In Which I Decline a Nerd Fight

My inbox is filling up with people e-mailing me about Nick Mamatas’ broadside against Geek Pride, in which he says, among other things:

A subculture is not a counterculture. A consumer culture is not a subculture. We are not all in this together. Your social Laws (Godwin’s, etc.) are as insipid as any aphorism your grandmother might have cross-stitched and put on display two generations ago. What you think is cool is not cool. What you decide is uncool is also uncool. Your counter-snobbery is snobbery. Your snobbery is snobbery. You do not rule the world. Obama flashing a Vulcan salute does not mean that you rule the world.

I’m pretty sure people are e-mailing me about this so I’ll have a big online nerd fight with Nick, which is guaranteed to be entertaining because both Nick and I can be delightfully obnoxious when we want to be, and we’re pretty evenly matched when it comes to entertainingly snarking while simultaneously making reasonably cogent points. Basically people want to get out their popcorn and munch along while we go at it.

Sorry, no. I have a somewhat different take on the geek pride thing than Nick does, and at some point in the near future I’ll post about it. But as regards Nick’s screed here, he’s making some totally fair points, some of which I agree with. So rather than fight him on it in public for the amusement of all, I’ll just tell you to go over there and see what he has to say.

I know, I’ve disappointed some of you. It will happen. You can still eat your popcorn, if you want. I hear X-Men 2 is on HBO this month.

66 thoughts on “In Which I Decline a Nerd Fight

  1. Ha! That would be an awesome spectacle! I’d pay good money for a Scalzi vs. Mamatas debate at a convention.

    When I first read his screed I found it to be typical of his work in that online I have never known him not to be pretty acerbic, snarky and controversial. In person he is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

    Actually when I first read it I though he was sayIng something against Greek pride which I found astonishing give that he’s Greek and quite proud of it as he should be.

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  3. I enjoyed his takedown, so thank you for linking. As a geek/nerd but also a feminist, Geek Culture has so many problematic elements, just because it is not accepting of diversity in the first place. It might be cool and neat because everyone gets to share their love of their hobbies, but it still is rigidly othering of nerds who are not white, middle class, cisgendered heterosexual men.

    Geek Culture has done little for me as a woman, unless you talk about other women nerds.

  4. so I went and read the post by this Nick person and I’m not mad. I’m just puzzled by what brought this on. Yeah, fanfiction and whatnot is not going to change the world. I don’t think anyone seriously thinks that. Are some geeks overly prideful or obsessed with their hobbies? Yeah but that’s because some percentage of humans will just be jerks.

    I really dont get what the argument is supposed to be here. That we stop being proud of being geeks? I guess we could go back to being shamed of it. Maybe we can be as snobby or elitist as people interested in wines or cars or whatever but where is the harm in that?

    There’s certainly many problems in geek culture such as sexism that should be addressed but I’m not sure how pride is one of them. I’m really happy to spend time with friends or at conventions with likeminded people. I also like that being a geek is more acceptable now so that I can talk to my nongeek friends about books or series I like without worrying about being thought of as a weird loser. Definitely do things in moderation but that is true for everything.

  5. Mamatas: “Your social Laws (Godwin’s, etc.) are as insipid as any aphorism your grandmother might have cross-stitched”

    Wow. Nick just threw Grandma under the bus. That’s harsh.

    I suppose if “Geek Pride” gets credit for evolution, then I’ll have to side with “Geek Pride” though.

  6. Speaking as a member of the Capclave con-com we’re always happy when our GoH’s provide us with programming ideas.

  7. I had an initial response much like Kickflip Feminism’s, but then stopped and thought: I had a very similar experience when I was working as a by-line sports writer for a daily newspaper in the 1980s and 90s.

    In general, it seems like a lot of his observations apply to any culture/subculture that is or has become to insular and exclusionary.

  8. OK, I’ll bite, what does Batman contribute when he and superman join forces? At least Aquaman can talk to fish?

  9. Mike@1:56 PM:

    Superman is supposed to be one of the strongest beings in the DC universe. Batman is one of the smartest. For problems that require brute force you’re going to want to call Superman. For problems that require planning, preparation, and patience you’d be hard-pressed to do better than Batman. For an example of just how uber-prepared he is, see the Wikipedia page for “JLA: Tower of Babel.”

    Some problems require both brains and brawn. For that, you need a team effort.

  10. I think I’m with VincentN. Nick says plenty of things that I agree with and yet I find myself wondering what this is all about. Why shouldn’t I enjoy a shared interest with others? I love SF cons and yet I don’t feel an overpowering urge to rank the Whovian Doctors in order of preference. Am I missing something because I prefer fan-run cons to the commercial kind?

