Making space for others
And I'd like to help
TL;DR — I think providing a space for people to participate in the broader data community is important. So I now have a standing policy where if anyone wants to send me something they created, I’ll gladly provide feedback, critique, or share it out (if it’s relevant) on Twitter or this newsletter.
Last week, someone emailed me an article they wrote, a fun detailed dive into using logistic regression for lead scoring, sprinkled with references to The Office. It’s a good read for someone who’s never used the method and wants lots of example code as well as a walk-through of detailed reasoning for why certain things are done.
Meanwhile, just this weekend I finished running the 6th annual visual novel developer’s conference, which I started organizing because there just wasn’t a place for people interested in the hyper niche genre to discuss things.
So these things got me thinking a bit about the importance of “making space” for people to do things.
How I benefitted from having space made for me
Three years ago, I bumbled into the whole data writing space because someone tweeted a question about doing data science at small startups, and I wrote a huge thing in response because I had lived that exact situation for a decade. Sean then felt it was good and shared it… with over 20k Twitter followers. Those people wound up finding it useful and shared it. That led to interesting conversations and meeting other interesting data folk.
The validation of “other people in the field that I respect think what I wrote is worth reading and sharing” was what kept me writing more posts over time. Over time, as I grew more comfortable and confident in this space, it now feels like I’m contributing to a ongoing conversation about things.
This stands in stark contrast to many many years ago before the social media boom when blogging was a primary means of tech writing. There was no feedback except anonymous pageview stats, or the occasional comment. If you were super lucky you’d get a link from someone else and maybe they wrote about your stuff. Everything was a pretty horrid game of SEO and absolute blind luck. Since there was little feedback as to whether anything I did mattered, I lost motivation very quickly.
The main difference between the two situations is that another human took the time, through a very simple act of sharing a post or providing a comment, to make a little bit of space in the community for me.
Making space can be difficult
I learned most of what I know about making space during the 6 years I worked at Meetup (way before all the drama around WeWork). I spoke and watched organizers run their groups and did research on the tools to help them be more effective organizers. Later, I dove in and ran my own Go club on the platform for years.
The hardest thing about making a space and being an organizer is that you have to put yourself out there first. It’s scary because there’s no good way to test the waters first and you get instant feedback if things are going poorly. A lot of people get stuck at this point, because it does feel like jumping off a cliff.
But time and time again, I saw people decide to just give it a shot based on nothing more than “it’d be nice if someone else wanted to do the same thing”… and to their surprise, lots of people wanted to do the same thing, whether it was line dancing, origami, hiking, playing board games, or exploring town.
Tired cliches aside, it’s really true that on the open internet, if you mark out a space to do something and got 1000 people to take a look, some percentage will be interested. One of Meetup’s main selling points was they provided the initial infusion of potential members. For the data community, the people who shared my work to their followers provided that.
But it’s also (sorta) simple
Once you’ve put yourself out there and dived off the cliff, the rest is relatively easy — like falling down to the lake below.
When creating an environment for people to do things, there are just tons of silly little details that need to be managed — where do we meet, what time, when do we end, how do we find find the group, when’s lunch? It rarely matters what the content decision is, there’s no best one and almost anything will work. All that’s needed is someone has to pick something, out of a hat if necessary.
This is how events like Data Mishaps Night come to life. The organizers just had to pick Feb 24th to host the event, for any arbitrary reason they could think of. Same for the topic, how to accept submissions and speakers, the code of conduct, what to name it, etc. They made a bunch of little decisions and successfully (if things go like they did at 2021’s event) created a space for data folk to tell stories of their mistakes. All the community has to do is respond and attend.
Space making isn’t just about the leader, but also everyone else
Leaders are important in starting a space, but they’re nothing without people willing to follow and contribute. What’s a conference without the speakers and the audience? What’s a dinner party without guests?
The only reason why the data community works is because if someone dares to put out an event, someone looks at it and says “Yes I will do this!”. Blog posts get uploaded and one person in a thousand takes the time to write “I learned something!”. Data memes get shared. Questions get answered.
All it takes is participation, at all levels.
I want more people to make more spaces in the data community
I wrote about this topic this week because I continue to want the data community to be even more diverse and welcoming than it already is.
I’m not saying that everyone reading this should go out and organize events or write blog posts. But I’d like everyone reading this to realize that you can contribute in meaningful ways. Dare to put out an idea for a new space and see if people are interested. Answer that unanswered data question you saw scrolling by, or pass it on to someone else. Go to a event, have fun, and thank the organizer. It all matters.
For my part, I’ll do my best to use this tiny platform that I have access to, to help people who want to participate in the wider data community. So starting today, I’m adding a standing offer to my usual footer.
If you created something that you’d like to share with the wider data community, or would just like some honest feedback, my email box and DMs are open. There’s lots of people who are probably making great content that just hasn’t gotten noticed yet, and I’d like to share that goodness around. You all know I have very broad interests, and anything that tickles my fancy is fair game — I’ll find a way to make space for it somewhere.
P.S. Don’t worry readers, I’m not a robot so y’all won’t get spammed or anything ridiculous.
About this newsletter
I’m Randy Au, currently a Quantitative UX researcher, former data analyst, and general-purpose data and tech nerd. Counting Stuff is a weekly data/tech newsletter about the less-than-sexy aspects about data science, UX research and tech. With excursions into other fun topics.
All photos/drawings used are taken/created by Randy unless otherwise noted.
Curated archive of evergreen posts can be found at randyau.com
Standing offer: If you created something and would like me to share it w/ the data community, my mailbox and Twitter DMs are open.
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