Tableau on Twitter: the value of artistic communities

So there I am, sitting outside Pulp (a smoothie shop) with Zen Master Bridget Cogley. After a short discussion about her story and her journey to Zen Mastery, she said (paraphrased): "You've got to get on Twitter".

In retrospect, my reply was more begging than insistent: "No". I explained that I avoided the bullying on social media, and shared [comical] horror stories of political wars between grandmothers and sisters-in-law. 

But Bridget didn't budge. "That's where the Tableau community has decided to live. You want to be part of that community, that's where you've got to go." 

I walked back to my car, smoothie in hand, both irritated by her charge and inspired by her story. 

My college (and grad school) poetry workshops

Let's rewind to sometime in 2009. I was an undergraduate seated at a giant table with a bunch of other amateur, wannabe poets, clutching my first poem to be workshopped. I feared they would just read my poem and laugh at how bad it was (and it was bad). But that's not what happened. There was criticism, for sure - but there was also a lot of encouragement and inspiration. 

Over that semester, I fell in love with that community. We grew together, refined our techniques, and explored new styles. Even though we were all a bunch of amateurs guided by a single TA, we all became better poets.

I loved that community so much, the next semester I enrolled into a new section of the same class. And when I went to graduate school for English, I enrolled into poetry workshops, and even helped teach some. Half a decade later, in a biostatistics graduate program, my mathematically-focused peers were a bit surprised when I enrolled in a poetry workshop - but I missed that community. It's hard to pinpoint exactly how these communities helped, but as a starting point:

  • Diversifying my style: constantly exploring others' work exposed me to a variety of influences much faster than my own reading ever could, which allowed me to try out new things in my own work.
  • Refining my voice: working with others allowed me to realistically evaluate my strengths, which let me focus my voice into something that was unique, something that hadn't been seen before.
  • Tips and tricks: when I was new in poetry, there was a lot of things I didn't know that I could do, things that could help deliver the desired impact. My peers would toss in little tips here and there that helped my work be more effective.
  • Encouragement and inspiration: we shared our failures and successes. We got through everything together. Sometimes it meant we didn't repeat each others mistakes, other times it just made our struggles and hard work all the more worth it.

And with all of this, I went from that first, terrible poem, to having pieces published. 

Discovering a community

I've been working in data visualization for a number of years now. I led a consulting practice of roughly thirty consultants for nearly two years, and worked on projects for a number of Fortune 1000 clients. But I hadn't really jumped into a community - I had heard great things about the Tableau community, but my partnership with a number of visualization vendors made me hesitant to jump too far into one tool for fear that I would weaken our other partnerships. However, I recently took a new position, and I now I don't need to balance that tightrope.

My first contact was reaching out to Zen Master Ken Flerlage, asking for a quick phone call to ask about his Tableau methods. I fully expected him to decline due to a busy schedule - after all, he's a Zen Master. But the opposite was true - he seemed genuinely excited to chat, and he was very encouraging - and his encouragement led me to Columbus Tableau User Group, which led to me jumping on a Slack channel, which led to me sitting outside Pulp with Bridget.

Just a few months in...

So I took Bridget's charge, and jumped into the online Tableau community - and magic happened. If you want simple and concrete evidence of the transformation of a community, go look at my Tableau Public page. I see strengths in everything I've put up there, but there's a number of things that really stand out as different than everything else. What happened? The Tableau community. You can literally see the explosion in how I think about data viz and Tableau.

What did I get?

  • Diversifying my style: I've tried out a number of new things. Again, back to my Tableau Public profile - there is a ton of diversity in my later work, relative to my earlier stuff. This is the result of seeing so many other styles.
  • Refining my voice: the voice that I had curated as a practice lead and consultant was immediately appreciated and valued, and all these experts carved out a space for me to be heard - but, simultaneously, my voice was challenged as I started to find out what was unique in my perspective.g.
  • Tips and tricks: I've learned more about Tableau and data viz in the last few months than in all the previous years I've worked in this field. In fact, I've specifically done things in Tableau that I previously told clients wasn't possible (and not just due to Tableau updates).
  • Encouragement and inspiration: I've been encouraged to try things I otherwise wouldn't have - and it shows in the ambition of my work. My more recent work took on much greater technological and artistic challenges, and I've been applying to conferences (and accepted to speak at 2 so far!). Intentionally and unintentionally, the community holds a lot of responsibility for my drive toward these things - and they celebrate my successes.
In short, my data viz skills are growing in the same way my poetry skills grew when I was in a community. There is no doubt that the online Tableau community is a thriving, powerful artistic community. 

The Tableau community as an artistic community

Artistic communities are critical - very few great artists did their work in isolation. I remember reading books about authors and their contemporaries, and the communities they formed - my favorite being the New York School of Poets - and seeing the formative conversations they had during their careers. You can often map elements of artists' work to specific, influential conversations they had with their peers, and trace the impact they had on one another.

The cool thing is that I'm seeing those same kinds of conversations happen on Twitter everyday - albeit in 280 characters, rather than full letters - and watching all of us grow in the same way as many great artists of the past. I can't wait to meet a lot of these folks at the conference in October, and I'm certain even more transformation awaits me/us in New Orleans.

Tableau is a great tool, but by far the best thing about it is the community they've helped cultivate. For those in the community, thank you for such a strong welcome, and for giving me a place and a voice. For those that aren't in the another community newbie, I'm confident enough to say that we're all waiting for you to join and make us that much better.

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