    I think a fair amount of Nicks argument boils down to “Fans aren’t Slans”, and I certainly agree with that, and sometimes I take issue with those who say they are. Just because many smart and interesting people are fans of certain kinds of entertainment, doesn’t mean that you can become smart and interesting by becoming fans.

    When I was a kid (HS class of 1987), there was a certain amount of exclusion visited on smart/geeky kids. That’s hardly comparable to the oppression of minorities, but surely there are some comparisons to be made. Perhaps that has all changed for school kids now because of the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, but I doubt it. I defer to anyone who has a more current knowledge of high school.

    I once had a discussion with a coworker in which I expressed some exasperation that sports nuts got to assume that everyone else shared their passion. His response, delivered with a certain snarl, was “what do you want instead, everyone to read science fiction”. I replied that surely there were many more passions in the world than sports and science fiction.

    Over-exuberant SF fans can be rude, as can sports fans wine enthusiasts and gear-heads. The lesson is to take a deep breath, step back, and try to be conscious of others, and then jump into your passion and roll around in it. I totally loved the comment on Nick’s blog about the relative merits of RBI vs. other metrics thought I have little interest in baseball.

  11. I’m pretty amused that people are apparently looking to you to take the lead on the Geek Response to this essay. I think your correspondents are calling you a King Geek. How do you feel about that?

  12. I’ve had thoughts similar to Mamatas’ after reading Patton Oswalt’s piece about killing “geek culture” and that Forbes blogger decrying fake girl geeks. My love of various comics, science-fiction, video games, etc has become as mainstream as possible in the Internet age. Obama flashing the Vulcan symbol is just representative that geek culture isn’t a subculture; it’s THE culture. I’m also 34. I don’t need “geek pride”.

  13. Catherine Shaffer: I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Wil Wheaton is also getting a lot of email asking him to take up the sword, as well.

  14. And also, John, one of the most articulate spokesbeings for reasonable people within the geekosphere. (Note: reasonable people are not the entire geekosphere by any means.)

  15. I have no dog in this fight. I am not a Geek. Merely a scientist and professor and author married to a a scientist and professor and author, our son being a scientist and professor and author.

    On the other hand… someone whom I never met f2f and never communicated with before he posted this, wrote…

    Greatest Nerd of All Times: Jonathan Vos Post!
    http://www.jimwestergren.com/greatest-nerd-of-all-times-jonathan-vos-post/
    Note: Take a look at my project, I offer you a professional website for free with N.nu.

    Jonathan Vos Post

    I have just found a person on the internet that I believe brings a whole new meaning to the word NERD. This is a person that is member of a group called “the Ubergeeks” and breaks all records, by far. He is additionally a very interesting person with a very special character….

  16. I’m with VincentN and especially with Mike just above. I agree with a lot of what Nick said, but the vehemence of it was puzzling–being a jerk is not conducive to getting the message listened to. Further, ok, I can agree that fandom needs to stop with the ultra-nerdy “put down all those who don’t share our passions” nonsense, and Obama flashing the vulcan salute… big deal, but that doesn’t mean geeks shouldn’t be proud of their love of their hobby. Pride doesn’t automatically equate to “overdoing it and thinking too highly of ourselves.”

  17. John – You don’t supose Nick was one of the people handing out popcorn and hoping like hell some notable person somewhere would lay into him? Good for you for not being that person.

  18. Yeah, ’cause when Batman and Superman got together, that turned out well.

    I feel like the crowd is yelling, “Fight, fight, fight, fight” only to get to the center of the circle to see two guys having a tea party.

  19. Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” I suspect this will be another one of those: he meant this one thing, but a lot of people assumed he meant this other thing and got really mad. I guess that he’s basically saying “listen, guys, being a geek isn’t some special unique and virtuous subculture that’s put upon anymore and it doesn’t excuse some of your weird peccadilloes, so stop overdoing it”, albeit in a kind of in-your-face and slightly mean-spirited sort of way. The danger, as always with these sort of things, is so many readers will assume he means it broadly about the entire whole of geekdom.

    Which I assume he doesn’t since a quick google shows him to be an author and an editor for an American manga distributor. But like VincentN, Mike and johnstonmr, I’m not really sure who he’s arguing with, here. He’s younger than me, but not by so much that he shouldn’t remember what it was like prior to the internet and/or cable-tv and/or fandom critical mass. Or maybe he is. I suspect growing up on Long Island in NYC, he wasn’t really in-tune with what it was like to be a geek in a small rural town prior to the internet. So maybe his view of geek culture penetration in the mass subconscious is different from mine.

