On Snowballs, Napoleons, and sharks

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
BBC Radio 4 header image for the "A Very British Cult" podcast

The UK, which will take any scrap of comfort it can get right now, got a delicious treat yesterday out of nowhere: the team behind the Missing Cryptoqueen podcast, aka podcast crack, dropped a whole new series on a whole new topic. This time they have taken on a very unsavoury phenomenon which many of us, including myself, encountered in our formative years of running a business: and it is about time someone did.

When I was running a small web design business from the mid-noughts to the mid-10s, I relied on word of mouth and business networking. Talk about being a fish out of water. I dragged my arse to every kind of networking meetup the city had to offer. Most of them were one-offs where I couldn’t get home fast enough. Others were tolerable.

But absolutely none of them were for me, or my business.

You see, where I am, and at the time I was running a business, local business networking meet-ups took one of three forms only:

  1. Backslapping boys’ clubs for the Chamber of Commerce set, aka social clubs for the patriarchy *cringe*;
  2. Women’s networking groups that were basically ladies-who-lunch sororities, aka social drinking clubs for the pink gin set *cringe*; and, most nefarious of all,
  3. Networking cults that were either quite clearly structures for behavioural coercion and control or, more commonly, pyramid schemes based on paying thousands of pounds to ascend through membership tiers and achieve the success of The Venerated Founder. *vomit*

That was it. That was my choices.

It’s that latter kind of networking group – the “personal development” cult – which the new podcast, and an accompanying telly documentary, have focused on. Here’s a news story if you don’t have time for either.

Hell. Monthly hell.

When you’re dragging your arse across the city to attend any shitty networking meetup that will have you, you learn very quickly that many business networking meetups are really gateways for these weird “personal development” cults, as exposed in the podcast, which drain its members of thousands of pounds while gaslighting them with aspirational psychobabble.

To be clear, I never encountered the one in the podcast, which seems to be an extreme example. But their smaller cousins are legion.

The best and worst advertising these groups have are their members, who are the kind of people who are so tenuously attached to reality that you cross the street to avoid them if they’re coming your way. These are the kind of people who are really into setting up their stands at 5:15 AM for 5:45 AM networking. The ones who have gamified their business’s success along the group’s points system. The ones who have memorised the group’s official book of mantras, sayings, and slogans, all written by the visionary and venerated founder, the way that the faithful memorise the Bible. The ones who live in teeth-shaking fear of failing to meet their monthly recruitment quota, which will result in public shaming and humiliation in front of the whole community at the next meetup. The ones who are led to believe that their lack of business success is connected to how little they’ve paid into the group’s coffers, and we are talking four or five figure amounts here.

The ones who are the random LinkedIn contacts you can’t actually remember meeting who message you in absolute desperation when they are at risk of a catastrophic points failure, begging you to come along to the meeting.

The ones who you met once on a group Zoom call who message you after you’ve been laid off, ordering you to come along to the meeting, and going batshit on you when you say “no thanks”.

As a colleague at the time put it after trying one of these groups: “if I wanted to be forced to sit in a hotel meeting room at 6 AM, repeating mantras, venerating the group’s founder, and publicly confessing my character failures, I’d have stayed in rehab.

They really hit it on the nose there. (Ba-dum-tish.)

And then, the miracle

If I seem a bit intense about this, there’s a reason for that. What you have to understand about putting up with that sort of networking environment when you are at your professional lowest – where your choices are boys’ clubs, booze clubs, or cults – is this:

After years of dragging my arse to the only mildly tolerable option, an open source community meetup appeared – in the function room of a twee Oirish pub, no less – and what ensued didn’t just pivot my business, but really did change my entire life for the better.

And on that evidence, it’s no wonder that so many of us, starting around a dozen years ago, left behind networking hell and took to open source community meetups like a duck to water.

At long last, I could meet up with Actual Grown Adults also working in my field. They were down-to-earth, funny people who weren’t trying to collect recruitment quota points, or rip open my scars, or “sell” me anything, or “make deals”.

(Those gormless west-of-Scotland “big men” who came to our OSS community meetups thinking it was the usual business networking, toting an elevator pitch they expected to deliver, a PowerPoint deck they expected to display, and business cards they expected to spread on the tables, got a rare comeuppance: for once, they were the ones who showed up in good faith to be made fools of, and it was a tasty thing to savour.)

From that pub, an array of local community activities, regional events, national conferences, and then out of nowhere, a surprise international trip which turned into five years of dancing, with my friends, across a continent which was ours for the taking – ensued, and ensued beautifully.

