Tag: nerdery the book
This past weekend I took some time to work on a rough outline for how Nerdery is going to be structured. A lot of it had to do with how much I wanted to pull from Jane McGonigal’s fantastic Reality Is Broken– which I realize I need to write a review of, too– but a bit more of it also had to do with the fact that, for as all-encompassing a topic as general nerdery is, I really only focus on a few major aspects of it.
The other part of it, though, is getting over the feeling that I’ve gone over this stuff before. After all, Nerdery is the culmination of well over ten years’ worth of essays, private and public, and so going over it all again is pretty much a necessity. For as much of it as I end up doing, I really dislike repeating myself. Ultimately, this means I have to just suck it up for the sake of making a greater point. The outline also helps me focus my thoughts so that I can approach each essay with at least the illusion of it being something new and unique to me.
In the end, I decided on structuring the book into four parts, not counting the inevitable introduction and conclusion chapters:
In Part One, I’m going to explore what it means to be a nerd. I’ll look at the origin of the word and concept, the history of how nerds are portrayed in media and culture, and see how it evolved into what it is today.
In Part Two, I’ll focus on the negative aspects of being a nerd. I’ll discuss the bias against intellect in society today, how being a nerd can be personally and collectively detrimental, and go over a couple of high-profile incidents where someone was targeted for being too smart.
In Part Three, I’ll flip the argument around and declare why being a nerd isn’t entirely a bad thing. I’ll focus primarily on why people choose to self-identify as nerds, what high intellect can do to help a community, and discuss how celebrities are embracing nerdery.
And in Part Four, I’m going to discuss what can be done to eliminate the stereotype of being a nerd. I’ll focus on why it was never actually relevant, why it’s constantly evolving, and how the world will be much better once there are no more “nerds”.
If it sounds like there’s a lot to go over, and if it sounds like people really aren’t going to like a lot of what I have to say (I imagine parts three and four are going to raise the most hackles), good. Ambition goes hand in hand with intellect and nerdery. And, despite what the essay at the beginning of this week would have you think, I have absolutely no qualms about failing quite publicly.
My next major goal is to have a draft of the book done by the end of summer; I’d like to shoot for October 1st as a draft deadline. This gives me time to crank out one long-form essay each weekend until then, while accounting for time for revisions and some mild editing. The essays are going to be written privately– that is, not shared with anyone just yet. However, I’m likely to share snippets of thoughts as blog posts now and again. If I get done with painting up my miniatures early, I may repurpose the Saturday morning disconnection time into a writing-only period, using my laptop while turning its Wifi off.
It’s on, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s get down and nerdy.
Were we wrong about Mass Effect? That’s not really the point. Personally, I think it was a better game than the reviewer said it was, but then again we almost always disagreed internally about the games we reviewed. Netjak always inhabited that quasi-professional level, where we weren’t getting paid to write about video games, but we all approached it with solemnity approaching the sepulchral. So, how exactly should we have been approached?
In his book “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom”, Cory Doctorow introduced the concept of whuffie: a quantitization of personal reputation that had replaced money as the way to gain non-essential luxuries (basics were freely available). People who did good things, like composed symphonies or let people ahead of them in line, gained whuffie, while people who did bad things, like cutting people off in traffic, lost it. It is instantaneous and mostly subconscious due to constant neural connections to an/the internet. In short, it puts a number on positive attention, while penalizing negative attention. While it sounds like the ultimate in egalitarianism, it sits poorly with me as something that should ever be implemented, even in the internet, simply because it’s instantaneous. Someone who just made a bad mistake will have a low whuffie score due to the snap-judgments of those around them drowning out or undoing the good they’ve done in the past.
If you try, but fail, you may have gained experience, but you have still failed. In private, the only one who ever sees it is you, and thus it’s easier to take. The problem is when your failures are public: if someone sees you fail, no matter how close you came, the memory of that failure is still there. On some level the witness will always have that knowledge about you, and there’s a good chance that it will in some way color their perceptions about you. When the failures are ephemeral– like bumping into a glass storefront because you thought it was an open door– the effect is minimal. When the failures are permanent and/or replayable– like a Youtube video of that very same collision– the effect is compounded.
With blogs and the internet, the temptation is to take everything as being instantaneous. Something posted years or decades ago is just as accessible as something posted right now, and whether or not it’s just as relevant today is, ironically, irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how long ago you posted that topless picture, or if it’s just one ill-conceived moment among thirty thousand exquisite photographs; it’s there forever and it’s all that matters. There is no statute of limitations on the internet.