    I mean I get that he’s frustrated with wacko nerds at conventions and posting online (whom I assume he encounters regularly in the course of his job)…I just think the tone of his piece won’t win him many friends.

  20. Josh Jasper:

    “You don’t suppose Nick was one of the people handing out popcorn and hoping like hell some notable person somewhere would lay into him?”

    If Nick wanted to bring my attention to something, he’d send me an e-mail. And he’s notable enough online and in the sf/f field that he doesn’t need to piggyback onto my notability.

  21. Kickflip Feminism:

    I enjoyed his takedown, so thank you for linking. As a geek/nerd but also a feminist, Geek Culture has so many problematic elements, just because it is not accepting of diversity in the first place.

    Oh, I totally agree with you there. But ‘Geek Culture’ — like any other — isn’t some Borg collective and without wanting to take a dip in the river denial (geek sexism and outright misogyny is real) Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons isn’t the whole story either.

  22. “Sigh. I liked it better when geeks weren’t cool. I don’t think it counts as a subculture anymore when everyone seems to want to be one.”

    The only thing worse than a person self-identifying as being part of the geek culture is an aging hipster lamenting when it was way cooler back in the day.

  23. Since no one else has mentioned it, my inner baseball geek is compelled to point out that he is TOTALLY misusing the RBI statistic. There is no such thing as “RBI averages,” unless one is somehow applying it to multiple years, which is rarely done. “RBI” is a cumulative statistic throughout a season, not an averaged one–as opposed to a player’s “batting average,” which obviously IS an average.

    There, I feel better. Now I have to go get ready for my coed church league softball practice……..

  24. If Nick’s message is simply ‘don’t be a jerk’ then he could have simply said that and that message applies to geeks and non-geeks alike. If his message is ‘stop thinking you’re special because you’re not’ then that’s just being mean for no reason. I agree with Discordian Quotes that there can be a problem with geek exceptionalism but that’s mostly on the internet where there’s no shortage of idiots yelling at each other about how awesome they are and how everybody else sucks in everything from politics to cookware so geeks aren’t special in that regard.

    If his message is ‘geeks aren’t a subculture because they’re mainstream’ then one can have a reasonable debate about that but even if that was true that geeks are now mainstream there’s nothing wrong with being proud about it. Sports are mainstream in this country and you can’t find a prouder group of people than sports fans.

  25. That’s just Lore’s *published* version of the chart.

    Let me put it this way… Around UC Santa Cruz, the (in)famous Purity Tests went from 100 questions (MIT versions) to 400, 500, 1000, and eventually beyond. One was forced to add questions to the test for having added questions to the test.

    Apply same approach to Lore’s chart, and consider that Lore was one of those UCSC geeks…

    (channeling Nick, however, “Your meta-geekdom is not the key to the executive washroom…” 8-)

  26. Dear people who agree with him and yet wish he’d just said it nicer – are you usually in the habit of scolding people for ranting in their LiveJournals? And do you have any idea how silly it makes you look?

  27. wonderbink said: “…are you usually in the habit of scolding people for ranting in their LiveJournals?”
    Why are they ranting if they don’t want engagement?

  28. John @ 4:25 pm:

    Oh, I have no doubt if Nick wanted to pick a fight with you directly, he’d have done so. He’s not a coward. But I’m almost certain that essay was more meant to pick a fight, mock, or insult than it was to convince anyone who wasn’t convinced already.

    Nick does a lot of good sometimes. But he also likes a good internet slapfight form what I’ve seen. If he dosen’t I have no idea why he gets into them so regularly, so publicly, and with such ferocity. Based on that, I assume he enjoys having an audience.

  29. Josh Jasper:

    “Oh, I have no doubt if Nick wanted to pick a fight with you directly, he’d have done so. He’s not a coward.”

    I meant that, as he and I are friendly with each other, he would have just sent me a link to the piece. No fight picking necessary.

  30. Clearly I am out of the loop about something or other. Who is Mamatas ranting at? Did some geeky group make unsupported claims after Obama flashed the Vulcan salute?

  31. @John Scalzi 3:09pm
    It was due to the “fact” that being a published science fiction author puts one at the top of the Geek Chart, that I accused Nick Mamatas of being a self-hating geek. (tongue in cheek).

  32. Why are they ranting if they don’t want engagement?

    You are why we can’t have nice things. People don’t always want or need “engagement” when they rant, they just want to get something off their damn chests and be done with it without people barging in and telling them how dreadfully wrong they are to feel the way they do about things.

