regarding the difference between embracing and exploiting geek culture

I’ve gotten a ton of criticism from people about the I Am a Geek video that launched yesterday, and I feel the need to respond to it.

After watching the video yesterday, I was impressed by the production values, and I thought it was really awesome that it was just one small part of a larger project. I love that the whole thing is supposed to encourage literacy (if you really look for the links) and intends to support a good cause. As a writer, I certainly want more people to be readers!

But as I watched it a second and a third time, something didn’t feel quite right to me. I couldn’t put my finger on it, until e-mail started flooding in from people who could: this was supposed to be about refuting stereotypes and celebrating the things we love, but it ends up feeling like we’re trying to convince the Cool Kids that we’re really just like them, and a promotional opportunity for celebrities who don’t know a damn thing about our geek culture, and don’t care about the people who create and live in it.

I was under the impression that this video would feature actual geeks who are important to our culture, like Woz, Felicia Day, Leo Laporte, and Jonathan Coulton. Instead, I saw a lot of entrepreneurs who have good marketing instincts, joined by a bunch of celebrities who are attempting to co-opt our culture because it’s what their publicity team is telling them to do.

When you’re speaking to people who read TMZ and People magazine, getting contributions from MC Hammer, Ashton Kutcher and Shaq is a logical choice. But when you’re speaking to geeks, it’s insulting to us to pretend that they are part of and speak for our culture. Those people are not geeks; they’re celebrities who happen to use Twitter. Featuring them as “geeks” undermines the whole effort, because they aren’t like us. I’ve been a geek my whole life. I’ve suffered for it, I’ve struggled because of it, and I’ve worked incredibly hard to remove the social stigma associated with all these things we love, like gaming and programming. It’s like a slap in the face to be associated with these people who claim to be like me, and want to be part of our culture, but couldn’t tell you the difference between Slackware and Debian, a d8 and a d10, or how to use vi or emacs. In other words, they haven’t earned it, but they’re wrapping themselves in our flag because their PR people told them to.

Having someone in a video that purports to celebrate our geek culture say that they don’t play D&D, like playing an RPG is something to be ashamed of, is profoundly offensive to me, because I play D&D. In fact, it’s the chief reason I am a geek. D&D isn’t anything to be ashamed of, it’s awesome. I don’t recall seeing that in the script I was given, and if I had, I never would have agreed to be part of this project.

I loved the idea of creating a video that celebrates our culture and shows that we’re proud to be in it. That’s what I thought this would be, but I feel like we ended up with some kind of self-promoting internet marketing thing that plays right into established stereotypes, and hopes that The Cool Kids will let us hang out with them.

I am a geek. I have been all my life, and I know that those guys are nothing like me and my friends. If we’re going to celebrate and embrace geek culture, we should have geeks leading the effort, not popular kids who are pretending to be geeks because it’s the easy way to get attention during the current 15 minute window.

I want to be clear: I wasn’t misled, I think that the project just changed from conception to release. I think their heart was in the right place, and I think their fundamental idea was awesome. But what I saw isn’t what I thought I was going to be part of. I thought I was going to be part of something that said, “Hey, I am a geek, I’m proud of that, and if you’re a geek you should be proud of it too!” What I saw was more like, “I am using new media to reach people. Yay!” There’s nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t mean the people doing it are geeks, and it’s not what I thought I was contributing to.

There was a great conterpoint on Twitter just now, while I was wrapping this up. Wyldfire42 said: “Seems to me that we shouldn’t be deciding who is or isn’t a geek. If we start passing judgment, we just become the bullies we hated.” I can’t disagree with that, at all, and after reading that, I feel a little grognard-y. Who knows, maybe these celebrities who have recently shown up in our world love these things as much as we do. Maybe it’s not their fault that they bring hordes of celebrity-obsessed non-geeks with them wherever they go. Maybe they’re as upset about people telling them they’re not “real” geeks as I am about marketers pretending that they are.

