The Evolution of Internet Vernacular

David McRaney writes an in-depth cultural-linguistic analysis of visual and verbal vernacular on the web, touching upon leetspeak and various image macros (including lolcats and others). In addition to being a useful glimpse into how ideas travel and subcultures identify themselves online, now I finally understand why Kotaku keeps writing posts with kitten pictures in them. (Link via Manifest Density via Boing Boing.)

Update: Boing Boing has a follow-up post. And while I’m at it, here’s an article about American versus Japanese use of emoticons, focusing on how emphasis on the mouth versus eyes parallels face-to-face interaction in each culture.

Satisfying Those Board Game Cravings

By some divine chance, my friend Tom scores himself some geek points for buying a German board game, and the very next day, I find an article (liked to by The Morning News) about how to start your own board gaming group. As the latter article states,

Here we find the dirty little secret of the board game hobby. Unlike going to the movies, watching TV or stopping at the pub for a drink or three, you have to encourage — and sometimes train — others to participate. Some adults haven’t played board games in years, and may dismiss them as “kid’s stuff;” others balk at the prospect of having to learn rules; yet other might equate game playing with overly competitive and interminable sessions of Monopoly, unaware that modern board games fall in an entirely different phylum.

And yet, if you can convince people to join you, they invariably thank you for it afterwards. Playing board games is like exercise: some people are reluctant to do it, but everyone is happy to have done it.

The article offers some practical tips, and also concludes with a warning against trying to “convert” those who just aren’t interested. (People who give advice to geeks often feel compelled to give general tips on avoiding painfully awkward social interaction.) If you have a game group of your own, please feel free to email or comment with your own thoughts on how to make those work. For what it’s worth, the secret trick of my former housemates’ gaming group was to have plenty of cheese, crackers, and root beer for ourselves and guests. It’s important to ply people with delicious foods when you are asking them to do things they might otherwise be hesitant to do, as those who organize events for grad students will surely agree.

The Star Wars/Conan Crossover You’ve Been Waiting For

In these YouTube clips, Conan O’Brien visits Lucasfilm. Go ahead and just watch part 1 and part 2 yourself, but if you miss them before the network orders them offline, here are some notes (which, I’ll admit, are mostly for my future reference in the chapter about science-fiction).

In part 1, he brings around a Star Wars geek to criticize the Lucasfilm employee giving them a tour (“Well I just noticed that John had said it’s an original, and I also notice that the chest plate doesn’t have the Hebrew lettering in these three areas which the original has, which led me to believe that maybe it’s actually a replica”). In part 2, Conan is led into a room with a couple guys who do visual FX, one of whom says, “This is our nerd corner here,” to which the reply is, “‘Nerd corner’ … you said it, I didn’t!” Then Conan asks what the fan in the room is for and jokes, “This is so you never have to go outside, simulates a cool breeze.” Then he asks another fellow about his collection of wrestling figures, which the fellow admits his folks just wanted out of the house. Then they get a whole group of people to participate in a joke about the “800 to 1” male to female ratio. It ends with Conan leading the two earlier fellows outside to frolick to action-packed Star Wars music. (Also worth watching for Conan’s drunken C-3PO impersonation, with the aid of motion capture.)

There’s plenty of nerd stereotype humor here, and yet it doesn’t come across like your standard police drama about nerds gone bad. Why not? I think it basically comes back to self-identification as opposed to labeling from outsiders. The ILM guys unapologetically identify themselves as nerds and happily participate in the lighthearted and intentionally exaggerated nerd humor. That’s a far cry from the other example linked above, an episode of Raines where the only people who can read comics or play games without looking like total losers are the elementary school student and the comic book artist who gets killed in a drug-induced hallucination about himself as a superhero (though he’s not exactly a “winner” either).

Participatory Fan Marketing, Minus the Fans

Not necessarily about geeks, but it still seemed relevant: the Wall Street Journal has an article online about music fans getting irked that professionals are winning their favorite bands’ fan-made video competitions. (Link via The Morning News.)

