.

This is great advice. It’s also damnably difficult at times–particularly when you’re being fisked or, shall we say it, uncharitably read. Or slagged. I make no claims at all to sainthood on this account. I will cheerfully read a post or comment within the context of the writer’s past posts and comments, and for that matter their print publishing record and, if I know them, their persona. Such reading-within-context is sometimes less charitable than Neff’s optimal (but hardly inevitable) suggestion.

But it doesn’t hurt to try. Farkas’ discussion is excellent. I’ll quote one more paragraph (this one by Meredith Farkas, not a requote from Joshua Neff):

How would you like to see people? We have a choice in the way we view and react to things. I don’t think we should constantly worry about being polite and agreeing with what everyone else says by any stretch of the imagination. What’s so great about the blogosphere is the dialogue; not a monologue. But when has someone changed their mind after being attacked? Who has said “well, now that you’ve jumped down my throat, I really see your point and agree”? They may feel intimidated (especially if the blogger is a major A-lister or a well-known librarian) and raise the white flag, but chances are, you won’t change their mind. What will change their mind is a persuasive argument… a smart criticism. Jumping down someone’s throat has little benefit other than to let you vent your spleen. Is it really worth it?

And I’ll try to remember to reread this post from time to time. Maybe I’ll even use it as the springboard for a Bibs & Blather. (I’m already using some related material for a chapter in the probably-gonna-be-a-book I’m working on…)

[A total non sequitur here, gleaned from the comments on MF's post: I somehow missed this April 1 item, one of the most cleverly/fiendishly planned ones I've seen. Of course, it did create another dozen ghosts in the blogosphere, but what's a few more out of perhaps 100 million + ghost blogs?]

So there we are. For those who haven’t followed various threads, I should point out that Dorothea, Joshua, Meredith and I hardly form a mutual admiration society or echo chamber. I believe that all three of them have disagreed with things I’ve written publicly and forcefully, and I’m pretty sure I’ve done the same for all three of them. If I haven’t yet, I imagine the time will come. The Venn diagram with our four sets of professional interests and beliefs would show some overlap, to be sure, but not all that much [what is it with me and Venn diagrams lately?]. But I think I’ve been consistent in respecting the three people involved as thoughtful, literate, interesting, innovative forces within the field. If I’ve ever attacked one of them as opposed to disagreeing with what they’ve said, I apologize.

So there it is: A Friday lunchtime post that isn’t a quiz or a meme or a movie review.

Two more things:

  1. Lemonade? Well, life among libloggers has been tossing up enough lemons around lately…and if you don’t know the old saying, you can probably look it up. (My wife and I give away dozens of Meyer lemons almost every week during the season, and we’re hoping the current weather doesn’t end this year’s crop–and I’d guess Meyer lemons would make lemonade requiring very little sugar. Yes, they’re pesticide-free. No, they’re not for mailing; sorry.)
  2. A note to MFFX–Meredith Farkas’ Friend X: Come on in. Most of the time, the water’s fine.

4 Responses to “Win:win situations, infinite possibilities, and lemonade”

  1. Seth Finkelstein Says:

    Well, in many cases, success may not exactly be finite, but it’s exponentially distributed. That is, the #1 person gets a huge amount, the #2 person a small amount, #3 on get very little. Sure, the overall pie can expand, but the vast majority will still go to the very top.

    I think there may be confusion between various strategies of success, and moral platitudes. Sometimes, 10% of a big pie is indeed better than 100% of a small pie. But, strictly as an observations, sometimes predators *succeed*. The problem with being a predator is the need to find a constant stream of prey, while a herbivore can just graze along.

    By the way, regarding Dorothea’s “If attention and honor are perceived to be finite, they must be both courted and hoarded, and woe betide anyone else who attracts them. I firmly believe this phenomenon lies beneath the entire RSS/Atom saga, …”, I know people say things like that, but there are real design and money issues in the RSS/Atom saga, where tradeoffs have to be made, and one person or a few people were going to get the lion’s share of the reward. It’s too dismissive to think it’s all about ego, that’s certainly a factor, but there’s architecture and economics deeply involved.

    “my lived experience and my observations of others indicate that living as though success were infinite, behaving with generosity and consideration, leads to more security and long-term prominence than the reverse.”

    Maybe. But it surely is a matter of probability rather than absolutes. Moreover, there’s kind of a question-begging logical problem in such a declaration, since there’s also plenty of people who might write “my lived experience and my observations of others indicate that everyone is out for himself or herself and if you don’t realize that you’re a sucker”. So who is correct is not obvious.

  2. walt Says:

    While you may be right for RSS/Atom, and right in a bunch of fields, I think that within the library field–which is, after all, where Dorothea, I, and 99% of the readers of this blog (I assume) operate, and where all the drama this week has been, I think she’s right–there’s always room for more people to make their reputation, without hurting those of us who already, to one extent or another, have.

    And, in fact, real-world influence within the library field isn’t neatly exponential, partly because the library field is actually several somewhat overlapping fields, partly because most of us who have moderate degrees of influence are more prominent in some media and spheres than in others. There may be an A-list for libloggers; that is not identical to the A-list for keynoters (if there is one) or the A-list for candidates within the organization or the A-list for book writers or… In all cases, there’s overlap, but some pretty wild differences. And in most cases, there really is room to move.

    I don’t think anyone here’s attempting to generalize to either the web as a whole or to society as a whole. The worst trainwrecks among librarians are actually pretty civilized compared to flamewars and character assassination elsewhere–and I’d like to help keep it that way.

  3. Dorothea Says:

    I watched the RSS trainwreck; I’m an old enough hand for that. There weren’t any architecture issues that didn’t have technical resolutions available. ‘Twasn’t bad design or technical stupidity that got in the way of resolution. It was King of the Hill ego.

    In my experience, overt predation has a limited lifespan. It works — but only for a time.

    As for the blockbuster/long-tail: yes, I know. My comment there is that blockbusting is only one measure of success, and a marvelously narrow-minded one at that. There is such a thing as “enough” attention — enough to get your opinion known and respected, enough to call attention to otherwise-buried fact, enough to get your name heard in some useful quarters. Call it magic pixie-dust thinking if you will, but this variety of “success” is available to many. I have it, and I’m not an A-lister by any definition you name, not even among library weblogs.

  4. walt Says:

    Dorothea–I know nothing about the RSS situation, so will be silent. As to the other: I’m with you, and I understand where Seth’s coming from. This really is a case where being heard within the library field is different from being recognized/acknowledged as a public intellectual. The former is fairly open and sufficiently multifaceted that, as you say, “enough” attention can be just what you need. The latter–which I’ve never striven for, and I’d guess you haven’t either–is much tougher and much more affected by the power law.

    A domain difference: Really nothing new here. Seth’s comment is relevant, but not specifically within the sphere of this discussion.

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