Social Gentrification

Earlier this week a friend of mine was talking about nerd culture, and was surprised when I mentioned that I don’t like it. I avoid nerd culture and, despite being the exact target demographic, find it uncomfortable and unwelcoming. My friend found this puzzling and asked why.

“It got gentrified,” was my reply.

The following ideas are heavily inspired by both my personal experience, and the well-known blog post Geeks, MOPs, and Sociopaths. Give that a read before this one.

Also note, I am heavily conflating nerd culture and gaming culture here, because there’s a large overlap between those two communities, because the same thing has happened to both of them, and because it makes it easier to write about.

I used to identify strongly as a nerd. In high school, it was not by choice, but I entered college right when it started picking up steam. For a while I was excited to finally be able to identify as something popular, something good. But I was very quickly driven away. When I think about why, the metaphor of gentrification comes to mind. As an example is worth a thousand words, consider the metaphor of gentrification in the Mission district of San Francisco.

In the beginning, the Mission was a lower class neighbourhood, filled by mostly poorer people (analogy: social rejects, nerds, outcasts). It was dirty, grimy, crimey, and poor. Between the crime, the blue-collar norms, and lack of funds, it was an unpleasant place that most people did not feel welcome in. (Analogy: coarse language, blunt critical people, off-colour jokes, etc.)

Now, nobody actually likes to live in a neighbourhood plagued by crime, but there’s an interesting effect. The rough-and-tumble reputation protects the people who live there. They’re poor, their lives are hard and shitty, their community is unpleasant, but it’s their community. In a world that screws them over so much, everywhere else, it’s their safe space. They aren’t bothered by the rest of us, because the aegis of crime keeps us away. Over time, they even develop cultures and coping behaviours that grow to accept and mitigate the worst of the downsides of the crime and poverty they deal with (analogy: anon culture. Nerds reveling in their unpleasantness, as it keeps normies away.)

Fast forward a few years, and people start to notice that the Mission is a cool and valuable area (analogy: Nerd culture becoming cool). It has all this potential, if only we could clean it up a bit, remove the riff-raff, lower the crime (analogy: tons of people would enjoy nerd culture, but it is hostile and unwelcoming to them). Some people, of a higher socioeconomic class than the existing residents, move in and use their clout to start cleaning up the area, cracking down on crime and the like (analogy: leaders, celebrities, important people publicly identify with nerd culture and use their social capital to force cultural reforms).

Most people who see this happen are okay with the changes, because they are objectively good. Nobody, not even the existing residents, actually likes living in a high crime area (analogy: nobody actually likes dealing with the the unpleasant and offensive elements of nerd culture). So most people look at this scenario in progress and think “Yes! This is fine. It’s about time somebody cleaned this place up a bit.”

And the thing is, from a utilitarian perspective, this is fairly clearly the Right Thing To Do. The number of people who are unable to live in the neighbourhood (analogy: people who feel excluded from nerd culture) is much larger than the number of people who already live there (analogy: existing “real” nerds). Why should one particular group of people get to hoard access to a neighbourhood (analogy: nerd culture) just because they were there first?

The disconnect is that there’s a class conflict between the people already there and the people coming in. The people coming in are mostly middle- and upper-middle class folks with safe, stable lives, money enough not to be living precariously, etc. (Analogy: the people participating in nerd culture, now that it’s mainstream, always had other communities and social outlets that worked for them.) The people who are already there, on the other hand, have poor, hard lives because life screwed them over (analogy: the existing “real” nerds, for the most part, have suffered serious physical and social bullying that has severely impacted their life for the worse). More importantly, the people who are already there have nowhere else to go; they can’t afford the rising rental prices around here (analogy: the “real” nerds, being social outcasts, don’t have any other social communities they’re welcome in).

So you get this weird effect where, from the big-picture perspective, gentrification is obviously good. It makes crime disappear. It builds more houses that more people can live in. It brings in new people and new culture and new ideas and new businesses. And, more importantly, you enable an order of magnitude more people to enjoy it. (Analogy: “real” nerd culture is extremely unpleasant, somewhat hostile to newcomers, etc. The mainstreaming of nerd culture means there are more nerd things. These things are less hostile and offensive to people. There are new ideas. People can start businesses. An order of magnitude more people get to enjoy a cultural thing.) But it also makes demands on the existing residents: Put up with it, or leave. Some of the better-off residents can put up with it, and they end up even better off. They can afford the raised rents, and they’re happy that finally they can feel safe in their own neighbourhood. (Analogy: some of the nerds were only a little bit socially awkward. They can succeed and thrive in the new culture, and appreciate the fact that they are now more popular and influential.) They welcome the changes. But there are some people who can’t hack it. They can’t afford the raised rents. They get evicted, and have to leave. Some of them have lower class preferences and mannerisms that get progressively more and more shamed until they are socially pushed out of the area (and economically: all the cheap $4 standard Mexican breakfast diners being replaced by $20 yuppie brunch spots). (Analogy: Some of the nerds are super socially stunted. The entire reason they are nerds is because it was the only place they fit in. When the mainstream newcomers come along, they steadily raise the standards of social expectations until the worst of the nerds can’t handle it and are shamed [or sometimes forced] out.)

And this is a particular problem for two reasons. The first is that the existing working class residents of the Mission have nowhere else to go. Everything else is too expensive for them. It’s hard to just leave an entire life behind and start somewhere new. You have to build everything up from scratch. You have to find a place to do this (analogy: “real” nerds who can’t cut it in the mainstream community have no other communities they belong to. They have no other communities they can join, because the same social challenges that made them be nerds in the first place exclude them from other communities. They can go build a new one from scratch, but that is very hard.)

