Reader Request Week 2012 #6: The Cool Kids Hanging Out

Lance in Huntington Beach asks:

Wil Wheaton just Tweeted Chris Hayes about Rachel Maddow. Why is it that everyone I follow on Twitter, watch on TV or read seems to know one another? Is the world really that small? Does a bit of notoriety buy you immediate acceptance from other notables? Or is there a special club you all belong to and once again, it’s me being picked last for dodgeball? Please explain.

First: Dude, it’s totally you being picked last for dodgeball, man. You’re too slow. You keep being taken out first! And your throwing arm? Sheesh.

Second: Just because you tweet someone about someone else on Twitter doesn’t mean you know them to any significant degree. Twitter just gives one the ability to send a comment to anyone else on Twitter, and if you’re following one or both of those people, you’ll see the tweet. I could tweet, say, Fred Durst about the Dalai Lama, it doesn’t mean I know either of them. Fred Durst could even respond to me (or for that matter, so could the Dalai Lama) and it still wouldn’t qualify as “knowing” either of them in any meaningful sense. So that’s an important thing to remember about Twitter.

Third: It’s not that the world is small, it’s that who you are interested in as notables is specialized enough that there’s a reasonably good chance they might know each other.

As an example: I am notable, to the extent I am notable, primarily for being a science fiction writer — many of the people who follow me online one way or another (although not all) did so at least initially because they heard of me as a science fiction writer. This means there’s a pretty good chance they read science fiction and fantasy and also consider other science fiction and fantasy writers as notable to some extent or another.

As a science fiction writer, I attend a reasonable number of conventions, where I’ve met other science fiction and fantasy writers; I’ve also been a member of The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for nearly a decade, and through that I have also had contact with a large number of SF/F writers. Over several years of seeing these folks over and over, some of them have become friends — some of them very good friends — because we have similar life situations, professional concerns, and recreational enthusiasms. Many of the rest of them I’ve come to know professionally as peers, particularly after I became president of SFWA and these writers became my constituency.

So if you’re a sf/f fan for whom these writers are important, and you see me chatting online with my friends who also happen to be sf/f writers, it looks like all the cool kids are hanging out, doing cool kid stuff together online, and so on. And how cool is that? Pretty cool. Of course, if you’re not an sf/f fan, and you saw me chatting online with my friends who also happen to be sf/f writers, it looks like a middle-aged dude doing a whole lot of procrastination on Twitter with a bunch of other mostly lumpy 30-, 40- and 50- somethings. That is, if you’re looking at my Twitter feed at all, and if you’re not an sf/f fan, why would you? And thus we learn the truly specialized nature of “notability.”

I know sf/f writers because I am a sf/f writer, and this sort of professional association is why (of course) a lot of your favorite actors will know other of your favorite actors, why your favorite musicians will know other of your favorite musicians, why the cool scientists out there seem to know the other cool scientists, and so on. Beyond mere professions, there will be other sorts of situational overlaps. One of the great cultural questions of our time is why do very successful musicians and actors always seem to date other very successful actors or musicians (or supermodels). The answer is, well, who else are they going to date? It’s not as if someone like George Clooney can put up an OK Cupid profile like a common schmoe. They’re going to date other famous people because a) they’re the people they know, b) they’re the people who understand the life and can (possibly) tolerate all the crap around it. An actor dating a supermodel, or an actress dating a musician, is the famous person equivalent of a corporate VP dating a manager in human resources.

The actual mundane rationales for the surface fabulousness of the famous (or at least notable) aside, there is one advantage to being a notable of any sort, which is that it makes it slightly easier to make the acquaintance of the people you nerd out over, because it’s possible they already know who you are and may even be fans of your work (or you). And while mutual admiration is not a good foundation to a lifelong friendship, it does make that initial encounter a lot easier, because you each already think positively of the other.

Look, I’m not going to lie: like any other person, “notable” people geek out at getting to meet and hang out with the people they admire. I mean, shit, man: The fact that Robert Silverberg knows me? Seems to tolerate me? Does not in fact recoil when I enter the room? There have to be multiple universes because this one universe cannot contain all of my squee. If you have the chance to meet the people you admire, chances are pretty good you’re going to take it. If it turns out nothing comes of it, then no harm done. But if it turns out you like each other and become pals? Then you’re living the fanboy dream. Which you never say out loud, of course. But even so.

