Wed
May 13 2009 6:01pm
I AM A GEEK!: The Video, the Backlash, and Why We Need to Take Back Geek Culture

For those people who haven’t yet seen the already semi-notorious “I AM A GEEK!” video from The Society for Geek Advancement, here’s some background: the video is a collaborative effort “bringing together some of the biggest creators, personalities and web celebs taking on the online world,” according to co-creator Shira Lazar. It’s a little unclear exactly what the Society (or “SGA”) and the project are all about, however, other than celebrating “our inner and outer geek” and encouraging people to donate to charity—basically, using “social media for social good” and having a good time doing it. All of which sounds pretty great, if a little vague (you can read the mission statement and details of the project here)...but then people started paying attention to the video, and trouble began brewing.

When people start ganging up on Wil Wheaton, official Secretary of Geek Affairs, beloved as he is in all corners of the Internet, you know that there’s something rotten in the state of geekdom. People have been genuinely upset by his involvement in the video, which seems to have an extremely arbitrary, or else rather calculated, perspective on the concept of geekhood. After hours of email and Twitter-frenzy, Wheaton posted an extremely cogent, well thought-out response to the criticism on his blog, explaining that “the project...changed from conception to release,” and detailing his own problems with the finished product while stressing the importance of actually embracing, rather than simply exploiting, geek culture.

As for the video itself, I find it confusing, even after multiple viewings. It’s very well-produced, trumpets a pro-geek agenda and features so many people that I find likeable and genuinely admire that I almost don’t want to find fault with it. Unfortunately, there’s no getting around the fact Lazar and company seem more concerned with dispelling certain conceptions of what it means to be a geek than exploring what it actually does mean. For example, we learn that a geek is not a “nerd” or “spaz,” doesn’t hang out in their parents’ basement, play Dungeons and Dragons or Magic: The Gathering, or “drink Mountain Dew or energy drinks.” So, the evils of caffeinated beverages and role-playing games are clearly the province of basement dwelling mouth-breathers and social misfits. Geeks, by comparison, are incredibly cool and tech-savvy—so tech-savvy that they feel the need to be completely condescending about it, explaining hashtags, memes, and terms like “tweets” versus “Twitter” in a way that makes you want to punch your computer full in the face. But, as Levar Burton himself says in the video, you don't have to take my word for it...

Frankly, if being a geek means that I’m supposed to laugh when Kevin Pollack sneers, “JavaScript is not a play about coffee,” then I want no part of it. Kevin Pollack is not the boss of me, first of all—and why do these people love to hate on caffeine??? It’s creepy. I love caffeine. I didn’t sign on for this.

There’s so much else to complain about...the way the video opens with Lazar, in a low-cut tank top, shutting her laptop in order to make the crucial point that being a geek doesn’t mean you can’t have a great rack, or the fact that Shaquille O'Neal is included for No Discernible Earthly Reason?!?! I feel like I shouldn’t really need to spell this out, but here it is: having an active Twitter account does not make you a geek. Clear? Holy hell.

Wil Wheaton’s line actually serves as an excellent example of exactly how the video goes wrong. Wheaton, a self-acclaimed lifelong geek who plays both D&D and MtG, looks in to the camera and says, “I speak Python and CSS—not Klingon.” It’s not the line itself that’s really the problem—I'm sure it was intended to be tongue-in-cheek—it’s the fact that Lazar’s definition of Geek Advancement means promoting the tech- and social media-friendly aspects of the culture at the expense of other social and imaginative outlets. Why can’t it be cool for someone to be interested in operating systems and Star Trek, to know both Klingon and CSS, to be fluent in Python and be able to quote Holy Grail in its entirety?

One of the greatest strengths of geek culture is its remarkable inclusivity, its creativity, its ability to encompass and combine disparate ideas, modes of thoughts, and areas of interest without having to worry about keeping up appearances or maintaining the conventional status quo. To be so dismissive of traditionally maligned geek interests and so incredibly smug about our apparent technological superiority at the same time doesn’t celebrate geek culture—it’s just a cheap way of buying up some nice property in the mainstream, at the expense of the quirks, the playfulness, and the ability to be comfortable being different that is the essence of geekdom.

