January 10, 2011

I Am Geek; Hear Me Mutter Pedantically

This post is an introduction to a session I'm running at ScienceOnline 2011 with Maria Walters and Desiree Schell called, "It's All Geek to Me." We'll discuss what we can learn about communicating science by looking at differences between a general audience and science's most solid audience--geeks.

It's been months since I last saw a geek. He was emceeing a burlesque show and occasionally entertaining us with old standards like pounding a spike into his nose. He was a lousy emcee but a pretty good geek.

That's where the term geek came from--performers who got very good at doing things most of us would never even consider. Of course, these days the term has been co-opted by people who do not generally bite the heads off chickens, and geeks of old are mostly known as freaks, lumped in with those with physical features unusual enough to be worth paying to see. Geek has changed.

Still, the origin of the term is useful for understanding the modern geek. In particular, understanding that geeks are set apart by their interests and the lengths they'll go to to pursue those interests is critical to understanding geeks as an audience. And there may be no better place to go for an explanation than Patton Oswalt's recent piece on geek culture.

I was too young to drive or hold a job. I was never going to play sports, and girls were an uncrackable code. So, yeah—I had time to collect every Star Wars action figure, learn the Three Laws of Robotics, memorize Roy Batty’s speech from the end of Blade Runner, and classify each monster’s abilities and weaknesses in TSR Hobbies’ Monster Manual. By 1987, my friends and I were waist-deep in the hot honey of adolescence. Money and cars and, hopefully, girls would follow, but not if we spent our free time learning the names of the bounty hunters’ ships in The Empire Strikes Back. So we each built our own otakuesque thought-palace, which we crammed with facts and nonsense—only now, the thought-palace was nicely appointed, decorated neatly, the information laid out on deep mahogany shelves or framed in gilt. What once set us apart, we hoped, would become a lovable quirk.

Our respective nerdery took on various forms: One friend was the first to get his hands on early bootlegs of Asian action flicks by Tsui Hark and John Woo, and he never looked back. Another started reading William Gibson and peppered his conversations with cryptic (and alluring) references to “cyberspace.” I was ground zero for the “new wave” of mainstream superhero comics—which meant being right there for Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Neil Gaiman. And like my music-obsessed pals, who passed around the cassette of Guns n’ Roses’ Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide and were thus prepared for the shock wave of Appetite for Destruction, I’d devoured Moore’s run on Swamp Thing and thus eased nicely into his Watchmen. I’d also read the individual issues of Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again run, so when The Dark Knight Returns was reviewed by The New York Times, I could say I saw it coming. And I’d consumed so many single-issue guest-writing stints of Gaiman’s that when he was finally given The Sandman title all to himself, I was first in line and knew the language.

Geeks are specialists, uber-specialists in fields that other people scratch their heads over if they even know they exist. Geeks are informational deep-divers in their own esoteric specialties. Geeks are...well, they're a lot like scientists. Many of them are scientists.

They are also the main self-selecting audience of science communicators. After all, who but a geek gets excited about opening up new sources of information by learning how to read scientific literature? Who else has overcome (or never internalized) the social prohibitions against asking dumb questions in order to participate in their own education? Who else fills the comment sections of various science blogs with their own vaguely related bits of esoteric knowledge to create the fascinating conversations that can happen there?

I phrase it that way because there is a "who else" who are not geeks and who don't self-select for engaging with science communicators. They're still an important audience to reach. To the extent that science communication has a game plan for changing the world, they may be an even more strategic target audience than geeks.

This non-geek audience, however, has different goals for how they spend their time than the geeks do. They are often distracted and distractable. Instead of wanting to incorporate all the knowledge there is, they're looking to have information winnowed down to that which is relevant for them. They're ready for the 50,000-foot view rather than the deep dive.

This geek/non-geek dynamic is, of course, a bit of a simplification. Your average non-geek may have a head full of sports statistics or bread recipes, available on a moment's notice, and your average geek has plenty of topics in which s/he just isn't that interested. "Geek" is as much a method of engagement as anything else, and which method a person brings to a particular piece of science communication depends greatly on the topic at hand.

