Geekdom And The Wars Of Infinte Freedom

I want to follow up on my post about how I missed Geek Evangelism. I had stated that I frankly missed the passionate outreach, even when it was annoying, as it had been replaced with stark territoriality. What, I wondered, had happened?

My conclusion was basically too many geeks had gone into the internet echo chamber, where even more marketing echoed, and sealed themselves off.  Some of us, many of us didn’t end up in echo chambers (or ended up in larger ones that were well-aired), and those echo-chambers confused the hell out of us.

Yet I had noted that the internet also let people re-invent fandoms and themselves. Harry Potter fandom seemed to spring to life on the internet, cultivated not from any origin in earlier fandom, but by fans itself.  Many that followed seemed the same way, springing up everywhere, diverse, wide, and often crazy.

Yet these too would end up in fan wars and conflicts and battling echo chambers.

So how is it the internet is both an echo chamber and a medium for growth? How does it bring us the freedom to set up any community – yet many degenerate into conflict? Geekdom is not alone in this at all, it’s just we embraced technology and I still maintain the hope we know a bit better.

But the battles of geekdom, the territoriality, are there.  The hatred of Fake Geek Girls, the shipping wars, all of this.  Why?

Because infinite space to build gives you a chance for infinite conflict.

Open To Anyone, More Or Less

Anyone can build a geek community online (actually anyone can, we’re just technically-inclined so we’re more likely to). You can do it via Twitter Hastags and message boards, email lists and Tumblr. You can make it public or make it private.

Now admittedly it’s limited to people with the time, access, money. So it’s a sort of small set of “everyone,” but let’s call it “everyone enough for the sake of argument.” Because we’ll get to the arguments.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the (relative) openness of the internet has changed the world culture, and the US in specific. I doubt we wouldn’t have seen as much advancement of gay rights without the leveraging of the internet for combination, awareness, and humanization. Awareness of Ferguson and issues of racism wouldn’t be as prominent without it being broadcast across twitter.

The internet has an almost norming effect. People can set up space, have conversations, make blog posts. They can engage with people by elements of choice or with certain selectivity (even if they oft forget to). There’s always an outpost you can hopefully find.

Which is great.

Except when these communities and groups collide. Which they do with alarming frequency.

Many Selves With Less Options

I’m an old geek, and I’ve seen many cases where the internet explodes in conflicts. Fan wars. People shocked at pornography (still, really). Sites and communities battling over how to define their group, or fandom, or . . . something.

You’d think people would just sort of figure out of sight (and out of site), out of mind. The fact that there are gay chess players really isn’t something you should loose sleep over, unless your problem is “I’m dateless how do I meet them?”

That’s because the infinite space of the internet doesn’t mean we’re separate. We’re human, we need to interact with others, we’re not communities of one. We can find people easily, we can select among the infinite communities and options – and it means some folks are going to run into people very much Not Like Them.  It’s almost too easy.

The people in question may be people they just disagree with.

Or the people in question may offend them morally.

Or someone may just be an A*hole and find someone that they can torment.

Or they have a very distinct identity and feel that the existence of “these people” somehow dilutes the identity, so they must go on the warpath for the purity of whatever.

The infinite potential of the internet, gives us new ways to find people to be colossal jerks to.

Limited Mental Space

I think identity is a big part of this conflict. We may have many places online to be us, but if we’re part of a larger identity, people are going to be territorial about it. They are going to Have Ideas about what a fan of comics or games or this movie is. They are going to assume that They Are Right.  They do not want others Diluting Things.

Of course they’re not right. There’s many ways to be, but people want to own identities, they want to be part of something distinct and under their control. When you have a Very Right Idea that goes to the core of your identity, someone who doesn’t fit that can be nearly offensive to you.

There’s an irony to this. The very people who may choose to go into big geek wars over this part of maker culture or wargaming or what have you may only have the space to be such a pain because of the internet. The very communities they’re part of may only exist because of the options the internet gives them.

Then they decide that they own it and flame wars begin, or worse.

I still recall when people decried homoerotic fanfiction over a decade ago. All I could think of “Is you know where slash comes from, right?”

Go Out, Come Together

No matter how far we go, it seems most of the time we have to come back to other people. As the late Sir Terry Pratchett said about Granny Weatherwax, sometimes “You needed someone around to be proudly independent and self-reliant at.”

And when the internet lets you go out and do anything and be anyone, when you encounter others, conflict will arise because now you have far more opportunities to be offended and engage in conflict.

I think when we pair this with the echo-chamber effect of people joining selective communities, the effect is amplified. When you’ve spent so much time in community “X” how you react to community”Y” may make sense to you – but to no one else. I confess I am concerned at times rules from internet communities are distorting people’s ideas of what’s acceptable.

(For instance, this. What makes you to post a Tweet where you publicly call a 14 year old a slut over baseball? )

So with geekdom, especially for geekdom with all its adaption of net-tech, we really are in danger of both going down the rabbit hole and finding new ways to fight each other. Perhaps we’ve re-invented ourselves too much, and lack conflict-mitigation strategies.

Where From Here?

Again I have no idea. I’m still analyzing this and trying to figure it out. But I feel I somehow grasp the changes that I, an elder geek, have witnessed.

I also think I found more of my answer to where Evangelical Geekery went. WHen you don’ have to evangelize and can just build your own Shangri-La, it’s easier to do so.

Maybe it’s made us take people for granted. We can find so much on the internet, we forget how fragile life can be, how much it requires our maintenance to make work.

And forget what it’s like when it all falls apart.


– Steven Savage