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!