It was a lucky break for me.
I'd applied for a leadership position at the university, but due to being "too quiet" during my tenure on staff the team looked past me and selected someone else. Then that someone else made a costly mistake violating university policy (and getting caught), forcing the team to reconsider and select me instead.
It meant a larger apartment, a (slightly) increased salary, and a position that required me to supervise a 20-person staff. I truly looked forward to the experience; I had some great ideas for how the staff could run more efficiently than previous years and got to work.
The thing I didn't realize was how much "celebrity" came with the position.
My first day on the team, I was asked to give an impromptu speech to the entire 100+ member staff (I was only supervising one of the 6 buildings). It went well, but my habit of using "uh" and "um" as defense against awkward silence reared its ugly head.
The next week on the team, I was asked to give a presentation to a room full of freshmen - about 700 of them, actually. We had called in a professional speaker to run the new-student introduction, but he'd gotten lost or was running late or forgot, so the job and the microphone passed to me.
Being the automatic spokesman for several events after that became the norm, and that my cousin was running for student body president didn't help things either. A few of my friends stopped spending time with me because of my "celebrity." They wanted to remain anonymous.
The position was a student one, so while working at the university I was also taking a full course-load. This also meant I had to find other students with whom I could study, and no one wanted to spend 1:1 time with a building supervisor.
I learned very quickly that the "cool" related with being a micro-celebrity in a community was vastly outweighed by the weirdness members of that community displayed when face-to-face with celebrity.
Fast forward a few years and I've embraced public speaking as part of my job and identity. I'm still terrified going up on stage, but the adrenaline rush is more than worth it. Still, speaking regularly in any community does impart a certain amount of micro-celebrityism as well.
I've watched the "big names" in WordPress be swarmed at just about every WordCamp I've attended. Everyone wants to meet them, shake their hand, compliment their code, or finally explain in purpose just how wrong that decision made 3 years ago really was. It's quite a scene.
I once attended a presentation given by an old friend of mine just so I could catch up with him afterwards. I found myself standing, after the presentation, in an autograph line. An autograph line. For a CTO speaking about his idea of the future of shared data.
I was only there to apologize for not returning some tools he'd loaned me and offer to swing by his house later to drop them off. Given the conversations around me, you would've thought I was instead waiting for an autograph outside a boyband concert. I didn't get it at all.
Until I spoke at another conference and experienced things from the other side for the first time in a long time. I finished my talk and walked offstage right into an eagerly waiting line of fans I'd never heard of. I'd just given a talk about asynchronous code management, and there were people waiting for my autograph on their programs, on their shirts, on an awkward headshot they'd found online ... A few even asked for photos with me (another first) and I spent all the time I'd expected to spend watching other talks with apparent stalkers who wanted to grill me about presentations I'd posted on line years ago or just give me feedback on my blog.
It was weird. It reminded me very much of my experiences in college. It also made me feel for micro-celebrities in the WordPress world like Matt, Nacin, Mark, Helen, Chris, and Jane. They're all fantastic people, and seeing any one of them talk about code, community, or the future is something not to be missed.
But remember, every time you attend a WordCamp, WordUp, Meetup, or whatever, you're seeing people talk about something they love. Not rockstars or idols, people.
I don't use the clearest headshot as my gravatar specifically so I can hide. I've had people sit next to me and explain how much they love or hate "Eric Mann" for something he said or did. I'll nod along and listen for a while, then introduce myself and thank them for their feedback. More often than not this leads to a huge apology (and sometimes an autograph) and a bunch of half-formed rapid-fire questions after that.
Occasionally, though, I'll be sitting in the audience during a WordCamp and listen to someone explain their dream of being a conference speaker "just as good as Chris Lema." I'll ask why they aren't on the schedule yet, and they'll demure with something like "oh, I'm just not ready" or "I could never be as polished as Chris."
When communities look at active figureheads as idols, a certain number of inhuman characteristics are applied as well. After seeing Helen speak at WordCamp EU or WordCamp San Francisco, it's easy to forget a couple of important things:
- She's human, just like you
- Just like you, she had to start somewhere and didn't become the rockstar she is today overnight
Celebrity, be it on a grand or a micro scale, is a huge barrier to newcomers believing they can achieve success in any community. New singers want to be the next Grammy winner - they sometimes forget all of the hard work that goes in during the early years before mainstream success.
New engineers want to be a lead within a year - they sometimes forget they're joining a company lead by engineers who already have 5+ years of experience as junior devs under their belt. New speakers want to stand up and give a rehearsed, polished, memorized story-driven talk just like Chris Lema - they sometimes forget how much experience he has behind him and the sheer number of hours he spends privately prepping each talk.
Celebrity is a great thing because it gives us a target to reach for or drive towards. It can also be a paralyzing force when that target becomes unreachable due to the nature of its celebrity.