Thoughts on the importance of the vote in light of #drumpf & #brexit

Yesterday I was angry, and very disappointed in the world. It’s exactly what I felt on 23rd June, when the UK voted to leave the EU. The dust has settled a bit in the last 24 hours and I have been thinking a few things I wanted to write down.

As a liberal and someone who wants positive change in this world (go Ada’s List), those feelings of depression, anger and frustration are unsurprising. The vast majority of people I know felt just as I did on both occasions.

The thing is, that’s the problem. This election has woken me up to the fact that it is not OK that the people I know are largely, like me, educated, comfortable in their surroundings, privileged and middle class. And that some of them do not feel strongly enough about things that affect all of us.

Of Trump’s victory, the reasons put forth are varied and complex. Maybe the media is to blame, but so are we – they feed off clicks, so if stories about Trump’s sexual misdemeanours make them more money than his views on education (hardly covered) then that’s where they’ll go. Maybe technology is to blame – Facebook has admitted they have a problem, and during this election they probably have been a ‘sewer of misinformation’. Perhaps the American electoral system, in yesterday’s case, is also to blame – Trump won the Electoral College but he did not win the popular vote. The incredibly negative campaigns run by both parties probably contributed to voter apathy, resulting in many people not turning up at all. And we cannot ignore race and gender as reasons for Clinton not making it – white men voted overwhelmingly for Trump, and so did most 45+ white women, especially Conservatives – the CNN’s Jill Filipovic explains this phenomenon.

But all that makes it easy to place the blame on others, not on myself, or, as is being theorised now, the neoliberals (not that I am part of the Davos set – far from it, but hopefully you get what I mean).

There are many complicated reasons why Clinton lost, but the one that I want to dwell on is voter turnout, which is currently reported to be 56.5%, lower than the turnout at the last election (remarkably, in the case of Brexit, voter turnout was actually much higher than expected – 72.2%, though of course with a much smaller population than the US overall).

Very simply, not enough people turned up to vote in America, and not enough Remain supporters turned up for the Brexit vote, despite the better-than-average turnout in the latter.

Voter turnout is not the whole reason Clinton lost (see above, and yes, I truly do believe that many American people were just not ready for a female President, even though countries in Africa and Asia have had them for ages), but it’s ‘an important subplot’ as Vox says:

Clinton garnered 129,000 fewer votes in heavily Democratic Detroit than Obama did four years ago — and lost the state by around 61,000 total votes.

She also got 95,000 fewer votes in heavily Democratic Milwaukee than Obama did — and lost the state by 73,000 total votes.

This is why I’ve been bothered. With Brexit, I actually know people who simply did not turn up to vote – laziness or sheer apathy is all I can attribute it to. And I’m ashamed that I did not stand up and shout. I did not make my opinion known and chastise them. When everyone sat down at the pub to discuss politics, I did not make my thoughts on the importance of the vote clear, especially when, as a woman, we did not have it till a few decades ago. And that’s what results in an ‘extinction-level event’ that puts women and ethnic minorities at risk.  

I will be quiet no longer.

If you do not vote, you do not have a voice. You, by default, are then leaving it to those who can be bothered, because they are angry or frustrated enough by the lack of economic opportunity and what they see as ‘outsiders’ taking what they think should be theirs – and what resonates with them sometimes, as we have now seen, is racist, sexist rhetoric.

The penalty will need to be paid by the minorities.

The people I know who do not vote, some of whom, as I said earlier, are comfortable, undeterred by high taxes because they can afford it, are part of the problem. I will treat them as such going forward.

At least I will have a clearer conscience.

Summary of Ada’s List event: Talent + Gender + Ethnicity – where are the women of colour in tech?

Last week, during London Technology Week, Ada’s List was proud to organise a panel discussion on a topic close to our hearts: how to increase the number of people of colour (especially women) in the technology industry. We state our ambition on this matter very clearly in our Agenda: the technology industry needs diversity of people and thought to make the products and services that emerge as successful as possible.