  33. Wonderblink:
    Who’s scolding? I just see people reading his post and discussing their thoughts and reactions. Most of the people expressing concern about the tone of his argument seem to be doing so reasonably, and mostly expressing puzzlement. I don’t see much in the way of mortal offense or outrage.

  34. Wonderblink: People don’t always want or need “engagement” when they rant

    Unless they’re ranting alone, like yelling at the radio while driving to work, they want engagement.

    they just want to get something off their damn chests and be done with it

    The reason ranting to someone else gets things off their chest is because of engagement. It usually doesn’t get anything off your chest if you rant at the radio, alone, in your car, on your way to work. It’s not the same.

    without people barging in and telling them how dreadfully wrong they are to feel the way they do about things.

    Well, that’s a very particular kind of engagement and isn’t something anyone could reasonably expect from random person on the internet.

    Once in a while, my wife or I will say somethign to the effect of “I need to say something and I’d like for you to just listen and get what I’m saying”, and we do our best to provide that for the other when we need it. But it can take a lot to grant that to someone, especially if it means that someone is going to be on the recieving end of a huge amount of “chest clearing” anger that the listener did not cause, but is willing to accept responsibility for in order to allow the other person to clear.

    One of the reasons support groups for trauma survivors work is they can provide that level of listening for people. Because the people there all went through the same trauma, they all got some benefit from just talking through it, chest clearing, dumping, whatever, and they’re willing to grant that listening to other survivors because someone granted it to them. But It’s not reasonable to expect that of everyone we meet. It’s unfair to demand anyone owes us that level of listening. It’s something we can request of another, and maybe they’ll accept that request. But no one owes it to anyone else to be on the receiving end of that sort of thing.

    If Mamatas posted his critical rant on a public website open to the entire internet with the expectation that everyone just listen so he can criticize an entire subgroup of the population just to get it off his chest, he is setting himself up for severe dissappointment.

  35. Well, that’s a very particular kind of engagement and isn’t something anyone could reasonably expect from random person on the internet.

    I’m guessing you don’t spend much time on LiveJournal, do you? Nip over to Fandom Wank and you’ll find that particular kind of engagement is actually quite common there, and is precisely what I’m talking about.

  36. Didn’t Patton Oswalt already write basically this something like two years ago (at least)?
    Seems to be trying for an air of provocative originality, but the points are all really pretty old.
    What’s next, the stunning revelation that nice guys actually aren’t?

  37. wonderbink: I’m guessing you don’t spend much time on LiveJournal, do you? Nip over to Fandom Wank

    Ah, well, if its a controlled space (moderated), then that isn’t unlike someone creating a support group in meatspace, if that’s the sort of atmosphere the moderators are going for.

    But Mamatas’s rant is publicly visible on the net, and the net is not moderated. he said some things that clearly deserve the label “broadside”. One does not get to pull up alongside the world wide interweebs and volley a broadside into the tubes and then shout “no touch backs!”. Well, one can do that, its just that no one else is obliged to grant it.

    is precisely what I’m talking about.

    I don’t spend any time on livejournal, but if you’re saying livejournal people are using LJ to vent like Mamatas did by criticizing an entire subgroup of the population and then those poeple expect to be able to dump on everyone else and demand they not talk back, well, then, I’m glad I’m not on livejournal. That’s quite a lot of undeserved privilege folks are throwing around.

    Mamatas: Geeks Suck!
    Geek1: No, you suck!
    Mamatas: Look, I just needed to get that off my chest without people telling me how horribly wrong I am for saying Geeks Suck.
    Geek2: But you ARE horribly wrong for saying Geeks Suck!
    Mamatas: See? That right there? You shouldn’t do that. Let’s try again. I’ll say “Geeks Suck”, and you’ll just nod silently. OK? Here goes: Geeks Suck.
    Geek1: Byte me.

    I mean, it’s great that apparently lots of people can rant stuff off their chest on LJ and crap all over people without getting any negative feedback, but that’s a very strange thing to *expect* in a publicly visible space.

  38. In all fairness, I haven’t seen Mamatas complain about having to respond and he seems willing to engage in debate.

  39. A brief summary of the situation:

    Nick: Have you noticed that people who like X are subject to the evolutionary inevitability of tribalism, ie. are instinctively protective and proprietary of each other, even when there’s no logical reason to be, because humans instinctively form emotional bonds with each other over any shared identity? It’s like they’re subconsciously saying “X is the most important thing IN THE WORLD”, and, in a SHOCKING REVELATION, it turns out that X is NOT the most important thing in the world.

