Book Review: Big Deal
Robert Hoekman, Jr is a user experience designer and consultant who is best known for his books about interface design, Designing the Obvious and Designing the Moment. His self-published book Big Deal: On Being Famous to Almost No One tackles a far more personal subject. In Big Deal Hoekman, Jr recounts his rise to the top of the web design field, and describes how his craving for professional notoriety eventually devastated his personal friendships, marriage, and sense of self worth.
The form of celebrity Hoekman Jr discusses in Big Deal has been dubbed “micro-fame”:
My name is Robert Hoekman, Jr, and in certain rooms, under certain circumstances, at certain moments, surrounded by certain people, and when all these very certain things come together, I am a big fucking deal.
In other words, Hoekman, Jr might be unknown to the general public, but within the web design industry he is a bona fide rock star.
From the unique perspective that this notoriety affords, he takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of the conference rooms, hotel bars, book signings, photo opportunities and corporate retreats that consumed his attention as he rose the ranks of his profession. Along the way we rub shoulders with a veritable who’s who of the web industry: Matt Mullenweg, Jeff Veen, Jeffrey Zeldman, Caterina Fake, Luke Wroblewski, to name but a few.
Ultimately Hoekman, Jr’s craving for recognition and approval forces a crisis in his professional and personal life, and he has to face up to the root causes of his obsession with fame, and deal with the fallout.
This makes for fascinating reading, especially for a web design nerd such as myself, but I was left with the nagging feeling that Hoekman, Jr has – perhaps unwittingly – used his book about the pitfalls of fame as a platform to reinforce his cool kid credentials.
The nonstop cataloging of his professional achievements came across at times like bragging, and I wish he had dialed the self promotion back a notch. Even in the book’s later chapters, where he describes a dawning awareness that his obsession with fame is destroying his marriage, the laundry list of book signings and speaking engagements barely slows down. It is as if he wants to remind the reader that even though he no longer cares about being famous, he still is famous.
It is said that that pride comes before a fall, and in Big Deal Hoekman, Jr talks candidly about the flipside of his micro-fame: spiraling self doubt, professional rejection by Apple and Yahoo, isolation from friends, and the collapse of his marriage. It takes guts for a writer to expose their weaknesses so openly, but it feels a little like sitting in on someone else’s therapy session (in a psychotherapy cliché he lays much of the blame for his low self esteem at the feet of his mother). I imagine the process of writing Big Deal was extremely cathartic, but I question whether the experience of reading the book is equally enlightening.
The problem is that Big Deal is all about Hoekman, Jr, and frankly I’m not sure that his personal experiences provide enough material to do the book’s topic justice. If more of Big Deal had been devoted to examining the impact of micro-fame in a broader context – the cult of celebrity engendered by social networking services like Twitter, say – the book might be better rounded, and have a broader appeal.
Despite the reservations I have outlined above, I still found Big Deal very enjoyable. There is no doubt that Hoekman, Jr is a talented writer, and has penned a book that can accurately be described as a page turner. I finished the book in one day, and certainly wasn’t left unsatisfied. Hoekman, Jr paints a very human picture of his life as a web industry A-Lister, and in a field where technical manuals are the norm Big Deal is quite unlike any other web design book I have read.
Big Deal: On Being Famous to Almost No One will be released as an ebook through Amazon and iBooks later this year. Learn more about the book on Robert Hoekman, Jr’s website.