If there is one stereotype we should be moving away from, it’s the geekier-than-thou, Comic Book Guy-style sense of smirking superiority that only serves to alienate individuals from one another within and without the community. The creators of the SGA seem to think the best way to empower geeks is to ditch the nerdy comic books, hand the Guy an iPhone and a Twitter account, and make him over into an Ashton Kutcher clone, while retaining the obnoxious, supercilious attitude. This plan has the stink of a bad 80s movie all over it, and as someone who’s seen Can’t Buy Me Love more than a few times, let me tell you—it doesn’t work, my friends.

I truly love the idea of using social media to promote good causes like Room to Read, and the people involved in the SGA seem to have their hearts in the right place. I just don’t think they need to work quite so hard to make “geek” into the newest flavor of ultra-hip, when doing so narrows the definition and application of the term until it becomes essentially meaningless. The SGA needs to take a page from blogger (and fellow Tor.com contributor) Matt Staggs, whose recent Call for Geek Militancy seems more and more prescient all the time. “I AM A GEEK!” begins with a heavily edited version of the Wikipedia definition of the word “geek;” what people need to understand is that if the definition is going to change, it should be expanded, not narrowed, until it truly reflects a community of unapologetic iconoclasts who celebrate and respect difference in themselves and others. Until social media people understand the term they're co-opting in that larger sense, I'm not buying what they're pushing—selling out, even for a good cause, is still selling out. I know we can do better.

[Image by Flickr user Zambo., CC-licensed for commercial use.]

35 comments
Richard Fife
1. R.Fife
Wow, something to make my blood boil every day, I say.

I am a geek.
I have played and enjoyed MtG and ADnD.
I have had strong discussions over why Kefka is a better villian than Sephiroth.
I have debated who is the better captain in Star Trek.
I regularly offer computer help to those in need (its my job).
I drink about one (1) non-caffeinated drink a day.
I read and write speculative fiction with a more burning wonder of "what if" than "dragons/rayguns".
I live on tor.com.

Agreed, heart is in the right place, but to be philosophical and pseudo-relegious "The road to hell is paved in good intentions."

Also, reminds me of all those generation next pepsi commercials back in the mid-90s.
Jason Henninger
2. jasonhenninger
I've not had the chance to watch the video yet, but based purely on the power of your cleverness and vehemence, I'd like to say that you, Bridget, are fantastic.
Bill Siegel
3. ubxs113
@ 2 jasonhenninger

I concur.

Anyway, this a a classic example of Zeitgeist advertising. And since it's advertising, by definition, it cannot claim unbiased representation of geeks. The advertisement is a self serving vehicle that attempts to co-opt what it's creators believe to be the more popular stereotypes of so-called Geek Culture for a specific reason. Be that reason good or bad it is incumbent on "geeks" not to fall prey to pigeonholing just for the sake of the advertisers.

EDIT - Well, it turns out this is pretty much what Wil Wheaton says, only he says it way better...
D.A. Ford
4. D.A. Ford
ROFLMAO - Kefka is a far superior villain than Sephiroth.
Arachne Jericho
5. arachnejericho
o.O

I'm all for the backlash, and I think this was a seriously misguided and misguiding video, but "take back geek culture"?

That's not a rally call I'm behind.

I'd prefer to push it to the forefront in all its glory, not suddenly start adding qualifiers and attempting to espouse "what is truly geek". That sounds too much like high school.

Actually, this whole thing sounds a lot like high school.

(Of course, High School Never Ends.)
Richard Fife
6. R.Fife
@5 arachne:
Hmm, I see what you're getting at there, and I think what Bridget is trying to say (and please correct me if I'm wrong) is more of a need to undo the qualifiers. Get rid of the "I don't play MtG or DnD" and the "I don't drink MtDew and Energy Drinks" and just get a more general feeling of what attracts a person to "geeky" things with a big wide open to "and related subjects."