And then there’s the fact that when you’re friends with someone notable, they often have other friends who are notable, who you then get to meet, and thus your network of notable acquaintances grows, simply because your friends have friends, i.e., you meet people like any person meets people, i.e., through your friends.

Now, there’s the flip side, which is you meet someone you admire and then find out they’re kind of an ass. But I’m delighted to say that at least so far, this has not been my experience. Also, notable or not, you don’t want to be That Social Climbing Dick, i.e., the guy who becomes friends with someone and then immediately starts looking to trade up in their friend circle. People aren’t stupid and don’t like being used. And that, too, is a constant in all human relationships, whether the people in them are “notable” or not.

But basically, Lance, when you see all the folks you consider the “cool kids” talking to each other online, it’s that fact that you consider them the cool kids that makes it seem like something special. Believe me, they probably thank you for it. But someone else who does not see these people as notable might see it as what it is: a bunch of folks who know each other to varying degrees, doing what people do online — letting each other know they’re part of each others’ lives. And possibly planning a dodgeball tournament.

38 thoughts on “Reader Request Week 2012 #6: The Cool Kids Hanging Out

  1. One of the best things about becoming an adult is that eventually YOU get to decide who the cool kids are to you. And that’s a heck of a lot more interesting than school days crowds. There’s a certain glee to having favorite authors and writers make up the cool crowd for you, even if it WOULD be a really awkward dodgeball tournament.

  2. And the flip side, of course, is that it’s sometimes very difficult to get the people pursuing the “cool kids” to perceive what the cool kids think is cool. Sometimes at a convention when you see three well-known writers talking to one “boring mundane” it is quite possible that the “boring mundane” attracted them; you might be looking at a well-known scientist, essayist, or general purpose cool person. (This can get exasperating; at one of the few academic sf conferences I attended, there were several interesting professors and critics I wanted to hang with, and constant interruptions from dull, ordinary professional writers trying to “rescue” me).

  3. Can’t emphasize enough how awesome conventions are as a way to meet one’s writing idols and become known to them. Hopefully as someone who wasn’t overly expressive of their inner squee!

  4. My problem is I grew up calling that game where teams throw playground balls at one by a different name and you all laugh at me when I get confused by your references to dodgeball.

    (Come to think of it, we did have a game called dodgeball, but it was more like the Playground Ball Hunger Games with no teams and only one person winning.)

  5. Well, if you’re going to have a game for the cool kids, just remember the “Five D’s of Dodgeball”. Dodge, Dip, Duck, Dive and…Dodge

  6. I have, for a while, wanted to write an article or something about what I refer to as “micro celebrity.”

    SF/F is an obvious example. I am also a bridge player. I was out to dinner and sat at a table next to Bob Hamman, who is quite possibly the best bridge player who’s ever lived. (He recently won a major pairs event in his 6th consecutive decade, which nobody else has done.) I was star struck, but didn’t want to interrupt, until he actually inserted himself into the bridge theory conversation I was having with my partner. He then autographed my convention card, and wished me luck, remembering me when he saw me at the tournament, and giving me a suggestion after our discussion at dinner prompted him to think about what I’d said.

    And my friend, a non-bridge player who I was meeting for lunch at the tournament, obviously had no idea who this nice 70+ year old man was, or why I was so excited that he thought my ideas were interesting enough to think about before bed and to remember, let alone to seek me out to help me develop them further.

    That was when I realized that it must be a weird situation. At the tournament, he is as much a celebrity as Lady Gaga or Brad Pitt. He is constantly pointed out, and, while people try to keep a respectful distance, he’s known by all of us. Then he goes down the block to dinner and the only question is whether he wants the senior discount early bird special.

    I suspect some of that happens in your world, as well. You go to a con, and you’re the Campbell/Hugo award winning president of the SFWA. You’re a BFD. Then you get hungry, so you go to Starbucks, and the barista has no idea who you are.

    Someday, when I have time, I’d like to investigate that dichotomy. I’d like to watch it, as a reporter, and try to make some sense of it, and write it up in a way that tells the tale. What does it do to the ego? Both modes are, I suspect, uncomfortable. Which transition is harder? Does it give you a perspective on wider fame, like Hollywood celebrities go through? Do people still choke on it, as some Hollywood celebrities, from Marilyn to Joaquin Phoenix, have done?