The second is that, because the Mission as it existed pre-gentrification is an unpleasant place, and because people are responsible for their own communities, they’re seen as being the ones at fault, and so nobody will support them. So not only do they have nowhere else to go, nobody cares about them enough to help them. (Analogy: much of the unpleasant, offensive, insulting, and otherwise problematic facets of nerd culture fall out of the fact that socially retarded nerds are socially retarded. They’re trying their best, it’s just that their best is not very good. To people who don’t have these challenges, all they see are a bunch of assholes being assholes. They feel no need to empathize, because those “assholes” are violating the newcomers’ social norms and ethical expectations, and so they are bad guys. When they’re excluded, nobody cares to help them find a new social home, because after all, it’s their own fault they were excluded.)

Finally, there’s an interesting, if depressing, side effect to this process. “Cleaning up the Mission” (analogy: “cleaning up nerd culture”) ends up splitting the existing residents (“real” nerds) into two categories: The top half, who can handle the new culture, and the bottom half, who cannot. The bottom half then gets screwed. But … the bottom half are already the people who get screwed the most in life.

Even though gentrification is clearly and unambiguously for the greater good, and a net benefit to society, it causes concentrated pain on a small collection of people. Further, as a side effect, it chooses a subset of those people, the subset that suffers the most already, and heaps even more suffering onto them to get it out of the way of normal people who just want to live in the Mission (analogy: take part in nerd culture).

If it’s not apparent here, I have sympathies to “real” nerds. I’ve been through this process in several communities already (internet Atheism chat room, Reddit, a local meetup group, gaming, Twitter, and in some sense the tech industry itself), and every time it happens, I end up on the bad side of things. Newcomers roll in and decide they want to make it friendlier to them and their friends. That’s fine! But the problem is they don’t take the time to understand or empathize with the people already there. The end result is that every time I find a community or activity I like and enjoy, and try to get involved in it, it inevitably gets yanked away from me once people figure out that it’s cool.

And for that matter, in the grand scheme of things I don’t even have it that badly. I know really awkward, unpleasant-to-be-around people for whom, say, 4chan-type spaces online are their only social outlet. They are marginally employed and have little to no money. Many of them still live with their parents while pushing 30. They’ve set down a shitty path in life, and they have little hope of ever leaving it. These social spaces are their only treats in life. I know two people who would have killed themselves if they didn’t have 4chan as a social support network (which sounds insane to everyone who hasn’t been a /b/tard, and obvious to all who have). When their community starts to get “cleaned up,” and they’re excluded because (for example) they are crude and make offensive jokes, this is a benefit to tens of thousands of people who want to be nerds, but it’s a devastating effect on people who don’t have anything else.

Long rambling story short: the mainstreaming of nerd culture makes me intensely uncomfortable because it pattern matches very strongly to social bullies seeing that I have something cool and taking it away from me. Or, more pithily: “ ‘Nerd’ is cool now, but nerds are still losers.”

If it had turned out that nerd went mainstream, and suddenly thousands of people thought I was cool and interesting and I had friends and dates and parties and games and great times, that would be amazing. But what happened, it’s more like a bunch of people decided nerd chic is cool, they started coming to nerd things, and then they said “ew what’s this loser doing here” before kicking me out so they could enjoy themselves.

Which, again: is for the greater good. I just wish it came with some empathy.

For a parallel example of this, Gamergate.

Starting around September 2014, most of the major nerd media outlets started running various op-eds whose core thesis was the same all around: “Gamers are dead” (an example, and another). The point of these articles was reasonable: There is a stereotype of “gamers” that the gaming culture and industry panders to, but the vast majority of people who want to play video games are not that. You don’t have to obsess about courting those people; you can be successful without making Call of Duty 47.

But these articles, all coming out at the same time, and all taking a snarky and condescending tone, scan very differently to those gamers themselves. I know a ton of people like that, and this was a really, really big deal to them. The people who wrote the articles, they probably didn’t think much about it. They are for the most part people with prestigious educations and upper-middle class backgrounds, who got jobs in media basically just getting paid to publish their opinions. The gamers in question? As a case study, consider a friend of mine from IRC. He’s around 30 years old. He lives in a lower income suburb in a flyover red state. He has sick parents and he is an only child. His parents were working class and have no money. He is employed as a minimum wage drone at a retail store. He can’t get an education because no money + sick parents. He is royally fucked in life, and he knows it, and that’s horrifying. His one escape, his one coping mechanism, is to zen out for an hour or two playing shooters with his friends online.

So he turns to Gamasutra, the one media outlet that pretends to care about him. And what does he see? He sees an article saying he’s a terrible person and the gaming ecosystem would be better off if everyone ignored him till he just disappeared. And, while that is somewhat true (he is unpleasant and probably drives other potential gamers away), that means piss all to him. To him, what he sees is that the one indulgence he gets in his otherwise shitty life is being taken away from him. By people who have no idea what it’s like, and don’t care enough to try and find out.

The push for the gaming community to become more friendly and welcoming, to stop with constant insults and name calling, to become a pleasant place for people to play games — obviously a world in which I don’t get death-threatened by 12 year olds in Barrens Chat is a better world. But in the process, nobody cared about my friend. His shitty life just got shittier, because some media yuppies don’t like swear words.

About Simon Penner

Injecting compassion and humanity into political discussion. Disagreements welcome, but you must be kind and charitable.
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52 Responses to Social Gentrification

  1. varulv says:

    A very thoughtful take on the subject that brings an understanding of what communities deal with as they evolve and grow.


  2. Erik says:

    “Most people who see this happen are okay with the changes, because they are objectively good. Nobody, not even the existing residents, actually likes living in a high crime area (analogy: nobody actually likes dealing with the the unpleasant and offensive elements of nerd culture). […] So you get this weird effect where, from the big-picture perspective, gentrification is obviously good. It makes crime disappear.”

    “much of the unpleasant, offensive, insulting, and otherwise problematic facets of nerd culture fall out of the fact that socially retarded nerds are socially retarded […] When their community starts to get “cleaned up,” and they’re excluded because (for example) they are crude and make offensive jokes”

    I can’t help thinking there’s a bit of verbal sleight of hand going on here: you put down “crime” as bait, then switch to “offense”, which is far more subjective and abusable a concept, but maintain that it’s still objectively Right to crush in the analogy. (Let’s not even touch “problematic”.) Offense is also far less harmful, further undercutting the prospect of objective improvement. No similar factor likewise minimizes the impact of the cultural and social damage to the newly excluded lower half, suggesting that no, it is not at all obvious that this is a good thing on net. Throw in the disanalogy of land to cultural niches, and this whole article seems to have one hell of a ramshackle foundation.

