Why web professionals should avoid professionalism

Clay Shirky's book Here Comes Everybody is over two years old now. So of course I am just reading it now - in fits and spurts - to make sure that my hastily formed opinions are as out of date as possible.

Shirky talks about professionalism in journalism in Chapter 3 (Everyone is a Media Outlet), arguing that traditional structures such as formal education, training and organisational membership designed to maintain professional standards are the very things that suppress innovation and progression:

"... the professional outlook can become a disadvantage, preventing the very people who have the most at stake – the professionals themselves – from understanding major changes to the structure of their profession."

—Clay Shirky

This sentence expressed for me why I am thankful for belonging to a relatively informally structured profession, compared to say, architecture or law. Those traditional professions use traditional means to protect their reputation and standards. When hiring or talking about their own professional effectiveness, most web professionals that you care to talk to will generally eschew formal qualifications, organisational membership and so on, in favour of a loose set of evidence-based norms - or in other words, cool shit you've made.

When was the last time you heard someone mention their masters degree in Interactive New Media Interweb Technologies when giving a talk, or when introducing themselves at an unconference? No, it's all "Oh, you're that bloke that wrote flibFlab.js - I use that every day!"

In our profession, new talent can gain recognition within a very short space of time, merely by designing or coding wickedorsum stuff and putting it on Dribbble, GitHub or HackerNews. With more companies apparently hiring based on someone's public output of work (even algorithmically) rather than their work history, the traditional barriers of experience, education (to a certain degree) and Not Knowing the Right Person have broken down. This is why it is easier to find good people on GitHub than on LinkedIn, and why recruitment consultants plague the latter and not the former.

All this is pretty self-evident. But my main point is this: in a rapidly moving profession with informal and shifting norms and standards, the old guard better keep moving along or they'll find they've been shown up rather easily by those with more talent, audacity and, to be fair, time on their hands. In more traditional professional professions, simply having the job you've got and maintaining a baseline of suitable behaviour and quality is enough to keep you exactly where you are, whilst fostering just the right amount of status anxiety to keep you sharp. How dull.

As the costs of building and shipping stuff falls, us old giffers that have been doing this stuff since 1995 should find ourselves losing more of our excuses for not shedding our pride and actually producing some real stuff of our own. Hence this blog, and hence some other stuff I want to get out there that I'm working on, and trying to fit around raising a family and getting some sleep. It's either this or kick myself upstairs into a moribund management career tinged with regret. I enjoy learning and hacking around too much for that.

In short then, make fun stuff and keep on trucking, old man.