    And what about the societal borderline celebrities. I’m thinking of Linda Lovelace and other porn stars, especially before the mainstreaming of porn. Or Bebe Beull, whose life was the inspiration for the young woman character in Almost Famous.

    Someday, I’ll have the time required to write this up. I think it would make for an interesting article. Until then, it’s interesting to get your take on it.

  7. (1) Yes, and there are some good books on “Small World Networks.”

    (2) My public school students are startled when I tell them that they can, with the right activity, increase their intelligence. They have a default belief that belief that IQ, appearance, and wealth are allocated at birth. Studies show that changing this belief improves performance.
    I have shown several thousand students that they can overcome what President Obama called “The soft prejudice of low expectations.”
    Successful people develop the HABIT of doing every day the hard things that nobody likes to do, which are prerequisites to do the fun things that bring success, once you do the hard work first. EVERY day. Habit, so no willpower needed later…
    For example: My dog wakes me up before dawn, so I get some writing done before the phone starts ringing, or my wife gets ready to leave for the university where she chairs a department…

    (3) I hope to complete writing my trilogy of Biotechnothriller novels about Brazil, China, India, Russia, and USA in 2020 AD, ALZHEIMER’S WAR, which I’ve been serializing on Facebook. Harder to tie up all major plot threads for a trilogy, than for a stand-alone novel, which is harder than for a short story…

    (4) It is not merely luck that I attended elite all-male high school and university, where geeks outnumbered “cool” — then Caltech turned coed, and my fun began…

  8. Oh, that all makes perfect sense, John, but I gotta tell ya: it does seem lately like a lot of the different folks I follow are more and more converging. There are reasons for that, of course: I found your blog through Penny Arcade; I found Wil Wheaton’s blog through a different vector that I honestly can’t recall; I encountered Felicia Day through Doctor Horrible. That the three of you all tangentially have associations that would lead you together are perfectly logical. But it becomes amusing when I discover Jonathon Coulton through ‘re:Your Brains’ separately of other things, then a while later he’s the guy who did the ending song for Portal, who tours with Paul and Storm, who also pal around with John Hodgman and EVERYBODY hangs with Chris Hardwick (who also happens to be a former roommate of Wil Wheaton)….and on and on.

    It sort of looks like everybody knows everybody. :)

  9. Here’s one other thought on this. Once you’re actually involved in a community with semi-famous people, you can’t do the fanboy thing anyway (without making an ass of yourself.) For example, I’m heavily involved in amateur boxing and I work some of the national events as an official. Big name pro boxers, trainers and the like periodically make appearances for various reasons. So future Hall of Fame boxer Shane Mosley is there training his sons. I’m there working the event as an official. It is not appropriate for me, in my capacity as an official, to get all fanboyish even though I was somewhat star struck. Nor, even if I could, would I, because there’s a professionalism to maintain (despite it being an amateur sport.) They are just there as people doing their thing, as am I, and even when I interact with them on a personal level, it’s still in a colleague role, rather than fan to celebrity. So even when you’re ‘one of the cool kids,’ in a way, that whole vibe is no longer relevant because he context is different.

  10. That’s true, wizardru. I’d say there’s an element of technology mediating this and making it more visible to the rest of us though. Years ago there was no twitter, making it harder for people to have these conversations and strike up internet friendships with the potential to turn into real ones (plus any conversations they did have, by email or pen and paper letters, would be invisible to the rest of us),
    Podcasts and “geek interest” TV shows (like that touching moment on the Nerdist TV show where Chris Hardwick gave Whil Wheaton the oven glove from their old flat) and internet TV like the Guild or Dr Horrible, these things make it a lot easier for us to see the results of these friendships; where before perhaps you’d have a group of people that would be pleased to see each other at conventions, now you might find that some of them will show up in a web series, or make a show about board games for someone’s Youtube channel.

  11. (1) Celebrity is alkready here, but it’s unequally distributed.
    (2) Every sub-community can have its own rock-star. And that could be you!
    (3) Celebrity is a manufactured repurposing of your neurogenetic capability to deeply know 100 to 150 people in your tribe. In an urban world, where you do NOT know the 100 people geographically closest to you, you are spoonfed “celebrities” to feel your need, which comes from the first human technology, the family-tribe-village software.
    (4) For chimpanzees, that number is roughly 50.

