fear of a red hat

So Beth Kanter does a lot of work with nonprofits, helping them answer pressing and far-reaching questions about their use of technology, and how it can advance their missions without leading them down some nightmarish rabbit-hole of Bad Tech Decisions.

She has been doing this for a long time, with a lot of different types of organizations – arts groups, advocacy groups, etc.

I love this image, and the accompanying quote, taken from an attendee at a workshop ten years ago on technology for artists and arts organizations:

Image courtesy Beth Kanter

“I feel like a stranger in a foreign country and I don’t understand the language and I’m not wearing the right hat.”

This is a great image – and a great metaphor for fear.

Whatever the New Thing is – whether it’s a social network like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or Second Life; a new Constituent Management System, donor software, or phone system; or even just a new job or an unfamiliar transit system (my own personal bête noir), we can always use a trusty guide.

I’m now doing what Beth was doing ten years ago – helping artists and arts organizations overcome their fears and use the technology that can help them. And it is not easy, for reasons that go beyond just labeling people (or a community) tech-resistant.

That’s why I love the quote above – it isn’t JUST that we don’t speak the language. If it were just that, we could keep to ourselves and just pray that we get off the Mètro at the right freaking arrondisement. No, it’s much worse. We’re wearing the wrong hat (and last year’s dress, no doubt) and PEOPLE ARE LAUGHING AT US.

It’s the old naked-in-front-of-school-assembly fear. Which is why it’s so important to respect it, and to work with it.

1. A Technology Translator needs to respect people’s fear.

Put a name to it. Put a face on it. What are you afraid is going to happen if you go on Facebook, if you switch software systems? Put that on paper, and talk about it. How can that risk be minimized – not trivialized, but addressed?

2. A Technology Translator needs to listen.

This should really go without saying, but even those of us who think we are good listeners can clam up a little more. The less you talk, the more they say. How many times have you noticed that it’s the last thing that people say, or put on a list, or finally raise their hand to add to the brainstorming session, that really gets to the heart of the matter?

Once you’ve got the fears out on paper, have listened to them all, and have assured everybody that their fears are being taken seriously, you can start to move forward.

3. A Technology Translator needs to respond individually to each case.

It would be a shame to follow up all this trust-building and listening with a one-size-fits-all solution, right? So it’s important to be truly flexible in your thinking, hear what some of the unique challenges are in each case, counter-balance those with the assets, and craft a middle road that navigates the minefield safely.

This is all terribly abstract. I’d love to talk case studies at some point. In the meantime, what are your thoughts? How do you translate technology effectively to newcomers and immigrants?

What would a guidebook to social media look like?


3 responses to “fear of a red hat

  1. Beth,

    This is brilliant! I had originally wanted to write a post about social media translation skills, but morphed into something else.

    Here is something really funny that I didn’t write on my blog. You know that feeling of not being part of the in-crowd — a sort of social ackwardness? Well, I felt that with the pea fund thing. I heard about it early, but I wasn’t part of the initial core. So my reading was OMG my avatar on twitter isn’t green and peas. So, I could join or just run screaming.

    When we’re offline with real poeple in real nonprofits .. they run screaming …

    So, maybe we need different personas .. if we’re translators

  2. I had the same response to the peas at first, too. I hesitated, because I felt it would be presumptuous to join in when I really didn’t “know” Susan. That it would look like I just wanted to look like I was one of the cool kids. Then I got over myself, for a change…

    So much of this is about letting go of fear of how other people will see you. As long-time bloggers, we’ve dealt with a lot of the initial fear. But for people who haven’t yet experienced having their personae being “out there” in social media space… it’s not surprising it’s problematic.

  3. Well, what convinced me was that video from Connie – and I got a feeling of love and heartfelt concern for a colleague – after the initial – I’m not part of the crowd.

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