Missing The Missionary

I miss Evangelical Geekery.

Oh not geeks that are Evangelical Christians. I miss the geek who preaches about this great comic or great program. I miss the person convinced this anime will turn you into an anime fan and it’ll be giant robots for all. I miss people who wanted to show me stuff to the point I got annoyed.

Such statements may seem strange. We all know people who have tried to push things on us to the point it turned us off. I honestly delayed reading the Harry Potter books as the evangelism and the politics of the fandom really put me off the books.  Now I look back and miss that.

Honestly it’s like wondering when those people with the pamphlets are going to knock on the door.  You wonder if they’re OK.

Because it seems that Evangelical Geekery has kind of disappeared. Some of it is that geekdom has matured, has become cool, has become a “viable and accepted subculture.”

And some of it is that parts of geekdom have put up more walls and gates and barriers.

* * *

I’m an old geek. I was born in the 60’s. I saw Star Wars first run, owned an Atari 2600, and remember when Doctor Who was cool (how things come full circle). I also remember people wanting to introduce each other to these cool things.

My first experience of driving an hour north of home to an anime club to sit there amazed at what I saw. Turning my friends on to Elfquest, that marvelous gem of alt-comics and alt-fantasy. Discovering the crazy Warhammer 40K universe via the same friends. The D&D group where the cleric was a gay centaur (later the guy playing him came out, proving our gaydar was awful).

Fast forward to today. We discuss toxic communities in video games, where my gamer friends entire approach to League Of Legends is “Great game but ignore everyone.” There’s the utterly bizarre hatred of “fake geek girls,” that is hard to explain rationally as it is irrational. Silicon Valley has problems with strange elitism that we old geeks woud have dismissed and frankly seen through (“oh, you sound like the latest business fad theorist.  Now back to coding!”)

What the hell happened? Where’s the guy trying to sell me on the latest Gundam series I never actually want to see? Where’s the woman explaining a three part SF novel trilogy to me I’ll never have time to read? The last time I truly saw evangelism was among the Bronies and Pegasisters – though I think they kinda won.

Something got inside out.

* * *

I’ve thought over this a lot – and you’re probably going to see more here on the subject. It’s the Age of Geek, but we’ve also got some cultural pathologies, challenges, and disconnect. I might as well address them.

So what I’ve seen is a shift from geekery from evangelism to territorialism – in some spheres:

  • I see the most territoriality in the geeky spheres of old-school SF, comics, and video games.
  • I see some territoriality in technology and science, mostly plain old sexism.
  • I see far less territoriality in anime fandom, maker culture, media fandom, and to some extent fantasy. Anime fandom sometimes retains an evangelism vibe.
  • The non-video game sphere I see erratic territoriality. I’ve hd people describe experience of horrendous bias, and also seen a lot of tolerance and open-mindedness. I also see a bit of old-school evangelism here.

This let me get a picture of the switch in geekdom, and I wanted to share my thoughts:

Some Of It Has Always Been Here

First of all, no, even though I remember Geek Evangelism, we weren’t always bastions of tolerance. Old-school SF had some elitism, technology and tech areas have their issues as well. Sexism, racism, and so on are part of our culture and did infect geekdom as well.

(As I state repeatedly, geekdom is more tolerant as a whole, but its depths are just as deep as anywhere else).

So first of all, I think we miss that geekdom hasn’t always been inclusive or evangelical. People liked their little kingdoms. People identified not just with geekdom but with other traits (race, gender, age) and didn’t want the “other” in.  However I do think it has changed, or got worse.

In fact this corresponded with some technological changes . . .

The Internet: Not The Answer, Not The Question

I am no Luddite. I’m a technophile. I fully admit this. The main issue with technology is how we use it.

How many of us use the internet to just build a bigger echo chamber?

I think the internet both empowered geekdom but also let people find like minded folks so quickly they built kingdoms as opposed to populating them. The internet presented so many options that the goal of finding likeminded people or sharing turned into a job of maintaining territory.  When you can go anywhere you have to choose to be somewhere.

When sports sites are writing on this? You have an issue.   The internet lets you get so selective you can burrow into an echo chamber of your own choosing.