  12. The list of Liberal Sci-fi nerds is a pretty significant number. I bet you could take a cross checked list of John, Wil, Rachel & Chris’s followers and add Josh Whedon, The New York Times, Slash Dot and other Liberal/Scifi related posters and still maintain a significant number of this community.

  13. This is very true. I’m involved with a sport in which I have been a very minor celebrity. Our local area happens to have produced some of the best people in the sport over the years. Major celebrities in our sport, including a number of past world champions, who live in other parts of the world frequently visit the area to participate in our matches and visit other people they’ve made friends with through the sport.

    It’s sometimes interesting to watch the reactions of the other local participants, especially at big matches. I once had an opportunity to have a conversation with someone who is not much of a celebrity in the sport because he rarely travels. However, he is a true master and quite possibly the best in the world at a particular technique that I have been trying to learn. And he likes to teach. So here I am geeking out on talking to this guy about these techniques. A friend of mine comes up and tries to draw me away into the gaggle of people surrounding one of our top world competitors whom he has just had the fortune of meeting. I already know the kid (and he was a kid – 17 at the time) and found he really didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation on the sport. He had no idea how to relate his skillset or experience to other people and quite frankly, he was a typical teenager and not all that engaging. He also seemed a bit overwhelmed by all the people who constantly want to talk to him or have their pictures taken. My friend, though, was rather caught up with the idea of being in this kid’s circle of friends, which did include some rather knowledgeable older competitors. He seemed to think that if he was part of this circle it meant he was somehow accepted as a known person in the sport regardless of his actual perfromance. He seemed to be using my minor celebrity status to validate his right to be friends with other celebrities in the sport. Note that he wasn’t “trading up” as another poster put it. We are still friends to this day. He was just a bit star struck.

    On the flip side.. I find even this minor bit of celebrity rather disturbing. First off, I am far from world championship caliber. Even if I had the time and money to invest in the level of practice it takes to reach that level, I don’t think my physical limitations would allow me to get any closer than breaking the top 50. My bit of fame comes from being well known for a particular technique that only a double handful of people in the world have mastered. It’s a flashy technique and catches a lot of attention when people see it. It also tends to inspire people who see it to pursue a class within our sport that is highly technical and more complicated than most other classes. That much I don’t mind. What bothers me is when I overhear people pointing me out to their children and telling them to watch me. People who follow me from stage to stage but then are afraid to actually talk to me. People who walk up to me and say they were at a match with me 8 or ten years ago and start thanking me profusely for some minor tip I apparently gave them and I don’t even remember who they are. Or worse, people who want your opinion on the some issue taking place in the governing body of our sport and then take your stance as their own without really understanding it. It came a from a top competitor so it must be right. . And don’t even start me on the film crews. They’re supposed to stay out of your way but I can never seem to ignore them. They’re always in the corner of my vision.

    I actually stopped competing for a while because the celebrity was so disturbing. Even now, having not competed for a few years, I’ll go to a major match just to visit with friends and still have people walk up to me whom I apparently met one time years ago and don’t even remember. I have to admit that I like the recognition. And I like teaching people and helping them improve. The rest of it is just very disturbing and I’m not really sure why. Maybe it’s the idea of having the responsibility of being a role model of some kind. When people are whispering behind your back to their kids telling them who you are and they should watch and learn from you it puts celebrity in a different perspective. It’s an entirely different kind of pressure from competition.

    So Ron.. I f you write your book.. there’s an angle on how people adapt to and deal with celebrity. I’d buy it.

  14. I find that just about anyone with a moderate or more level of introspective capacity* tends to be someone I find fascinating, regardless of whether they are famous, or “cool”, or whatever.

    [*] introspective can be expanded to mean “they who can see their own shit and recognize it as thus”.

  15. This post reminded me to check Twitter, where I discovered someone reposting interesting tweets under @Humblebrag . That is, minor celebs humbly bragging. Amusing, and potentially leading to a book.

    One aspect of celebrity I’ve never reconciled myself with is how we love to elevate them one breath, and tear them down in the next breath. It’s pretty much the alpha game that other primates practice.

