It had been stirring in my mind at a low simmer since my previous startup, Renew, announced that it was closing its doors in January 2020. We had six severance-fueled weeks to figure out what we were going to do with our lives, and with that bit of breathing room I thought to myself: “I already know what I want to do with my life, but I still don’t know how to make a living doing it.” I dusted off the old Keynote deck that I wrote in 2013, when I considered pursuing venture capital for the project. I gave my most spirited pitch to whomever of my dear brilliant newly-unemployed colleagues would listen. Every time I repeated the idea, the flame in my belly grew a little more. I still believe in this thing. I still want this thing to exist somehow.
Fast forward nine months, through various consulting engagements, through the complete dismantling of society, through the start of an exciting new job in the field of healthcare AI, and the flame had not waned. Still, I hadn’t done anything. Then one Friday in mid-September the family was out and I was alone, staring at a blank whiteboard, feeling inspired by my new job and the exposure to brilliant people doing impactful things, and the fire perked up just enough for me to get to work.
The grand vision of influenced.it has always been to map the currents of culture across mediums – music, art, literature, movies, tv, etc. – and we’ve had a bunch of false starts over the years because it seems so hard to get it right, or to even figure out where to start. I’ve mellowed with age since Meagan and I started working on this concept over eight years ago, and I’ve come to terms with not knowing the perfect way to express these connections at the outset. So, to reboot, I went with what I know, what inspired me first, what I talk about in the project manifesto, which is that I want to make this chart, but living and structured, and for everything.
The School of Rock chalkboard, only on screen for about five seconds in the movie, took months of research for the filmmakers to construct, and so it only makes sense to acknowledge the profound influence that those five seconds had on me, and then build on it. So, I would start there, but with one crucial addition:
This photo of John Lee Hooker, by the late great Clemens Kalischer, was a clear influence on the School of Rock chalkboard, and conveniently dives even further back into music history, with the Blues as its endpoint. (More on this photo and how it came into our lives in a future post.) Suffice it to say, I had two source charts to merge:
A few issues quickly surfaced:
- There is a mismatch in levels of granularity between the two sources. Does “Hillbilly” warrant a bubble in the same way that “Rap” warrants a bubble? What justifies a bubble?
- There are no dates, but there is a presumptive time flow from left to right. Jamming in all the blues history in the bottom left breaks the visual metaphor. Here is where you imagine me making the argument to my wife: “Our massive whiteboard isn’t big enough to fit the Blues.”
- The expected rock-centric nature of a School of Rock chalkboard entails an omission of other genres – Pop, Swing, Classical, Alternative, Reggae, etc.
- The source charts stop at the 1970s.
Next, sprinkle in artists:
Neat, BUT, a few more issues emerge:
- Placing an artist in a bucket feels intrinsically limiting and inevitably triggering
- This is particularly glaring when the names sit next to each other. Do Neil Diamond and KISS belong under the same classification? I mean, I’d definitely buy a ticket to that double-header, but still.
- How best to express genre-bridgers and who warrants that? Jimi Hendrix skirting the arrow between psychedelic rock and hard rock works, I think, but there are so many others.
Next, add dates:
Some more issues:
- Decade are sourced from wikipedia. They are meant to indicate when this genre came into prominence, but start dates, even vague ones, are limiting (and probably triggering)
- How best to represent artists that arose well after stated decade. What of the Soul artists of the modern era? Erykah Badu? Amy Winehouse? Jill Scott?
Speaking of women and representation, soon after I finished a first draft of the board – genre, linkages, artists, decades – the family came home and Meagan got to work, in red. Looks like I may have a blind spot!
So, by the end of this whiteboard session, I think we landed in a pretty good place. And this is how we rebooted Influenced.It. We have ideas about what we need to do next, we have much more work to do, we have friends helping us out, and we’re psyyyyyyyched. 🤘
-Tony, Oct 8, 2020