    Half of geeks: You’re right, maybe we are a bit over the top. We will try to enjoy Buffy without being dismissive of people who don’t. *sheepish*

    Half of geeks: OMFGWBBQ! I’d never seen it as starkly as that, but if it’s a choice between abandoning Buffy, or admitting that being a geek is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD, then being a geek IS the MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD and you are a xxxxx-head for denying it. FLAMEWAR ACTIVATE! FWSHOOOOOM!

  40. To the people saying they don’t know why he’s ranting: People have threatened to kill other people over Pokemon fanfic pairings. I don’t think he’s saying that people shouldn’t enjoy being nerds, or stop being them. Invoking ‘Pride’ with a ‘P’ implies the subsection of nerds that view themselves as repressed as the GLBT crowd, ie. not ‘frowned upon at school’ but ‘raped to death and set on fire’. He seems to be ranting about specifically entitled extremism where people believe their devotion to a show, game, etc should dictate their entire lives and discourses with others. I have seen friendships ruined over the most bizarre arguments, because someone said they liked a fictional character disliked by someone else. I know people who cannot relate to anyone who does not watch their favorite shows because they have no other experiences in their lives–not because they can’t have other experiences, but because they believe their favorite shows are equivalent to, say, building Homes for Humanity or having children.

  41. I don’t spend any time on livejournal, but –

    Then you might want to just stop right there and quit throwing your assumptions around about how the place works, what can happen there and who exactly is being “entitled” when they vent about things that bug them and complete strangers come crashing in to tell them how wrong they are to vent about such things. I never said that people couldn’t do that. Neither, as near as I can tall, has Mamatas himself, so I have no idea why you needed to blither that strawman dialogue as if it resembles the situation. What I did say, and continue to say, is that people who do that look really clueless and annoying and I will continue to laugh at them.

  42. wonderblink: quit throwing your assumptions around about how the place works

    Last I checked, we’re not on livejournal.

    I will continue to laugh at them.

    I don’t see how that changes anything, but whatever makes you happy.

  43. Nick Mamatas always struck me as pretty dumb with his self-important, pseudo-revelatory aphorisms. He seems to deny all teaching and everyone else’s arguments and conceptions at the same time. But yeah, I never understood Geek Pride either. It seems pointless and insipid, but doesn’t even exist, except when someone randomly creates a little space for it.

  44. Greg:

    B-I-N-K. No L. Thanks.

    Put it this way, Greg–if you overhear two people talking to each other in a public place, do you presume to sit down at their table and insert yourself into the conversation on the basis that if they expected privacy, they shouldn’t be talking out in the open like that? Because that’s pretty much what you’re arguing in favor of here. What we’re doing here, talking about what they’re talking about, is not my issue, just people who feel the need to barge in and give their Very Important Thoughts to people in the actual space. Which blows your mind, I know, but trust me–it happens.

  45. wonderbink: “if you overhear two people talking to each other in a public place, do you presume to sit down at their table and insert yourself into the conversation”

    That metaphor utterly fails to map to online discussions.

    As far as “inserting myself” into a “conversation”, well, if its a public blog and they have comments enabled, and they allow anyone to post to the comments, then I might comment if I thought it was an interesting conversation.

    I find that people having a conversation within a public blog commenting system only consider their conversation to be one-on-one if someone comments that they want to dismiss.

    http://youtu.be/7vRhr502wIc?t=56s

    Since Nick posted something where comments are enabled, expecting that only people who agree with him comment directly to him is… a very strange expectation.

    “my issue, just people who feel the need to barge in and give their Very Important Thoughts to people in the actual space.”

    Turn off comments if you don’t want people commenting in your “actual space”.

    “Which blows your mind, I know, ”

    What blows my mind is people post stuff on open websites with open commenting systems but have an expectation that only people who agree with them comment.

  46. Greg
    On the other hand, LJ seems like a silly place. Let’s not go there. Patsy, clap the coconuts together.

    It seems weird that recently I have seen so much concern trolling on behalf of people who want to shout at other people. I support the rights of people like Mamatas and ACM to rage and pontificate. But then a group of people from the Society to Preserve Ranters comes by and tells me they are an endangered species and I cannot throw the rotten fruit (and worse) back at them. As far as I can tell rotten tomatoes are an essential part of their daily intake of Vitamin Be Seen and Vitamin Be Seen to Be Seen. Let Be Seen to Be Seen be the finale of Be Seen, I say. There is no emperor but the Emperor of Geek Deans.

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