  16. ricknm505,
    I think the celebrities offensive tweets video is an homage to Scalzi’s ‘Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded’, with a side helping of ‘One Star-rific!’ in which he encouraged people to embrace their 1 star Amazon reviews.
    Clearly this proves that these damn celebrities all know our host…

  17. So, is there ever a point that being considered a “cool-kid” goes to your head? Can it or has it ever happened to you?

  18. Anonymity is a precious commodity in our hyperlinked world.

    I imagine there is a certain security in being a pro-SF/F author. No one except perhaps H.G. Wells ever became a household name writing the stuff. If people within your field’s community know you, and the random strangers at Starbucks (gods, they make awful coffee) don’t, that seems like the best of both worlds.

    Obviously some people thrive on being world famous. I suspect that for many of them, it’s a result of a mental illness level of need for external validation; but maybe for some it’s a sort of power trip, which could conceivably be a good thing if they use that notoriety to bring attention to worthwhile things (Stephen Colbert springs to mind).

    I wonder how many celebrities who doggedly pursued their fame have come to regret that course.

  19. Gulliver –

    Three are some celebrities who don’t like the fame. As one example, Johnny Depp is widely known as a pretty private person and not happy when papparazi show up, or adoring crowds in unexpected venues ( he expects them at movie premieres, etc, but not at dinner with the kids…).

    How close celebs live to Hollywood or New York City seems to be an indicator. The ones who don’t like all the press attention, stay away from it.

  20. There’s a flip side to this too – when you’re the random outsider dealing with someone who is being trailed by a gaggle of starstruck fans. It’s obvious that they’re “someone”, but you have NFI. Or when you do, it’s like “oh yeah, the guy from that TV ad”.

    I get both side of that, partly because my geekout interests are even more far out than science fiction. I’ve met Mike Burrows! And Danny Thorpe!

  21. One of the great cultural questions of our time is why do very successful musicians and actors always seem to date other very successful actors or musicians (or supermodels). The answer is, well, who else are they going to date?

    Another answer is: There are plenty of very successful musicians and actors who don’t date/marry/shag on a semi-regular basis schedules permitting other very successful etc. Bet you can’t tell me who very successful singer Tom Jones has been married to for the last fifty seven years without recourse to Google – and she’s perfectly happy to leave it that way, thank you very much.

  22. OK, that does make sense, to a point. But explain THIS, smart guy (and I swear that this is totally true).

    I speak Esperanto. Never mind why. I just do. So when I joined Twitter, I sought out other Esperanto speakers, and one of them was… let’s say “eofan” (not his real handle). I mean, I literally just did a search on the word “Esperanto”, and then picked some of the names that came up (who were also obviously posting in Esperanto, of course).

    I also like comedy, and ended up following John Hodgeman after seeing him on The Daily Show one day (“Hey! I should follow that guy!”, was essentially the driver there).

    So I follow both of them for a few months, and then one day John Hodgeman tweets that he is at some concert WITH HIS GOOD FRIEND EOFAN. Something which eofan confirmed in a separate tweet.

    I followed each of them for entirely different reasons, arrived at completely separately. There was no reason whatsoever to expect that the two knew each other. They don’t even operate in similar spheres – one is a famous comic, one is a random guy I picked off of Twitter. But apparently they do know each other. And not just “know”, like I “know” you, Mr. Scalzi – these guys apparently go to concerts together (which you and I most assuredly have not).

    I swear, when I saw their tweets, my mind was *blown*. I wandered around for days telling people “You are NOT going to believe THIS…”

  23. Well, heck, I sometimes “comment at John” on the twitter and he sometimes comments back (okay, usually in a “everybody who is point out the subtextual bacon joke in my last post, that was intentional” kinda way, but John Scalzi sometimes tweets with me, so there). And while I wouldn’t put myself in opposition to cool, I’m more perpendicular to that axis.

    The other day Neil Gaiman replied to a tweet joke I made about his blood being drawn. And I squeed. Loudly. And then I had to explain to all my coworkers who Neil Gaiman was. I was all, “this is so cool” and they were all, “whatever, dude.” It’s all about your perspective.

