Why I don't write lists of influential people

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jun 29, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Summer is a-coming in, and the entire tech sector is entering its annual slowdown. One way you can tell is that lists of influential people are starting to appear. It's a type of story that I've never written, and hope that I never will.

I understand why lists of influential people are popular. If you regularly write about a certain topic -- free software, for instance, to take a random example -- then lists of influential people are an easy assignment. You should be able to start writing in five minutes, a preparation time that fits right into the lazy days of summer.

Yet to my mind, such stories are too easy. They're the kind of story that Buzzfeed specializes in, conveying little new or useful information. Not every story can be one for the historical record, but I prefer to leave readers with at least one interesting thought, even in a list story. By contrast, a list of influential people is mostly a rearrangement of facts that the target audience already knows.

Which brings up another reason why I dislike such stories: they are more a way to generate discussion than to offer information or insights. Certainly, if you write a story ranking the top seven music players or text editors, opinion enters into the article, but if the article is competently written, the number of objects under discussion is small enough that the article may actually  inform readers, and avoiding concrete references is impossible. But how do you choose the most influential people out of thousands in free software? Unlike with a technical feature, there is no single set of features that they all share.

The same problem exists when you try to list books or music. The most you can do is list personal preferences. The subjectivity is so extreme that your main responses will be complaints about one item being on your list, or about why another item wasn't concluded, all of which seems to me an endless exercise  with no purpose except to meet the writers' looming deadline.

Love is bad for business
However, the problem is not just that listing influential people is a sterile exercise. Just as seriously, it becomes a self-fulling prophecy. By that I mean that, once you place someone in such a list, you are apt to continue to pay them close attention, possibly at the expense of other equally important people. The problem is not an attempt to justify including them so much as a natural selection process for deciding what is worth covering.

Even worse, I have noticed that, once a writer lists a person as a luminary, they tend to report uncritically. For example, some years ago, I logged into the Linux.com chat to discover another writer working, much against his will, to report on a fading luminary's comment on a current issue. "Are you sure that the comment is worth reporting?" I asked. I was being flippant, but, after a few moments, the other writer admitted I was right, and saved himself an evening of work. He was so accustomed to reporting on the luminary that he had never stopped to evaluate what he was doing.

A similar lack of critical analysis exists today with Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu and Canonical Software. Inevitably, any comment by Shuttleworth is reported on news sites that cover free software at face value. No one questions that his assertions are newsworthy, or notes when his views are questionable, to such a degree that the free software media almost becomes an extension of Canonical marketing.

Nobody can blame Shuttleworth for taking advantage of such coverage -- it's the kind that any business would love to have -- but you can blame journalists for treating him so gently.  But the only analysis he is likely to get is on blogs and social media, which are less likely to receive headlines unless they win the Slashdot lottery.

But even when these alternate sources receive notice, they are often harsher than Shuttleworth deserves, perhaps in an unconscious attempt to compensate for the uncritical coverage of major media centers. In other words, identifying someone as important can corrupt not only the person doing the identifying, but their colleages as well.

The illusion of leadership
Journalism often single out people as leaders or as representatives of issues. The practice is a way of humanizing otherwise abstract topics, and often a necessity due to lack of space. However, not only can it lead to less effective coverage, but the practice has always seemed to me profoundly against the culture of free software.

Free software is far from the meritocracy many claim it to be.  However, one of its most attractive features can be the relatively flat organizational structure. Should you manage to become accepted into the inner circles of a project, you can often earn a voice in planning. In fact, the myth of meritocracy is strong enough that this flat structure can even exist semi-officially in organizations with a free software connection.

However, once the media singles out someone as influential, this situation can be disrupted. A person who is actually first among equals or just one member of a team, is suddenly elevated beyond their actual status. Only a person with a clear sense of purpose can resist this tendency, which is probably one reason why Linus Torvalds consistently sounds modest; he understands that what matters is his work rather than him. For his own sake, if no one else's, he is resisting the role that the media wants to cast him in.

The practice of making heroes out of specific individuals is so widespread in journalism that I am sure I have done it many times myself. In fact, I know I have. However, making lists of influential people is an avoidable part of this practice, which is why I will have nothing to do with it. It's bad reporting, without a redeeming feature.

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