    For a second opinion, consider an analogy to religious imperialism rather than gentrification. Normies decide that gamers must change; so they invade, propagandize, send missionaries, and put in tons of social pressure backed by varying degrees of force, money and threat of regulation. Clearly this is the Right Thing To Do, at least if you believe in the holiness of normies, because those filthy heathens (nerds) have not seen the light of Jesus (ban on trash-talking) and they will go to Hell (continue to be douchebros) unless we move into their territory, build churches (safe spaces), and evangelize (educate) them. It may be sad for the unrepentant heathens, but it’s for their own good. Oh, and very enjoyably (self-)righteous for the evangelizers.

    And finally – while I don’t blame you for particularism in blog commentary, I do blame the gentrifiers for theirs. One may consider the incredibly selective attention that was applied to alleged “death threats” (that frequently turn out to be “kill yourself” or something on that level upon investigation, when not faked by the supposed victim entirely) and other questionable aspects of nerd culture. Islamic scripture calls for the general death or enslavement of infidels; millions of feminists loved #KillAllMen; BLM riffed on it with #KillAllWhitePeople; gamer nerds had 12-year-olds making death wishes (12-year-olds can hardly “threaten”) in barrens chat. The last one is, AFAIK, the least murderous of the four.

    Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is that of Gaddafi: after he so kindly gave up Libya’s weapons of mass destruction, his reward from the International Community was that his country was invaded and he was sodomized to death with a bayonet, suggesting that one gets crushed for the true crime of weakness, not for offense, and that gamer nerds wanting to have a community should learn to, and develop the capacity to, injure their enemies in ways far worse than hurt feelings and crude jokes.

    Is that not what you (pl. abstract “you”, not Simon) wanted? Well, it’s what you incentivized.

    (Also, admins: Preview button please, so I can check my walls of text!)


  3. Daniel says:

    I think the analogy to gentrification exaggerates the unpleasant aspects of nerd culture (Erik above has phrased this better than I could have), meaning that from that utilitarian perspective it’s less justified to gentrify nerd culture than the Mission.

    I don’t completely subscribe to utilitarianism because the question of how to measure utility, how to compare it between people, and how to aggregate it are really thorny problems to me and I’m not satisfied with the answers that utilitarianism brings. Still, negative utilitarianism is more in line with my thinking than total utilitarianism–to a first approximation, I prefer the lesser bad to the greater good. So, the friend of yours from IRC should get to keep his outlet at the very least.

    I come down on the side of the neckbeards on 8chan posting Wojak hammering nails into Pepe’s dick.


  4. Non Sum Qualis Eram says:

    I’ve done my time on the pro-gentrification side, and I’ve come to believe that for a very large percentage of people doing the gentrifying (i.e. the cleanup of those bad elements of nerd culture) it’s not really about the stated goal of making the place nicer and more welcoming[1], as far as I can make out. It is instead about the intoxicating joy of finding people you are _allowed_ to hate, dominate, and crush. See, modern consensus culture has absorbed certain prosocial notions that make whipping up a good old fashioned lynch mob quite difficult since the guilt and so on gets everyone down. The solution is to tacitly decide that a certain group of people simply aren’t fully human and that you are not beholden to feel even a _trace_ amount of empathy for them or to consider their experience one single solitary second. Then, you join up with all your friends and you seek to inflict as much pain as possible on these people.

    You know. In the name of tolerance and niceness. As you do.

    I’ve seen this so many times in so many different forms that I cannot believe that it can possibly be otherwise. The behavior I keep seeing is monstrously counterproductive if your goal is gentrification (since the unprecedented levels of loathing are likely to provoke concerted response and stubborn resistance), but absolutely what you’d expect if it is all about the pursuit of righteous sadism with evangelical glee, where you sup on the twin joys of crushing your enemies (seeing them driven before you &c &c) and being so _blessedly_ right and righteous about everything. The examination of any number of bold ideologies and religions will furnish ample examples of this exact mindset exploding into paroxysms of fruitless cruelty so profound it beggars belief. Compared to various inquisitions and pursuits of purity, this current scourge is as light and gentle a manifestation as can be imagined.

    May I offer an interesting example of this phenomenon in nerd culture: Lovecraft. The level of hate towards Lovecraft among the gentrifiers is _biblical._ I remember a thread about him where I got goosebumps at how vividly what I was reading reminded me of Two Minutes’ Hate: people were all but foaming at the mouth, working themselves into a lather to find a rhetorical flourish turgid enough to express their bottomless loathing for… a not particularly famous, long-dead writer.

    I mean, yes, Lovecraft’s views on race were pretty appalling[2] but he’s _dead._ No one’s likely to take his views from him (I know of not a single person supporting them), and he has, as far as I can work out never harmed a single soul in all his life. It would be weird to get exercised about him even slightly, let alone be moved to transports of raw fury. So whence this loathing? Well, nerds like him. That’s all it really took. If there’s a figure that nerds like and has almost a sort of mascot status for nerds (which, arguably, Lovecraft fits quite well, whatever you might think of his prose) then the gentrifiers don’t simply want to clean it up a bit (what was that modern term of art? ‘put an asterisk next to their name’) as you would expect, no they want this figure _burned,_ ruined, forgotten, destroyed. For the sheer joy of spoiling something, for taking away another’s toys, and smashing them. And since those others are members of one or more okay-to-hate groups, you can do all of this terrible antisocial, vile nonsense and not only not feel guilt, but also believe you are doing the Lord’s work.

