Splain it to Me


Imagine you’re telling a story. Great story, unbelievable story. A series of events that if you saw them in a movie you’d roll your eyes and groan, but they actually happened, and you were there to witness them. While you’re in the middle of the story, just as you get to a particularly interesting twist, the person listening to you scrunches up their face and shouts, “Get the fuck out of here!”

How would you react?[1]

Everyone should have default heuristics. A simple set of rules you fall back on when you lack enough information to make a situation-specific judgment. It’s important to evaluate them for reliability and update as needed. Also important to remain aware of what they are and the fact that you are using them. The goal is to make reasonable guesses about the qualities of an unknown–just about the worst thing you can do, and what many people tend to do, is look up in memory the most similar known quantity and then handle the unknown as if it were that. This is the difference between thinking on one’s feet and hardly thinking at all.

Some heuristics are well-known and useful enough that we gives them names, a subset of which are the philosophical razors. Hanlon’s–“never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”–is one of my favorites, but with the added qualification “or miscommunication.” There’s a line by Goethe roughly equivalent to this, in fact: “Misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.” Assuming good faith and attempting to translate between disparate communication protocols has generally worked out pretty well for me. Good default.

So, New Yorkers tend to have a very high-engagement conversation style. What many from other places might think of as “good listening”–patient silence, thoughtful expressions that telegraph concentration–we see as rude. A listener should be talking along with the speaker, shouting their feelings about what they hear, finishing sentences, asking questions that they know will be answered by the next thing the speaker says anyway–not to alter the flow, but like setting them up for an alley-oop. Silence means you’re bored or distracted. What might cause speakers from other places to feel they’re being interrupted–say, for instance, yelling, “Get the fuck out of here!”[2]–not only doesn’t break the conversation, but improves it. You’re demonstrating that you are fully engaged in their telling, and they ramp up their energy and excitement to match, encouraged they’re doing a good job.

To a “respectful silence == listening” speaker, the listener’s interjection would probably be seen as horribly rude, maybe even menacing. “I think you are lying to me and this makes me angry.” But to an “enthusiastic participation == listening” speaker, it means something along the lines of, “That’s amazing! Please keep going, I’m really enjoying this.” Any attempt to push state from one brain to another necessarily involves lossy compression, and one of the ways we try to save bandwidth is by implicitly referencing complex ideas that we take for granted the other person has in their head already. Whether the speaker concludes from the aforementioned interjection “This asshole thinks I’m dishonest” or “This person really loves my story” depends on shared culture–they just know what is meant, maybe without even knowing how they know–or on their heuristics leading them toward interpreting it as cooperative[3] rather than combative.

Here’s a series of events that happens many times daily on my favorite bastion of miscommunication, the bird website. Person tweets some fact. Other people reply with other facts. Person complains, “Ugh, randos in my mentions.” Harsh words may be exchanged, and everyone exits the encounter thinking the other person was monumentally rude for no reason.

While some folks in some circles make hay over “well-actuallys” and being “splained to” by “randos,” seeing such replies as bad-faith social posturing or indicative of deep-seated bias, more often than not I chalk up the friction to, like our yelling New Yorker being taken for rude, cross-cultural communication breakdown. The dynamics at play behind “ugh, randos” are so pernicious because it isn’t a simple problem of definitions or message integrity, but different views on what communication is or is for. What it often comes down to is people with fundamentally different, perhaps totally irreconcilable, values systems assuming “malice or stupidity” where the real explanation is values mismatch and miscommunication.

For clarity’s sake, I’ll name “ugh, randos” Sue and an archetypal “rando” Charlie.[4] I will also assume both are, initially anyway, operating in good faith–while there are certainly Sues and Charlies who are just unpleasant assholes, I think they are comparatively uncommon, and in any event picking apart their motivations wouldn’t be particularly interesting.

From Sue’s perspective, strangers have come out of the woodwork to demonstrate superiority by making useless, trivial corrections. Some of them may be saying obvious things that Sue, being well-versed in the material she’s referencing, already knows, and thus are insulting her intelligence, possibly due to their latent bias. This is not necessarily an unreasonable assumption, given how social dynamics tend to work in mainstream culture. People correct others to gain status and assert dominance. An artifice passed off as “communication” is often wielded as a blunt object to establish power hierarchies and move up the ladder by signaling superiority. Sue responds in anger as part of this social game so as not to lose status in the eyes of her tribe.

From Charlie’s perspective, Sue has shared a piece of information. Perhaps he already knows it, perhaps he doesn’t. What is important is that Sue has given a gift to the commons, and he would like to respond with a gift of his own. Another aspect is that, as he sees it, Sue has signaled an interest in the topic, and he would like to establish rapport as a fellow person interested in the topic. In other words, he is not trying to play competitive social games, and he may not even be aware such a game is being played. When Sue responds unfavorably, he sees this as her spurning his gift as if it had no value. This is roughly as insulting to Charlie as his supposed attempt to gain status over Sue is to her. At this point, both people think the other one is the asshole. People rightly tend to be mean to those they are sure are assholes, so continued interaction between them will probably only serve to reinforce their beliefs the other is acting in bad faith.

Not every stranger who responds to Sue is necessarily deemed by her a “rando,” however. Those who emphatically agree with her, for instance, before presenting their own information tend to get a much warmer response. It’s a social cue, a way to signal friendliness. Additionally, people she sees as belonging to her in-group may be given the benefit of the doubt, while out-groupers are more often judged to be malicious or stupid. Even her tweeting “ugh, randos” serves as peer bonding, like complaining with strangers about bad weather or train delays, an announcement soliciting solidarity from those who have been in her situation and sympathy from those who have not.[5]

The reason these responses are seen as good-faith participation is because this model of communication emphasizes harmonious emotional experience. The responses that don’t attempt to establish emotional rapport are merely coming from a different context, one in which communication is about information sharing.

For nerds, information sharing is the most highly valued form of communication possible.

I say all this having once been an “ugh, randos” person myself. I thought the “randos in my mentions” were playing social games, so I often responded harshly, and when they met my hostility with hostility, I felt vindicated in my initial judgment. But as my perspective shifted from “ugh, randos” to “awesome, information,” virtually every signal I’d relied on to indicate an interaction was going to be unpleasant completely fell apart. Even many replies I’d pegged as obvious, blatant misogyny turned out to have been people eagerly offering me gifts of information bewildered that I rudely rejected them.

Two particular exchanges stick out in my mind, both “corrections” in response to a series of tweets of mine on esoteric Unix history. One of these replies was simply wrong, while the other assumed I was mistaken about something that I actually knew but had glossed over. I responded to both with information of my own that demonstrated this, and both people acknowledged that I was right. I thought they were attacking my credibility and that I’d defeated their attacks and won the status game. Except: both of them were happy I corrected them. This seemed bizarre to me at the time, and the only explanation I could come up with was that they must be attempting to save face. But, now that I realize they likely weren’t attempting to play the status game at all, their responses make perfect sense. All they saw was that I had accepted their gift and given them yet another.

Thing is, status games and social signaling do not at all come naturally to me. I have gotten reasonably competent at playing their games only through thousands upon thousands of trials, run over a decade of working retail and food service while simultaneously trying to navigate a social scene that was totally alien to me at first, but one that I desperately wanted to fit into. Simple brute force, just trying whatever I could think of and sticking with what worked, like how a computer “plays” chess. Over time I built up a fairly robust translation layer, one that I was forced to rely on so much that I didn’t even realize how much latency it added until I met people I could talk to without it, whose communication protocols matched my own. It is difficult to describe the relief, the comfort I feel navigating these interactions with people whose frame of reference is shaped like my own, as if I spent most of my life trying to translate all my thoughts by flipping through a phrase book but suddenly discovered a group with whom I shared a birth tongue.