Over the last few years, there has been a significant increase in the number of groups and individuals talking about gender diversity. We decided it was time to focus on diversity of background in addition to this. We assembled a very talented (and yes, diverse) panel: Ade Adewunmi (Head of Data Infrastructure at Government Digital Service), Ade Oshineye (Developer Advocate at Google) and Arfah Farooq (co-founder of the Muslamic Makers meetup and Head of Marketing at Makers Academy), moderated by Ada’s List’s Kajal Odedra (Senior Campaigns Advisor at

Being a person of colour in tech

The panel started by discussing their experiences of being a person of colour in tech. On the positive side, it is easy for people to remember them because they are such a rarity. On the negative, there’s a lack of role models because there aren’t enough people of colour in the first place. Also sometimes, finding a safe space to be yourself at work is hard; for example, if you’re a practicing Muslim then you need a space to pray during the day. As a person of colour who uniquely experiences certain issues, they often have to decide whether to make a big deal of something or let it pass; as one of the panelists said, that is often exhausting.

On tokenism

With many companies committing to diversity in hiring these days, it is not unusual to think of ‘diverse’ hires as token hires, made simply to fill that quota. On the one hand, no one wants to be seen as a token hire, but on the other, that may be the only way to enter that company in the first place, from where you are in a position to change the status quo and get more people of colour on board. There is an assumption that the status quo is absolutely fair and there is no need for quotas, as one of our panelists said, but that is not the case – so quotas are not a bad thing. As she eloquently put it:

‘when you’ve never had to share, equity feels like oppression’.

On diversity in large vs. smaller companies

Lack of diversity is very often a structural problem – i.e a cultural problem, not a pipeline one. Humans have only so much empathy and sometimes they cannot see why a specific issue is a problem, especially if as a white male you’ve never experienced them. However, being a structural problem, structural solutions need to be put in place to tackle it as a matter of importance – otherwise no one does anything about it in a concerted manner. No doubt, for larger organisations it’s often easier to care because they have the resources to throw at the problem – also in today’s world they have to (witness how Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter all got called out when their diversity statistics were discovered recently). For smaller organisations, the key is in the founding team: if they are not empathetic, then cultural problems will pervade no matter what you do. It is important to remember, however, that having a diverse founding team does not automatically guarantee diversity of workforce: sometimes diverse founders are not very inclusive at all (and this is often seen in the media when senior people from different ethnicities in the tech industry say they believe in ‘hiring only on talent’ – whoever said that hiring a diverse workforce would mean you need to compromise on that?!).

One of the panelists made an interesting point on spreading awareness of your culture even if you are the only person of colour in your organization: though it is often tiring to have that burden, if you don’t do it no one will, and people often appreciate learning about new cultures. Another of our panelists added to that, and warned that if you get a reputation for being difficult, or worse, get fired, then you have no way of helping others in any way – that knowledge of how much to assert your point of view regarding diversity is a very delicate balance that you only learn to achieve with experience. It is also crucial to challenge senior people in companies who have clear prejudices, or make wrong comments. Sometimes the bias is unconscious, but it still needs to be called out, and again you can only have those conversations if you are at that senior level yourself and share a relationship with people at that level that will not put your career in jeopardy if you speak to them about these subjects.

Tactics to get a skilled diverse workforce

Go for structural solutions: for example, Thoughtworks sponsors free coding scholarships for women at Makers Academy, where they ensure candidates are from diverse backgrounds. These candidates then get the chance to be hired by ThoughtWorks. In a similar move, a few years ago Etsy sponsored female students at Hacker School in New York and increased the number of women on the team by 500%.

Give unconscious bias training to all employees: People usually think of themselves as good people who are not biased. Making this training compulsory might help people see that they aren’t bad individuals, but they need to be aware of their inherent bias so they can tackle it. This is particularly important for managers who are in a hiring position. Facebook and Google both offer this training, and Facebook’s Managing Bias training course is available for free online.

Managers, push back on shortlists that are not 50-50 male-female: I am increasingly hearing positive stories of enlightened, informed managers in the tech industry who are pushing back at recruitment and HR teams if they are given candidate shortlists that are not equally split in male/female representation. Managers are in a very strong position to make a difference, and pushing back that bit can really help the diversity of teams and companies in the long run – even if you have to keep a position open for a little while longer than you’d like when your own manager is asking questions.

Get diverse experts in to talk to your teams: A lot of companies organise events for their employees or the wider industry. Instead of inviting white men to take the stage repeatedly, make sure you get people of colour and women on a regular basis so that becomes normal, not unusual. This will of course be difficult but it’s important to send the signal because, as one of our panelists experienced, there are men who sometimes do not see women as experts in coding (for example) because they have never known or worked with a senior female developer in the industry before, and are not used to taking instructions or lessons from them.

All in all, an important set of questions and very interesting answers that I personally was proud to be a part of on behalf of Ada’s List. Thanks to all our panellists for a great evening.

