Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder
If You Call Me A Thought Leader For This Post I Will Give You A Stern Look
In scifi/fantasy fandom there's this phrase, "Big Name Fan". This is someone who is well-known, influential, for the fannish things they say and do and make. The idea is that a BNF is a minor celebrity -- not at the television-interviews level, but still, within their Internet and convention circles, someone who gathers a crowd, and whose tossed-off words have disproportionate power to help or hurt others.
The chunk of fandom I'm thinking of is, mostly, women. We're socialized to not admit when we have power, and to shut up and use it to serve others. Joanna Russ wrote about this dynamic in "Power and Helplessness in the Women’s Movement"; fan Hope reiterated that expectation in "Nobody Ever Admits They're a BNF", advising Big Name Fans that they get to benefit from feelings of belonging but "You are not allowed to have hurt feelings, you are not allowed to argue with someone, and you absolutely are not allowed to have an opinion." I think the only/first time I've found out that I've been called a BNF, it was in the context of someone criticizing my too-abrupt comments in a Dreamwidth thread; they were disappointed, taken aback, at such a BNF acting in this way.
Given that it's considered arrogant to call oneself a BNF, at least in public, perhaps you can infer how difficult it then is for a person to honestly and transparently reckon with the concomitant opportunities and constraints.
And perhaps you can draw a line from this dynamic to ones in the developer relations industry, or in large collaborative volunteer groups such as major open source projects, etc. If you have an explicit role such as "conference chair" or "professor" or "maintainer" then you know whether you inhabit it or not, you can straightforwardly mention that you hold it, and you and your peers can come up with norms for the special powers and responsibilities that come with it. But absent that? As far as I am aware you do not get a how-to book and access to an all-celebrities group chat upon achieving some number of Twitter followers. A person who has gradually accreted influence must notice that they have more intangible influence than most of the people they talk and listen to, and -- through reflection, study, and private conversation -- develop their own guidelines for how to use that influence.
But: there's how you act, and then there's how everyone else acts toward you. No matter whether or not they get some explicit roles to help everyone understand these kinds of expectations, I think -- at least in the bit of US society that I'm used to, where we have strong egalitarian ideals -- we don't help newly powerful people get used to all those social epiphenomena that will now start brushing against them. Envy, intimidation, and so on. Maybe there are now influencer finishing schools that include "you are now the object of other people's projections and their parasocial interactions with you will get very weird" in their curriculum.
I have counterproductive feelings and habits in my head that relate to this whole issue, around envy, martyrdom, etc. As with the stuff I mentioned earlier this week in "Paralipsis", this blog isn't the right place to work through those things. This week I'm particularly grateful to friends of mine with whom I can talk candidly about this stuff. And if you and I are friends, perhaps we can talk about it too.