Maybe I’m overreacting, but I care deeply about my fellow geeks and there is a fundamental difference between embracing our culture and exploiting it. Please, come and be part of our culture. Read our books and play our games and watch our movies and argue with us about what is and isn’t canon. But if you try to grab our dice, and then don’t even know or care why we’re a little touchy about it … well I cast Magic Missile on you, dude.

ETA: I’ve been pretty active in the comments of this post, because I see the same misconception over and over again, largely the result of me being unclear when I wrote part of this post.

Somehow, a bunch of people have turned into “Wil Wheaton says you have to do a, b, and c or you’re not a geek, so fuck him because he’s a dick.”

That’s not what I meant, at all. Most people seem to get that, but there’s enough who don’t that I feel a need to respond, in case you don’t feel like digging through hundreds of comments to find my replies in there.

I never meant to say that unless you do a or b or c even ∏, you don’t “qualify” for admittance to some super secret clubhouse where I am the gatekeeper. When I said, “…couldn’t tell you the difference between Slackware and Debian, a d8 and a d10, or how to use vi or emacs…” I didn’t mean that unless a person does know what these things are, they don’t pass some kind of test. I was making an example, picking out some things that I happen to be geeky about, in an attempt to illustrate a point, and I did that poorly.

I was not trying to be, and I don’t want to be, some kind of exclusionary geek elitist. That’s just the most incredibly stupid and offensive thing in the world.

As I said in a comment somewhere in this post: Creating a world where my kids don’t have to grow up being picked on for loving RPGs is awesome. But what I see – not just here, but in general at this moment – is a bunch of marketing jerks trying to take the things we love and turn them into something from Hot Topic. I didn’t mean “you’re not geeky enough…” at all, and I hate that people seem to latch on to that, because it means I wasn’t clear enough. If these guys I mentioned truly love what we are, and they have been here all along (and I’ve just missed them for my whole life) than it’s great that they’re not ashamed to love the things we love … but I haven’t seen anything to indicate that they genuinely are interested in the things we love as much as they are riding a pop-culture wave that’s driven by Twitter’s explosive and pervasive popularity. It feels calculated and planned out by PR and marketing people, and as someone who loves this culture, that bothers me. I didn’t mean to imply that you have to meet this list of criteria to come be part of our club (vi, d10, etc) as much as I was attempting to illustrate a point: we know what at least some of those things are, and Cool Kids have teased us for it our whole lives. It feels to me like those same people are now trying to take our culture away from us and make a quick buck off of exploiting it, and us. It was not my intention to create some sort of Geek Literacy Test. That’s lame. Like I said, all are welcome, but at least make an effort to understand why we care about these things.

Finally, I’ve been trading e-mails with Shira Lazar, who had this idea in the first place. She says:

Well, I think the hornet’s nest was stirred up a bit. But that’s ok. I rather open, honest discourse than people to feel shut off or alienated. That would be ridiculous and horrible.

Anyway- from reading the post and comments it’s important off the bat for people to know this isn’t a marketing ploy or some evil plan to take over the world. ha

also, It sucks that the d&d line got misconstrued. It’s important to point out that a lot of ppl besides you in the video actually do play the game- the line was more to say yes lots of geeks play d&d but you don’t need to play d&d to be a geek.

It really started as a fun way to bring people together, geeks of all extremes. To break down stereotypes. I consider myself a geek. Yes, the level of geekiness changes depending on the context. Amidst developers and my gamer friends, I might not know a lot but with some of my friends I’m queen geek. While I might not know certain things in certain situations, I still have a yearning and passion to know and learn and a love of accepting those geeks who do know it all. I was the editor of my high school newspaper and the first person to make it digital. I would hang out in my computer room at school until midnight working on photoshop and quark while my friends were out and about doing their thing. I participated in my high school science fairs and went to regionals twice. My mom is also a coordinator for children with special needs- i’ve seen kids that are alienated from their peers who need to know it’s ok and they have a place.

While some of us have struggled and some have not, some know more, some don’t- this was simply a video that was supposed to be a fun way to bring everyone together.

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