Random thoughts on media

We’re at an interesting crossroads in media right now, in terms of the multiplicity of formats and platforms available to publish stories on. That much I think everybody will agree with. Chat bots, virtual reality, augmented reality, live 360 degree streaming, podcast binging – you’d almost be forgiven for thinking text and video were done. OK, I jest. Text certainly isn’t done – it’s why this print ad above by Tate Britain seemed so engaging to me yesterday when I saw it in the local newspaper.


They’ve *described* a painting. It’s rather evocative. There are lots of Instagrammers whose best posts are actually text too, despite the fact that Instagram is, prima facie, a visual medium. People will hack things to do what they want it to, as long as it isn’t too complicated.

But before we get to users of a platform, we need to address the creators of the content (why Instagram isn’t tweaking features to incorporate some of these hacks is beyond me – no wait, it’s because their main focus now is making money; thanks Facebook). This is where what Jessica Brillhart, principal VR filmmaker at Google, said in this Motherboard piece makes a lot of sense:

If a VR film is trying to get people to look where they’re supposed to, it’s already asking the wrong question.

“It’s more, how do we craft an entirety of a world to be able to harness the agency of the viewer being able to look wherever they want to look,” Brillhart said. “To see it as world-building, instead of trying to put things in a box.”

And so we’re talking about the immense power that content creators now have (they have always had power; it is why publishing houses are so powerful) but technology makes this anyone’s game, and there is a real need for more diverse stories to be told at this emerging stage of this technology. It’s part of why Minecraft is so brilliant, and why No Man’s Sky is so anticipated – the power to create and explore is distributed, not concentrated.

From a creator’s perspective, one can either get bogged down by this, or we can focus on the future. As Joshua Topolsky says,

….if you want to make something really great, you can’t think about making it great for everyone. You have to make it great for someone.

So as with VR and the potential to forge a new world, content creators today can choose to get sucked in by the need for distribution (I’m not taking this lightly, but I tend towards leaving it to the professionals like Medium who seem to be on fire lately, or if you have tens of thousands or a few millions to spare, then the sky is your limit) or focus on telling stories that matter to people who want to listen.

Finally, #IAMW16 in my words (and then a bit)

There are conferences and then there are conferences. When Andres Colmenares got in touch late last year to ask if I was interested in speaking at their Internet Age Media Conference in April this year, I was curious, and all I read and saw about it online was positive, so I said yes (it was also in Barcelona!). In the following few months leading up to the conference, I got to know the IAM team better, met them in person when they were over in London on work, and began working on my talk.

I’d like to mention the collegial culture – more of a community – that Andres and Lucy, the organisers of IAM, are creating, two years on from the launch of the conference. A few of last year’s speakers were in attendance again, for no other reason than to be part of it again. It helped that no one really had to dash away to their offices, and it was a fairly global audience, from all over Europe and some from the US – you didn’t feel like you were just speaking to the same people you know from work.

The passionate talks by the publishers of niche media really stood out for me: Oslo-based Recens Paper (a youth culture magazine targeted at 16-25 year olds founded by 16 year-old Elise By Olsen), Brownbook Magazine (based in Dubai, and catering to the Middle East and North Africa region), Freunde von Freunden (or Friends of Friends, by Berlin-based agency More Sleep), and Stack Magazines (a subscription-based business that sends out a different indie magazine every month). It wasn’t surprising to hear more than one member of the audience ask the same question: ‘how do you make money?’ (there’s no easy answer).

Zach Seward on the genesis and evolution of Quartz’ new-ish bot-based iPhone news app was also fascinating. It is impressive that every single talk by a Quartz employee that I’ve seen so far (mostly in London; this was the only non-UK based one I’ve seen in person) has been so open in terms of truly opening the business up to the audience. You really get the sense that they are about the future of publishing, not steeped in legacy as so many news publications are today. The only other publication that comes to mind when I think of that ethos is Medium – which I know is not a ‘publication’ in the traditional sense of the word, but their engineers are so focussed on product and market fit that yesterday’s news of the $50m Series C round did not seem surprising to me at all; witness this from an interview this month with Ev Williams:

“If you look at feedback loops like likes and retweets, they’ve been very carefully crafted to maximise certain types of behaviours. But if we reward people based on a measurement system where there’s literally no difference between a one-second page view or reading something that brought them value or changed their mind, it’s like – your job is feeding people, but all you’re measuring is maximising calorie delivery. So what you’d learn is that junk food is more efficient than healthy, nourishing food.”

