What Does An Award Do?

I posted on MetaFilter about the new Disobedience Award that MIT Media Lab is starting (nomination deadline: May 1st). And in the comments there, I stumbled into talking about why one might found an award, and thought it was worth expanding a bit here.

I think anyone who thinks for a second about awards -- assuming the judgment is carried out in good faith -- says, well, it's to reward excellence. Yup! But what are the particular ways an award rewards excellence, and when might an award be a useful tool to wield?

Let's say you are an organization and you genuinely want to celebrate and encourage some activity or principle, because you think it's important and there's not enough of it, particularly because there are so many norms and logistical disincentives pushing to reduce it. For example, you might want to encourage altruistic resistance. Let's say your organization already has a bunch of ongoing processes, like teaching or making products or processing information, and maybe you make some changes in those processes to increase how likely it is that you're encouraging altrustic resistance, but that isn't really apparent to the world outside your doors in the near term, and the effects take a while to percolate out.

So maybe you could set up an award. An award can:

  • get publicity for the idea that altruistic resistance is a thing to celebrate
  • help one specific person or group who's currently practicing altruistic resistance keep going, with money and attention, and make a big difference to their stamina and effectiveness
  • maybe bring attention to a list of finalists and help their work get more coverage
  • ensure the award administrators (and any judging committee involved) and, to a lesser extent, the reporters covering the award, will spend time thinking about the importance of altruistic resistance
  • cause a bunch of people to think "hmm, whom should I nominate?" and write a couple paragraphs about why their work is good and award-worthy (and, by causing that writing, also solidify the nominators' commitment to respecting and rewarding altruistic resistance)
  • demonstrate your institutional commitment to altruistic resistance, potentially sending a hard-to-ignore message to your future self to guide future decisions

And if an award keeps going and catches on, then people start using it as a shorthand for a goal. New practitioners can dream of winning the acclamation that a Pulitzer, a Nobel, a Presidential Medal of Freedom carries. If there's an award for a particular kind of excellence, and the community keeps records of who wins that award, then in hard moments, it can be easier for a practitioner to think of that roll call of heroes and say to herself in hard moments, "keep on going". We put people on pedestals not for them, but for us, so it's easier for us to see them and model ourselves after them.

So, all awards are simplistic summative judgments, but if the problem is that we need to balance the scales a bit, maybe it'll help anyway.

Nalo Hopkinson is doing it via the Lemonade Award for kindness in the speculative fiction community. The Tiptree Award does it for the expansion & exploration of gender. Open Source Bridge does it for community-making in open source with the Open Source Citizenship Award for "someone who has put in extra effort to share knowledge and make the open source world a better place."* It's worth considering: in your community, do people lack a way to find and celebrate a particular sort of excellence? You have a lot of tools you could wield, and awards are one of them.


* I realized today that I don't think the list of past Open Source Citizenship Award recipients is in one place anywhere! Each of these people was honored with a "Truly Outstanding Open Source Citizen" medal or plaque by the Open Source Bridge conference to celebrate our engagement "in the practice of an interlocking set of rights and responsibilities."