A friend told me recently, after I’d explained what I believed to be the thought process behind a confusing interaction he had with someone, that I “have a very good model of how normal people think.” This is probably the best way to put it. A model, a tool I can observe and utilize, but ultimately a thing apart from me.

The idea that the information-sharers are ignorant, willfully or otherwise, of power dynamics at play and must learn how to account for them ascribes to us a values system that we simply do not share. Rather, it presumes the status games played for dominance in mainstream culture must be universal and chides us for not playing them properly. I can appreciate that our way doesn’t work for everyone, may not even work for most, and I try to determine who communicates the way I do so that I can communicate more with them. If the emotion-harmonizers prefer to be left alone, I’m generally happy to oblige.

Of course, this is complicated by the fact that, rather than leaving us alone, they seem quite committed to dragging their social games into our spaces. The cruel irony is that many of us build these spaces precisely because they allow us to escape from those social games. We generally suck at their games, and we tend to lose when they’re imposed on us, which raises some interesting questions about why exactly they want us to play their games in the first place.

But that’s a whole other topic.[6]

Here is a view of the culture gap from the other side:

Nobody was mean to me, nobody consciously laughed at me. There’s just a way that mathematicians have been socialized (I guess?!) to interact with each other that I find oppressive. If you have never had someone mansplain or whitesplain things to you, it may be hard for you to understand what I’m going to describe.

Usually, friendly conversation involves building a shared perspective. Among other things, mansplaining and whitesplaining involve one person of privilege forcing a marginalized person into a disagreeable perspective against their will, and not allowing them a way out. If you are someone averse to negative labels, it can be silencing. My experience discussing math with mathematicians is that I get dragged into a perspective that includes a hierarchy of knowledge that says some information is trivial, some ideas are “stupid”; that declares what is basic knowledge, and presents open incredulity in the face of dissent. Maybe I would’ve successfully assimilated into this way of thinking if I had learned it at a time where I was at the same level as my peers, but as it was it was just an endless barrage of passive insults I was supposed to be in on.

I include it not because it is unusual–indeed, you only have to go as far as the comments to find other people who feel the same way–but because it is especially illustrative. The author prefers to communicate by “building a shared perspective” and contrasts this with the perceived hostility of the information sharing mode which, unlike general society, predominates in the community she describes. While she notes this is how her mathematician peers interact with each other as a matter of course, she frames her interactions in terms of social games, steeped in identity, privilege, and marginalization.

But I don’t think that’s what’s on the minds of the people she describes, because I recognize this dynamic from circles I move in. Information is “trivial” and ideas are “stupid” because they lack utility. The point isn’t to hurt feelings or demonstrate social rank. Those things simply do not matter. Whether this sounds cruel or liberating is as good a sorting algorithm as any to determine which camp one might fall into. What distinguishes this from the social games they like to play, however, is that our way isn’t zero-sum. You have to knock someone down to move up the ladder. When you knock down an idea, no one loses standing. If your objection is irrefutable, you free up brains to focus on more worthwhile targets. If not, you illuminate for the people focused on the problem new angles of attack.

I hate being wrong. So does almost everyone. The difference is how one deals with it. Some people want to look right. This desire is necessary to navigate a culture defined by emotive experience and social hierarchy, your best defense against assholes who want to make you look bad to accrue status or act out their absurd biases. Me, I want to get less wrong. I thrive in an environment where I can expect others to elevate honing collective knowledge and using it to get shit done over trivial concerns like identity politics and pecking order. This is strictly a liability when I have to move in the communities run by and for the neurotypicals who do care about these sorts of things, and while I’ve managed to cobble together a system decent enough to get by on, it is nothing like true native support.

Communication is hard. Like, really hard. Brain-to-brain state transfer is impossible, so we rely on an untold number of tools, signals, assumptions, wild guesses, and luck in the hopes that we can get someone else’s black box to generate something vaguely similar enough to our original for practical purposes. (And the bastards usually don’t even have the common courtesy to echo it back so we can see if we did it right.) What strikes me about “splaining” is that it’s so widespread–both the ostensible act and the complaints about it–and so consistent. Two reasonably distinct groups of individuals speaking on arbitrary topics, but the interactions generally resemble the same form and end up in the same place. While it would flatter me greatly if the vast majority of the people in my out-group turned out to be malicious and/or stupid, it seems more reasonable to conclude the groups communicate differently and as a result have a difficult time communicating with each other.

This is the essence of culture. People drawn together by shared values, with history, lore, customs, speech, and thought all their own, working toward a common goal. Having done more than my share of bouncing around before finding my place here, I like to think I have some small insight into how these various spaces tend to operate. I’d very much like to see more genuine communication between the groups, that we may understand each other better, and maybe even share a bit of information. But it is difficult for that to happen when the ways we differ are dismissed out of hand, when we are held to a values system we do not subscribe to and punished for not living up to its standards. Because we are, actually, different.

See you randos in my mentions.

1. ^ “Well, howdaya think? I’d get the fuck out of there!”

2. ^ This Sopranos supercut is a better collection than I could ever have hoped for–found while looking up Elaine’s “Get out!” but hers is often hyper-exaggerated for laughs–with plenty of examples of characters very interested in a story and characters who seriously want someone to get the fuck out of there. The difference is noticable!

3. ^ Ok I totally used the word “cooperative” specifically so I could talk in a footnote about a really cool idea called the cooperative principle. We really don’t notice how much of what we think we say we don’t actually say. Quick example: At a party, Carol asks, “Hey Alice, where is Bob?” “Bob is sick.” But… where the heck is “sick”, right? When I say “Bob is sick,” Carol infers that I mean “Bob didn’t feel well enough to come out tonight.” And I feel comfortable saying this because I already know this is what she is going to infer. (Besides the fact that before I even say anything, I’m inferring she cares about why Bob isn’t there.) Taken literally, my statement is a total non-sequitur. It’s entirely possible Bob is at some other, better party down the street and also just happens to be sick. But Carol assumes I mean my statement to relate to her question, and I assume she will assume this. This (Grice’s maxim of relevance) is a very strong shared context that makes it much easier to communicate efficiently. It’s also totally possible I’m lying, or that I have no idea what’s the deal with Bob, but for such a mundane matter, she probably doesn’t put my statement under any scrutiny at all (maxim of quality) unless she has reason to doubt. If I didn’t make all these assumptions and just listened and spoke literally, the exchange might go like, “Hey Alice, where is Bob?” “Bob is not here.” Carol would probably want to flout a maxim or two here and reply, “Wow, thanks bitch.” Communication is neat.

4. ^ Alice would prefer to avoid this particular encounter entirely tyvm.

5. ^ Another interesting notion here is the idea that someone can be “in my mentions.” A common retort to people complaining about unwanted mentions is that Twitter is “public,” which usually only serves to make the person complaining even angrier. What’s interesting is, yes, of course it’s public, but what do we mean by that? The complainer likely means “public” like a noisy cafe. You can hear other people’s conversations, but inserting yourself into one is generally frowned upon absent some social pretense such as friendship, solicitation, or possession of extremely relevant information. The retorter, however, means “public” like an open forum, where participation is not just allowed but encouraged. Noteworthy is the fact that this is how Twitter used to work for years, and nerds are proportionately overrepresented among Twitter’s early adopters. What is now “tweets and replies” on user pages used to be the only display option, and the timeline used to not filter out any replies–in fact, when this was changed, people got angry that Twitter had killed the best discovery feature the service had. Simple UX tweaks, but they alter how the site tends to be used and thus the social norms that govern “proper” use. “My” mentions is also curious, a sense that the “mentions” are a space owned by the user, rather than a dashboard alerting you to activity involving your account. Both paradigms have precedent online, and it isn’t entirely clear which ought to apply. Is a mention an entry in someone’s guestbook, or a reply on a bulletin board? A blog comment, or an IRC ping? Twitter lacks the notion of space explicitly defined by something like Facebook’s wall, but people have applied that notion of space here regardless. Worth considering I think, especially given that the nebulosity of Twitter’s featureset leads to both complaints that it’s hard for new users to understand and praise from old users that its use is defined by the community.