  24. > and Danny Thorpe!

    assuming you’re talking about the same Danny Thorpe I used to work with (the Delphi/Object Pascal compiler guy), (a) it somewhat amazes me to see him described as a celebrity, and (b) in many ways he’s one of the smartest, ‘coolest’ guys I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. :)

  25. Out of the thousands of scientists and writers whose work I adore, there are perhaps couple hundred I would have anything to talk about by correspondence, and only a few dozen I would care to meet in person. Most of the thinkers I admire posses intellects vastly cooler than my own, so it’s best if they do all the talking, which they do, distilled into their best thinking, no less, which they kindly publish for me to read. I figure if I ever have a thought my heroes could benefit from, they can read it when I distil it into a publication. Literature is the greatest conversation of Earth.

    There are also about a dozen pianists it would be fun to jam with, except that I’d be too embarrassed to share ivories with them.

    I guess I’m just not that into squeeing for squee’s sake.

    @ Moz

    There’s a flip side to this too – when you’re the random outsider dealing with someone who is being trailed by a gaggle of starstruck fans. It’s obvious that they’re “someone”, but you have NFI. Or when you do, it’s like “oh yeah, the guy from that TV ad”.

    There’s also the third side of someone whose famous for two different things in two different communities that don’t necessarily have a lot of overlap. For example, Noam Chomsky and Richard Dawkins are two of my personal inspirations and both part of why I started pursuing a career in evolutionary computation. Both are more widely notorious for their politics, one slightly…eccentric, and the other plain petty, but I couldn’t care less because when it comes to science, they’re effing brilliant, and science is as close as I will ever have to a religion.

    I get both side of that, partly because my geekout interests are even more far out than science fiction. I’ve met Mike Burrows! And Danny Thorpe!

    Don’t know who Mike Burrows is, but I suspect the world of programming has an even bigger fan base than SF/F.

  26. Wait, people starting reading your blog as a result of reading the books? Item #aleph-naught I did backwards, I guess.

  27. I think you’re right on the money here. As an example, on Twitter, I started following you because I read your books and Whatever, I started following Adam Savage because I like Mythbusters and I started following Wil Wheaton because, well, he’s just this guy, you know?
    Surprise surprise that these three people are indeed connected in some way. But the fact that I follow them probably says more about me than that it says something about the three of you.
    :-D

  28. “Cool” and “notables” really is the definition of subjective. I’ll geek out to my wife about having a discussion with someone I respect highly and my wife will respond with a “Who?”. But then it goes the other way when she’ll mentioned the oppportunity to meet someone she respects in her fields of interest, and I’ll just stare blankly while catching flies with my mouth. But despite all that, there really isn’t much cooler then actually getting the chance to become a peer with the same type of peple you’re a huge fan of.

  29. I really like only being known where it’s worthwhile to be known, i.e. where I get something material out of it, like an editor moving my manuscript out of slush, a director remembering a set or lights I designed, maybe a manager remembering a stats study he got from me. Otherwise, if it weren’t for the nuisance when crossing streets or getting a table, I’d happily take a pill to turn permanently invisible.

  30. John wrote: “..trying to “rescue” me..”

    My sister is married to a musician who is very well-known in the small world of folk music. I look like a bum, and to be frank I pretty much am. So at every folk festival, I’ll be happily chatting to my brother-in-law when someone does the rescue thing – one minute we’re talking, then the third party sort of edges round until I’m squeezed out looking at their back, entirely excluded. I swear, one day I’m going to set fire to someones hair.

    (I will not actually do this ever, don’t worry).

  31. The thing about fame is that while most of the time it’s not great, some of the few advantages of it are that (a) you can get paid to do what you love, sometimes even handsomely, because people have heard of you/offer you jobs, and (b) The Cool Kids Club. Who wouldn’t love to work with your favorite actors/writers/directors on a regular basis? Who wouldn’t love to be invited into WhedonClub and get to go to Shakespeare nights and then suddenly find yourself in a movie? The NerdistClub (somewhat overlapping) also sounds like a super group of awesome I’d love to get an invite to. (Except I have no acting skillz, so this isn’t likely.)

    I have yet to think of a way to get (a) and (b) without (c) paying the price of fame too, though.

  32. How come Lance in Hunnington Beach and all his friends won’t hang out with me? Is there some thing I have to do to get to know all the people taht Lance knows in Hunnington Beach?

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