    So, to bring you back to your metaphor, it’s not gentrification so much as it is a cross between those who want the poor on government assistance maximally harassed and the do-gooder Victorian lady of high birth brimming with righteous intent to get those _filthy_ poors to behave _right_ and is aiming to push temperance, good diet, and clean living no matter how much they complain. It feels _good_ to dominate, control, and punish some people and instead of doing the civilized thing (and adopting BDSM as a lifestyle) they simply adopt a morality of convenience that makes it okay for them to do so.

    [1] I _remember_ that one person from nerdy subcultures who was Speaker-To-Newbies. Hell, I’ve _been_ that one person more than once. And, yeah, I’ve yelled at people for being terrible to newbs, but mostly I just tried to be helpful because I’ve been in communities that seal themselves against the outside world and it is profoundly unfun. I never tried to change the fundamental character of, say, arguing endlessly about alignments in D&D (that fundamental character being defined largely by rancor, profanity, and futility) just try to increase the ambient levels of kindness and charity so that the occasional newbie can survive long enough to tell us how wrong we all are about whether Batman would be Lawful Good or not inspiring a good solid week of invective.

    Good clean fun. 🙂
    [2] Though not as simple as often painted. They were _way_ weirder than any common racism but no less objectionable. He was a sort of… extreme anti-multiculturalist, I guess would be a fair description.


    • Non 4Chan Anon says:

      I agree with this comment–I’ve often mused that being an SJW is one of the best social niches these days for someone who’s naturally self-important and/or sadistic.

      BTW, I suspect SJWs and the non-SJW liberals are actually pretty distinct clusters. The first group is characterized by self-importance and sadism; the second group is characterized by kindness, submissiveness, and a really strong need to be liked. The second group would be fine on their own.


    • Honourary says:

      I’m replying to a 6 year old comment. But it’s 2022, and reading your comment:
      > “It is instead about the intoxicating joy of finding people you are _allowed_ to hate, dominate, and crush.”
      I can’t help but think of the unvaccinated.


  5. I have to agree with commenters above that the leap from crime to offense is badly pattern matched at best, as is the assertion of an unquestionable greater good. Well executed gentrification isn’t just swinging a wrecking ball around indiscriminately, it’s meshing the old with the new and inviting the existing community to join in. What we see in the invasion of nerd culture isn’t just a lack of empathy, it’s often a complete mischaracterization of established norms and practices.

    To put it succinctly: nerd subcultures are full of Chesterton’s fences, and one should be skeptical of people who bulldoze them down and then shriek that the populace is running wild.

    In tech, the get-shit-done anyone-can-contribute attitude gets reinterpreted as being unnecessarily abrasive and demanding. Solid results are downplayed in favor of the superficial trappings of success, chasing the new thing for its own sake. Meritocracy gets conflated with pure egotism and power games in order to write it off.

    When it comes to gaming, its enthusiasts are characterized as both intolerable douchebros and pathetic socially stunted shut-ins, as both immature teenagers and overgrown middle aged losers. Mindlessly grinding, but also endlessly obsessed with their richly drawn waifus. The stereotype is adjusted to fit the bill of “socially undesirable”, with the rich and varied history of the medium conveniently papered over into an amorphous blob of Call of Duty, as if this mainstreaming of gaming wasn’t in itself already looked upon with derision by the established base.

    In the case of GamerGate, people were offended by those articles because they called gamers wailing hyperconsumers and shitslingers who stand in line at comic-con wearing mushroom hats… a stereotype so caricatured only the world’s most oblivious neckbeard would actually fit it. Most people just wondered why suddenly the village lout was held up as its honorary citizen, and the reason was rather obvious: it is easier to tear down a weathered heritage building when you can relabel it as a crack house.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. OG (Original Garbmut) says:

    In the most general sense, the utilitarian argument has no sanity-checking. In other words, it does not forbid endless banks of agonized human brain tissue, nor does it forbid lynch mobs, as long as they’re big enough to sway the average. It rewards agreeableness and pleasant facial aesthetics while aggressively punishing friendlessness. In other words, it is dangerous to “real” nerds.
    If C. van Oldmoneynortheastbrooklynacademia not being insulted is worth J. Virgin McNeet being harassed to suicide for his misogyny and perversion, then (while the ethical system in question may be self-consistent) there is also good reason for any rational person to reject it (and defend McNeet): A Greater Good that runs on perpetual blood sacrifice is essentially cannibalistic. You may be willing to have one man imprisoned and tortured forever to protect people from dust motes and sexism, but are you willing to do it for anyone who’d actually take you up on that?

    You have A and B. If A sells out B to Society, A will enjoy fewer mean words, and B will probably suffer immensely. B, at the moment, has no means of similarly selling out A. It’s a powerless actor, here (but this can change– more on that in a sec). In a situation where A has proven that it’s absolutely willing to sell out B as long as B is weaker and it thinks a lot of people like it (this A will be known as “Malicious-A”), isn’t it kind of insane to work with it? Of course, you can simply Stay on Malicious-A’s Good Side, but at the moment, Mal-A has no qualifications for who it betrays, as long as it’s weaker, fun for a lot of people to torment, and Mal-A can look good doing it. Unless you are very confident in your ability to avoid becoming a target, it is in your personal interest to avoid Mal-A, obstruct it, and sabotage it if possible.

    Incidentally, “an actor that will assault anyone, as long as it’s weaker, fun for a lot of people to torment, and they can look good doing it” is a good description of Gawker (or an SA poster, or an ED poster, or one of the people on the kinds of imageboards that dox, raid, and call the FBI over shitposts).
    As for B, as soon as it becomes clear that no cooperation with A is possible, the objective becomes to get as much leverage as possible. Reconciling itself to any degree with A becomes dangerous and stupid. In fact, it’s better for it if it gains the ability to inflict maximal consequences on A. Hence, Gamergate. Hence, less admirably, the worst excesses of the Alt-Right (which, in my opinion, solve nothing– they just attract more Mal-As, or if you want, “sociopaths”).

