Say Something



You guys know the band James? Early 90s, UK band, most famous in the US for the song “Laid?”

Well, I’ve had a different song of theirs in my head for awhile now. And now, inspired by that less-famous James tune, I’d like to share a few thoughts that, if you’re generous enough with your interpretations, pair nicely with the lyrics to “Say Something.”


You're as tight as a hunter's trap

Hidden well

What are you concealing?

I want to first say that I support the idea of writing about your work, your process, or your professional opinions regarding issues in data visualization. This may be hard to believe, as I am somewhat infamously on the record as saying I specifically do NOT believe that we should write just to write.

However, these are two thoughts I can hold simultaneously. Various LinkedIn-ny career advice columns say that you should write a blog, to help build your audience and network (I suppose) and to demonstrate to potential employers that you are committed to your work in the field (maybe?).

But I say to you: if you write about things that other people also write about, how does that help you stand out?

You’ll only be compared to all the other blogs out there, and unless you’re a writing savant in addition to a dataviz practitioner, you’ll likely wind up worse by comparison to at least a few.

Or, what if you write about things that nobody but you cares about? That won’t build your audience; it’ll turn many of them off, in fact.

A better approach is to interrogate yourself: what SPECIFIC topic, viewpoint, or style can you bring to what you write? Do you have opinions that you can defend? Questions that arise in your mind that are worth writing about, to spark conversation and discussion?

Writing can’t be about saying just anything--it’s about saying SOMETHING. Something specific. Something personal. (Not “it-took-me-years-of-therapy-to-admit-this” kind of personal, but “unique-to-you” personal.)

A reader can easily tell if you truly care about your subject. It comes through in the writing. If you can speak from a personal, distinctive perspective, your stories immediately become more compelling to the reader.

If you can take the risk to share a piece of yourself in your writing--and I understand it isn’t as easy or as viable for some as it is for others--then I urge you to come out from hiding, stop concealing yourself, and say something.

Poker face, carved in stone

Amongst friends, but all alone

Why do you hide

All of us in the data visualization community are fortunate as hell. We learn from and lean on a supportive and diverse cast of colleagues, distributed worldwide. I can’t stress enough how important it is to take advantage of these networks, these global communities of practitioners, built up over years and ever-growing.

In this Internet-compressed world of ours, we have absurdly direct access to experts, mentors, and like-minded peers. Even in relative silence, it’s possible to follow people on social media, consume their vizzes, read their writing, watch their videos, listen to them on podcasts, and so on, and learn a lot simply from doing so.

But you’re among friends, in this world. Why stay silent? Why do you hide? If you learn from or are moved by people’s work, reach out to those creators directly. Ask for help, ask for advice, engage in conversation, or even just introduce yourself and say something sincere about why you’re making contact. When there are guest speakers at your local TUG, talk to them. When you’re at conferences, make an in-person connection.

The worst thing that happens is your interest will be politely accepted, but not reciprocated. The best thing that happens is you find yourself with personal, direct connections to experts in your chosen field of practice: people who can find you, or become your, collaborators; people who can become your champions; people who can guide you through technical and professional difficulties.

Take a drug to set you free Strange fruit from a forbidden tree You've got to come down soon

There’s a joy in having your work noticed. But there’s a danger as well. Public attention, accolades, applause--from strangers!--can be intoxicating, and addictive.

Throwback to my high school theater days: when our one-act comedy was in the state drama festival. We performed in front of a few hundred people, several times, until we reached the finals, when my cast mates and I played to an audience of about 2,000 people.

I will never forget the feeling of that many people genuinely laughing at a line I delivered, or the applause when the scene ended. It’s an incredible thrill, that is; and the sense of satisfaction--and power--is hard to resist. It’s a knowledge that YOUR work caused a reaction from STRANGERS; an emotional, sincere response; and those same strangers appreciate and respect you for it.

Who among us could feel that even once, and not crave more?

The same feelings can erupt unbidden when our creations suddenly (or eventually) get noticed and lauded by peers...and then by strangers...and then by people we look up to...and then by EVERYONE, by which I mean an audience orders of magnitude greater than anything we’ve ever had see our work before.

The dangerous, insidious satisfaction we get from others' approval can easily become an obsessive need for it; just as the feeling of dissatisfaction, after the moment in the limelight fades away, can be so depressing as to resemble withdrawal. What then? How do we react?

Basing your happiness and satisfaction on the opinions of others, particularly STRANGERS FROM THE INTERNET, is a fool’s errand. Online acclaim is not unlike strange fruit from a forbidden tree. Chasing it is folly; the rewards, fleeting; the satisfaction, diminishing; the effect on your work, deleterious. No matter how high the initial buzz...you’ve got to come down soon.

I don't have great advice here, other than to be mindful of the potentially corruptive effects of even limited notoriety; do your best simply to enjoy it when it comes, resist the temptation to chase it, and stay supportive rather than envious when that moment arrives for others.

More than a drug is what I need Need a change of scenery Need a new life

So what’s more valuable and important than the drug of public validation...a change of scenery? Or, more importantly, to CHANGE the scenery?

Likes without value are pure sugar. Accolades without aim are hollow. When you’re ready to create your own publicly-shared, self-determined, self-directed visualizations, you should certainly focus on topics of personal interest to you.

(Now, I know this seems obvious, but: if you’re purely interested in maxing out your reach and your engagement, there are easy shortcuts to take. Topics: pop culture; sports; well-liked and enduring TV shows and movies. Or, you could lean on visual flash: bright, poppy colors; swooping and/or complicated viz types; animation; sound; appealing interaction. Or, create what I like to call a “mirror viz:” something with the express purpose of getting people to look for themselves in the data, easily pumping up your engagement and reach.

(Am I a pot calling the kettle black? You bet I am.)

Beyond the view counts and retweets, what is your goal in creating public, self-determined, self-directed visualizations? What’s in it for you?

Actually, wait. That’s the wrong question. The right question is: What’s in it for ME?

That’s right: me, the audience, the viewer: what effect will this creation have on my life? Will it entertain me? Inspire me? Will it enlighten me, make me question something I never challenged before? Will it educate me to something I’ve never heard about? Will it make me laugh at first and then think later? Will it spur me to action?

How will your creation change my scenery? How will my life be different, even incrementally, for having seen your work?

This might seem like a high bar to set, a difficult goal to achieve. But really all it boils down to is having a perspective on an issue, or an interesting interpretation of existing data, or an affecting debut of newly mined or collected data, or a powerful visual representation, or a distinctive take on old ideas, or a new way of seeing something common.

Really, all of these are different ways of restating the very simple directive: say something. Say something. Anything.

Say something / say something / anything I've shown you everything Give me a sign

Does this make any sense? Or is this song-based framework just too tortured?

Say something / say something / anything Your silence is deafening Pay me in kind

Anyway, now I’m here at the end of the post, having tried to put a fair bit of myself into the writing...which is scary. It’s hard to leave yourself wide open to criticism. Even more so when you’re not all that sure if your points made any sense at all to your audience.

But I hope so.

I hope more people are encouraged to give of themselves when they write about their journeys; and to be brave and proactive in forging closer bonds within our amicable, mutually-supportive world; and to take caution when first tasting the sweet flavors of heightened notoriety; and to realize the power they have to affect people’s lives with their own abilities and creativity.

Have I managed to motivate you in such a way? I’m wondering.

I'm open / wide open / wondering Have you swallowed everything Pay me in kind

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