A red rocket ship would be nice, too.

Also: sorry if my listing of my "geeky" counter-attributes might have lead to the idea of extra qualifiers. I was just trying to be contradictory to the video.
Arachne Jericho
7. arachnejericho
@R.Fife #6

Undoing those kinds of qualifiers is all for the better.

But we shouldn't get into the habit of "oh no not these people! they are not TRUE geek." I think Tor.com has the right idea ;) but I would prefer not to contemplate going off the other end.
Richard Fife
8. R.Fife
yeah, not to mention, I don't think I have the masculine willpower to deny Felicia Day Geek status ;)

So, more like our rally-cry should be "Geeks Unite!"
Arachne Jericho
9. arachnejericho
BWahahahaha!

I like "Geeks Unite!" much better. United We Geek, Divided We Clique.
D.A. Ford
10. Mattg
That's the problem with trying to define something that previously had a more loose interpretation. You end up with some pissed off people and create fractions in the group you are trying to unite.
James Goetsch
11. Jedikalos
@arachenjericho: what you said. So say we all!
Angela Korra'ti
12. annathepiper
Wow. I have to applaud Bridget's post, 'cause yeah--what, exactly, is wrong with playing D&D again? And what's wrong with Mountain Dew and energy drinks? When did drinking caffeine become a badge of dishonor in geekdom? (Somebody clearly failed to send the entire software industry that memo, 'cause yeah, Seattle's still stacked sky-high with coffee shops and caffeinated soda in all the major software companies.)

And when did it become uncool to speak Klingon? I don't, but hey, I can't point fingers--I have a Tolkien language reference on my shelf after all and could geek for hours about Quenya and Sindarin, so I say more power to anybody with the passion to learn Klingon. :)

Geeks unite, indeed. And nerds too, for that matter. I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm a geek and a nerd!
- -
13. heresiarch
Trying to define geek by the specific interests and hobbies that characterize is just as doomed as trying to define science fiction by some particular set of tropes, and leads to the exact same "But it's not scifi it doesn't have any space-ships!"-style debates.

Which brings me to:
"..what people need to understand is that if the definition is going to change, it should be expanded, not narrowed, until it truly reflects a community of unapologetic iconoclasts who celebrate and respect difference in themselves and others."

I one-hundred percent agree, with the caveat that the definition should not end up an exhaust(ive/ing) list along the lines of "Being a geek means you're really interested in computers or Star Trek or Star Wars or science or space or movies or music or etc. etc." Inevitably someone will raise their hand and say "Hey, I'm really geeky about baseball, doesn't that count?" and pretty soon the list will be so long that everyone will disagree with part of it.

The ideal definition (description?) for geek should be short, but elegant: something that captures the essence geekdom without focusing overly on what particular activity especially attracts your geeky attention. That said, here's my first approximation: "Being a geek means being so interested in something that you don't care whether or not it's cool."
Theresa DeLucci
14. theresa_delucci
Nice, Bridget!

That's what bothered me about the video, the condescending tone (and Shaq outta nowhere.) There is no one definition of a geek. I went to a Tor-related party on Friday night where folks were talking all about Star Trek and sf cons and such. Then, I went out to dinner with a few photographers who are probably the textbook definition of fashionable and "cool" (yeah, don't know what I was doing there. Ha.) They were geeking out over a new, insanely rare camera as passionately as the Tor.com people were comparing Kirks. The most basic definition of a geek is someone with an intense passion for anything.

I'm not a tech geek, which the video seemed to think was the only kind of geek. I'm a book/TV/movie geek with a dash of comics and videogames. There's not a damn thing wrong with speaking Klingon or Sindarin (or Scarran or Buffy-isms.) Being a geek is all about love.