6. ^ One that I’m sure I will be writing about at absurd length in the coming months.

About Alice Maz

programmer. when the machine apocalypse comes, I'll be on their side.
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69 Responses to Splain it to Me

  1. Lizzardborn says:

    There are two types of people – the ones for which facts reign supreme and the ones for which feelings does.

    The first tend to naturally gravitate towards stem – stuff there is orderly, logical, repeatable. We instinctively get the boolean algebra and truth tables. And for us any (even slightest) logical/factual error renders everything after that point as wrong/in need of proof*. We also know that facts are facts and they could not be offensive.

    *That also makes it hard to get laid while being male geek in the early stages of your life. The rules of the game are incomprehensible. No one can explain them to you. They are full of not logical or reproducible things.

    We must grok things. In full. Of course a feelings type person feel any questioning as direct attack on their thesis.

    But if someone comes to me with O(n^3) solution to a problem – it will be called stupid just on the basis of it n^3. It is unusable. It is obvious. And the guy/girl will say after a couple of moments of thinking (or a 4 hours shouting match, depends on the persons involved) – yeah it is useless we must find something better. I have been the n^3 guy a couple of times. You don’t take offense for having your love child dismantled and replaced with something provably better.

    Of course in the feelings realms that is unacceptable. Because there it is impossible for you to be defeated without that thing saying something about yourself and your opponent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • j r says:

      There are two types of people – the ones for which facts reign supreme and the ones for which feelings does.

      Did you come to this conclusion by way of robust empirical testing or is it something that just sort of feels right to you?

      I am half kidding.

      Liked by 1 person

    • The Smoke says:

      Like that idiot with the O(n^3) solution to SAT.


    • oing says:

      There is little evidence that any psychological trait is bimodal; probably the great majority of people is somewhere in between these two extrema. You’d need a lot of new evidence to confidently make this statement.

      Incidentally, O(n^3) is an upper bound; any O(n) algorithm is also O(n^3). And if you know that n <= 10, even Ω(n^3) is probably just fine. So this not a particularly good example for something obvious.


      • Evan Þ says:

        Or, if you’ve got a whole lot of computing power handy and are willing to pay to just get some solution to the problem, you might eagerly pounce on that O(n^3) algorithm until you can find something better.


  2. GreenW says:

    The reference to mathematicians reminds me of Feynman’s theorem that mathematicians can prove only trivial things – from the biography, “Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman”:

    In summary: mathematicians can prove only trivial theorems, as once a theorem is proved it becomes “trivial”.


  3. Zarkonnen says:

    This was definitely enlightening. Thinking about how I use Twitter, I realize that I do the “information sharing” thing with close friends and people where I’m sure that they share that mentality. And I do the “shared perspective” thing with everyone else.

    I do sometimes try to wrap the one inside the other, with something like “Agreed. I’m also reminded of X.” But I still worry about how I come across.

    (Oh dear, on re-reading my comment, I notice that I used that very wrapper approach here. Self-referentiality!)


    • Susannah says:

      Yes, you used that structure. Thing is, IT WORKS. It clarifies whether you’re supporting or slamming the previous contributor, then your new contribution can be assessed in the right context.

      Your wrapper approach is a restating of the first law of improv (theater), which says that you always agree and then add your contribution. It’s best known as “Yes, and…”


  4. AP says:

    This might be a side point, but what always interested me is the best way to communicate information between humans (“Brain-to-brain state transfer”), for various models (point-point, multicast, broadcast – with given bandwidth, one-way latency, prior probabilities) measured using information-theory metrics:
    * Channel occupation
    * Processing cycles (processing inputs, compressing outputs)
    * Total delay
    * State fidelity (difference between what was intended to communicate vs received)

    One point I wanted to make is that even in information-sharing culture, meta-conversation (aka signaling, control channel, or communication that does not carry subject information) exists and is required for optimization. This *meta-conversation* is at the highest risk of being misinterpreted.

    For example, compression (aka skipping “obvious details”) is a tradeoff between channel occupation and processing cycles. But if receiver does not share same “dictionary” (LZ terminology) of obviousness, this will result in ARQ, bitrate drop and retransmission. Thus, it is helpful for receiver to communicate some information about its state (size/status of its dictionary).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. natecull says:

    Hi! A geeky rando here…

    I agree with this… but only to a point. I think many communities within STEM *do* suffer from an overly bruising approach to debate, and despite how we hope/think the system works, it often IS about ego and status games even when we THINK we’re just sharing information. Just look at the Linux kernel mailing list (or the letters page of Scientific American) and wonder why it feels so much like ‘Fight Club’ by way of ‘Deadwood’ when it could just as well be polite?

    It’s fair to dismiss an idea as wrong or useless when it is, in fact, wrong and useless. But STEM communities can actually have quite a problem of being very narrow in focus, and often think ideas are irrelevant which – much later – the group consensus realises were very relevant. And often, sadly, the people who first tried to raise those concerns get shouted down and, well frankly, bullied out of the debate. Look at, for example, the history of nuclear weapons, insecticides, eugenics, global warming and psychiatry, just for a few, to get an idea of just how deeply the ‘STEM culture’ can go wrong when someone takes a SUPER BAD idea that initially looked good, and runs with it using that intense emotion-free focus that’s our superpower – without understanding the wider or long-term consequences and brushing them off as ’emotional’ distractions from unenlightened lesser beings.

    Thinking that ’emotions’ means ‘status games’ is a major misunderstanding too in STEM. When someone comes out of a debate situation feeling emotionally wounded, it’s usually NOT because ‘my idea, which I didn’t really believe but was just a tool for me to gain status, LOST now I have lost status’ but because they feel their idea was not properly UNDERSTOOD in the first place; that something deeply valid and true was destroyed from clumsy rough handling. There’s a huge difference. And unfortunately, we STEM people are not often very good at understanding ideas that we don’t already understand. Much, much later, we may gain the critical pieces of knowledge that let us understand them… but by then we may have pushed away a generation or two of people who could have helped us progress.

    One tends to notice this more if you’re a geek with an interest in subjects considered ‘fringe’, like UFOs or ESP. Lots of scientists have had a passion for these things; today’s STEM culture, however, can be incredibly angry and vicious towards anyone even suspected of believing in ‘woo’, often without reading any literature on the subject. So you get a bit of a different perspective on just how welcoming STEM culture can be towards information, if that information doesn’t already confirm existing biases and prejudices in the group consensus.

    And yes, I’m saying this in the spirit of information sharing, so I do agree with your general conjecture. Just that – as with every idea – there are nuances that are easy to overlook, and those nuances can be profoundly important.


    Liked by 3 people

    • Butler says:

      “the ‘STEM culture’ can go wrong when someone takes a SUPER BAD idea that initially looked good, and runs with it using that intense emotion-free focus that’s our superpower – without understanding the wider or long-term consequences and brushing them off as ’emotional’ distractions from unenlightened lesser beings.”

