Reclaiming Geek Culture

March 7th, 2011 by Barrett Lyon



When I started using computers as a little kid, it was all-inclusive; if you were interested, you were in the club. Eventually, communities were built around things like Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) that were places for getting email, downloading files, chatting with other people, and playing games.

The BBS operators wrote code and spent time designing a culture for their systems or communities. In the Northern California Foothills, we had what we called an MUPT meeting once a month. At our Modem User Pizza Thingy, we shared ideas, talked about communication, and generally were stupid, geeky nerds; and we loved it! I was too young to drive to the meeting so I had to be dropped off. Yet, that did not seem to matter to anyone. It was a blast and laid the foundation for my love of geek culture in motion and was ground zero for Northern California’s geek culture.

The BBS culture carried into the Internet and, wow, that’s where things got interesting. There was so much to learn, so much to do, so much more to talk about. Nothing was set in stone, there were no rules or regulations, and the only best common practices we could find were from the military. It was a free-for-all learning fest and that original MUPT/BBS culture remained intact. It was essentially the early days of online community building at its best.

Now, nearly 15 years have gone by and I have watched these groups of people that I deeply respect get older. Networking technology has aged with us and that original, youthful excitement has started to die. No longer is sharing considered a good thing. If you ask a “dumb” question on a large forum, you’re going to be flamed by some snarky person. This new culture has become one more akin to a “club” for only certain people and seems to be exclusive rather than inclusive like the geek culture I remember. Why is it that there are people that spend half of their day writing snide replies to prove that they are somehow smarter than the original poster?

It’s funny, as I was writing this post, I stumbled upon the Patton Oswalt article in Wired “Wake Up Geek Culture, Time to Die.” He had me in the first few sentences, particularly his phrase: “back when nerd meant something.” But, Oswalt experienced this more from a dedication to film and music, whereas I was devouring technology. Oswalt calls it an obsessive interest that led to deep knowledge and produced new artists. He points out that this innovation is missing today. We are just repurposing, manipulating past innovations.

Is this new culture the result or the reason for dwindling innovation?

Think about it; IPv4 has pretty much been mastered by the packet slingers that have learned everything there is to know about routing, load balancing, and networking. New technologies are faster and better, but are they new? The lack of interest in gathering, sharing in an “obsessive interest” manner, is creating an anti-geek culture.

All that said, I continue to choose to work in a start-up environment because I think it is one of the few remaining cultures that is working to foster innovation. It’s a place for creating and sharing new technologies to inspire. New ideas are new possibilities, and challenging the accepted is met with openness and consideration instead of arrogance or criticism. It feels brilliantly similar to the “old days.”

And if geek culture has gone to the trolls, then maybe it’s time we reclaimed it and restored it to its former glory. Being a true geek among peers requires comfort, trust, and the ability to be wrong, awkward, stupid, brilliant, genius, nerdy, and “out there” without ridicule – and for that, I salute my geeks!

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2 Responses to “Reclaiming Geek Culture”

  1. THoK says:

    Hiyas, Barrett. Loved the article.

    This musing reminds me of my own youth, spent hours a day hacking around on my (at the time) new Vic 20 (and later a C64). I avoided Macs because I couldn’t figure out how to write programs on them at the time, though Apples and TI’s were also fun to mess around with.

    (Old joke: “Hey, I got a Coleco Adam today!” – “Wow, does it work?!”)

    Though I had access to my first PC not too long after, it wasn’t until a few years afterward I found out why there was a telephone connector in the back. Somehow, one day, I instinctively plugged a phone line in, ran a program on the computer called ProComm, and found myself dialing away during all hours of the night.

    Sweet, loving memories.

    You’re right about the online culture once being free and open. Back In The Day, there were no trolls because everyone online, without exception, followed the same ideal: learn, learn, and learn even more. Figure out how things work, and spread the knowledge. Aside from a seemingly-panicky Bill Gates’ missive regarding software profiteering, neither hesitation or fear existed in our minds of any of us because there was nothing to be afraid of.

    However, as history progresses, a technology once used only by a group of enthusiasts becomes more openly available to the masses. Those of us who are steeped in our ‘obsessive interest’ and passion for learning still exist, but are drowned out by those who do not experience that same passion and drive for knowledge. The Internet today carries the echoes of many, many neuroses.

    The turn of this phenomenon of passionate self-education can likely be matched with the shift of definition for the term ‘hacker’. At one time, ‘hacker’ was a respectable title, describing someone who was highly geek in their approach to the world: figure out how something works, and let as many fellow enthusiasts as possible know about it. Mainstream media has since successfully turned the term ‘hacker’ into a title to fear by the common masses, and today anyone who publicly sports the title is often labelled an anarchist and/or evil opportunist.

    Even the word ‘troll’, once referring to someone whose only act was to cause trouble and offend as many people as possible, has been turned around. Today, it means someone who disagrees with something someone else says. (‘If our government is so great, why does it [do such and such]?’ can be responded to with a simple ‘stfu troll!’ and be, in the eyes of the responder, a completely legitimate argument.)

    The lesson we geeks can take away from this is that society is an ever changing, constantly evolving set of dynamics. However, that must not stop those of us still obsessed with freedom of information and knowledge from learning and spreading that knowledge. Otherwise, we allow ourselves to be steeped in an arena of fear, which will only help to oppress the passion we can, and must, feel in our exploration of our respective realities.

    Thanks for the enjoyable read, sir.

  2. boethius says:

    I know this is an “old” post, but thought I would reply for the heck of it. As someone who grew up on BBSes – and attended numerous “MUPTs” (haven’t heard that expression in a LONG time!) over the years, originally in Bakersfield and later in the Davis/Sacramento area for chat BBSes like The Compass Rose and Purgatory (later IRIS), it sure brought back a lot of wonderful memories for me. I even ran a BBS for a time in the ’87-’88 time frame in Bakersfield (THEEBBS) and ran up ridiculous phone bills pulling FidoNet echo feeds that almost no one used.

    Yes, geek culture was more subdued and welcoming back then. There were kids and teenagers and young adults and a fair chunk of older folks who were tinkerers/hackers. We congregated in local pizza joints, usually, and those were the days we built our own machines. Remember when there were computer stores in Sacramento on practically every corner? I had a giant case that had wheels that I rolled around for NetDOOM games. It was a different time for sure, a different world.

    The friends I met on the BBSes became business partners and we started up the first commercial ISP in Yolo County – mother.com. Nearly all the guys who started dialup ISPs back then had long histories with BBSes and I suspect it was the same elsewhere in the country – e.g., CalWeb, Quiknet, SNA, JPSNet, NS.net, among many others in the Sacramento Valley region. I met my wife at mother.com and the rest is history there. By then of course BBSes were basically an historical footnote as the Internet had taken over. The small community feel that local BBSes had was largely gone. I suppose there were/are “meetups” and the like, but the connections were not quite the same. I can’t even count the many hours I spent in heartfelt chats with people that became good friends on the old BBSes and I’m sure my experiences can be echoed by thousands who cultivated friendships that way.

    Being a family man with three kids and a “regular” career in IT – one that got started doing tech support for mother.com – it’s fun to reminisce about how innocent and simple things once were – or seemed, anyway. Whatever our differing attitudes and opinions were about things at least we were open-minded. Now the world seems to have an open forum to express their snarky attitudes about everything under the sun. Total freedom definitely has its price.

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