However, combine the internet with existing elitism and you ended up with another phenomena . . .

Doing It Yourself

Harry Potter fandom seemed to invent itself without a grounding in other fandoms. Then again why be surprised?

Potter fans were people of the internet, the young, the wired, the aware. Harry Potter books even sound like the vaguely crazy stories people would RP or talk about writing. Harry Potter fandom from what I can tell had no home but the internet.

Then again I’d imagine many an old school fan of the time brushed the book off.  I did for awhile, but I like to think that’s because it was pushed too hard.  But I admit to the possibility I was just being arrogant.

The fans used the internet to build their own fandom. I remember watching it happen and it aws amazing and strange and wonderful and disturbing. I saw people have to invent rules and cultures and policies as opposed to importing them from previous geek groups. Then again I imagine they had to.

The internet lets us do it ourselves if we find no home. If we know of no support network. We can redo things.

How many people in geekdom’s first experience was in communities and groups that were invented as needed, or as a response to exclusive communities? I’m going to guess a lot.

And I don’t think these communities had an evangelical or outreaching flare. Too busy building and maintaining.

Yet geek is big now? Exactly. And that may be another issue.

Marketed To The Echo Chamber

Right now geek is huge. Game of Thrones and AAA game titles, Avengers: Age Of Ultron and Amiibos everywhere. People are doing stuff we want and selling it to us.

But we’re also being marketed to. And I think that leads to further narrowing and identification. I dealt with that before.

When you’re marketed to you’re sort of being pandered to. You set expectations. You feel things have to go your way. We geeks have had a lot go our way lately.  Steve Jobs is a sexy manga hero, Joss Whedon can do no wrong.

I’m wondering if some communities feel entitled.

I witnessed this happening over a decade ago when I helped with fan websites. People would act as if their very presence somehow blessed a site (wherein I wondered “who are you anyway?”). They felt entitled to tell people running some free site what to do. It was . .. odd.

I mean if you want something done, pitch in and help, right?  Didn’t see much of that.

So if we’ve got these echo chambers, if we’re busy maintaining communities and not reaching out, is marketing making us feel a wee bit entitled?

So Where Does All This Go?

So my final take is roughly this:

Geekdom outreach has been diminished by territoriality as we put our efforts into constructing and maintaining communities in the internet age, and some of our communities become echo chambers that distort perspective.

I think this explains a few differences I’ve seen:

  • Old school SF fandom has largely fallen off my radar as I think it didn’t welcome people. It had its own echo chamber.
  • Anime is a very general fandom based on a wide variety of properties and ages. There’s always something to share and it’s generalism and enthusiasm allows for maintenance.  I also noticed the cons I go to are maintained by an older set of fans for the younger set.
  • Comics has had an erratic history of being welcome, but I think it’s recent prominence and expanding scope has collided with communities that became echo chambers.
  • Video Gaming really explored online communities in depth early and is highly marketed. Thus it will have some of those truly exclusivist communities – the kind my fellow gamer friends all avoid.
  • Maker Culture is very hands-on and is all about doing. It has an ideology behind it so outreach is a part of it. I’ve heard some complaints it’s not as tolerant as it seems or as evangelical, but I’ll take what I can get.

Geek Evangelism versus Exclusivity varies among cultures and subcultures, markets and communities.  What I missed is gone – but also we have radically different geek subcultures colliding.

So Where To Go From Here

Hell if I know. Look, this is the formulation of theory part.

I mean most of my approach as a geek is to be socially engaged and I’m big on citizenship. I probably need to think this over.

But I think being aware is part of it. We really need to be aware that geekdom’s welcome mat has been yanked away in some cases – often because we really just forgot to set one out. We also need to understand we’re human; old geeks like me need to remember that there are humans here in different times.

I suppose one thing we can do right now is to not just build more inclusive geekdoms, to help it evolve and grow, but to bring back a bit of that spirit. The spirit of outreach. The spirit of sharing cool stuff.

Maybe we can try doing the outreach to remind us what it feels like.

But clearly I have more to think about.


– Steven Savage