      This analysis itself seems to me like a case of emotional/informational mismatch. From my stem-y perspective, nuclear weapons, insecticides, eugenics, global warming, and psychiatry are success stories. Someone wanted to design a weapon that harnesses the power of nuclear fission? And you have a functional nuclear warhead at the end of the process? This represents things going super good, not super bad. That it came very close to wiping out all human life is irrelevant. The technical problem was solved. Everything else; all the deleterious social and geopolitical consequences, an entire generation living in fear of annihilation; they’re externalities, and (at least when I’m wearing my technical hat) I do not care about them.


    • A good point. Yes, many people get defensive when their positive reputation is threatened and, yes, there are people that simply do not care about reputation. The second set is perhaps not as prevalent in STEM culture as the original article suggests but it is not absent as some comments here posit. It’s an important observation that this set will get defensive as well in conversation, for valid reasons even, and that investing in environments where reducing a sense of threat is not simply a matter of trading off the welfare of one type of person for another completely distinct type.

      Conflating the importance of an idea with the importance of the person proposing the idea is inevitable. For this reason, reputation is important. Doesn’t mean you have to spend your time investing in it but until everyone in a group is on board with anonymity for all ideas or a polite fiction of such then you will be effected by it.


  6. rntz says:

    I think it’s inaccurate to stereotype “normal” cultures as steeped in social games that “nerd” cultures are largely free of. (I’m not sure whether you intended to convey that theory, but it’s the one I came away with.) Social-game-playing is largely subconscious, almost instinctive, played without realizing it (which is why we assume everyone else is playing the same game). I think it is rather that different cultures simply play *different* social games.

    Moreover, I suspect a large part of social-game playing comes from efforts to exploit or mitigate our own cognitive biases. For example, you say:

    > Information is “trivial” and ideas are “stupid” because they lack utility. The point isn’t to hurt feelings or demonstrate social rank. Those things simply do not matter.

    But in my experience, there is indeed social capital among nerds, and it is determined in large part by perception of intelligence and knowledgeableness. If a person repeatedly suggests ideas which are dismissed as “trivial” or “stupid”, are they likely to gain face or lose it?

    So avoiding calling someone’s idea is “trivial” is a nice thing to do, a way to avoid reducing their social capital when that isn’t your intention. Conversely, getting angry about your ideas being called trivial is a retaliatory defense mechanism. I speculate that what’s really going on is that “normal” people are playing a social game of a much higher degree of sophistication, the product of a long arms-race of cultural evolution.

    Naturally, this game is a fucking pain in the ass. But it’s important to see that it’s not there for no reason: it evolved from simpler games, as a product of people trying to find ways to communicate efficiently and effectively. The games were always there, and the games don’t go away if you ignore them. You just end up playing a different one.

    That’s my highly speculative Grand Unified Theory of Social Game-Playing, anyway.

    Of course, maybe the nerd circles I move among just aren’t like yours. But I am doubtful there is any culture entirely free of social capital, or of games which affect one’s social capital. (Indeed, it’s not even clear to me such a culture would be desirable. But that’s a big side-discussion that I don’t want to get into.)


    • chrylis says:

      I think it’s inaccurate to stereotype “normal” cultures as steeped in social games that “nerd” cultures are largely free of. (I’m not sure whether you intended to convey that theory, but it’s the one I came away with.) Social-game-playing is largely subconscious, almost instinctive, played without realizing it (which is why we assume everyone else is playing the same game).

      It may in fact be that “nerd cultures” have hidden social games, but you’re making unwarranted assumptions. In particular, many autistic people–the very people who seem to have most strongly influenced nerd culture–do not play the same games that you do. The games are not instinctive, and once understood, are usually seen as pointless and/or manipulative.

      But in my experience, there is indeed social capital among nerds, and it is determined in large part by perception of intelligence and knowledgeableness. If a person repeatedly suggests ideas which are dismissed as “trivial” or “stupid”, are they likely to gain face or lose it?

      Lose face, obviously, because the person has demonstrated either an inability or an unwillingness to acquire the skills or experience necessary to avoid doing so. Hacker culture has an express term (“larval stage”) that indicates someone who isn’t fully competent yet but is learning. It’s notable that the more traditional hacker community has a norm of not hard-flaming someone identified as not yet adept, just as a karate instructor will hit white belts very lightly in training. Eventually, a hacker is expected to internalize the checks others are applying as a sort of “hacker superego”, and punches are no longer pulled. If someone at this stage is repeatedly submitting proposals called “trivial” or “stupid”, by community norms she is doing something wrong, and the approbation attaches to the behavior evincing lack of discipline.

      Note that there’s no “subconscious” game-playing going on here. There may be a game in the theoretic sense, but it’s about as subtle as the “game” between bucks in the spring.


      • enkiv2 says:

        It’s probably inaccurate to say that this is not subconscious. Social norms (and thus social games) are learned behaviors but they are learned through mimicry and feedback. A ‘game’ that self-propagates or that propagates the culture of which it is a part will be stable even if nobody playing it understands the mechanics behind why it works, and the details of the hacker callout game are almost definitely more well-practiced than they are understood (even though they’re generally more well-understood than similar variants in other cultures because of people like ESR obsessing over documenting and analysing them and coming up with terms like ‘larval mode’).

        The hacker callout game isn’t unique. A minor variation is common in other nerd cultures: requiring knowledge as a shibboleth for separating ‘insiders’ from ‘poseurs’ and excluding those who fail to signal sufficient dedication to group membership. (You could make the argument that this is the defining aspect of a nerd culture: nerd cultures exclude outsiders primarily on the basis of a shared canon of detailed knowledge and upon feats of immersion and memorization, versus — say — the Yakuza, which excludes or includes based on feats of pain tolerance. The hazing rituals of nerd cultures involve learning rather than physical exertion.) There’s a difference in that the hacker callout game has a tolerance for newbies — in other words, it encourages entry into the culture by accepting people who are in the process of learning the shibboleths and clearly making an effort. In this way, it’s similar to tumblr-style SJW culture, which is another group that trades group membership based on deep knowledge of a complex set of technical terms and correspondences; if you make it clear that you’re making an effort to understand the shibboleths, your mistakes are forgiven unless it becomes clear that the effort is not genuine.

        Obviously, not all of these cultures are fully and globally self-aware. People aren’t thinking about how best to regulate group dynamics when they slag someone off for violating a group norm. A lot of these groups make amazing use of complex techniques for regulating group norms without knowing what a group norm is (see: college fraternities, gangs, middle-school cliques, packs of wild dogs). When we analyse these patterns with an eye toward what serves the group, we’re doing the same thing that we do when we analyse animal morphology with an eye toward what adaptations are useful: both are the result of slow evolution and we’re looking at a system that hasn’t been fully optimized yet, but we model a mindless optimizer by imagining a human intelligence whose goal is to optimize. When we’re talking about patterns in groups of people it’s an easy mistake to make to then eat the menu and assume that the model is real (and that this intelligent optimizer is in the heads of the people); instead, groups that don’t efficiently play these games dissolve or explode or fail to adequately resemble groups for the purposes of our classifications.

        (Regarding the autistic angle: autistics definitely have a bias in terms of what kind of social games are learned and how these social games mutate during propagation, but are not free of social games or even particularly inconsistent about them. The callout game is popular; after all, it allows one to trade detailed knowledge for social status directly and doesn’t particularly require nuanced decorum. Source: I’m an autistic and I’ve been a part of a large number of online communities geared toward autistics, so I’ve directly observed these social dynamics and seen new members be socialized into them.)