Now excuse me while I go eat some Pocky...
Bridget McGovern
15. BMcGovern
@3 ubxs113:

The Wheaton response is great--I certainly can't do any better than WilW, either :) But well said, all the same.

@R.Fife and arachnejericho:

Whatever rallying cry works best for people is fine by me...except for maybe "Imagine Greater"--I'm not sure I can see myself chanting that and keeping a straight face. But in all seriousness, a more specific or exclusive definition of geekdom is precisely what I'm arguing against here. I'm far more interested in widening the umbrella than I am about imposing limits: I'm just not a velvet rope kind of girl. I like being able to follow my personal interests wherever they may take me, regardless of whether my enthusiasm looks good or even makes sense to other people...that's not my definition of being a geek, but that's certainly where it starts, for me.

What concerns me here is the move toward co-opting geek culture by people who might only be interested in using is as a slick branding tool, to be used at the *expense* of a broader, more liberal understanding of what it means to be a geek. I don't think that was the main intention behind this particular project, but I feel that it was a definite step in the wrong direction.
Irene Gallo
16. Irene
Sometimes I just long for the days when life was simple and geek just meant biting the heads off chickens. ;-)

http://i4.photobucket.com/albums/y141/igallo/NightmareAlley.jpg
Church Tucker
17. Church
@14 Theresa "The most basic definition of a geek is someone with an intense passion for anything. "

I know a guy who is getting his doctorate in, essentially, that. My definition has always been, "Nerds are smart. Geeks know a lot about something. Dorks argue the difference."
Eugene Myers
18. ecmyers
I know we can do better.

I think you're absolutely right! I propose we film a Tor.com response to this video celebrating our geekiness properly. We can feature bloggers, editors, authors, artists...
Patrick Nielsen Hayden
19. pnh
Brilliant, Bridget.

There are vast swathes of "geek culture" that don't include me. I have no bump of gaming. My programming skills extend to putting aliases in my .profile file, and that's about it. But I like obsessive D&D players and stimulant-crazed coders a lot more than I like people who scrabble after social respectability.

Church, that's an aphorism for the ages.
C.D. Thomas
20. cdthomas
That's why this past week has been such a pain.

Do I want more geeks to roam free in the world? Do I want geek culture to spread up and out, so all may learn and have passions? Hells yeah. Just don't kick me out and diss what I love, to fit the new fashion, 'kay?

I'm not saying the bull that "there's room for everyone", because groups classify and cull, groups are like that. But so-called leaders of such groups should know that they can't predict who might be crucial to their groups' future success -- they just know who they want in the group, right now, and their judgment is too limited, and too marketing-focused.

We built geek culture with inclusiveness as a feature, not a bug. "We have news for the beautiful people; there are more of us than there are of you." Do I want such a co-option that geek means "rich enough in this economy to have the shiniest toys"? No.

That's just as lame as the periodic attempts for gay marketing groups to trumpet that more gays and lesbians (but mostly rich, urban gay men) have incomes over the national median than straight people. That doesn't help a lesbian when she's being bashed, or when she loses custody of her kid. I want more rights, not less; I want more people to have those rights, not fewer.
- -
21. heresiarch
pnh @ 19: "But I like obsessive D&D players and stimulant-crazed coders a lot more than I like people who scrabble after social respectability."

Yeah--I value other people's passion, even when it's for things I'm not personally into. Reading about the ongoing statistics revolution in baseball (and now basketball) is incredibly neat, even though I'm not a sports fan by any stretch of the imagination. Sometimes it's more fun when you don't know anything about the subject to start with: you can lean back and enjoy the ride through someone else's fascination.

cdthomas @ 20: "'"We have news for the beautiful people; there are more of us than there are of you.'"

Isn't this just more dichotomy-building? I'm happy with the beautiful people joining in on the geek-fest. They already are, if you think about it--what's geekier than designing speculative clothes that people can't actually wear?
René Walling
22. cybernetic_nomad
I'm a geek,

According to the video a geek is:

"A person who is interested in technology, especially computing and new media"

Sure, but I'm more interested in content, not whatever acronym was used to bring it to me.

