Posted by Dr. Pete
This post started as a reaction to accusations in the SEO industry that Top X lists, awards, etc. are only going to people’s friends. As I was writing it over what ended up being 2 weeks, I realized just how broad this issue really is, from personal to professional to political. I hope you’ll indulge me as I try to do justice to a topic that goes well beyond SEO.
We all know how it feels to be on the outside looking in. You start out feeling awkward and a little envious, but slowly it turns into something worse – depression, resentment, even rage. Eventually, we find a group to belong to, and the tables turn. No matter how often we were excluded (and maybe because of it), we eventually start to exclude others. It’s a vicious, if all too human, cycle, and it extends to every corner of our social interactions.
My Friends Are The Best
Just ask them; I’m sure they’ll agree. Do we prefer our friends? Do we give them the best opportunities and accolades? Absolutely. This is more than bias, though; it’s the simple reality of relevance. If you ask me who the "best" expert is in some niche of my own field or what the best article is on Topic X, I’m going to immediately draw from what I already know. Stating the obvious, I can’t recommend someone or something that I don’t even know exists.
Of course, there are times when we have a responsibility to dig deeper and look for the best candidates outside of our own limited realm of experience. When I was a graduate student at the University of Iowa, I had the opportunity to be the first student in my department to serve on a faculty search committee. One aspect of that experience that stuck with me was Iowa’s affirmative action policy. It wasn’t about numbers and quotas so much as a core philosophy that we had a professional obligation to search far and wide for the best candidate. We had the duty to leave our comfortable world of people just like us and venture into the world of "them".
Beyond simple relevance is something more powerful, and sometimes more insidious. We all have a natural tendency to take sides, and, once we do, to find reasons why our side is right and the other side is wrong. Psychologists call this "confirmation bias," the often unconscious need to find data that confirms what we already believe. If we like someone, we’ll find reasons to support them and give them the benefit of the doubt. If we dislike someone, we’ll find reasons to be suspicious of everything they say and do. If you think confirmation bias is something only other people have, you’re fooling yourself.
Beyond our friends, confirmation bias quickly begins to apply to all of our cliques and teams. If you’re a sports fan, then that team mentality is usually just harmless fun – associating with your team provides a shared emotional experience. I’m a Cubs fan – believe me when I say that I understand the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, although not in quite the ratio I’d like. What happens, though, when that team mentality starts to apply to things like politics, as we’ve seen far too often over the past couple of decades (on both sides of the fence)? Suddenly, our clique is 50% of the population, and our enemies are the other 50%. At best, it’s divisive. At worst, it breeds hate, violence, and bigotry.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Of course, we all like to think that we’re free from bias, but the power of bias is that the flaws that are obvious in others are often hidden and unconscious in ourselves. If I mention that I do SEO, do you picture a savvy internet guru or spam-spewing snake-oil salesman? If you’re an SEO, and you hear that I work with SEOmoz, do you think I’m a paragon of white-hat virtue or part of Rand’s evil conspiracy to take over the industry? Reality is probably somewhere in between. If I tell you that I voted for Obama, do you see a beacon of liberal hope or a Communist bent on destroying our nation? I can assure you that I am neither. So, how do we get past these labels and start to understand people, whether personally or professionally?
Get to Know People
Social media has given us a difficult dichotomy. On the one hand, it’s never been easier to "friend" people in shallow and meaningless ways. On the other hand, we have the tools to get to know our peers and friends of friends in ways that were never before possible. The next time you friend someone, take a moment and find out something about them. Where are they from? What do they do? What kind of music do they like? Do they blog? If they do, read a post. If you see a label ("liberal", "conservative", "Twilight fan"), don’t jump to conclusions. Give that person a chance to speak for themselves.
Play In a Different Park
It’s easy to be self-righteous when you’re surrounded by your fan-boys and girls. It’s easy to get a standing ovation at your campaign rally when you only invite the people who gave you the most money. If you want perspective, you have to give up the home-field advantage. If you disagree with someone, comment on their post instead of running back home to write a rant. Try guest-blogging – even better, guest-blog in a different industry. Try to explain why SEO is worthwhile to an audience of small business owners, designers or UX professionals. It’ll be a tough sell, but you’ll learn a lot in the process.
When In Doubt, Ask
Social media is a mine field of misunderstanding – if you’re not sure what someone means in that 140-character Tweet, ask them. If they write a blog post that seems like a personal attack, call them. It’s not just about being nice – bad blood runs deep, and today’s simple misunderstanding could destroy relationships and opportunities tomorrow.
Open Your Circle
We all remember the people who excluded us, and we too often hold that fact against the universe. Let it go. When you finally get into that circle, especially your professional circle, try to remember that someone else is still outside looking in. Here are a few ways to give someone else a chance, because we can all use a little good karma:
- Promote other people’s links and awards, even the competition.
- If you’re at a conference talking to a group and you see someone standing outside the circle with that awkward look of faux participation, invite them in.
- Make an introduction to help someone’s career along.
- If someone is new to blogging, comment, subscribe, or even link to them.
- When someone challenges you publicly, listen and think before you counterattack.
- Don’t envy other people’s success – learn from it and improve.
- Every once in a while, shut up and listen.
At the end of the day, those of us who have attained some measure of success need to remember that we all had a little help along the way. Try to return the favor once in a while.
Photo licensed from iStockPhoto.com (Photographer: Hélène Vallée)