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.

281 thoughts on “regarding the difference between embracing and exploiting geek culture”

  1. Agreed!!..but in response to Alan, it is an unfortuante circumstance that we do lable,all of us do in one way or another.
    I don’t know how we come by it or why?

  2. This is me !!!!!
    Althogh not quite successful in the career thing,but that’s just me.
    I absolutely identify with everything you just wrote!

  3. Hell yeah….lets see who can make the utmost of the limitation,flexabilty,creation of gaming to come out on top.
    I would pay good money too see that on pay per-view!

  4. Good lord I don’t know that I will EVER finish reading the comments on here, ACK!
    Just wanted to say, that I find myself now more than ever wanting to buy (well, but make my own better version) one of those shirts saying “I was uncool before uncool was cool.” Because seriously, it’s so true now, and I’m sorry but it’s aggravating. I don’t care if there’s lots MORE geeks now than there were because more people are ok with admitting it and embracing it and everything. But I DO care about all these “faux geeks,” as they have been called here. I know half the posts here have been about “no labels” “labels are bad” “anybody can be anything, NO EXCLUDING PEOPLE!” but you know what, these people AREN’T geeks and they were never outcasts and wallflowers and I do not like that they are now wearing our badge. I just don’t. PCness be damned, I’m being honest here!

  5. I really don’t think it is Apple at all, but those people who are not actually geeks at all who are USING Apple thinking that because MS is so big, that because they got something “different” they just MUST be “geeks.” Even though, Apple is huge and friggin everyone has iPods and even my MOM went out and bought an iMac because she “heard” they were “better.”

  6. Again, I really do not believe Wil was saying that BECAUSE they are “cool celebs” they can’t be geeks, but that he does not believe they truly are geeks (and I pretty well agree that most of them do not likely seem to be) and they are simply being used, to sell the idea that “being a geek is/can be cool.”

  7. “As usual, I thought I loved you before (in a distant, metaphorical and platonic way, of course) but I was wrong. After this post, I love you still more than I thought was possible. Yay! And stuff.”
    hahahaha, I am pretty sure I think that any time I read anything he writes. ;D

  8. But I do think the message of geekness was lost in the video. It was more about social media than geekness, no insult intended to those participating.
    I think you just hit the nail on the head. I didn’t really even get to the point of grok’ing all the names at the end of the video because my brain had latched onto the websites that they gave user counts for. Since when does using twitter make you a geek? Let alone *facebook*. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those sites, but none of them struck me as being particularly geeky (except maybe digg). Had they mentioned /., WotC, a Trek fan site or any number of other things then they’d be making a point about geeks. Hell, mention a site about music production, or one that’s all about acting techniques and you’d be making a point in my book.
    To me, what makes someone a geek is that they’re incredibly curious about how something works or is done. I suspect you could classify Patrick Stewart as an acting geek, for example. You could certainly classify Wil as a writing or author geek (I hope that actually makes sense to people; I are not a writing geek!).
    Of course, that definition also opens a can of worms. Would you consider people who just have to know all of the Hollywood gossip as geeks? It’s tempting to write them off, but is that fair? I don’t know.
    Oh, and what would have definitely increased the geek factor on the video? If Wil had introduced himself as “Whil Wheaton” ;P

  9. I haven’t done a lot of those things, but I still completely agree with your last sentence. And I think a lot of people who have commented feel the same way, but haven’t really outright said it, because they don’t want to come off as exclusionary or, whatever. But like I’ve said, I don’t care if there are MORE people open to being geeks now, I do care, about all these “faux geeks,” though, and I do not like it one bit.

  10. geekiness is simply unmitigated devotion, that’s all.
    Wow, that’s an *awesome* definition. I’m totally stealing it! 😉

  11. I just want to say that I really don’t agree with your definitions.
    I do agree that being a geek can be inherited, but certainly not that it HAS to be.

  12. “The fault is theirs for feeling as though we need to be endorsed by them to exist.”
    This. THIS! This is what I find so highly disturbing about their entire gimmick and site and “society.” Who are THEY to say that WE are in need of a “society for advancement”?! It is freaking degrading, as far as I am concerned.

  13. psht, when I have kids one day (and I’m 27, not a teenager! and ftr, while I did own all the Star Wars movies ON BETA TAPE!, I have only ever owned one Star Wars shirt: a Yoda one, because I love him, and it was certainly not intended to look old. I also had an ewok, and yes I was old enough to see the movie that was more specifically about them, and loved them), I would love for them not to have to endure the wretchedness that is dodgeball!!
    That is, assuming they will be geeks/anti-athletic like me. Maybe they will turn out like my geek of a [soon to be] husband, who loved playing it as a young child. A man who is a gamer (or used to be, at least), was a big part of a large online gaming community, can code quite well, has had a blog for a number of years, is slightly socially awkward, remembers far more European and world history than I have ever even learned (and a lot of it was learned because he wanted to), etc etc.
    I get what you’re saying, and to an extent I agree… but I don’t agree with being overly exclusive and making some sort of “set criteria” people have to live up to.

  14. I gotta say I got much the same response to the video as yourself. I think their heart may have been in the right place but the message was very muddled. It did come across that they were trying to convince the cool kids that “I may be a geek but I’m not a NERD”.
    They definitely could have made the link with the “room to read” charity much more prominent on the site, that would have helped a bit. When I initially browsed the site I just got this feeling of “what’s the point here? are they trying to sell me stuff?”

