Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

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You have to choose
Play with the boys
You’re bound to lose
A bottle in one hand
A can in the other
Don’t fool around ’cause they’re real
mean mothers

-Wild in the Streets, Circle Jerks

For the past couple of months, and then culminating in this past weekend’s NFL draft, Mel Kiper Jr’s face and voice have been everywhere. For those that don’t follow football, he is ESPN’s draft “guru.” What makes him a “guru?” Well, he says he knows what he is talking about, and when he first started out he was the only one doing the talking about the draft. Despite his many, many, MANY mistakes (hello Jimmy Clausen!), Kiper is the man when it comes to the draft. Just ask him.

I was asked repeatedly during the draft weekend who Kiper is. Is he a former player? Coach? Eddie Munster, all grow’d up? When the answer was negative to the first two questions, and “probably not” to the last one, they asked me to explain what made him the expert and not someone else. The only thing I could say was that he was the first to do it. That has to count for something, right?

In 1998 I created my first web site. It was called Oddities and I used it to chronicle all of the strange sites that made the early Internet such a weirdly wonderful place to be. Common wisdom at the time, which turned out to be true for me, was that giving away awards to other sites was a great way to generate traffic. There were no real analytics packages available back in those early days, and certainly no AdSense, probably because there wasn’t even a Google yet. All I had to gauge my success by was a hit counter script and feedback from my readers. While highly unscientific and wildly inaccurate, the counter spun like a top and the emails poured in.

Today I am a web developer/designer in my regular job. What was once a fairly specialized and straight forward profession has now evolved into a very broad and complex field. Over time usability and accessibility have become important parts of the industry. Back when I was just getting started there was a guy named Jakob Nielson who many considered an expert in this area. Why? Because he said so, and he got there first. Welcome to the Internet.

This guy created a site on usability that consisted of one horrendously long page with two columns, meaning that once readers got to the end of the first column, if they could actually get that far, they would have to scroll all the way back to the top of the page to continue reading. No internal back-to-top anchors, just scroll, scroll, scroll. Hey, maybe that really is user-friendly, after all, who the hell am I to question the guy who got online first?

Well, who I am is a guy who leads a team of designers and developers who create web sites for the most prestigious (and underfunded) government scientific agency in the world. We build sites using cutting edge techniques while adhering to strict federal laws about accessibility as well as industry standards on usability. And while it is true that Mr. Nielson has had a hand in developing some of those standards, only a guy who didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground would have created that long, two-columned site while lecturing others on how to create usable sites. But like many others before and after, he claimed to know something, and he found people who would pay him for his “expertise.” For that reason I love the fact that a growing number of young people in my profession have no idea who the guy is. He is still around, still argues for his own relevance now and then, but he has far fewer adherents. I, for one, think that is a very good thing.

Among wine bloggers we still have some of these “I was here first so I am in charge” guys in our midst. And when I say “guys,” I do mean guys. Despite some of the best wine blogs out there being written by women, the people who seem to be running the show are all guys. You see, when decisions are made that affect us as a group it is done entirely by an old boys club. How did this club get started? Are they the best and brightest? Hardly. Did we elect them? Nope, they got there first and appointed themselves. Over time they have surrounded themselves with a couple more guys, a traditional wine writer turned blogger, one of the better young guys who is having a lot of (well deserved) success, to give them added credibility. But they have all been more guys. A few women are nominally consulted from time to time, but they might as well be fetching coffee for the men.

I bring this up because these guys are currently working on how to improve the Wine Blogger Awards. If the grapevine is to be believed, and I would suggest that it is, they will determine that the best way to improve them is to keep them almost exactly as they are. Given last year’s masturbatory climax after years of good-old-boys reach-arounds, it would seem to be the fitting time to change the sheets and get a fresh start.

But instead of addressing the laundry list of issues the wine blogging community has aired for years, the person who created the awards is fighting tooth and nail to retain his control, and his enablers are doing exactly what he expects of them. Dissenters are shouted down and the “girls” are being sent out for coffee.

When Oddities was abandoned as a project, it was because I recognized that not only were other people capable of doing the same thing I had been doing, some were banding together and collectively doing a better job of it. Site owners were still seeking my award, my readers were still loyal, but the Internet was changing and it was time for me to follow suit. I could either join with some other like-minded souls or step aside. I chose the latter and went on to create some other successful sites, and now this one.

As one of my literary heroes once famously said 106 times, “so it goes.” Things change and so must we. Resistance truly is futile. If we don’t make the change ourselves, even if it is just to get the hell out of the way, change comes whether we like it or not. And when it inevitably runs us over because we stubbornly tried to hold change at bay, we look like ignorant jackasses and our previous triumphs and accomplishments are seriously diminished.

No football team wins championships by running the triple option anymore, no one would be clamoring for Phil Spector to produce their album if that were possible, and making overly-oaked flabby Chardonnay is no longer the road to acclaim as a winemaker. But I would be willing to bet that Spector thinks he could churn out hit records over and over again if given the chance, and he probably thinks he could do it regardless of the talent of the artist. It would be all him. Some folks are just that way.

Some of the best wine writers out there are women, and I would include Amy among that number, and they are also not exactly the type of women you want to dismissively send out for coffee. They may come back with a cup for you, but you can bet they will have a fine time laughing at your sorry ass while you drink what they just spit in. So will everyone else who your little boy’s club has excluded over the years.

When someone is responsible for fucking something up, and they have been told repeatedly what it is they did to fuck it up, including them in the effort to reform it is one of two things; stupidity, or an overtly cynical effort to put on a show for the rubes you want to keep bilking.

And if you obstinately refuse to give up the wrongheaded and highly unpopular ways of doing business, and in fact do everything in your power to thwart long overdue reform, it merely confirms the opinion that you give awards as a way to drive traffic to your own site and to contemptuously try to control your peers by playing king-maker. The people you tried to use as window dressing to hide the fact that you don’t plan to change a damn thing aren’t likely to be too pleased either.

I have written something about this regularly for four years now, and frankly it is getting old and tired. The time has come to change the way this whole award process is done, or admit that it is nothing but a way to promote the businesses and services your circle sells to the wine and blogging communities. Make the process 100% transparent. Eliminate the cynical parts of it that allow the public’s role in both the nominations and the selection of the winners to be completely overridden. The same goes for the judges roles, not a one of them can vouch for previous award voting because they didn’t see tallies and couldn’t even verify that their own votes were counted.

It is past time to walk away and truly give these awards to the community they serve. Let them mean something. For some of you, it is just plain time to walk away. You might have been here first, but like Chuck D said of Elvis, that don’t mean shit to me. I am not alone in that sentiment.

Care for some coffee, boys?