May I Have Your Attention, Please?

Automattic has annual “meetups” at which Automatticians are required to give a five minute “flashtalk.” This would be mine:

I want to change the world. I want to improve it by making it more fun, more beautiful, more just, more clean, more free. That’s why I took this job. Let me explain.

We expect companies to be bad. We expect them to pollute, to steal, to be heartless, etc. I say that the only profit any company, or any one, should aspire to is happiness. Profits are one component of that, sure. But they’re not the only one.

We can be a company that does good. How? By making doing good part of our corporate identity. Part of our DNA. By thinking not only how we want our lives to be, but also how we want the lives of our grandchildren to be. By asking what we want the world to look and feel like for them, and then by going for it.

Okay, you’re thinking, there are problems in the world. There are injustices. But, we’re an internet company. What can we do about it?

I say we’re not really an internet company. We’re a communications company that specializes in the internet. The value of communication is that it makes people aware of things, like the Pacific Garbage Patch, that they may not have known about. It can educate them as to how they’re part of the problem and, more importantly, how they can fix it. Through communication comes enlightenment, and enlightenment sparks beneficial change.

How do we do that? How do we use the internet to enlighten? We do what we already know how to do: we wield the web. We confront the problem through beautifully designed and developed websites. We build them around great writing. We harness all of the multimedia possibilities that the internet does so well: video, audio, computer simulations, to enhance the quality of our story, and then we publicize it. We rely on the internet’s ability to reach people to spark a movement.

There are some precedents for this. The New York Times recently did a story called Snow Fall, which employed great writing, beautiful design, and artful use of multimedia to tell the story of an avalanche in Washington. Snow Fall demonstrated how, in many respects, the internet is capable of telling a story that transcends what is possible in other media.

The Columbia Human Rights Law Review produced Los Tocayos Carlos (The Other Carlos), an internet exposé on what seems to have been the execution of an innocent man in Texas. That website uses text, interviews, crime scene photos, crime scene maps, and copies of original source documents to make its case.

A third example: I learned about how the Sioux were cheated out of their ancestral lands from an article in National Geographic. Again, the article used photos, interviews, and maps to enhance its message.

The people who made Snow Fall and those other sites approached the internet as a medium unto itself. They saw it not just as a way to convey text or photos, but as a way to combine [or, if you prefer, cobble] all of these things into something that’s not possible in other media. We here at Automattic can do what they did, but we can do it even better. The internet is what we do. We are already masters at this. All I’m proposing is that we divert some of what we already know into a project that will spark the change that we want to see in the world.

But can we afford it? We’re supposed to be making money. There’s no money in pro bono work.

Here’s a story: for a while, the Unitarian church near my house struggled both with membership and with money. Then, counterintuitively, they decided to donate 100% of the money they received in their Sunday collection plate to charity. That decision generated goodwill. Membership grew, and so did donations both to the collection plate and to the church itself.

If we make sparking positive change in the world part of what it means to be an Automattician, it will attract notice. It will attract talent. It will make a group of already happy and proud people happier and prouder.

And, even if we make these internet sparks that I’m proposing and not one of them takes hold, it still will have been worth it. We would be on the record, and that matters. It matters that our children have the ability to look back and say, the Automatticians, they were something. They aspired to the good. They were neither silent nor deaf to the problems of their time. They stood for something.

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