  15. I certainly don’t say geek HAS to be inherited, I only state that in my case it was. In fact, I pose the question to investigate for yourself whether it was Nature or Nurture in your case.
    If you have the time I would love to see how you define the categories above. A geek debate about what is geek, that, my friends, defines geek!

  16. MelbyMonkey,
    It’s not that I believe there should be criteria, rules or even a standard to be considered a true geek or “just geek enough”. I just hope the kids who are wearing those mock faded Star wars logo t-shirts are doing other “things considered to be geeky” things besides wearing that shirt. :)
    If one is acting like a geek because they think it might be cool, doesn’t/wouldn’t that be beside the point?
    It’s obvious from this thread that the definition of “geek” depends on who you’re talking to — or who you’re talking about.
    As for dodgeball, it’s not that I want every grade-school-age kid to experience physical abuse or their childhood wouldn’t count for anything. I just wonder how different my childhood would’ve been without daily reminders about how small I was for my age. :)

  17. Our main problem is that “geek” rhymes with “chic”. Hence, “geek chic”. So many empires have fallen due to rhyming.
    I am not sure if I am a geek; I was writing TNG fan fiction in junior high, but just now I couldn’t figure out why so many commenters on this post were fans of rocket-propelled grenades.

  18. Conversely, number of systems could have nothing to do with it. I have three systems (xbox360, ps2, and wii) and do not consider myself a gamer geek at all! 😉

  19. My first foray into the geek world was when I picked up the Piers Anthony book, “Golem in the Gears”. Then I really fell into love with the fantasy world. But in my high school experience “geek” was like a plague. No one wanted to be associated with word. So I hid. Going from banger, to prep, back to banger then had a falling out with those friends and hid in the library. There I found “my people”. The geeks, nerds and dorks. I had realised I wasnt alone. 😀
    I was the one and only girl playing D&D, lol, memories.
    Just before I graduated from high school I embraced my geekiness.
    I don’t play D&D anymore, but I loved it so much I fell into the offshoot “Forgotten Realms” by R.A. Salvatore that I named my son Zaknafein after the father of Drizzt Du’ Urden the Dark Elf :D. (hey, my son has a very origional name).
    Im not so much into fantasy anymore, I love sci-fi alot. Hell I fell in love with BSG and I got friends and family hooked right along with me!
    Every one I know, knows I am a geek and that Im proud of it! My bumper sticker says “My Other mount is a Cobalt Nightwing”
    My kids think I’m nuts but they love me as I am.
    Go Geek!

  20. But are the kids wearing the shirts even proclaiming to BE geeks? Star Wars is totally mainstream now, tons upon tons of people think it’s this great epic movie/series. So just because they’re being a little lame sporting fake-old shirts advertising Star Wars, doesn’t mean they consider themselves geeks at all. But if they are claiming that, then yes I hope they’re doing more than watching the movie and wearing the attire, too.
    lol I do understand your point with dodgeball, it’s the whole, overcoming adversity making for better, more well-rounded people and all that. But still, dodgeball was hell for me, and I’d be glad to not have any child of mine have to endure it. Did you know they actually have national dodgeball TOURNAMENTS, for the grown up men (and scattered women), to go play like little children?? eesh.

  21. I think another big part of why it feels disjointed is because the entire first part of the video is emulating the Molson Canadian “The Rant” commercial, which seems to be the source of most of the wording choices people didn’t like — the D&D thing is the parallel of the “and I don’t know Jimmy, Sally, or Suzy from Canada, although I’m certain they’re really really nice” line, for example. And then the second part of the video is something entirely different.

  22. Wil , you’re awesome. It takes a bit to bring me to tears,( I can been cool as ice in chaotic situations – 21 years in the Navy and all ) but I could feel, and was moved by, the pure humanity in the way you had felt compelled to be all-inclusive of those of your fellow geeks. Your compassion shines through. A compassion for those of less oportunity than you. Those are words worthy of the same emotion as Queen’s ‘We are the Champions’. And all this good kinship from my first read of your blog.

  23. I feel like I need to bring something to the attention of this discussion. Shira Lazar, the woman behind the reprehensible “I’m a Geek!” video, claims on her blog and in several interviews that this was “not some marketing ploy.”
    Actually, that’s EXACTLY what it was. Check this link:
    It’s a press release for the video issued by Keldof Marketing, a firm that specializes in viral marketing.
    Near the end of the press release, it contains this statement: “To discuss potential partnerships with The Society for Geek Advancement, please contact Kevin Seldon from Keldof Marketing at [email protected].”
    Really? What’s especially disgusting is that Lazar has been all over the web claiming that this video is a “celebration” of geek culture. Looks a lot more like exploitation of geek culture to me.

  24. I think I might have figured out what bugs me about it a little bit: framing. The whole act of making geek = cool implies that it wasn’t in the first place. To many geeks, about the coolest thing in the world is to sort of grow your geek chi. Right now, for example, I’m teaching myself assembly (just starting to learn). And I think this is cool, in some sense of the word, because I get to look more closely at how my computer works, and this means I gain a little more control over it, and THAT means I get to do interesting, neat things that I couldn’t do before and see interesting neat things that I didn’t know about. To me its like, “wow, Shaq likes technology? That’s cool. I didn’t know Shaq was that cool, I thought he just played basketball.”

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