Geek Culture: Action, Reaction, And Return

I’ve previously talked about geek evangelism – namely I missed it. It seems that the internet had given us a chance to seal ourselves off in echo chambers, and that has affected geek culture and culture in general. People we’re more “building up” than “reaching out,” and many now built walls.

The internet also guaranteed conflict. We could build an infinite amount of new communities – and find an infinite amount of things to fight about. People need people to interact with, but we’re not always equipped to deal with their differences. The internet guarantees differences between people will emerge and collide quickly – infinite space means infinite conflict.

Kind of makes you see how wall-building might even see rational at times. When someone starts a flame war over gum flavor, an echo chamber sounds like a better idea. We geeks, who like to engage with others, who use technology, probably face this even more than most.

Of course most of us don’t want conflict. Why do people end up fighting so often on the Internet? Sure, the internet ensures enough diversity that we can find new ways to fight. But honestly does anyone like this? If we’re going to go form our communities why do we have to keep fighting?

Because the internet doesn’t just give us leeway to leave and do our own thing, it ensures that the communities can produce their own opposites. These opposites are not always forming their own identity – they’re sharing one with the very people they don’t like. Those opposites return, or may even by their own existence redefine the culture

You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello

I remember the truly early days of the Internet going “big.” I remember Geocities and anyone being able to put up a page. I was active on LiveJournal. I helped out with websites. Even “back then” (Defined as the mid to late 90’s) anyone could create any kind of community they wanted.

(OK, again people that could afford it.)

I recall fan wars and battles and geek fallouts and obscure communities popping up. And why not? The tools were there.

Also if you didn’t like something, you could just leave and do something else. Surfing obscure, hyper-specific themed fandom sites was something my friends and I id on occasion, often amused or horrified at what we see. If you wanted it, and someone didn’t like it, you could just go do your thing.

(And I repeat, Harry Potter fandom, wow, nothing quite like that . . .)

It was often like a version of Conway’s “Life.” The organism of a fandom or a club or a geekdom could split off into parts if needed. A community might be eating itself, a kind of cultural autoimmune disorder, and then everyone could go their own way to hate each other on their terms.

At times they might get back together.

There were even groups that existed only in response to others. From MST3K communities that parodied fanfic (often with the permission of authors, leading to a peculiar synergy) to communities rebelling against adult fanfic, to groups that just mocked internet culture. Some sites and groups existed only because others did.

Fast forward to today.

Today it seems worse, and it’s not just people who argue Ed Elric and Roy Mustang are a couple years later. Some parts of geekdom just explode in battles as bad as any conspiracy news-link flame war – many, as noted, being gaming related and comics relating. Apparently fun is serious business.

it seems a lot of the battles seem to involve echo chambers. The fights make sense to those in the communities, but outside are a lot of people going “seriously?”

Because when you can go your own way and can do so in reaction to other things, you’ve got a conflict-producing machine. Leaving doesn’t mean the conflict ends, and people who are sick of something (or just mock it) can build their own community against something or for something.

Perhaps they return with a vengeance, or try to reform their culture, or they make it a goal to improve things. Or they can also be pretentious jerks.

The opposites don’t mean separation. Communities are often formed in response to something.   Those that created the response might be a bit surprised when the response comes back to them – but shouldn’t.

After all, people may exist in the same identity-space as others. Just because they left may not mean they’re going to share the identity with others. They might not be able to. They might have good reason not to.

I’m Leaving, I’ll Be In Touch

So when we put all the parts I discussed earlier together we see this:

  • The flaws in a geek cultures mean people want to leave or separate themselves from some parts of the culture. This is any culture, really.
  • The internet, the chosen Geek Tool (Blessed be Lovelace and Babbage), lets us go form communities and causes.
  • Despite “being separate” we often exist in the same identity-space as people we have a conflict with. We don’t truly get away – or want to.
  • Some communities and their conflicts spawn their own opposite.
  • The the internet lets us return to change things. Hell, we can’t really get away – when so much social involvement is routed through a few services like Twitter or Facebook the infinite division of the internet feels more like a cube farm.

The common social tools of the internet, plus wider awareness, mean that some people who form a community in reaction can then change the culture as a whole. They can change what they left, redefine it, or hunker down and be a kind of center point to alter the culture.

Take a look at the internet now and how it’s used in reaction to all sorts of things.  Ferguson and awareness of violence against PoC.  Gay rights issues tracked to the hour.  Corporate slip-ups.

If you’re an ass, if your community is pathological, if your company is discriminating against older geeks, people can organized against and about that issue quickly. The internet is not just about spawning communities, it’s spawning communities about something – and against something.

These communities “leave” but not totally. Not for long.

Guess where we are now?

Inevitable.  Only Forward, This Thing Doesn’t Go In Reverse

Geekdom doesn’t just spawn counter-communites. Many exist to change or redefine the culture itself, or to maintain it in a kind of activist-wall-building.  Again you see this everywhere, we’re just more wired.

It’s not really surprising. The internet let us reach out and develop but also amplified contact – and chance for conflict. Now that more and more is connected and public, there’s going to be more effort to fix it. It also means communities that left one area can come back rather loudly – they may not be able to conceive of a total separation.

This may also spawn reactions to the . . . reactions. A cultural breakdown in a community can spawn a responding community and then a response to the response. It can get a bit Inception-like as you try and figure out where this all started. Who’s battling for the soul of what?

In various parts of geekdom I’ve seen “reactions” get pretty deep. I could (and may) do entire essays on this. Just as example the “hate of the fake geek girl” BS seems to be about four reactions deep (reactions to women in geekdom, counter reaction stating they belong, minor bigoted counter reaction, larger community building reaction).

This is also important for areas of geekdom that are or have gotten insular. Their insularity, their pushing people out, is going to cause a reaction – possibly a severe one. It’s not going away. It’s going to mean people can form their own groups, communities, and all this happens in a very, very public way.

And people come back.

Lately I’ve seen several points where conventions have had unpleasant issues. These came up – yes – on the internet. Things, in the words of Ron Burgandy, Escalated Quickly.  In real time.

It won’t slow down.

If You’re Going To Ride The Horse, Have A Direction

So the truth of geekdom now is that we’re in a phase of reaction and action (again, any culture has this, I think it’s just amplified). We’re changing rapidly and facing rapid exposure of our problems. We also face a chance to rapidly address them – we have the tools and the inclination. We also can’t stop this – it will not stop.

(Indeed this is true of all culture; again, I’m a geek and we’re the ones that embrace the technology that lets us change so fast.)

So the real choice is, how are we going to handle this?

All the action and reaction mean we are moving rapidly. We might as well pick a damn direction.

I see this emerging as of late – indeed a lot of my work on Civic Geek opened my eyes to how people in our community are asking “what can we do and be?” People are directing their work and focus as geeks.  They’re asking what they should do.

Because if we have no direction, the ability to spawn endless conflict is going to continue to plague us. And if we don’t understand the walls come down fast, that our actions create their opposites, we’ll always be in battles far more than we need to be.


I started this series just exploring “what happened” and I know – geekdom too quickly developed echo-chamber communities that amplified marketing and pathological voices. The internet also produced infinite chance for conflict.

But also it seems we’re in a phase where everything is so public that some parts of geekdom (or any culture) spawn their own counterforce. At times an overwhelming counterforce.

It’s not done yet.

I do think it’s inevitable. I’ve said many a time that we geeks need to own our culture and take responsibility. Someone is going to anyway.

Because action has reaction, here in the internet, the biggest tiny room in history.


– Steven Savage