Elitism in web design

Paul Boag

Every time I attend a web design conference the same issue raises it ugly head; elitism. This time around it seems to be targeted at the Brit Pack.

I have just gotten off the phone with Andy Clarke. I was arranging for him to come on next weeks .net podcast. While chatting he asked if he could discuss the issue of elitism because the members of the Brit Pack were coming under criticism for it at SXSW. He has just posted about it on his blog and I thought I would share my thoughts on the subject as I find myself in the strange position of having a foot in both camps.

The Brit Pack Booze Up?

As you probably already know if you listen to my podcast, Boagworld was a joint sponsor of the Great British Booze Up, a party at SXSW. It was a hugely successful evening mainly thanks to the hard work of Andy Budd and the clear:left team who put an enormous amount of effort in making the evening work. However, I did find myself getting irritated a number of times throughout the evening when people referred to it as a Brit Pack event. It wasn’t a Brit Pack event as I was one of the primary sponsors and I am not a member of the Brit Pack. Things came to a head for me when somebody said exactly the same thing yet again while I was standing next to Andy Clarke. I finally cracked and very pointedly explained that it wasn’t a Brit Pack event because I wasn’t a member. Andy, to his credit immediately turned around and said he would make sure I was added.

What was interesting was how this made me feel. On one hand I was really pleased. It made me feel like I had “made the big time” in someway and that my contribution to the community was valued. However, on the other hand it pissed me off because what Andy obviously didn’t remember was that I asked if I could join back in 2005 (when the world had yet to be exposed to the wonder that was my podcast) and he very politely said no.

Is it okay to exclude others?

So was Andy wrong to exclude me back in 2005? Am I only now being offered a place because I am more well known? Is the Brit Pack an elitist group that only allows in the select and “famous” few?

Personally I feel that there maybe an element of elitism but if there is it is certainly not intentional and it is not something we should be criticizing. Sure, back in 2005 I was somewhat annoyed that I wasn’t accepted into the “club” and felt excluded for not being “famous” enough. But I think that was my problem and not Andy’s. To him it was just a few of his mates on a mailing list chatting. I wanted to join simply to be associated with that group of people who I respected and admired. I didn’t really have much to contribute and was more interested in promoting my site through the Brit Pack than I was in adding anything of value. Andy didn’t know me from Adam and was perfectly within his rights to protect his group of friends.

Networking happens

Everybody is trying to impress somebody at SXSW. Everybody wants to speak to those who they admire and this can lead to some hurt feelings along the way. I remember speaking to a hero of mine (who shall remain nameless) and we were having a very nice conversation up until the point he spotted somebody more important. Instantly he ended the conversation and moved on to this new person. I was incredibly hurt by this until I caught myself doing exactly the same thing to somebody who listens to the show! I didn’t do it on purpose, and I suspect neither did the person with whom I was talking. It was just that this was the first time I had seen the person all week and didn’t want to miss the opportunity.

I guess what I am saying is that we need to accept that friendship groups are okay and that networking is an important part of these large conferences. It occurs in every walk of life and is not within itself a bad thing.

Maybe the guys in the Brit Pack have been a little naive about how they are perceived and the influence they have. They probably don’t realize they are in the “cool club” and to be honest I think we need to keep it that way. After all imagine how much worse it would if they knew how much we all wanted to emulate them :)

My advise is that if you feel excluded from a group like the Brit Pack you have one of three choices. Set up your own group (which is after all how the Brit Pack came about), start adding real value to the community until they finally come around and recognise your contribution, or bitch about it. The choice is yours.