It should, of course, go without saying that I think that’s a load of absolute bullshit. For my part, I try very hard not to let one mistake in the past color my perceptions of any site, professional or personal. The big names are capable of cranking out stinkers once in a while. But the little guys who don’t get any attention sometimes have the biggest ideas. The internet was supposed to let everyone’s voice be heard.
So remind me why we’re ignoring some of them, just because everyone else is?
The question then becomes one of effort and consistency. If 99% of the posts on a blog are filler (cough), does that automatically condemn the 1% of the posts that have genuinely good and interesting content? More important to the point at hand, does that 1% of posts command the blog’s readership attention for the uninteresting 99%? If it’s not a 1%/99% ratio, where exactly do you draw the line? How do you judge a site’s real worth?
The “fun” thing about all of this comes when you realize that some of the internet intelligentsia happen to have some rather cruel streaks in them as well (and I most certainly include myself in that categorization from time to time). The egalitarian nature of the internet just doesn’t sit well with some folk, and that gives rise to sites such as “Web Pages That Suck” and “Your Webcomic Is Bad And You Should Feel Bad”. This is to say nothing of the legions of commenters and forum-goers who pooh-pooh anything that isn’t a work of magnificent perfection.
Now, far be it from me to say that criticism isn’t warranted or desperately deserved in some cases– and I’l be the first to own up to the many, many mistakes I’ve made in the past. But as I’ve always said, honest and constructive criticism will always beat just plain ol’ criticism. For everything that’s wrong, there should at least be something that was done right. This isn’t always the case, obviously, but the cases where it doesn’t hold true are so astonishingly rare as to be worthy of the ire and bile that are heaped upon– well, more or less everything.
It gets worse when you start trying to quantitatively and objectively assess the quality of something based on a relatively incidental number. Back when Netjak was still around– which was itself a remarkable example of a professional blog– we raised our fair share of hackles with certain of our reviews. The biggest offender here was with Mass Effect, which didn’t get the glowing praise from the reviewer that the rest of the gaming press was lauding onto the game. This prompted an individual to sign up for our forums (which we used in place of a comments system) and berate us for not falling in line. The individual went so far as to suggest that our small userbase on the forums (because we’d just gone through a dormancy period due to technical failures) as well as the low number of threads and posts (because it was set to auto-purge posts older than a certain threshold) “did not give [us] the right” to our opinion of the game. Nevermind that Joystiq had linked to us repeatedly; we were small, therefore we didn’t count.
Last week, Pez mentioned (via Twitter) that he was in the bad habit of disregarding blog posts that don’t have comments. His argument– and it’s not an unfounded one, but I’ll get into that later– was that if nobody had bothered to respond to it, it wasn’t worth his time to read. He himself admitted that it’s a flawed reason to not read something, and when I made the snarky self-deprecating remark that “nobody must read my blog, then, if there’s no comments”, it was mostly as a joke. But then, I got to thinking about why he’d have that policy about feedback uber alles, and why its scarcity somehow indicates a lack of quality.
My introduction to the social internet was, as I’ve said often, Usenet. That was nothing but feedback. It’s post upon post upon post, each one building off the rest, and a community emerging from nothing– not even a structure more concrete than “post about this here, and that there”, and even that was fluid to some degree. Occasionally one post or another would become a foundation for more discussion, either by virtue of its own content or by containing a reference or link to something else, like a World Wide Web page. It would be the “big topic” for a while, and then fade away as the next one came to the table.
A good friend of mine, who I met during our shared time in Usenet, dislikes the idea of blogging in general. He feels it to be narcissistic and unnecessary, as the vast majority of them are people just endlessly talking about themselves into the void to make themselves feel important. I, of course, can’t argue with that, considering the fantastic amounts of pure crap that I put out here, but as the past month or so seems to have shown I’m working on fixing that. But what I think that friend is missing is the rather important distinction between a personal blog and a professional blog, and a rather frightening blurring of the lines between hobbyists and professionals.
The coming of the World Wide Web made everybody rock stars, and elevated all content to the same plateau. Suddenly, personal blogs, not necessarily intended for widespread consumption, are being presented and styled as if they are. Structurally, there’s nothing different between my site and say, Joystiq, aside from the content and the tools used to produce them. Where it all breaks down is in content: Joystiq has it and I, to be quite frank about it, don’t. At least, I don’t regularly have any content nearly as compelling as Joystiq’s constant feed of gaming news. And that’s where things start to get hairy.
