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.