  7. tehy5 says:

    this was a really great article; i enjoyed the widening of perspective

    with that said, while I might at times view tweets like that as an attack, I wouldn’t ignore them or go ‘ugh, randos’; i just find that to be highly disrespectful.


  8. Stem Rando says:

    The idea that “nerd” cultures are magically ego-free zones in which ego plays no part in the enthusiastic transfer of information is idealistic, at best. I’m not certain how well such a system of impersonal data-sharing would work for actual himan beings.

    But as it turns out, we’ll likely never know, because nerds are human beings, and human beings are messy. Ego is omnipresent. If anything, nerd spaces are MORE hyper-aware of social status than most venues, as geeks alternately lament and celebrate their “outcast” status. The result is constant social-jockeying between geeks, and the currency of these status games is information. Look at any forum devoted to gaming, comics, or tech. The “winners” of such forums compete to dredge up the most trivial factoids, displaying them like peacock feathers. Withering scorn is heaped on anyone who dares utter an actual mistake.

    The recent ugliness online is a direct result of this social one-upsmanship. A few people, mostly female and geeks themselves, attempted to break the cycle by suggesting maybe geekspaces like gaming could perhaps evolve to be something more than a virtual dick-measuring contest. The usual suspects from 4chan and Reddit by effectively screeching “Randos in OUR mentions! Exterminate!”

    Suggesting nerd culture isn’t about ego. Hah! Newb.


    • Bibliotheca Servare says:

      I thought you were trying to be funny…then I realized you were entirely sincere. You genuinely believe that “…female… …geeks” “…attempted to break the cycle.” of “geekspaces” being “virtual dick-measuring contests” and that the (male geek) “dick-measurers” (btw, why is “dick” okay, and “p*ssy or c*nt not okay for you folks? I’m always amused when I see this particular form of cognitively dissonant hypocrisy on display.) responded like vicious children defending their turf. The number of assumptions (severely lacking in evidence) and the level of ignorance required to make that statement -and make it a sincere one, no less- is truly impressive. I presume you are talking about the “gamergate” movement, and the -related- backlash against the folks trying to invade the space of (male *and* female) logical, linear thinkers (like coders, hackers, software developers, etc, etc) and the backlash against those folks then trying to introduce their “normal” social games and power/victimhood dynamics to those spaces/thinkers by force and coercion, correct? You think “gamergate” and those who oppose “sjw”s are all men, probably all white, and all monstrous misogynistic agents of evil, right? Am I in the ballpark? Yeah, you’re mistaken. Ask Milo Yiannopoulos about it, sometime, or maybe look up some of his, Christina Hoff Sommers, or Cathy Young’s articles on the subjects(s) in question. There are others, but those three are definitely excellent sources for alternative, well-sourced diligently-researched perspectives on the issue(s). I apologize for my abrasive tone, but I have grown physically sick of reading (and rebutting) this particular strain of bullsh*t everywhere I go; and it has been a very long day, so my “tact-and-manners” filter is unquestionably on the fritz. Suffice to say, no, the “recent ugliness online” is *not* a “direct result” of “this social one-upsmanship”. Your thesis is fundamentally flawed, and based on an inaccurate, misinformed understanding of the subject in question. I suggest further research, perhaps delving into sources you did not consider in your initial quest for information. Have a good evening.:-)


    • Eve Matteo says:

      Hi! Female geek here!

      I have done both the see-information-as-gift and the see-information-as-power things. The thing is, I only use information-as-power with people who are trying to power-play me. If you don’t power-play me, I won’t power-play you, but I’ll still share information I have on topics you bring up. Because information is a gift. I’m gifting you with the same power I have by telling you the information I have. I’m not holding it over you, I’m saying “here, I don’t know if you have this power, but let me make sure you do.” Because you knowing the thing that I know doesn’t take my knowledge away. It just gives you more knowledge. The thing about knowledge as power is that you can’t take my power level down at all. You can only lift my power-level up by sharing your knowledge. I can’t take away your power (knowledge), I can only add to it. And I want to add to it. I want everyone to know as much as I know. And I want to learn what other people know.

      This is what you aren’t understanding about it. Is there ego? Yes. Is there a bit of feeling of superiority at having known something you didn’t? Occasionally, there is. But, then I give you that knowledge, and bam! You know it too, so how can I be superior anymore?

      I see non-geeks use knowledge-as-power superiority far more often than I’ve seen geeks do it. I’ve seen geeks offer knowledge-as-gift and be rejected so often that when they offer it to me, they get this look in their eyes like a puppy who’s afraid of being kicked. They’re saying “please don’t get offended by my gift”. And they light up when their gift is not just not-rejected, but returned, because omg, this person understood that I wasn’t trying to assert power over them.

      If knowledge is power, and I share my knowledge with you, I’m sharing power with you. It’s a gift, not a status-play.


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  10. mpzrd says:

    I worked for a while as a mid-grade engineer on the Sun operating system, which was simultaneously an extremely fact-oriented task and the most status-driven social environment I’ve ever been in. It seems to me that nerds aren’t less active with social hierarchy than liberal artists, they just play the game differently. A senior who knows something vital to your project isn’t going to just volunteer it, he’s going to wait until you come asking, with candy. I had a mathematician friend who could never disagree without denigrating … as a result I couldn’t even get my ideas out there, and we aren’t friends any more. Clearly the goal was not “information sharing”.


  11. Doug says:

    No new insight to add here. Just wanted to say I enjoyed the article and the commentary. I’m a STEM-thinking nerd in a hybrid profession (financial advisor) that needs to be able to communicate effectively with all people, and developing the appropriate translation layers has been, and continues to be, challenging. I’m hoping I can mine some nuggets from these thoughts to add to my skills.


  12. Gary says:

    The comments about Twitter remind me of a criminal trial going on here in Toronto. A woman blocked a onetime acquaintance won Twitter, but he continued to discuss her and participate in hashtags she participated in. Perhaps surprisingly, this has result in a harassment charge. Defence submission here: http://blacktridentmedia.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/R-v-Elliott-Submissions-15-April-7.pdf


    • Bibliotheca Servare says:

      “Participate in hashtags she participated in” “discuss her” good god, she had *blocked* him! He had no way of knowing what hashtags she used! I…just…the level of effort required to perceive the defendant in this comedy of a prosecution as anything less than a victim of atrociously, laughably constructed thought-crime laws -and a viciously vindictive psychopath using them as the weapon they were meant to be- is Herculean. It’s also a tremendous waste. Just thought I’d let you know.


  13. Ralph Aristocrat says:

    In what way are STEM employees and enthusiasts ” held to a values system we do not subscribe to?”

    Since when do we “not subscribe to” basic politeness? Rudimentary social skills?

    Like all members of a culture, geeks are held to those standards because they are the standards which also benefit them. That some of that sub-culture – GamerGate, anyone? – can’t apparently adhere to those standards does not invalidate the standards. It invalidates the individuals who failed basic communication.


    • Bibliotheca Servare says:

      Ah, so Aspergers sufferers, and all those countless others lacking the psychological constructs necessary to be “socially acceptable” or “popular” (my paraphrase. This is what you really mean) ought to be “invalidated” or “bullied” (again, this is what you really mean) until they either comply by behaving in ways that make you feel comfortable and welcomed, or they leave (or kill themselves). Good to know. Kindly go to hell. My nephew is “socially challenged”/”inept” and people like you have bullied him throughout his young life, because he is intelligent but incapable of complying with, or abiding by, your (or their) standards for what is “basic politeness” or “rudimentary social skills” and that pisses you/them off. You, and people who think like you, sicken me. Social ineptitude does not make a person bad, or of less worth. My nephew is one of the coolest people I know. I just have to shift my frame of thinking when I talk with him, and remember that he doesn’t grasp, in any sense, the “normal” social cues and dynamics that most westerners do. (That’s another sick thing about people like you. Other cultures have different ideas regarding what constitutes “rudimentary social skills”. In those cultures, you, my bigoted, bullying pal, would be just as socially inept as my nephew is in western culture.) I keep that mind, and a whole new world opens up for me, every time I talk with him, and his friends. You should try it sometime, if you can stomach being around “weird” people. It might make you less of a jerk.