    Reminder, the utilitarian argument has nothing to say about this state of constant war, provided that A is large enough relative to B, and A enjoys it. Nobody even has to eventually win!
    This is the least convenient scenario, where nerds’ behavior is actually retarded (and the gentrifiers are legitimately “better”), where they are actually outnumbered, where how welcoming they are significantly effects other people absent protestations on mainstream websites, and so on. In other words, it isn’t supposed to be an accurate rendition of eg. Gamergate.

    If my post is stupid or wrong, I apologize.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is very good; I’ve always seen the shift in nerd culture to be more analogous to cultural appropriation, but I can see gentrification as an apt metaphor as well.

    I argue the appropriation angle at some length here, with the tl;dr being something along the lines of:

    “I sometimes imagine fandom as a kind of leper colony, where the people who couldn’t fit in anywhere else could go and be accepted by other lepers; then someone found gold on the leper colony and the prospectors came swarming in. Predictably, they loved the gold, but unfortunately there are all these gross lepers around! Rubbing their hands together, the prospectors dream of a day that they can scoop up gold in peace, with the lepers displaced elsewhere. “


    • Simon Penner says:

      I like your linked post. It’s aligned with my thoughts on the matter and it is an interesting alternative perspective. If you didn’t read the linked blog post at the top of this one, Geeks MOPs and Sociopaths, go give it a read. It touches on a lot of these ideas in a very similar way.

      On a more personal note: I grapple with a lot of the thoughts that come from the people like John Scalzi and your post has helped me better frame why. I hate identity. I think identity is not valuable or useful. I feel no connection to any particular identity, nor a desire to have one. To me, identity is largely about what others think you are, and I’ve never much cared for that. I am what I am, and I don’t need someone else’s permission to do so.

      From this perspective, it is immediately and intuitively obvious to me that there is this culture/identity distinction (though I never thought of it in those words). Conversations talking against ‘geek authenticity’ always rung hollow to me, because I understood the cultural aspect of this, I thought that it was valuable, and I saw how it was being threatened by people who are not part of that culture. It confused me why people could, with a straight face, make an argument like “anyone who says they are a geek is a geek, full stop”.

      It felt particularly personal, and particularly threatening, to read things like what your linked de Boer NYT piece put forward. “Geeks, You Are No Longer Victims. Get Over It”? Maybe Freddie, in his ivory tower, never suffered this. But I routinely got physically assaulted growing up for ‘being a geek’. Often by the exact same people who are now edging in on this culture. It is good to forgive and forget, to welcome people and be kind to them. But it is also not unreasonable, at all, for people who were routinely abused to be afraid of their abusers when their abusers come knocking at their door. The shocking lack of empathy in the conversations on this subject is appalling.

      If said abusers are looking at this purely as an identity, that makes more sense. They don’t understand the underlying significance, and they don’t think it’s important. When people who do come along and point this out, it can feel hostile and aggressive. However, it is not clear to me that the moral obligation for resolving this misunderstanding lies with the cultural geeks.

      Your post gives me another thought as well. A candidate definition for cultural appropriation: “Cultural appropriation is where group A tries to convert the culture of group B into an identity”.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Erik says:

        “I hate identity. I think identity is not valuable or useful. I feel no connection to any particular identity, nor a desire to have one. To me, identity is largely about what others think you are, and I’ve never much cared for that.”

        “I’m not religious, I just know the truth about Jesus Christ. To me, religion is something others like Hindoos and Mohammedans have, and I’ve never cared much for them.”

        Fish, meet water.

        Liked by 1 person

      • somercet says:

        You are correct. An identity is assembled by cops while they look for a perpetrator, and then pin on you in court. The creation of LGBT, thought at the time to be a masterstroke, has metastasized into demisexual/asexual/and the 57 terrible varieties; what was supposed to be booths in a restaurant turned out to be vines covering the floor of a dark forest too many people are lost in.

        We were likely better off before Magnus Hirschfeld and Freud, having just People, and then a few who engaged in “perverse” behavior, or sodomy or what have you. Yes, the criminalizing of some kinds of perversity was a giant pain, but we were free of the less concrete, but more widespread and dreadful, terror of identity.

        My “identity” is so fragmented that it could never serve me as a key into a community. I’ve never really thought about my identity and that is for the best, I am sure. Milo said Feminism is Cancer, and so is Identity.

        (Note: so what about black Americans? Do they have an identity? Yes, I think many of them do, and most would be better off without it. Almost all black Americans feel the need to identify (note: verb) with other black Americans for self-defense. This is sensible and patriotic (and sad, for me), but once children are in school denouncing studying as “white” you very clearly have An Identity (noun), and identity turns out to be what bullies use as an excuse to chase you down. I recommend to my fellow citizens that they maintain their group cohesion, and firmly put down any “black identitarianism” among them.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Non Sum Qualis Eram says:

      Great link (and great blog!). I was particularly gratified, I must confess, regarding your blog post on the subject of hurting people and feeling self-righteous about it. I essentially wrote out the same thing in my comment above (albeit not as eloquently) and it is good to know that it is not likely that I’ve imagined the phenomenon, and that other see it too.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Titanium Dragon says:

    The thing is, a lot of the people who are kicked out are genuinely awful people who no one wanted to be around anyway but people were stuck with. Criminals, robbers, and similar scumbags are people, but they’re really terrible ones.

    Likewise, the dregs of nerd culture can be very unpleasant people to be around, and made people in nerd culture want to avoid them. As nerd culture becomes more popular, it becomes easier to exclude said people who they always wanted to exclude in the first place.

    You might feel sorry for them, but the reality is that socialization is a learnable skill. A lot of people don’t want to learn it because they want to be able to act out. In fact, a lot of losers in society are fundamentally unsuccessful bullies whose attempts at bullying others always end with them on the loser end.

    People tend to be more understanding towards the merely socially awkward types, the people who struggle to talk, who are always looking down at the floor. Those people are less likely to be kicked out and are more likely to simply be ignored.

    The people who show aggression, on the other hand, tend to be met with such.


    • Non Sum Qualis Eram says:

      I don’t know that I agree.

