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01-29-16 Ben Callahan

Ben’s contribution to The Shift—a reflection on one small way to help make the Web better.

This post is part of The Shift: a writing project designed to help us produce and consume unique perspectives on topics relevant to the Web industry. Follow along with #startYourShift.

Aretha said it best. Certainly, when you listen, you won’t be able to sit still. This song is considered one of the greatest R&B songs ever, ushering in “a wave of luscious horns and funky electric guitar.” However, if you do some digging about what this song meant to the people on the other side of the radio, you’ll learn that it was much more than a Grammy Award winning hit. Aretha’s version was released in 1967, and so much was happening in the world at the time: the Vietnam war, the Cold War, the Space Race. Gender inequalities were being challenged, and the Civil Rights movement was in full swing with race riots happening all over the US. Both women and people of color heard Aretha’s voice as a call to action. It was a call from a woman with a voice as strong as MLK’s.

The Issues

For me personally, I started to see how unaware I was of the issues underrepresented groups face after reading Alice Goffman’s “On the Run,” which lead me to seek out tests designed to measure implicit bias. And ever since, I can’t stop seeing ways I—and the industry I love—fail to recognize these issues.

There are some pretty amazing female web-makers out there. Every day I learn something from one of them, but the cold hard truth is they are not treated equally in this industry. Sexism can be tough to identify. Many times it comes out in subtle ways that are easily missed or dismissed. We disrespect women when we marginalize their contributions.

There’s this thing called “False Consensus Effect.” It means that people tend to “overestimate the extent to which their opinions, beliefs, preferences, values, and habits are normal and typical.” In other words, we assume everyone else thinks the same way we do. One of the results of this bias is that we react strongly when we learn of others with different beliefs. Combine this with today’s ability to publish to the world in a matter of seconds, and we have a recipe for aggressive, rant-filled opinions. We disrespect each other when we assume our way is the only way.

I have a friend who is blind. I asked him one day to share the best sites on the Web in terms of accessibility—which sites did he frequent? He said, “I don’t use the Web, it’s too broken.” Turns out even the sites that adhere to WCAG, while technically accessible, are almost always unusable. We disrespect the disabled when we fail them with our design and development efforts.

From gender bias to accessibility, we have a huge range of issues. Many issues with a common theme of disrespect. The more I consider it, the more I realize that I honestly can’t find anything better than what Aretha offered almost 50 years ago.


What’s ironic is that 99% of people would probably agree that we need more respect. The challenge is recognizing that you (yep, you—and me too!) need to change. Of course, that knowledge is not enough. It’s only the first step on a long journey.

How we make the Web better is how we make the world better. Respect each other. Be conscious of how others might perceive your Twitter rant or your code review or the jokes in your presentation or at the afterparty. Build stuff that works for anyone, regardless of bandwidth, screen size, or disability. Recognize there are other points of view from unique individuals with a different life context. Seek out ideas and beliefs that are strange to you, and know that your way is not the only way.


“Ain’t gonna do you wrong, ‘cause I don’t wanna

All I’m askin’

Is for a little respect…” —written by Otis Redding, made famous by Aretha Franklin

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