Écrire. Schreiben. Ír. ??. ??????. Ysgrifennu.
For being the thing that I say I do, I haven’t done a whole hell of a lot of it, and you have no idea how frustrating that gets for someone who has convinced himself that it’s what he does. Fortunately, I have a plan…. and I’m going to stick to it.
Part of why I’ve had trouble getting into a mindset for writing heretofore is because overall I’d been fighting some depression that had started to creep into me a few years back. It’s easy to say “get over it”, but until you step back and get some help for it, it can be impossible to “get over it”. Depression– the real, chronic kind, not post-con ennui or mere letdown at a poor turn of events– the big D is not something that you should fuck around with on your own. And yes, it warrants the F-bomb, because it can get fucking scary if you let it progress. So, get help if you have a funk that lasts more than four months. All joking aside, I’m not kidding here. See a doctor, or a priest, or other appropriate figure.
OK, PSA over, back to self-flagellation. I’d been depressed, and now I’m not. I feel motivated, more optimistic for the year ahead than I have in a very, very long time. That in and of itself should frighten the hell out of everyone, but the fact of the matter is, it also gave me an idea. I’ve been meaning to do a nonfiction book for a long time, and I honestly think it’s time that my preferred subject matter– nerdery– gets a close look at from the inside.
Think about it– 2011 was the Year of the Nerd. Steve Jobs died, and got a crapton of attention; Dennis Ritchie also died and should have got more. People weren’t just interested in the new Apple release this year, they were positively frothing with delight, when ten years ago knowing how to use a computer was akin to a sentence of life as a decaying cat lady or lonely old man. The Internet was no longer for porn, as somehow Zynga made it about annoying your friends with game requests. And technology news wasn’t released to the back pages or the end-of-hour Jeanne Moos pre-emption spots; it was front and center and two days late, judging by how many times my mom asked me about stuff in my sphere of interest.
But being a nerd is about more than that. I figured out a brilliant definition of how to tell if you’re a nerd: you’re a nerd if you like something openly. Somehow in the last thirty years it became uncool to like something. Doesn’t matter what– with few exceptions, if there was some aspect of culture and you liked it, and expressed that like, you were a nerd. You might as well be that nine year old kid in his Star Wars pajamas. That’s changed lately.
I’d have to say it has a lot to do with the work-life balance, and how it swung way out of whack since the 70s. People became increasingly focused on their jobs around the early 80s because of intense competition. This meant that there was less time for things that weren’t job-related, and you got people who could literally not function outside of their jobs. In social settings or leisure time these people were chained to their desks, metaphorically, and that’s why you have the stereotypical hyper-competent power-suited always-on-the-job überdork parents from countless 80s movies. Thing is, though, that’s a ludicrously unhealthy attitude to take, and while it’s obvious now, back then it was seen as the only way to get ahead.
Now, companies take great pains to make sure that they aren’t burning out the employees they’re not planning on laying off. The competitive nature of the market hasn’t changed, and the workload has done nothing but steadily increase. What’s changed is that the shortsighted nature of business has fallen by the wayside in the more successful companies, and there’s a chance for employees to actually have downtime and enjoy it. And, that dovetails nicely with how the workplace exists– a successful employee will feel more comfortable sharing his interests with coworkers. The myth of the interchangeable cog in a cubicle has been well and fully smashed in this day and age. Every piece is shaped differently, and effective managers don’t force their employees to change– they put the pieces together in the way that works, even if it’s not what worked before.
So, my plan both with some of the blog entries here and some other writing internally is to start gathering notes for that one-day nonfiction book I’m working on. I want to define what being a nerd is; why some people are seen as nerds, others aren’t, and still others embrace it; why being a nerd is a good thing; how being a nerd can be taken too far, and how it shouldn’t be; and the eventual plan for the elimination of the word and concept from the culture.
That last one is ambitious, but necessary, I think. Because as time goes by, it’s become obvious to me that everyone is a nerd for something or another– some hide it well, some don’t hide it at all, and still others don’t know what they can be a nerd about. But we are a planet of nerds, a whole great big species of them. We define our literal existence as separate from animals in terms that make us the biggest goddamn nerds in all of creation– “we’re smarter than them”. The word “nerd”, then, is kinda stating the obvious. It’s time we threw it away.