What separates someone from a community?
An inability or refusal to adopt normative behaviors is one possible answer.
What started this experiment?
A post by a blogger Joe Peacock on the CNN “geek” column, led to an uproar in the self proclaimed “geek” community. I wasn’t concerned with the uproar in this particular case, but I was interested in the self identification as “geeks” vs. my own self identification as a nerd. My initial post on the whatever.scalzi.com web site was as follows:
From my personal perspective I refuse to accept the title “geek” because I’m enough of a nerd that I understand the original definition of the term (a carnival side show entertainer who bites the heads off of live chickens). I do accept the term nerd because it is an originally non-deragatory term created by nerds and adopted by nerds. I am also a fanboy and an otaku. I find the term “geek” to be as personally offensive as racially insensitive terms objected to by other groups. Certainly other groups do sometimes adopt and attempt to own derogatory terms for themselves, but I don’t feel a personal need to do so.
So if you want to adopt the term “geek” for yourself in an attempt to own a deragatory term, then you are free to do so. I personally will object to the usage in my case, and correct the mistaken person using the tem in relation to me. That is one element of my personal nerddom.
I was subsequently challenged because someone using the modern definition of “geek” as a fan of a particular topic/subject/media type was the same as the japanese term otaku. That lead to my reply:
In 19th century, in North-America, the term geek referred to a freak in circus side-shows (see also freak show). In some cases, its performance included biting the head off a live chicken. The 1976 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary included only the definition regarding geek shows.
Otaku is derived from a Japanese term for another’s house or family otaku, which is also used as an honorific second-person pronoun. The modern slang form, which is distinguished from the older usage by being written only in hiragana or katakana, or rarely in rōmaji, appeared in the 1980s. In the anime Macross, first aired in 1982, the term was used by Lynn Minmay as an honorific term. It appears to have been coined by the humorist and essayist Akio Nakamori in his 1983 series An Investigation of “Otaku” “Otaku” no Kenkyū?, printed in the lolicon magazine Manga Burikko. Animators like Haruhiko Mikimoto and Shōji Kawamori used the term among themselves as an honorific second-person pronoun since the late 1970s.
In the first case Geek started as a deragatory term which a group adopted in defiance of its deragatory usage. In the second case Otaku started as an honorific term which another group later tried to turn into a deragatory usage, and the orginal Otaku fought to take the term back into the honorific usage. I’m a bit of a language nerd and this is why I am careful to understand the meaning and usages of terms (and their accuracy) before applying them to my own person. You are welcome to adopt a demeaning pejorative term as your own. I personally choose not to do so. I also choose not to allow people to change a non-pejorative term into one when I use it for myself.
Otaku in modern slang is much closer to fan (fanboy, fangirl) than it ever was to a sideshow freak which would bite the heads off from chickens. The deragatory nature was applied by “mainstream” culture which didn’t understand the cult like obsesion with certain off mainstream topics by fans. In the American usage of the term it is used to differentiate a fan of items frequently of interest to Japanese Otaku culture. Thus since I watch and read several japanese anime and manga the term is an accurate usage for me in this case.
I understand that geek in modern slang usage is also equavalent of fan (fanboy or fangirl) but the derivation from the original deragatory usage is why I object to it. I have never been someone who performs sick self debasing acts for the entertainment and thrill of “mainstream” society. You are welcome to call yourself a geek if you choose, and I will continue to call myself a nerd and object with lenghty clarifications about the differences between the two.
That was pretty much the end of my point, and it didn’t lead to any particular controversy on the comments page of the “whatever” site. Then the idea for the thought experiment began. What was the reason a more modern geek as an obsessed fan of a subject was linked in with the “historical” definition of the sideshow performer who fascinated and repulsed people at the same time?
Well the whole point of this orignal article on “whatever” was based on Joe Peacock writing something both insulting to women, and revealing his “geek” nature at the same time in his CNN column.
I then started to formulate how to best demonstrate the true nature of being a “geek” in a more classical sense vs. being the modern definition of someone who is a fan of a subject. Then I would test a community full of self identified “geeks” of the modern definition to see if they too would either accept a “geek” in the more classic sense of the term, or reject someone going against the normative behavior for their community.