"Who has chosen concentration rather than conformity"

Which is why I was a geek before it was popular and will be a geek after it is popular.

"One who passionately pursues skill and imagination, not mainstream social acceptance"

So why should I care if others are geeks and accept me?
D.A. Ford
23. Tarzimal
I know I'm a little late, but I love how the character sheet in the picture is in portuguese.
Torie Atkinson
24. Torie
Great job, Bridget, on pointing out a lot of the things that really bothered me, too. While I think there's much to be said for inclusivity, I feel that a lot of staunchly geeky things have been successfully absorbed into the mainstream while we geeks ourselves have been left behind. Cases in point: video games, computers, and web technology. I'm pleased that all these things are now ubiquitous, but I think the people behind them--the developers and the fans--have been left behind, still stereotyped as the loser mouth-breathers. Social marketing is the latest trend of monetizing what was once a quintessentially geeky past time (connecting with others like you in the dark recesses of the internet).

This video doesn't help that. The whole point of geek culture is that you can love something I'm utterly uninterested in and I still respect and admire you for it. To pick and choose "cool" things from the geek culture Katamari ball and kick other "less cool" things out is antithetical to that inclusivity (and finishing the level in time!).
D.A. Ford
25. Zeek
been peripherally following thru Wheaton's Tweets and on his blog...

I was never persecuted as a kid for being a geek- in fact I wish I had that to identify with. (I was so far off the radar, I was mostly invisible.)

But I was a geek whether other geeks acknowledged it.

I watched Star Trek & Dr. Who reruns as a kid- alone- and I loved the Spiderman & X-Men cartoons on Sat. mornings.

I read Dune & The Hobbit late into the night with a flashlight under the covers.

I liked talking best with smart, shy guys in high school.

I can speak Python too, but not so much Java, and I'm the first one out there promoting Sci Fi and Fantasy- whether its visual media or the in the written word.

I work with engineers and they are the ones who went with me to go see the new Star Trek movie last week.

So guess what- though I certainly don't look it and have never been identified as one- I am a geek too.
D.A. Ford
26. KatG
It seems to be an anti-geek video, really, aimed at anti-technology folk who think the kids being really into their iPods and the Internet are socially maladjusted, cut off, etc. So it's saying: "Yes, I'm an Internet geek and I'm okay, I'm listening even with my earbuds on, etc. But hey, don't confuse me with Trekkies and D&D people at Comicons who dress up in costumes just because I'm good with computers. I'm a geek, but I'm not that kind of geek, and I'm cooler than you and can help you with your email, technophobe."

Which is unfortunate. We need neither bury the geek in the basement, nor put up with the media presenting it as our sole identity. (In fact, just the other day, I got to read an Entertainment Weekly story on Angels & Demons that opened with that very gambit, and given what geeks the staff there are, I kept wondering, did no one proof this thing?)

The worlds of computers, games, comics, movies, and books are very interconnected, and having one group sigh about being confused with another isn't going to help much. But it's always been that way -- one group's passion is another group's what's wrong with the state of things today. So that must mean that it's time for the entertaining backlash videos. But be nice to Wheaton; his heart's in the right place.
D.A. Ford
27. ErictkRosenfield
"One of the greatest strengths of geek culture is its remarkable inclusivity"

Is that why geeks are always dismissing "norms" and "mundanes"? I think this article, like the video itself, has some blinders on to the nature of geek culture, which can be extremely insular, insecure, defensive and smug.

"If there is one stereotype we should be moving away from, it’s the geekier-than-thou, Comic Book Guy-style sense of smirking superiority that only serves to alienate individuals from one another within and without the community."

I'm not sure that's just a stereotype.
Kevin Morgan
28. DrMorganstien
HA! Katamari

I'm just glad everyone here is saying all the things I wanted to say when I saw the video. I just don't have a National Exposure sized soap box to yell it from (read YouTube account).

