One year ago on Friday, on one of the most dark, rainy, and miserable winter nights my beloved Glasgow has to offer, I pitched up at Fanduel’s Glasgow office to rant in front of a dozen strange guys and a couple of half-eaten pizzas.
The topic was us: those of us who make the web, those of us who build the tools and services that others take for granted, those of us who poke the code. It was about why we as a profession aren’t actually a profession, and how our most striking achievement has been to craft a rational excuse for failing to adopt every norm which other fields adopt without question. I spoke about how the outside world thinks we work, and why we let them get away with it. I spoke about software standards, ethical standards, politics, and economics. And, being on my home turf, I also dropped a volley of F-bombs whose cloud is still floating over West Regent Street.
I went home expecting nothing to result from it. At best, I thought those in attendance would kick the idea around in their brains until it proved useful in a pub chat. So imagine my surprise when three of the gentlemen in attendance decided to take my talk as a call to action. And act they did.
We began meeting up a few times a month in person and on Skype to move ahead with creating a new, independent, member-driven industry association for those who create and work on the open web, regardless of role, programming language, or qualifications. We got early free legal advice from a tech-savvy solicitor (they exist!) who attended the talk and was more than happy to get us off the ground.
Originally we thought we would be Scottish, but once word spread and we began piping English accents into our Skype calls, we changed that plan to a distributed community model: as an organisation we would provide central organisation and tools, and any cluster of interested people could start their own branch.
We decided early on that this group would be open to people, not to companies. Membership belongs to a person, not their company, and moves with them; a reflection of the fact that many of us never have an actual employer. We also decided that this would be a membership organisation, not a union: the latter is a completely different sort of organisation legally, structurally, and financially.
In direct response to the kinds of bodies we did not want to be, we decided that this group would be about action, not status. We would not hand out membership badges or plastic trophies, or host vapid networking events for the C-suite. If you show up for this group, you’re going to roll your sleeves up.
We opened up a Slack channel for like-minded people to discuss the plan, their wishes for the group, and their professional and political concerns. We were amazed by the conversations that resulted. We left everything to them, even the organisation’s name – Web Matters. The mutually respectful environment in the Slack channel allowed us to polish the rough edges off of each other’s ideas, from the organisation’s manifesto to the fine print of our industry issue briefings, with no hard feelings.
In the meantime, we got on with the profoundly tedious legal and financial details of actually setting this thing up. We lost a bit of momentum over the pettiest of things: the amount of time it took to set up an organisational bank account. (Four months, inclusive of signatures on paper sent through the post and then misplaced. Yes, we got the irony.)
A much more enjoyable task was working with Siân Harris to create a gorgeous branding suite. She revealed this at an event we held in May 2017 at Fanduel Edinburgh, this time involving five times as many people – and yes, more pizza.
I went off to Paris (hard work, this) and explained why finding a professional voice matters. It was not lost on me that I delivered that talk one year to the hour of Jo Cox’s death.
In the autumn, to achieve our organisational compliance requirements, we held an AGM in person which we live-streamed to those who couldn’t make it. We confirmed our organisational goals and elected office bearers to do the day-to-day work of running the organisation – all decided and voted on by those who had showed up in person and in Slack. We set membership dues, which are required for incorporation as a membership organisation, at £20 per annum: while we’ve enjoyed free meeting space and beer so far, we know we can’t scrounge favours forever. Nobody is being paid for any of this work.
With the final signature dotted on our bank paperwork, we opened up membership to the public this month. You can go ahead and join it now. Our baby has been born.
While I am an ordinary member on the management committee, I don’t have an active or specific remit. I personally don’t plan to involve myself very much. Indeed, given various pieces of disruption in my personal and professional life, I’m extremely grateful to Charlie, Alan, Orde, Dave, James, Damien, Siân, Chris, and John for picking up a baton I wasn’t capable of carrying and running with it.
Web Matters is not our show and never was. It is yours. What Web Matters will do is up to its membership, whether that is providing informed commentary on digital issues to policymakers, responding to consultations on draft legislation impacting tech, or finding a voice in the growing debate over development and ethics. You are that membership, if you so wish.
To me, we have already achieved something I would not have believed a year ago today: it is possible for developers and coders across a range of ages, levels of experience, employment scenarios, and political stances to realise that we have more in common than that which divides us. It is possible to start a properly incorporated organisation. It is possible to put a structure in place to respond to things that haven’t happened yet. It is possible to turn a bunch of devs into closet BBC Parliament viewers.
It is possible to get it right. It is possible to create a voice. It is possible to make a difference.
Now get out there and do it.