"Oh, I try to be a good person I wonder if it's annoying Or worth pursuing And pursuing And pursuing Down highways At the risk of the road" —Bill Callahan, "The Ballad of The Hulk" (Audio version of this email: /consulting-pipeline-podcast/cpp-137-platform-power-responsibility/) Ever seen a frail, elderly woman have a panic attack because it's Detroit in the middle of winter and Detroit is not her home and her connecting flight got canceled and her husband is waiting for her on the other end and she doesn't have a way to let him know and she's alone and scared and confused and in a shuttle van going to a cheap motel the airline got for her until the next flight tomorrow? I have, and then I saw a shuttle van driver who certainly earned at or near minimum wage care for her as if she was his own grandmother. This became a model for me of how to be a good person. See someone in distress; do everything you can to help them. I've rarely lived up to it, but my wife often has. I've been puzzling over how to be in the world over the past weeks. Many of the world's systems are systematically unfair or intentionally cruel to out-groups. This is a really serious issue we must talk about and take action to address, and it sparked another corollary thought I wanted to think about here. Regardless of what tailwind of privilege you and I were or were not gifted in life, some of us have an audience. Unless you are from the British royal family or a child of a celebrity, if you have an audience, it's because you decided to build that audience. You were not born with it. Maybe you have a small audience — some friends and family you're connected to via social media — and it's accrued in the unintentional way cat hair builds up on a sweater. You could convince me you didn't intentionally build that audience. But for the most part, if you have more than a few dozen people on an email list or more than a few hundred social media connections, you've almost certainly arrived there through intention, planning, and action. You've overridden the default, which is to have no audience. My puzzling over things recently has led me to this: the kind-shuttle-van-driver-in-Detroit model for being a good person doesn't work if you have an audience. It's a good model, but it's a good model for one-to-one interactions, not one-to-many interactions between an individual business owner and an audience. Going about your life and doing what you can to help those you encounter who might be in distress and then going on about your life again isn't enough when you have an audience. Being the custodian of an audience brings with it additional responsibility. We need to think about this.
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A few important supporting points:
- If you can regularly reach an audience, you have a platform. (Software like Microsoft Windows and Amazon AWS are platforms too, but not the kind of platform I'm talking about here.)
- Platforms are similar to wealth, but not subject to the taxation or laws that actual wealth is.
- Platforms are similar to power, but not subject to the laws and norms that actual power is.
- Platforms are therefore most similar to soft power.
- For the last 20 years, building a platform has been easier than at any other time in human history. It's not equally easy for everyone, but it's relatively easier for all of us because of the Internet and digital tools.
- As a result, there are lots of people — me included — who have a platform, which is similar to having wealth and power.
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Here's the problem. Lots of us also really suck at using soft power. I'm sorta good at using soft power for my own benefit. But I think I'm not good at using soft power to serve a greater good. Soft power is an invitation to greater responsibility. This responsibility looks like taking risks with power to help those who need help. In the context of a street protest, taking risks with power might look like a white person interposing their body between a Black protester and a police officer threatening violence. In the context of a business with staff, it might look like forcefully shutting down a difficult-to-replace employee's harassment and then quickly firing them if they don't change. Since I'm never in a million years going to attend a street protest and I'm unlikely to build a team of employees, I have to find other ways to use my soft power. There's lots of opportunity to do that. But like I said, I'm not good at it. Honest to God, here's my first reflex when there's an opportunity to take a risk with my soft power at the cost of my comfort: "Oh, my platform isn't really that powerful. It's smaaaaall. It's not where I have the most leverage." When I retreat into these weasel-ey excuses, I start to look like the business that is actually doing great but mysteriously has no taxable revenue, year after year. That's an imperfect example, but you get the gist, right? This investing in a platform, personally leveraging its benefits, but shirking from sharing the benefit thing isn't good enough. I call BS on myself for having used this excuse. I grew up in the church and I know the Jesus of Mark 12:41 would call BS on it too.
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There is also the question of being responsible as an expert. This isn't a BS excuse to avoid taking risks with soft power; it's a real form of complexity that affects us. And it makes the question, discussion, and answer gets trickier than anyone can possibly fit into a single tweet. :) My platform is built around expertise. I built it to attract opportunity for my business by sharing that expertise. Part of what makes any expertise platform work is focus; a focus on the expertise. It's not entirely about the expertise, but it's not about the person behind it the way celebrity platforms are. Celebrities and British royalty can use their platforms in very wide-ranging ways. Experts dilute their platform's power if they stray from their topic too far or in disjointed ways. Additionally, experts — licensed or not — risk malpractice if they're too loosey goosey with their advice. If you've earned the trust of your audience's members by focusing on your expertise, and then you stray outside your expertise in a way that harms audience members, you've perhaps accidentally, but still seriously misused their trust. That's what I'd be doing if I gave you investment or medical advice. It might not for-sure harm you, but the potential for harm would be too high.
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So here we platform custodians are; hands holding powerful levers we are not great at using for the greater good. We know we have a form of soft power. We know there's an opportunity to use it to benefit others, and we know we generally suck at wielding soft power because:
- Our main skill with soft power is using it for our own benefit.
- As unlicensed professionals we're not guided by strong norms about using soft power.
- As self-made experts we're rightly concerned about diluting our platform's focus because that focus is the primary source of our current and future ability to do good in the world.
If we think of our platform in the way universities must be thinking about their endowments right about now, we want to deploy our platform's resources powerfully now but without drawing the endowment fund down too far and threatening our ability to do good over the long haul. We want to balance action and longevity. So how might we share from our surplus of power? Here are some ideas I'm trying to embrace: Direct amplification: To me this looks like recruiting voices that are topically relevant and come from different races or ethnicities and asking them if they want to reach my email list audience and then amplifying their message to my audience. Or if we're talking about a share-without-permission environment (social media), this looks like the same thing but just going ahead and retweeting or otherwise re-sharing their message. Inclusive community-building: If a platform looks more like a community than a broadcast medium, this looks like working to find and invite members who are not of the community's dominant or majority race/ethnicity. The work certainly can't end with the invitation; it has to extend to the ongoing management of that community. Call out shitty behavior. Many of us have — through our platform — a direct connection to a part of the culture where shit ain't right. Ex: White dudes are super overrepresented in tech, and many of y'all are connected to that part of the culture, and your platform is too. This gives you leverage, and an ability to deploy your platform's soft power to try to make things better. It's up to you whether you actually do that, but it's an opportunity that's well within your "sphere of influence". Remain steadfast after the wave has crested: Systems that actively deprive out-groups of opportunity weren't built overnight. They won't be changed overnight either. What will I do to continue using my platform's soft power responsibly when there's no longer a gale force tailwind of social media content pushing me in this direction? Quietly give of financial surplus to platforms (charities, activism groups, etc.) that are better positioned for impact: This might be the best form of leverage some of us have. Maybe some of us can't figure out (yet) how to use our platform's soft power directly, so we use it indirectly by giving money to others who have platforms that are better positioned to have the kind of impact we'd like to support. Finally, I think we should consider a portfolio approach to doing good in the world. Sure, some of us might be so constrained that we can only focus on one way of helping others, but we can probably do more. Just as a portfolio approach to investment can be smart, we might be able to balance our investment in the health of society across multiple leverage points.
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My main fear about publishing this article is not generating disagreement, conflict, or unsubscribes. My main fear is that I won't live up to what I can clearly see is a better way to wield the soft power I have. If at any point you see me falling short, I will be grateful for you letting me know. At the risk of the road, -P