The question became one of how to bite the heads off of metaphorical chickens on a web page comments section. In the classic sense a “geek” is unpopular not because of his interest in an off beat activity, but because that activity is considered breaking normative behavior in a repulsive manner. A person being a fan of watching a particular Sci-Fi program may be doing something which isn’t particularly normative, but most people in these days don’t consider it particularly repulsive. In some cases interests formerly considered not being normative have even become clearly mainstream and fully normative interests.
So what is unpopular within a web forum community? Some of the activities are as follows:
1) Trolling – also known as intentionally riling up negative emotions in other people for personal entertainment.
2) Picking a contrary point of view against the forum community norm. (Often considered a form of Trolling).
3) Taking other people’s statements out of context, and appying a derogatory interpretation to their remarks.
4) Attributing motives, thoughts, beliefs to someone they don’t actually have.
5) Inconsistency of position on a topic.
6) Claiming the moral high ground over another person’s point of view.
7) Defining yourself as holding a superior position intelectually over another person.
8) Refusing to acknowledge the points made by another person with a contrary point of view.
9) Using spurious logic to make inconsistent points.
10) Quitting the discussion at hand and running away while crying foul.
I had my “geek” behaviors lined up, but the question was how to take the next step and go from being merely unpopular to repulsive. I used Joe Peacock’s own “geek” behavior as my initial guidepost. Saying something unpopular was going to have to be part of the formula. Yet standing up for someone who had already repulsed the community was going to make the “geek” happen.
If anyone is particularly interested in the resulting trainwreck created, then they are welcome to go over the comments section on “whatever” and have fun identifying each of the places I applied one or more of the approaches above. What I found fairly interesting myself was the number of times the other members of the community responding to me used the some of the same approaches, and other approaches I didn’t attempt to use.
When someone comes into a community as an unpopular “outsider” who doesn’t follow their normative rules an interesting set of behaviors begin to manifest. The first is people generally ignoring the outsider until something “repulsive” is seen. In this case I barely caused a splash at all until I stepped into the community with a defense of Joe Peacock’s right to be unpopular with his point of view. My repulsive behavior in defending Joe Peacock’s right to be a “geek” in the more classical sense of the term caused a much greater reaction. It was pretty quickly “repulsive” by association.
It didn’t take long before people began to attribute Joe’s repulsive remarks (which I didn’t repeat or even attempt to justify) as part and parcel of my own position. I was categorized in with Joe repeadly as part of the outsider group. Then as more people began to establish themselves as parts of the normative portion of the group, the behaviors listed above actually became the more normative behaviors of those individuals beginning to address me. This was the fascinating portion of the thought experiment to me. That several parts of my chosen behavior set was adopted by the very people who were rejecting my inclusion in their community.
The next part is also quite fascinating. As more people came out to join the normative group in repudiating my stated position, others began to step away from commenting on the original controversy. Soon the primary controversy which had led to comment section had subsided beneath the new controversy I had created by taking an unpopular position on the issue.
Another point of observation was that the few people who early on were attempting to moderate the behavior of people against my point of view began to leave the discussion rather than risk being grouped into the repulsive category. Once it was clearly established I was the outsider, fewer people to eventually no people were willing to step up and risk getting grouped in as an outsider with me.
The Lesson Learned:
Even in groups which choose to self identify as “outsiders” to the broader mainstream community at large, a failure to follow normative behaviors, and an association with behaviors considered repulsive leads to rejection. This rejection even takes on the form of bully-like behaviors which are often the same behaviors the “geek” community complains about from the mainstream. The attacks against the outsider become more agressive and more numerous as a larger “alpha” group appears to dominate and ostracize the outsider.
p.s. people are welcome to comment here. All comments are moderated by me to determine whether the content is constructive before being presented on the page here. People are of course entitled to their freedom of speech. and I encourage them to set up a web site of their own to exercise it. I am not required to allow my web site to be the open pulpit for anyone to exercise of their freedom of speech.