Forbes, social media, and the amplification of good

I didn’t really follow the annual Forbes 30 Under 30 so much as accept that my Facebook feed would blow up each January with the news that someone I went to undergrad with had just made the list. I noticed a pattern: they were all hard workers who had also mastered the art of working smartly and in alignment with the right people.

When I started college, I thought Princeton was simply a good way to get a degree sans debt (it was one of the few schools offering need-blind financial aid to international students). It was only once I left that I began to value the connections I’d made entirely by accident, who served as mentors, supporters, and harbingers of further opportunities. Meanwhile, I admired the people on the Forbes list, while regretfully admitting that I would probably never know how to make my work visible in a way that felt right.

So Wednesday’s news has me a bit stunned. Given that I thought I was still a fairly bad proponent of my work, I wasn’t sure how it came to the attention of reporters at Forbes Asia. My guess is that the timing was particularly good for me; I recently won an award which led to a very nice write-up, which probably made me easy to find.

I didn’t know until the list was released that I’d be on it, just that I was in the running, and when I clicked on the link I fully expected to see more Sri Lankans on the list. I did not. Given that I can think of many Sri Lankans who are doing work I consider more merit-worthy than mine, I found myself deeply disappointed. Before my mind could really take in how incredibly exciting it was to be on the list, it had already moved on to scrutinising how it might have come to be that I was on the list at all, and my analysis made me very uncomfortable.

You see, I’m currently a PhD student suspended somewhere between the humanities and the social sciences, so I spend most of my time these days thinking, amongst other things, about how certain arbitrary behaviours come to be seen as normal, how ways of seeing thought to be objective are in fact fairly biased, and how power circulates amongst certain key players.

This sounds a bit abstract, so here’s what I mean: The idea of ‘achievement’ is actually rather fuzzy; how do we define and calculate it? Are we focusing on outcomes or processes? Undertaken by whom? Why is it that we pay attention to those who ‘achieve’ while under 30? The list, with its judging panel, may seem relatively objective, but how did they come up with the list of nominees? Through what channels did they search for these nominees and for how long? Lastly, the Forbes list is a powerful piece of media that opens doors, but who opens those doors and to whom are the doors opened?

These are only a few of the questions one can ask, but in asking them you quickly realise that the list is fairly arbitrary, and the privilege it confers is socially constructed. Many of us may already know this, but I just choose to think about it ad nauseam, which explains why I find it so difficult to accept congratulations and compliments in general. Sorry, guys.

Before I go any further, I must clarify that I’m not trying to discredit the list. Aggregating young people in this way and providing them with tools and resources enables mutual discovery, collaboration, and opportunities to do even better work. This, at its best, is a very good thing. However, it runs the risk of becoming an echo chamber, a perpetual pat-on-the-back. The list bestows status, despite the fact that we socially construct it in such a way that it cannot be anything but arbitrary.

In this post, though, I’m less concerned with Forbes than I am with myself. The choices my parents made for me as a child shaped my secondary school environment, which informed my interests, which influenced where I went to university and what I did after that (i.e. start Building Bridges). I forgot to put Princeton on my bio when they asked for it – it’s telling that this detail made its way in anyway, probably via the digital debris from my past. I’m also an introvert with a penchant for blogging. In painstaking detail. Replete with anxious digressions and egregious puns. Without realising it, I’d made myself findable by creating a blog that held me accountable to my funders while also allowing me to  indulge in my tendency to micro-analyse. To put it very crudely, I got lucky.

And what luck! I’d always thought of my work merely as a kind of experimental playtime – now apparently I’m a social entrepreneur. I’ve noticed an uptick in my Twitter followers. I’ve been bombarded with Facebook requests from people whose names I don’t recognise. I’ve had a few media requests, and congratulatory notes from people who I admire.

So I conducted an experiment. I made a quick list of ~30 Sri Lankans (or organisations) I believe are doing incredible work, complete with faux-Forbes categories, and made a note of how I knew of their work. I didn’t include it here because I felt like a super-stalker, even as I compiled it off the top of my head without the help of the internet. (Should I have? Let me know in the comments.) I found that in most cases I’d gone to school with them, met them through a mutual friend, or knew of their work through social media. (Yes, I discovered that with Twitter, I’d found a way to make connections without realising it.) All were educated in Colombo and/or abroad. The list was largely Sinhalese, with a few Muslims and two Tamils. Horrifying, yes? Most of these people are in the arts, in non-profits, or doing policy work that I find interesting. I had only one person in the sciences, and one project in tech, both of which I heard about through other media. Pretty much every one of the people on the list are of the English-speaking elite. The only redeeming feature was the presence of more women than men. They’re all INCREDIBLE humans, but you’ve only got my word for it.

Now imagine if I were Forbes.

But of course you can’t. If I were to stick my “amended” list up, in the hopes that Forbes would have a wider circle of achievers to choose from next year, I would simply be creating a different echo chamber, and one that is more easily critiqued for its omissions because I am not venerable Forbes. My faux-Forbes list made me realise more than ever how much the 30 Under 30 list simply picks up on the stories we’re already circulating and making visible through our own networks. Forbes can’t find what’s not already being, retweeted, liked, commented upon, and generally shared digitally…and I’m one of those people doing that amplifying, now more so than before.

On the one hand, I’m more grateful than ever to everyone who has been generous enough to share my work, because I certainly wouldn’t be here without them. On the other hand, it appears I have not thought carefully enough about social media and its channels of power. I have, up until now, laughed at ‘slacktivism’ as an ineffectual and ego-stroking shout into the void. I don’t even think of my own retweets as a social responsibility, just something to do on the subway or the train. And then insidious Twitter algorithms tweak my feed accordingly.

This makes me more thoughtful about the words I put out there – even as this English blog will once again be circulated amongst my friends. This is a nudge to start thinking more carefully about both the content of my message and its medium. If I am serious about being more attuned to work that is good, yet not currently trading in the same social currencies as Forbes, I must write, read, and speak in more than one language. I must take note of analogue platforms, not just digital, and engage in the face-to-face interactions I still find more difficult than those conducted online. At the very least, I should consider before I carelessly press that little heart or thumbs-up on a post that’s already been sent back and forth umpteen times.

Real amplification takes hard work.

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