      I mean, yes, I’m sure that some dangerous asshats might be kicked out, but I’ve rarely seen that. Mostly, the figure of hate du jour is someone quite, quite harmless who just _will not_ shut up when arguing with someone who has greater social capital. Someone who embodies the fandom value of being pedantic and ornery when it comes to dispute.A good example is Will Shetterly who is as nice a fellow as you could hope to meet but who would not shut up about (in our now painfully distended analogy) the shoddy architecture or substandard building material of the gentrifiers.

      Indeed in my history of following fandom drama, the people being castigated are usually people who’ve engaged in crimethink or telling jokes not on the approved list, or like Shetterly ornery interlocutors. Occasionally it is someone with a claim of harassment against them which is sometimes substantiated. But very rarely is it a _legitimately_ terrible person, though of course, occasionally it is: Applebaum comes swiftly to mind.

      However, the chief labor of the gentrifiers isn’t concerned with individuals so much, I find, as it is with cleaning up the, ah, architecture and street plan. By doing so, it makes the infrastructure itself hostile to those it wants gone. Just like (as was mentioned on this blog earlier) imposing certain prosocial norms like the necessity of small talk conducted in a society-approved fashion on coding companies helps the newcomers, sure enough, but harms people for whom small talk is difficult.


    • How much easier it is to target outsiders if you can first convince yourself they deserve it and would do the same to you!

      I’ve certainly been rude or aggressive in my life – most people have. But the times I’ve been targeted by purgers in my life and the times I’ve been rude or aggressive to others have had next to no overlap.

      It’s when I’ve been criticizing the ideology of the purgers or standing up for their targets – no matter how carefully I chose my words or how much civility I showed or appealed to their better nature – when I’ve been purged. Because this movement is about the joy of purges and witch-hunts, and perhaps the ability of the locally powerful to suppress challengers through purges and witch-hunts; the rest is excuses for cruelty.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Tim Hall says:

        Once they get started, these witch-hunts have a dynamic of their own, and they work through isolating their victims by threatening to turn on anyone who might try to defend them.

        Worth noting that the tabletop RPG world had a couple of failed witch-hunts in the last couple of years, the most notable being “Consultantgate”. The would-be witch-hunters lacked the social capital to have their accusations accepted without evidence, which they constantly refused to produce.


    • C4Cypher says:

      It’s all fun and games until you’re suddenly the one being kicked out. “You don’t join up, you’re thrown in the pit with the rest of us.” And all it will take is to say the wrong thing, have the wrong opinion and fail to hide it adequately … and you’ll be on the receiving end of that firehouse, and the people who were there before you will be laughing at you in schadenfreude.

      And if you seriously never have ‘the wrong’ opinion ever? You’re either a liar or a psychopath.


    • mrosskne says:

      It’s not up to you to decide who is awful, nor is it up to you to decide who gets to stay in a hobby you did nothing to help build. The most vile monster who genuinely loves their hobby and spent years of their life to make it great belongs in it more than the holiest saint who just found out about it yesterday.
      You also have no right to demand a culture change itself to suit your preferences. You aren’t entitled to anything and no one answers to you. It is you who must change to suit the culture you wish to participate in.


  9. Trimegistus says:

    What’s odd, though, is that the most fervent members of the community on the “gentrifying” side are (to use your Mission District analogy) the most hopeless addicts and the filthiest bums. Who runs Worldcon and joined in the anti-Puppies movement? Not newcomers. It’s the old, mobility-scooter-using, forty-cons-a-year, filk-singing hard-core obsessive fans who are the most strident about policing what people say and think.
    The newcomers aren’t even in that part of town. They’re over in the shiny new DragonCon development on the edge of the Mission District (the builders couldn’t get permits to build in the District because of NIMBY opposition so they developed a vacant tract nearby). They love their new high-rise condo/mall complex but don’t go into the heart of the District itself because it’s too shabby and depressing.


  10. Tim Hall says:

    A thought-provoking post on a contentious and complex subject.

    For what it’s worth, I see the turf war between Geek Feminism and Nerd Culture as a battle between two competing victimhood narratives. And my takeaway from that is the victimhood narratives are a bad thing.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Canadian Mirth says:

    I wish I knew what people meant when they said “nerd culture” so I could respond appropriately to these kinds of posts. I know that there is something, that I have seen and felt, that they are talking about, and it is important to talk about.

    But when I say “nerd culture” I mostly mean the kinds of social norms my closest friends and I obey, which make it pleasant for people like us to thrive. That is, we don’t like talking on the phone, but we like talking over webchat. We don’t like more common social conventions, and I can’t give an example because we don’t bother knowing what they are. We use long words, maybe longer than necessary, to convey points precisely. We make references to science fiction and classic satire. When in doubt about someone’s intentions, we ask. We share puzzles. That sort of thing.

    Which are all made to give us an environment where we are safe to share when we’re nervous, where we learn about things and people we like, etc. But this kind of “nerd culture” doesn’t really seem appropriable or gentrifiable, since the elements which make it nice are exactly the elements which make it.

    This is the nerd culture I know and love.


  12. Peter Gerdes says:

    Except that mainstreaming nerd culture actually reduces many of the unpleasant aspects of being a nerd. I grew up in the midwest and was extensively bullied in middle school to a large extent because rather than sharing any of the interests of my classmates I only wanted to read scifi, talk about physics etc.. etc.. and sucked at sports. The things I did want to talk about tended to make other people feel ignorant or less smart and that often leads to them demonstrating their superiority by hurting you.

    In contrast, people I know who grew up later than me (but with the same interests and even social awkwardness) or in areas where nerd culture became mainstream earlier have far less problems. They can relate much better to their classmates because things they find interesting are now mainstream culture. Also, rather than merely being weird different and worthy of disdain, the things many nerds find interesting have an assigned place in our society (programming might still seem alien to the other kids but it’s something many successful people not just seem anti-social weirdness).