That, of course, grew from seeds planted a dozen years ago. The world is in a very different place now, and so are corporate-controlled OSS projects. For us and for our friends in other cities, local community meetups became less about “community” than about a “movement”, one which required us to fight someone else’s battles. Over time that battle started to look and feel an awful lot like providing free labour for billionaires. We tried to warn that this was happening, but by then, Snowball and Napoleon had long changed places. They always do.

The pandemic frankly did OSS a favour by ending community meetups that were years past their sell-by date, and they haven’t come back: nor should they.

But in reflecting on all of this, thanks to the podcast, I recalled one day during the “good times” where I inadvertently found myself at the crossroads of the community I was in, and the hell I’d left behind.

Don’t cross the streams

There came a day where the two streams crossed. A team of the OSS project’s controlling company’s employees were in town for some reason, and it fell to the local meet-up group to provide them with hospitality.

(Yes, unpaid community volunteers were expected to act as $localhost for full-time paid employees on their all-expense-paid global jollies. This was well before “drama”.)

We reserved them a conference room at a hipster hotel, arranged the refreshments, and acted as their gofers while they did Important Work.

While I was bussing their empty coffee cups, I noticed that another conference room was occupied by sad ladies gazing deflated at the woman at the front of the room. A pop-up stand indicated that this was a private business mentoring group with a ridiculous name like “The Hidden Secret”, illustrated with a picture of its leader: that woman who was at the front of the room, who looked local but was beaming that creepy American smile with American-lasered teeth.

The stand indicated that she provided mentoring, coaching, and personal development for women in business, but in a very feminine and esoteric way. This service escalated through several levels of spiritual enlightenment, and cost, culminating in the highest possible level: that rarified plateau of personal and professional clarity which enabled you to –
be invited to license your own franchise of “The Hidden Secret”.

That woman was a right cult.

And of course it was all women in that room, looking the way women do when they’re at their absolute lowest and are being kicked down harder, hanging on the leader’s ever word, thinking that those gleaming white teeth belonged to an ally and not a shark.

And I realised that I could so easily have been one of them, had I not taken an alternate path which now saw me …. uh … bussing coffee cups for a billionaire’s team … never mind.

And that’s perhaps the saddest thing about how it all disintegrated. For those of us who were saved from networking hell by OSS community meetups, we didn’t spend all that time avoiding being sucked into a personality cult so that we could be sucked into another.

At the point where a project demands that its members supply free labour for billionaire VCs, fight the leadership’s battles instead of our own, or prove our loyalty by constantly recruiting new members to the cause –

at local community meetups held at 7 PM in bucketing rain, in the pitch black Scottish winter, in a hipster hotel lounge which was the only place we could get a meeting room that wasn’t a back room in a stabby pub, where random people would turn up with their laptops needing help with the new block editor, rendering our once-convivial local meetups a monthly ordeal of providing free tech support –

it was well past time to call it a day, and move on to the next adventure, wherever and whatever that was:

one informed by the knowledge that organisations, systems, and groups need care and maintenance if they are to grow. They need checks, balances, structures, and yes, governance, if they are to serve their communities and not corporate interests. They need transparency, external scrutiny, and even the occasional hostile media inquiry to keep them on the straight and narrow. They need to protect themselves from the untrammeled egos above them, and they need to protect each other.

I often think of the words of the best client I ever got from a local networking meetup, a wonderful woman who sadly is no longer with us:

“God gave you two ears and one mouth and you should use them in that order.”

More of that, yeah?

Living in the UK in 2023 feels like being kicked back a dozen years. We have nothing and no one to bind us together. We have nothing in common. We have no unifying events (sod the Coronation). We are polarised and split. We’re unemployed and skint. We’re less London 2012 than Children of Men.

In other words, we’re all low and vulnerable.

Good groups, organisations, and societies will rise from that, ones which use their two ears and one mouth in that order. But bad groups, their demagogues, and their psychobabble will rise up too. Those good organisations will look to build you up. Those bad organisations will look to tear you down. Those good leaders will do everything they can to support you. Those bad leaders will spare no effort to exploit you.

Whether the former decides to turn into the latter, by repeating the mistakes of those who went before them, is up to them.

And, maybe, to you.

The Author

I’m a UK tech policy wonk based in Glasgow. I work for an open web built around international standards of human rights, privacy, accessibility, and freedom of expression. The content and opinions on this site are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of any current or previous team.