Anyway, that was an aside. Back to IAM – also check out Exposed Magazine, which came out of the incubator at CIID in Copenhagen last year: a dual media publication in the form of a printed magazine and a free iPhone app that recognises images inside the magazine, with additional content. I got a copy.

John Willshire gave a thought-provoking talk on meta-mechanics (or how the internet works, or should) in true Smithery style – it’s up here. The ‘future of museums’ was also neat – the past meets the present and future – and we were brought up close and personal with people from Rhizome (affiliated to New York’s New Museum), the Tate (their Tate Collectives division, working to engage young people with museums, has some cool projects like last year’s hilarious 1840s GIF party in their portfolio) and the V&A (who launched a sleek new website last week in collaboration with Made by Many).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the very experimental internet-y things during the conference, like Domestic Data Streamers‘ real-life emoji experiment after each talk (you had to put up one of 5 emojis that were handed out at the beginning of the conference, to indicate your opinion about it), and Sergio Albiac’s code-as-art experiment with the attendee badges. This was mine (it involved speaking into a laptop for a minute, and getting a picture taken):


Anyhow, back to my talk, which happened to open the first day of the conference (no pressure). It was broadly about internet culture, seen through the lens of my work with Ada’s List and the Other Valleys. There’ll hopefully be a video soon, but till then, here are my slides.

Lucy and Andres, thank you for the opportunity. And to the entire IAM family – YOU ROCK.

Ice Cream for Everyone – with Willem VDH and me

It’s been a busy few weeks, but I just wanted to emerge to post this podcast by strategist Willem van der Horst, who interviewed me a few weeks ago for his new podcast series. It was a very wide-ranging chat and covered my interests, work, side projects, life philosophy and more. If that sounds interesting to you, give it a whirl. A list of the varied things we touched upon are here.

Thanks, Willem!

Stop wasting money on digital projects if you aren’t prepared to promote them properly by @marthasadie via @storythings

This post by Martha Henson is worth reading if you work in media in any format today, because whether you like it or not digital is part of what you do. Thanks to Storythings for the HT. Read the whole thing, I’m just going to pull this bit out:

Stop wasting money on digital projects if you aren’t prepared to promote them properly.

I’m serious. Do NOT embark on any digital project if you aren’t going to at least make a decent effort to tell people about it or otherwise figure out how people are going to see it.

If you are going to make an in-gallery app but only have room for a small piece of signage and no budget or space for print promotion, do not bother. If you are going to create a game and put it on your website and think maybe your organisation might be able to muster up a single tweet and facebook post about it, give up now. If you are creating an amazing interactive video experience but the entire budget is going on production and you’ve run out of money to market it, stop.

Source: Stop wasting money on digital projects if you aren’t prepared to promote them properly

Hospitality Included: One Small Leap for Restaurants

I listened to a fascinating episode of Freaknomics this week, which was about a new way of billing restaurants in New York, spearheaded by Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group (which has fancy restaurants like The Modern and Gramercy Tavern, but also Shake Shack in its portfolio). Called ‘Hospitality Included’, it aims to do away with tipping in favour of a scheme that pays employees more fairly and removes the ‘how much should I leave as a tip’ guessing game for patrons. It basically means raised prices in the menu – which interestingly patrons don’t mind, and neither do servers who typically get the lion’s share of tips, as the data below and in the episode indicate. Danny Meyer piloted it with The Modern, so this episode is largely about learnings from there.

Key takeaways which prove, as he says, that ‘doing the right things is the most profitable thing’:

  • job applications for cooks in the restaurant were +270% from -50% for the previous 7 months (this is because cooks were paid really badly earlier) – their pay was up by 20%
  • job applications for servers were up by 25% for the first month of the trial, 100% for the second and 200% for the most recent month they have data for
  • the average amount per bill is the same (so no loss)
  • customer rating for the restaurant on OpenTable is up 12%
  • December 2015 was their most successful month ever (by that time they were about 6 weeks in with Hospitality Included) – this was helped by the fact that they had incredible positive PR as a result of the scheme
  • managers of the other restaurants in the group all want to be next to try this out

It’s well worth listening to the whole episode – I actually went back and listened to parts of it again. The purely numbers-led folk can’t argue with a bump in revenues. It’s really interesting to see these behavioural economics experiments in action, and even better to see them succeed.