    I think the issue here may be that you are using nerd to *mean* socially marginalized person while also trying to claim there is such a thing as nerd culture. Nerd culture arose from a group of people who had a certain set of inclinations and interests (and often social awkwardness but causation may be the other way) and many of those people no longer have to be isolated and hurt. Obviously, there will always be socially marginalized people and if you are one of those left behind it won’t be great when that group shrinks and more people are accepted by the mainstream but that is the quintessential way progress is made.

    I mean the fact that homosexuality has been mainstreamed means that the community of ‘sexual deviants’ has become smaller, has fewer allies/supporters and those who are still viewed as deviants may feel less support. However, that’s just an artifact of the fact that you used a word which refers to whoever hasn’t yet been accepted….the actual people (e.g. those who would have been nerds if you define it to be someone who isn’t accepted by the mainstream) are no longer getting hurt or isolated.

    There really isn’t any other way for a society to become more accepting.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. dirdle says:

    A lot of people keen to point out that offending people isn’t as bad as crime. Not so many saying that losing an online social structure isn’t as bad as being thrown out of your home. It’s an excellent analogy because it’s symmetric like that. Nerd culture doesn’t need reforming as badly as ghettos need gentrifying; reforming nerd culture hurts nerds less than gentrification hurts the poor. The transformation preserves the important features.

    (Things I’m emphatically not saying:
    -Offending people is totally fine
    -Losing an online social structure isn’t a big deal
    -Nothing should stop us tearing down poor neighbourhoods
    -Nothing should stop us tearing down nerd culture)


    • Erik says:

      Being overstretched at both sides does not cancel out to make an analogy excellent.


      • dirdle says:

        On the contrary, that is exactly how it works. It’s the basic principle of analogy: like for like, unlike-for-analogous-unlike. A bad analogy is one like “men are like a cup of skittles of which 3 are poisoned,” because the relevant differences (degree of danger, degree to which one can avoid the danger by proposed intervention, degree of potential benefit if danger does not manifest) have all be stacked to add in the same direction – the direction of the analogist’s preferred conclusion, naturally.

        In this post’s case, there are at least two problems with the analogy:
        1) Having a high crime rate in an area is way worse than offending people on the internet. This tilts the analogy in favour of “gentrification of a location is not as bad as of a subculture.”
        2) Losing your home is way worse than losing your internet-home. This tilts the analogy in favour of “gentrification of a location is worse than of a subculture.”

        In the absence of the kind of knowledge we’d need to pin down which of these two difference is more significant, all we know is that the net effect is necessarily closer to zero than either would be alone. The analogy might still be bad, for instance if one of the errors could be shown to be vastly more important than the other.

        It’s not like an analogy contains an Essence of Goodness that is inherently damaged by everything that’s different between its cases. After all, the whole point of analogy is drawing parallels between different cases in which most of the difference is irrelevant to the point at hand. Relevant differences between cases in an analogy are only problems when they make it hard to determine the intended meaning, or when they subtly or not-so-subtly push a particular point of view. Your comment at the top implies that the analogy in this post has the latter problem. I’m saying that’s not so, because it also contains a difference that pushes the opposite point of view.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Simon Penner says:

        In this post’s case, there are at least two problems with the analogy:
        1) Having a high crime rate in an area is way worse than offending people on the internet. This tilts the analogy in favour of “gentrification of a location is not as bad as of a subculture.”
        2) Losing your home is way worse than losing your internet-home. This tilts the analogy in favour of “gentrification of a location is worse than of a subculture.”

        This was my intention. My intention was to highlight just how _low_ the stakes are in nerd culture gentrification, relative to real-world gentrification, as a way of showing how ridiculous it is that would-be reformers are so dead set on cleaning up nerd dom.


      • Erik says:

        On the contrary, that is not how it works, or I’d have an excellent analogy in comparing you to a log floating down the Amazon River because your legs have a similar content of rare earth metals and making conclusions about your utility as a construction material and firestarter.


  14. j2kun says:

    Well if you want a safe haven that will probably never be breached, you can always turn to math 🙂


    • Michael says:

      It depends on what exactly you want to escape and how safe is safe enough. There are incentives for people in each of the areas inside mathematics (including theoretical physics and CS) to make sure their subfield is considered more interesting and more important than other subfields; this does lead to some annoying political/fashion-like effects.


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  16. I can understand the gentrification angle, and I agree with it to a point. However, I think the focus on social hostility is probably a red herring. Incredibly hostile subcultures can become mainstream while maintaining their hostility (take Punk for instance), and in many ways the hostility of video game culture came after the mainstreaming that happened with it in the mid 90s, rather than being representative of the way things were when the subculture was well and truly small. Likewise, there are plenty of instances when letting the MOPs in led to much higher levels of hostility because the original subculture’s norms were no longer in effect (consider USENET prior to around 1993 versus modern internet cuture).

    Instead of social hostility, we can focus on the thing that geek subcultures of all types actually have in common, which is to say an obsession with details. Detail-orientation is a really effective shibboleth; in a knowledge-based subculture poseurs essentially have to become insiders in order to pass a purity test. As a result, a detail-oriented subculture that really values its current setup and is serious about performing the gatekeeping required to prevent dilution of the culture will be very difficult to commercialize (and hostility is a tool used to keep outsiders out in this case, rather than a native ambient environmental feature: you mercilessly mock anybody who doesn’t have the heights and weights of all the gundams memorized and you end up creating an environment where only those who are willing to spend the effort to memorize gundam statistics feel welcome).

    This is something really important. There are subcultures that are simply terribly hostile and keep people out because only the people who have nowhere else to go are willing to stay there, as you mentioned, and again, as you mentioned, these subcultures are probably better off being integrated even when it makes some people sad. However, there are other subcultures that are good to insiders and hostile to outsiders because the entire point is to gather together a group of people with rare common interests and allow them to associate with people who are equally passionate. Such communities, because their value system is based on knowledge, may tolerate poorly-behaved members (instead of optimizing for them like chan culture does or eliminating them like most subcultures do) so long as those members have attributes that outweigh their negative qualities; however, that’s very different from a subculture composed mostly or entirely of people who behave poorly. Such “true geek” subcultures have a much better reason to remain protected: when the primary attribute that gatekeepers care about is a good proxy for intelligent and productive discussion, the culture is optimized for intelligent and productive discussion, in the same way that gatekeeping for gangs optimizes for passionate dedication and self-sacrifice (in the form of rituals of self-mutiliation: face-tattoos, cutting off fingers, etc) and produces a highly loyal and passionate in-group with a culture of self-sacrifice. If we value intelligent people being creative and productive, it is in our best interest to protect groups that optimize for these values from being overrun by outsiders, even if those outsiders are us: we owe it to those groups to stay out unless we can show the dedication that they require of us.