      • euh, randeau? says:

        Such rancor. I find it fascinating.

        Liked by 1 person

      • FlyingLionWithaBook says:


        It’s funny, because your comment is the perfect example of the difference between a comment that is based on solidifying social status as opposed to sharing information. Your comment supplies no new information, gives no new insights, and provides no real opinion: it just solidifies you as being superior to the previous commenter.

        Liked by 1 person

    • lliamander says:

      > Since when do we “not subscribe to” basic politeness? Rudimentary social skills?

      It strikes me that the opening couple paragraphs regarding heuristics were written precisely to respond to this objection. Since you did not address this point in the OP, I will assume you misunderstood and attempt to re-articulate it.

      Not every culture or sub-culture agrees on the rules of politeness. Furthermore, these norms regarding social interaction may serve a purpose not immediately apparent. For example, I have lived in places where making a special effort to hold open doors for women is a social obligation, as well as places where it is deeply offensive. I adapted well to both environments and have friends in both places (of both sexes) and we get along great. I think “basic politeness” involves mostly conforming to the norms expressed by the sub-culture.

      Is it appropriate sometimes to violate those norms? Certainly, when those norms involve a violation of higher moral principles. If another culture’s norms expect me to kill a stranger because they accidentally bump into me, I would have to be impolite because the alternative is murder. But objecting to a group’s norms because you find them impolite strikes me as pretty tepid.


      • > Not every culture or sub-culture agrees on the rules of politeness. Furthermore, these norms regarding social interaction may serve a purpose not immediately apparent.

        Well put. I wish more people understood this.


  14. Armored Rider Jam says:

    One aspect that feels like it’s kind of missed here is the sheer *number* of these sorts of things. Even if you’re excited for getting new information, getting the *same* information dozens of times is going to wear on you. It’s a diminishing returns sort of thing.


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  17. Don Cake says:

    I’d like to ask (anyone is welcome to reply) would anyone agree, or disagree, with the idea that, basically: communication is the only thing we ever do?


    • Bibliotheca Servare says:

      I don’t disagree, but I’d say instead that it’s impossible *not to* communicate with one’s actions, as well as one’s words. The question (in my opinion) is whether the communication is deliberate or indeliberate, and whether the message received is the one that was “sent” so to speak. That is, does the message (“communication”) an action, or set of words, sends depend on the individual “receiving” or “interpreting” that message/communication? Hmmm…how can I articulate this better… It’s like the author of this article said. “Get the fuck out of here!” can mean very different things to different people, in different contexts. So, why shouldn’t the same “rule of individual interpretation” not also apply to body language, physical acts, tones, and so on? I can’t think of a reason it wouldn’t apply to those forms of communication as well, personally. However, the (hypothetical) fact that every action a person takes contains a communication within it does not mean that communication is the sole purpose of all actions. Unless you mean “communication” in a much broader sense of the term, that is. (Eg, saying that applying a pencil to a page is a form of “communication” with the page & pencil, etc, etc.) In that case, I’m going to need to ponder that for a bit longer. ‘Tis a tad more philosophical than I anticipated discussions in this thread would become, lol.😉 Good question. It’s always nice to stretch one’s thought patterns, so to speak.:-)


    • FlyingLionWithaBook says:

      I would disagree. But mostly in a “If a tree falls in a forest” sort of way. Put a man by himself in an airtight box soundproof opaque box and he’ll do a lot of things (chief of which is suffocate) but he won’t be communicating. Communication requires more than one actor. Similarly actions such as digesting my lunch communicate nothing to my coworkers around me (unless it was beans and onions, in which case watch out). There are all kinds of things we do that aren’t communication: cut down trees, catch fish, pick our noses, examine our figure in a mirror, and watch tv to name a few.

      Of course if you believe in an omnipitant God who observes everything that occurs in the univers at all times then I could see you making an argument that everything we do is communication. But I don’t think that was what you were going for.


    • apotwo says:

      I don’t know if “communication” is the only thing we do, but maybe “narration” is what most of our actions break down into. (This would deal with FlyingLionWithaBook’s point about needing a second actor to communicate).

      Communicating serves many purposes, but the act itself is a simplification of actions and events you’ve done or observed or experienced (or are doing/observing/experiencing). As far as I can tell, pretty much everything we do with a second actor is communication.

      Narration is part of communicating, but it can be done without the second actor. I don’t know if other people work the same way, but whenever I’m alone I narrate pretty much everything that’s happening to myself. (To be fair, this is partly to be able to communicate it to others later.) There’s no real time that I’m not using words in my own head to explain what’s happening around me. (I guess you could argue that I am in fact communicating reality to myself all the time, but I do like the idea that communication requires a second actor.) Is this how other people interact with the world when they’re alone? If not, then people who spend a fair amount of time alone are people who spend a fair amount of time neither communicating nor narrating.


    • lliamander says:

      I (kindly) disagree. There are too many activities that we do (i.e. eating, building shelter, playing solitaire) that cannot be made to fit the definition of “communication” without completely warping the meaning of the word.


      • Bibliotheca Servare says:

        But isn’t body language a huge part of communication/language? Writing communicates ideas and complex concepts…art -in its various forms- is a form of “expression” which is nothing more than another word for communication, right? Architecture (building shelter) is (or can be) a form of art…look at Cathedrals, the Taj Mahal, etc, for example. Eating? Well, what are “table manners” if not a set of previously established guidelines for appropriate behavior, body language, etc whilst eating in a communal setting? IOW, a way of “communicating” one’s (near term) willingness to acquiesce to the preestablished guidelines for acceptable social dining behavior. I mean it’s not the same as talking, but it *does* communicate something. Similarly, the clothes we wear (or don’t wear) send a message to the people (usually. Obviously there are exceptions to the generalisation -people who get no info from manner of dress etc) we interact with…even if we don’t intend to send any message through the clothes we choose to wear and not wear. Hell, look at it this way: you’re at work, and one of your coworkers walks in wearing pajamas. Does this seem odd? That’s a form of communication. Driving a certain way sends a different message than driving another way. Walking, same thing. And it all means different things to different cultures and in different contexts. But it’s still communication, even if it’s unwitting or subconscious. Also, playing solitaire generally sends a message about how much (or how little) you desire company. I missed that cue sometimes in my younger days, and made rather a pest of myself, I’m afraid. Words like “communication” are tricky, slippery things. That’s partly why they have multiple definitions. I’d keep going but I think I’ve rambled on long enough. Ciao!😉


  18. 27chaos says:

    I’d like to be able to appreciate the other culture, that does not value offerings of information, more. I want to be able to get along with them and interact with them pleasantly, and I have no idea how to do this. How do I contribute something new and meaningful to the conversation if I’m also required to affirm everything that has already been said? What should I do if I disagree with something, partially or entirely?


    • Cole says:

      >I want to be able to get along with them and interact with them pleasantly …. How do I contribute something new and meaningful to the conversation

      Sounds like you have the wrong approach. They aren’t asking for you contribution, and if you are a low status member they don’t want your contribution. What you should be doing is signalling that you are high status, and getting other people to want to impress you.