Then there is the pseudo-geek, the person who takes the broad but shallow dive. Patton Oswalt again:

The problem with the Internet, however, is that it lets anyone become otaku about anything instantly. In the ’80s, you couldn’t get up to speed on an entire genre in a weekend. You had to wait, month to month, for the issues of Watchmen to come out. We couldn’t BitTorrent the latest John Woo film or digitally download an entire decade’s worth of grunge or hip hop. Hell, there were a few weeks during the spring of 1991 when we couldn’t tell whether Nirvana or Tad would be the next band to break big. Imagine the terror!

But then reflect on the advantages. Waiting for the next issue, movie, or album gave you time to reread, rewatch, reabsorb whatever you loved, so you brought your own idiosyncratic love of that thing to your thought-palace.

This is the person who has absorbed the easily available information on a topic but hasn't engaged to the level of grappling with it. In science communication terms, this person knows the Wikipedia articles and the three paragraphs available in a textbook overview of the subject but has no idea what the recent studies say or what the disagreements in the field are. This is the person who shows up in the comments of a blog post discussing a tricky issue to tell you that you suck because you aren't saying what "everyone knows" about the topic.

All three of these engagement methods or types of audiences require different treatment. There are plenty of people out there telling geeks how to reach non-geeks, but ironically, much of that information alienates its intended audience by not treating them as the geeks they are. Bora had a lovely take a while back on what such a book would look like if written by a geek for a geek audience.

There's much less information out there on how to communicate with geeks. In another post tomorrow, I'll collect some of the information that exists. [Update: now available here.] Be forewarned, however, that it largely doesn't come from peer-reviewed research, a fact that will make geek audiences twitch. However, it does give a (default) non-geek perspective on communicating with geeks that should shed some light on the differences between the two.

Then, come Sunday morning at 10:15 EST, my co-moderators (both with plenty of experience translating from geek to non-geek and back) and I will host a discussion on how understanding the differences between these audiences can help us define and reach the target audiences for our own communications. And we'll try to find a productive solution for dealing with those pseudo-geeks.

I believe the session should be live-streamed; I'll add a link as soon as one is available. It can also be followed on the Twitter hashtag #scio11, and we'll try to have at least one person in the room monitoring that feed for anyone who wants to participate remotely.

I hope to see you all there.


Blake Stacey said...

Serious geek here.

I don't get what Oswalt is on about.

Being one of three Star Trek fans at my school sucked. Being able to taste the collective fruits of obsession rocks. When the only anime in town was a couple VHS cassettes of Venus Wars and Project A-Ko, the situation was decidedly suboptimal. Now, I can point Firefox to Hulu and stream Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood over the Wi-Fi aether. And it is awesome.

If it's now easy to learn that which used to be arcane, well, swim on the rising tide. It once took the genius of an Archimedes to find the area enclosed by a parabola; just because the advance of mathematics has pushed back the mystique, that doesn't mean the subject has become unchallenging. As for science, so with art: If you want to argue the fine Talmudic points of the subtitled versus the dubbed translations of Neon Genesis Evangelion, you'll need to expand your Japanese beyond kawaii! and domo arigato, Mr. Roboto. Likewise, if you want to be a serious Nabokov buff, you ought to study Russian; if you want to go otaku for Greg Egan, you should learn General Relativity. Today, it is easier to reach a farther frontier, but terra incognita still exists beyond those borders.

Stephanie Zvan said...

Blake, I don't know that I agree with Oswalt's premise. It's a bit too close to the evidence-free arguments that the internet is destroying attention spans, etc. For example, there's no good way of knowing whether pseudo-geeks are coming from the ranks of former geeks or former non-geeks, or whether they were there all along but the internet allows them to be more visible.

The article also doesn't get into the value of synthesis across geekdoms, which I'm rather fond of. So I have some serious reservations about his conclusions. On the other hand, his descriptions of how geeks and pseudo-geeks interact with their areas of interest were too good not to use.

Blake Stacey said...

The article also doesn't get into the value of synthesis across geekdoms, which I'm rather fond of.

Sometimes, I suspect I have the goal of becoming otaku for Fiction itself.