    I’m a lot less worried about “gamer culture” and chan culture than I am about certain sections of anime fandom, open source, science fiction, and other “geek” things, because these are places where ambient hostility levels are actually pretty low but detail-orientation is extremely important. When a million people start asking questions about how to install Ubuntu on the linux-kernel-devs mailing list, it’s basically the end of linux; likewise, if casual science fiction fans begin to dominate the spaces that were previously for serious science fiction fans, the rate of innovation in science fiction writing is going to go down because the writers are part of the hard-core fan group.

    Since Lovecraft was mentioned earlier in the comments, I’ll end on a note about him, and how he exemplifies this problem. Lovecraft is one of these “bunny-ears lawyer” types: he was accepted by the ad-hoc social group that formed around him despite his obnoxious beliefs and habits because he was extremely dedicated to the group and to the craft, and he owes his influence to the fact that he was a great utility to a large group of people who basically found his perspectives odious. He’s the equivalent of the guy in any online community who is a real jerk most of the time but also posts all the most insightful content: the only reason he doesn’t get kicked out is that his good points make up for his bad points. A figure like that has negative knock-on effects, because he’s a pillar of the community and thus newcomers think his behavior typifies what is acceptable; rarely is the fact that someone’s unacceptable behavior is being tolerated for the sake of the good of the community made explicit to newcomers. As soon as such a figure disappears from the community (by dying or otherwise) & isn’t coming back, it makes sense to double down on the idea that his behavior shouldn’t be considered acceptable, because hoards of newcomers who mimic the hostility without being equally productive will cause the community to collapse. With Lovecraft becoming increasingly popular, it behooves us to make sure that newcomers to the cosmic horror community understand clearly what parts of his legacy are acceptable to the rest of the group, and that they understand that before starting to integrate. Chan culture & current gamer culture represent a common failure mode: what happens when we allow newcomers to emulate the jerkitude of the productive jerk without emulating his productiveness.


  17. Michael says:

    «nobody actually likes dealing with the the unpleasant and offensive elements of nerd culture»

    I wonder if this is true. In some contexts I do enjoy being attacked in some relatively safe ways. A culture being toxic and also ignored by outsiders means that one can get a personal attack on demand, play the ball, then close the window and the consequences end at this moment.

    Then some subcultures also produce stuff, as Rococo mentioned, although I would say that loss of the memes that take off after leaking from chans would also change the Internet — it’s a value judgement to say, for the better or for the worse.

    Of course, there is a question of containment — if some subculture does frequent raids on the central points of other subcultures, this is usually bad, even if these subcultures both agree that they share a goal and norms (I guess I can even imagine a situation where they share a goal, norms and most of the membership and there is still raids from one community into another and they are bad). On the other hand, trying to clean up the inside of a toxic raid-creating subculture instead of making it clear you want containment and trying to enforce containment can make things worse even for the outsiders, if there are enough people with little to lose and nowhere else to go.

    And I guess many people wouldn’t want ideas about communities such as «containment criterion», «constructive output criterion» or «there can be multiple communities composed of the same people for the same goal with the same norms but with different methods and different status hierarchies» to catch on too much.


  18. Ras says:

    Your post perplexes me, Simon.

    You speak of social gentrification as a good thing. A moral good, even.

    I have seen the sociopaths who came in and attacked gaming subcultures. They were (are) extraordinarily nasty and exclusionary. Cultural supremacists, even.

    They viciously attacked everyone who got in their way. They even rendered a number of casually observing mops job-less and industry-blacklisted for literally saying so much as “I have never found gaming subcultures exclusionary” to the wrong blue-haired ex-FreeBSD dev.

    Welcoming the high-crime areas was an imperative for actual inclusivity. After all – if annoying assholes are welcome, then quirkiness that’s not tolerated elsewhere must be welcome as well!

    Attempts to gentrify gaming and FOSS aren’t moral imperatives. They corrode the values that were foundational to those communities. Is it really a Moral Good to dramatically change subcultures just so tens of thousands of new people can join in under a label?

    What the new people are joining isn’t the Gaming Culture or FOSS Culture that it was before sociopaths came in. The degradation of FOSS has been particularly nasty for public safety and societal well-being.


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  20. Asanarama says:

    I disagree with what you say about the “greater good”. When you put those heaps of extra suffering on people who already suffer, there are grounds for measuring it non-linearly. Double someone’s suffering? That’s a 4. Quadruple it? That’s a 16. Or something like that. Compared to giving a bit of novelty to a larger number of people who are already happy, I’m not sure it really is for the greater good.


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  27. mrosskne says:

    Good, kill all incels


  28. test says:

    Another example in nerd/game culture is when Magic the Gathering went woke. The gentrification didnt actualy come when they wanted diversity in card art or whatever, but when they actually removed any competative aspect to the game and moved towards MTG being “game night with friends” instead of “show the other neckbeards your skill.”


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  30. Lime says:

    I know this is incredibly late, but I do have to disagree with the last thing mentioned: “For the greater good”.
    The argument for gentrification is rooted in higher standard of living, which we’ll take at face value as correct, but hobby subjects and similar don’t really require the same line of thinking. In a subject like anime or Magic or Harry Potter, etc, the only “standard” metric of improvement is proliferation and profit, which I don’t really think are things that are inherently good, in fact, I’d argue that “greed” is the biggest motivator for a lot of these issues in the first place since we see ad companies and payment processors strong-arming companies often.


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