Help me help you

a sign at the fork in a wooded path, one side pointing to "bar" and the other pointing to "more trees"

Every few months I receive an email out of nowhere from a blog reader, or a follower, thanking me for the work that I do and for the work that I, somehow, have inspired them to do. Those messages always make me think two things:

1. This is what it’s all about, and this is what keeps me going.
2. Why do random people give my contributions more acknowledgement than any employer ever has?

Along those lines, I have been mulling over an email I received last month. It read as follows:

I hope it’s okay to contact you out of the blue. You’re one of my heroes. I have such admiration for your writing on the online safety bill and your open web advocacy generally. I loved your Internet of Humans podcast episode. I’ve been wanting for a long time to find a way to be more impactful with my work, doing more inline with the things I really care about. I’d love to be doing more writing or collaboration along the lines you’re doing, being involved with the internet society, critiquing policy, defending and building the open web etc. I’m just wondering if you have any tips for how to become more involved in policy, advocacy or the general open web community? What sort of steps do you think would be worth taking to try to gradually move in that direction?

I have to admit that this dilemma is something that I think about a lot. Because from where I sit, the future of the open internet will hinge on people like that getting involved. The policy space needs more people working in it who know code as well as the game of politics, have got their hands dirty in the trenches, and understand how the internet – as opposed to the handful of platforms politicians think the internet is – actually operates. In other words, it needs people who get it.

The policy space does not need more politicians on an anti-big tech vendetta, or Hollywood millionaires on an anti-internet vendetta, or white shoe lawyers, or cognitively detached academics. And it certainly does not need more astroturfed PR campaigns masquerading as good-faith actors. But right now, in the policy space, there are fifty of those people, without much of a clue, for every one experienced practitioner in the space who does have a clue. We are outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, outplanned.

But the bigger problem than that, however, is that I have no idea where to tell that email’s writer where to start.

The work I do, and the approach I bring to it, is very much a result of my own personal life experiences, both good and bad, that have unfolded around me since I first logged on to a dial-up walled garden in 1994. What I do has evolved with that technology. My career has had no masterplan or strategic approach either. I have just muddled through as I went, and forked as required, and I expect to continue to do so until I drop dead. (Really, I am not a role model for anything.)

An equally difficult problem is that I’m no longer working alongside those aspiring professionals. Or anyone. I’m long retired from OSS community involvement, inclusive of the conference circuit. And my employers and side projects since 2020 have been not just remote, but fully remote, as in no in-person human contact, at all, ever, for the whole course of my contracts. (And yes, that’s been absolute shit.) In order to understand people, I need to see them, and speak with them, and hear them, and listen to them, and work with them. I need to do that in real life, not from a Zoom screen.

So it’s very hard for me to know what to say to people like that email’s writer, when my personal and professional experiences are exponentially removed from their own, and when I’ve been separated from normal human contact for so long that my basic communications abilities have taken a knock.

So I’m going to turn this dilemma over to you: the folks, after all, I write this blog for.

If that email above sounds like something you could have written, what would you need to make it happen?
In what form would you need it?
Do I need to write another book?
Do I need to get back to conference speaking?
Do I need to draw up some sort of curriculum?
Do I need to make this work a side project or the main focus?
Who do I need to work with to make, well, more of me?

What would work for you? Please reply in the comments.

Header photo by me: standing at the crossroads of life, summer 2022.

The Author

I’m a tech policy wonk based in Glasgow, Scotland. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any previous employer. On that subject, I am on the market again; usual rules apply.