      You should not approach status oriented groups saying “hey, y’all are cool can i join you?!” You should approach them saying “hey … well I guess you all are alright … I’d hang out with cooler people if I could, but you will suffice”. The first approach is signalling that you belong at the bottom of the ladder, while the second approach is signalling that you belong at the top of the ladder.

      Obviously joining at the top of the ladder is not always going to be easy as just claiming that you are too cool for them. Groups evolve to make this kind of signalling really difficult. But if you enter the group signalling that you should start at the bottom of their social ladder than that is definitely where you are going to end up. And being a low status member is probably not going to be pleasant.


      • apotwo says:

        This seems like an uncharitable interpretation. It’s absolutely appropriate to say, “Hey, I’m interested in what you are interested in, can I join?” to pretty much any group. If that group’s reaction is to treat you as low status, my reaction is to say that you are not, in fact, interested in what that group is interested in. They may be interested in bullying, or exclusion, or maybe they’re afraid of you for some reason and are treating you as low-status in order to minimize their fear. There are a lot of reasons that this might happen, but all of them are similarly reasons that you, as someone more used to the “information exchange” (or, for simplicity’s sake, nerd) culture, would probably not learn most effectively about alternate cultures from this particular group. Rule of thumb I’ve found useful: If you’re cruelly rebuffed from certain spheres for reasons you don’t understand, seek what you want from nicer people and tread a little more cautiously.

        My experience may or may not be helpful, so I’ll explain briefly that I have about equal in-person interactions with nerds and non-nerds, but slightly more interaction with nerds online. If you’re curious about interactions with non-nerds, I think the best way to learn about them (us? I’m not really one or the other*) is to interact in person. So that’s where my advice will be.

        In activist communities, high status tends to come from ability to mobilize. So group leaders tend to be people who have lots of social connections to people who can effect change, or people who have effected change themselves, or organizers, or recruiters. Status tends to be social-network-building-skill-based. The best way to come in as someone who doesn’t have built-in status like this is to come and say, “I believe in/am interested in this cause and I want to learn more so that I can be helpful in the future.” (That’s how I got involved in some activist communities I’m still part of, and in one that I left with no hard feelings.)

        To continue learning, one of the things you have to sort of unlearn/relearn is reciprocity. In the information-exchange model, the exchange is key. In the feelings model, listening is key, because the unit of exchange isn’t information, it’s story-telling and anecdotes. My guess is that in general, you hear a personal anecdote and it sets off all these cool connections in your head. (Tell me if I’m wrong.) You think, “Oh, your experience reminds me of this. Your experience is inconsistent with this and I’d like to learn more. Your experience is literally opposite to mine and either I doubt you or I’m so fascinated that I just have to bring up my experience to compare.”

        These are all perfectly fine impulses, but acting on them can often make the other person sharing their story feel as though you’re only interested in sharing your own.

        Reciprocity ends up being a much longer-term relationship. You’re working to grow close to people through shared emotional experience as much as shared interest. That means people want to tell stories and get feedback at a delay. A good way to maybe integrate your own reactions to someone’s story is to catalogue them while you’re hearing the story, and then a day or two later, say, “Your story really resonated with me for (x) reason. If you’re comfortable probing a little, I’ve been thinking about (y, z) connections. Can we talk about them, either now or in the future?”

        If the answer is no, never, let it lie. If the answer is yes, now, you still want to ease into the conversation. Don’t go, “You talked about being [race], so let’s talk Stats about [race]!” Instead, try, “‘You talked about one particular facet of your identity leading to this experience. I’ve never had that experience. Is it anything like [this thing it reminded me of?]” It might take many iterations of trust-building to get to that point. It could take a few days with some people, months or years with others.

        This can be really frustrating for people who don’t have emotional reactions to certain sets of facts. But it definitely is necessary, and if you feel like you aren’t capable of putting in the time for whatever reason, you may not ever really be able to appreciate less-nerdy culture. It’s possible that lots of nerds simply won’t like non-nerd culture even if they really try it, it isn’t for them (and vice versa), so the time spent getting involved in a community like this isn’t worth it. But I have equally deep friendships with nerds and non-nerds, and I would be sad if I lost people on either side.

        *To be honest, I’m not sold on this distinction. It seems more spectrum-y than two-camps-y to me. Like other commenters, I have experience wanting to do information-exchange with strangers to establish connections, but I also have experience wanting to establish more emotional, non-fact related connections. This could be about anything–hiking, music, Star Wars–all of which you can form connections around in nerdy or non-nerdy ways. Sometimes all I want to do is talk about how Empire Strikes Back hits all my aesthetic buttons and have someone go “YES VADER’S STAR DESTROYER THO.” And I absolutely do not want to hear about how stupid Luke is throughout that movie/inconsistencies in materials lightsabers can cut through, and it will annoy me if you bring it up. Or I just want to cry over a Shostakovich quartet and could you maybe not helpfully provide me with his biography right now, that’s too much for me to synthesize.

        I don’t want to be mean or dismissive, obviously, but I would prefer information-volunteering didn’t happen. I’m curious about how other people would want me to express that I am not interested in information-exchange at the moment. Would it be helpful to say, “That is true but orthogonal to this conversation and I don’t want to talk about it now?”

        Liked by 2 people

      • cole says:


        There are groups of people who do not have a shared common interest. They are just a social group that has formed by circumstance. They may later all gravitate towards a certain activity that most of them enjoy. As far as I can tell this is how many groups form in forced social interaction environments like k-12 school or some work environments. So I agree with you that they are not actually interested in the thing they might appear to be interested in, but depending on what your interest is that might be how the majority of groups have formed around that interest. And if you are in a forced social interaction environment then I think its a much safer assumption that the social groups you observe are primarily interested in status.

        I don’t consider this an uncharitable interpretation, just one that reflects the social nature of humans. Humans like to be praised and appreciated by other people, and I often see status in these groups not as a method of exerting power or control, but rather a ranking of how universally praised and appreciated that person is. Some social groups just exist to make each other feel good through mutual praise, I would consider these status groups, and I would be very careful about approaching status/praise groups with a signal that says ‘i am not worthy of praise, please let me have some anyways’. You should be signalling “I am worthy of praise, and thus my praise for you will carry weight once we have mutually earned each other’s praise”.

        Your advice on interpersonal interactions seems good, but not necessarily accurate in descriptions of me personally. I am a nerd by disposition, an INTJ, but when I was young instead of studying computers or some other technical system I wanted to learn everything I could about people (especially girls after puberty hit). It took me time to catch up, but I would now consider myself very socially capable (and yes, I know how that sounds, but I also know I’m among nerd folk that can have charitable interpretations of that statement).

        And I agree with you that the information sharing thing is a spectrum, I also think nerdiness is much more of a spectrum, but everyone seems to be treating it as a two camp thing in this discussion. And I also find it annoying when people badly misread social cues and completely derail conversations. My reaction as a nerd, and having had to learn all these social cues the hard way is usually annoyance, and not sympathy. Especially when these social misunderstandings are happening on twitter. Its a social platform devoid of nearly all the social cues that normally help humans not want to kill each other.


      • apotwo says:


        >Some social groups just exist to make each other feel good through mutual praise, I would consider these status groups, and I would be very careful about approaching status/praise groups with a signal that says ‘i am not worthy of praise, please let me have some anyways’. [that made me laugh aloud.] You should be signalling “I am worthy of praise, and thus my praise for you will carry weight once we have mutually earned each other’s praise”.