EDIT: I have a quote that sums up Geekdom very well, a least in my opinion (And Joss Whedon's)
NOTE: the actual words may vary, can't find the exact words very quickly

"The reason I do this is not to make things that people like, it is only to make things that people Love"
-Joss Whedon
D.A. Ford
29. intango
It broke my heart the day I heard the then-13-year-old Disney singer of DEVO 2.0 say,

"It's a beautiful world... for you... for you... for you... and me too!"
D.A. Ford
30. moonglum
The video can come off as an anti-geek idea (in that its conformist) of what a geek should be if geeks are in fact to be honored and esteemed in post-industrial capitalist society. In this false vision of geekdom, a geek, if they are to be honored by society in general, must be a serious money maker.

But while there is nothing non-geeky or wrong about having geek tastes that lean strictly towards the technological, there is also nothing wrong with being a slacker geek who knows their trek backwards and forwards, but is not does not have the upper middle class / corporate demeanor that is often necessary to hold a decent computer job (even though they may be technologically savvy enough to contribute to open source projects).

Part of geekdom is valuing imagination to the extent that geeks believe that what we imagine is perhaps more important than what we do for a living-- more valuable than what we can do that is of monetary worth in our current economic system. The cool, ironic, thing is that what geeks have imagined has become *incredibly* valuable. But its in the imagination that the coolness lies, not in the mainstream success.
D.A. Ford
31. KatG
Wheaton seems pretty upset about how the whole thing was made. I don't think the video at all intended to be down on any group, but I don't really get how this is supposed to help promote literacy? Computer literacy, maybe.
Nicholas Alcock
32. NullNix
@14 Theresa, I'd say that you got it half right. Being a geek is having an intense passion for something *complicated*, or rather having an interest in something so intense that you comb out and absorb the complexity that is resident there (for *everything* is complex if you look deep enough).

I'm a tech/sf geek myself, but I know gardening geeks, and I know people who garden a lot but are *not* gardening geeks: and the difference is purely that the gardening geeks *learn* about what they're doing and they never *stop* learning and they never stop *recombining* what they learned. Geeks are generalizers and information packrats. Good programmers are generalizers and packrats too, but that doesn't make the categories identical: it just means they need similar skills, and I know a number of good programmers who are not geeks by this definition, because when the day ends they can switch off their interest: it's only done for pay, and that's not an intense passion.
David Lev
33. davidlev
I'm a fantasy nerd (I prefer nerd to geek, just because), and a gay activism nerd, and a TVTropes nerd (which means that I guess I'm pretty much a TV/Movie/Book/Comic nerd as well). I'm not particularly tech-savvy, but I spend a lot of time on the internet. My girlfriend is a religion nerd, as well as several other kinds that I am as well. I totally agree with the people talking about the definition of geek as someone who cares passionately about something and doesn't care what others think of it. I try my hardest to work towards that.
David Lev
34. davidlev
At the end of Wil Wheaton's post he includes some comments from Shira Lazar, the woman who first conceptualized this. She basically says that the vid is not an evil marketing scheme, and the intention of it was not to disassociate geekdom from D&D or caffeine, but to say "you don't have to like D&D or caffeine to be a geek." Which really I'm OK with. She was intending to do the same thing as the rest of us: to show that geekdom is based on your passion for something, not strictly define what that something is. Really, everyone's geeky about something.

Although,is it me, or was it kind of weird that Wheaton was the one to say that he didn't speak Klingon? I would have figured that he'd be the most likely to speak Klingon of the bunch. I dunno, maybe I've got some geeky stereotypes myself
D.A. Ford
35. anonymous-coward-postby
If you've watched the special features for "Nerdcore Rising", then you know what the folks who made this video didn't. Weird Al explains the difference between the words, "geek", "nerd", and "dork".
So go watch them ( :
(yeah, he has his own issues at times, but I'm not going near that).

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