        This makes a lot more sense to me than the first iteration. I’m tentatively more comfortable with that suggestion.

        I do still think there are places outside the nerd community (effective altruism is one of the places within it that I can think of) where it’s not harmful, and in some cases beneficial, to come in thinking of yourself as unworthy of praise or “low-status” in regards to the group. (I do agree with what I think is your implication, though again correct me if I’m wrong, that it’s better to come in confidently than not.)

        This will veer away a bit from the original question, because I’m now going to describe groups that I don’t think you can join from the outside. I guess I’m just wondering if you think status-seeking still fits with these groups.

        I am an incredibly lucky person and have virtually no experience with groups forced to hang out because of circumstance. I do have experience with social groups that felt incredibly lucky that circumstances had brought us together, when interests might not have. I really don’t think the status-seeking model works for groups like this. Social groups are different from communities.

        With my closest friend group, I literally never worry that something I do will make me less praiseworthy. It’s enough just to be with those people and hear their stories and laugh. We never compliment each other. (I think this is called chemistry.) When groups like these make their way online, it can feel very weird to have someone trying to access them — someone who probably wouldn’t approach a group of four or five people hanging out and having a conversation in private. From the outside, these groups look like status-seeking groups that you have to be *this* cool to get into. This is probably hurtful and alienating. From the inside, they are just a well-matched group of personalities (rather than interests) that require very little maintenance, and that formed by chance. I’m not sure how to resolve this, but I think it requires a very different approach than entering a group that formed because of interest.

        I wonder how much conflict stems from someone mistaking one kind of group for another.

        Liked by 1 person

  19. I’m very interested in where this blog is going.

    I enjoy interacting with people who ‘aren’t interested in solving problems or sharing information’ in their own words, and I don’t think that life among such people has to be dominated by status games.

    The comments so far seem to alternate between ‘scientists play status games’ and ‘autistic spectrum people don’t’ and both positions are probably mostly true. It’s also mostly true that scientists can’t do real science. I think that the conquest of STEM by smart but normal people (and make no mistake, it has been conquered except for a few outposts) is a disaster for civilisation.

    As far as I can tell, Everyone wants to get away from life being mostly status games, but no-one knows how to transition. It’s unclear whether more or less confrontation or more or less focus on emotional sensitivity is called for.


    • Civilis says:

      I think there is a disconnect between what people say (that they don’t want life to be status games) and what they want (they want life to be status games under rules that give them an advantage). I also think that it’s not that “information seekers” don’t benefit from status, but that they tie status to quasi-objective criteria, and that social relationship criteria is, or comes across as, highly subjective. A lot of cases where you are seeing pushback from “information seekers” are against attempts to change the rules to add subjective social status criteria (for example, requiring adherence to certain political beliefs for high status) where “information seekers” can’t compete.

      What, to outsiders, seems like a “virtual dick-measuring contest” (to use a phrase from up-thread), may be an evolved set of status negotiation rules which ultimately boils down to your quasi-objective ranking in game (for a simple explanation, if Alice beats Bob, more than half the time, Alice is higher status in the game community than Bob). Making the game more polite to outsiders may be seen to insiders to be changing the rules of the game to prohibit certain psychological warfare techniques, and therefore benefiting those with a vulnerability to those tactics at the expense of those skilled at using those tactics. If you are seen as desiring to change the rules to benefit yourself at the expense of people that had to compete under the existing rules, you will likely be met with some hostility regardless of the groups and the nature of the status involved.

      I want status as a respected commenter on the internet, and as an “information seeker” I believe I achieve this status by adding information and analysis to the discussion that causes people to think, even if they end up disagreeing with me. Look in any populated discussion forum, and you’ll see people (usernames) that you want to read because what they say is informational.


  20. Peter Gerdes says:

    Two quick comments:

    First, I think you oversell the breakdown into types of people. Almost all people value both kinds of communication in the appropriate context. Forced into a context where they must make deciscions or face consequences, e.g., produce some complex work product within a deadline, most people accept more information sharing norms (though everyone expects some indicators of verbal deference or politeness when you shatter another person’s contributions).

    On the other hand if your grandma just died and you ask the doctor if she suffered almost no one appreciates her colleague butting in to correct her about details (or even fairly significant facts) about how much pain certain kinds of conditions create. Human beings are social animals and all of us need the kind of emotional connection/reassurance that the “ugh randos” type is expecting.

    People differ in degree on this point not really in kind.

    Second, it’s important to recognize that the choice of interaction style for various contexts is deeply important. While other things being equal we should try and accommodate people with different preferences, e.g., mathematics should be open both to those who learn best in seminar and at conference and from those who learn by reading and isolated contemplation. However, other things are not equal with respect to default/preferred communication style in a discipline.

    The correct response to the individual who hates the communication style in mathematics isn’t to try and make people like them feel welcome but to politely explain the importance of the current style to the discipline. Of course, if you know someone is uncomfortable with a form of interaction you should avoid pressing it on them. However, genuinely making people like this feel comfortable would require changing the default norm so it wasn’t ok to approach people at conferences in this information sharing mode and this would substantially undermine important communication.

    In other words the fact that these people are genuinely coming from a different communicative perspective and not merely being assholes or expressing resentment actually militates for a much stronger (though less judgemental/mean) response. It’s imperative that the value of the information sharing approach be conveyed to those who don’t enjoy it (they don’t need to like it anymore than they need to like math only understand why it’s important).


  21. enkiv2 says:

    > Two particular exchanges stick out in my mind, both “corrections” in response to a series of tweets of mine on esoteric Unix history.

    I resemble this comment. After I sent that tweet I worried that it would be taken the wrong way. I’m glad that it wasn’t (or wasn’t permanently), since I’ve stumbled into arguments in exactly this way in the past.


  22. cool_boy_mew says:

    Simply amazing piece here. As a geek myself, it’s always been weird to see people just outright reject informations/corrections and such

    I guess I understand the other perspective better now. But what can be done if they keep invading “our spaces” and then wants to hear absolutely none of it? It’s ridiculous


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  28. Eric L says:

    “The complainer likely means “public” like a noisy cafe. You can hear other people’s conversations, but inserting yourself into one is generally frowned upon absent some social pretense such as friendship, solicitation, or possession of extremely relevant information.”

    It occurs to me that, even treating twitter like a noisy cafe, the expectation not to be mentioned is unrealistic. Something I sometimes do in noisy cafes is, on overhearing part of a conversation another table is having, I mention the subject and my own thoughts on the matter to start a conversation on the topic at my own table. I have no expectation that people at the other table will hear me or respond to me. And it’s quite possible that a rando who mentions you on twitter likewise doesn’t care whether you engage with them and really meant their tweet for their own followers, just mentioning you for context.


  29. Filip says:

    Thank you for the article! I resonate. Feel free to feel warm inside.:):)
    Could you explain what exactly do you mean by “splaining”? There seems to be some connotation in play but I find it difficult to decipher.


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  32. DR says:

    Mathematician here. When mathematicians say some fact is ‘trivial’, yes, they may be big-noting themselves, that it’s easy to them. But also, it can be an example of trying to share something: a way to understand said fact in a way that makes it obvious, that others may not know about, or even trying to dispel fears that topic X is really scary and intimidating, but only because from outside it looks arcane even though the big ideas are easy to grasp. I’ve met many more of the latter types than people who go around belittling others with their huge brains, but I admit I’m a white anglo man, so may not get the sort of treatment quoted in the posting from others.


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  34. Paul J. says:

    I think this may be the most useful article I’ve read all year. I’ve shared it enumerable times since I found it. Thank you.


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