Some fans bristle at contestants who don’t appear to love the artists as much as they do. Eric Perry said he wished more die-hard fans had won the Incubus contest. He said he spent about 30 hours editing his own “Dig” video. “Half of me wants to say, ‘Get out! You aren’t welcomed!’ The other half knows that this was a contest,” said the 21-year-old in Shelby, Mich., who has seen the band perform three times and has his cellphone ringtone set to the Incubus song “Favorite Things.”

I imagine this must present something of a complicated dilemma to the people behind these contests. On the one hand, you want to engage your fans, make them feel more connected to the artist; on the other hand, you want to make sure you don’t end up with a lousy video, and contests of this kind typically produce pretty lousy results unless your reward is great enough to lure in pros.

I would think that the best bet of the people running such contests would be to either disallow professional entries or to do their own video alongside the contest and avoid a single “winner,” giving smaller prizes to a more diverse pool of fans. That way you get around the issue of the promo being co-opted for something it never openly claimed to be: a pitch process for spec work, which some professional communities consider unethical for anything less than multimillion dollar contracts.

Of course, the problem with both of these options is that it’s quite possible that the people running the contests do want them to be a pitch process for spec work under the flimsy guise of fan community outreach. In this case, perhaps fans are quite justified in feeling irate, and may have better luck screening fan-made films on their own terms, as various geeky fan communities (Star Wars fan films, anime music videos, etc.) have been doing for a while.

Really Big Eyes: The True Universal Language

A post up at Kotaku tells of a Powerpuff Girls Z video game, which is a game based on an anime series based on an American cartoon (somewhat stylistically) based on anime. This bit of intercultural cross-pollination is offered without comment until I figure out something more clever to say than just, “Huh, wow.”

(Maybe it does bear brief mention, at least, that even though I just banged out this post’s title as a joke, research does suggest that people all over the world react pretty similarly and positively to childlike features, such as large eyes and small noses. I don’t know if that counts as “something more clever,” but there you go.)

How Do You Stop an Orc from Charging?

… You take away his credit card. (Har har har.)

But no, really: the World of Warcraft Visa rewards you for purchases by crediting your WoW account with gametime. (Link via Boing Boing via the in-between via makezine via Joi Ito.) Make‘s take on this is particularly interesting, particularly seeing as how they saw this coming awhile ago.

Arguably, this is a blending of economies right before our eyes, but I’d be really interested to see real-world credit cards that reward you with gold pieces in-game. Now that I think about that, though, such a move would probably make people upset about game balance issues—so how about an in-game credit card that rewards players with points redeemable for real-world purchases? As we see games increasingly blur the boundaries between work and play, it would be fascinating to see game world actually designed to take advantage of these shifts.

How the Nerds Rock Out

Issue #4 of Geek Monthly features an article by Rayo Casablanca on “lab nerd music,” quoting and profiling artists including Darkest of the Hillside Thickets, Severed Heads, Jonathan Coulton, and Freezepop. These artists are offered as the latest and perhaps most overtly geeky musicians in a tradition kicked off in the early ’80s: “Artists like Devo, Talking Heads, Thomas Dolby, the Residents, the Soft Boys, Oingo Boingo, They Might be Giants, and Primus wore their science chic loud and proud” (p. 28).

I’ve been aware of these bands for awhile, though I’d never heard the “lab nerd” label used to imply that they constitute a particular scene or subgenre. Nerdcore hip-hop, on the other hand, seems to have a much more cohesive community, with artists referring to one another in their lyrics and collaborating on a series of free compilation albums. Of the artists noted above, however, two (Freezepop and Jonathan Coulton) are scheduled to play at the Penny Arcade Expo this summer alongside video game cover bands and nerdcore hip-hop artists (and I believe the organizers attempted to get Darkest of the Hillside Thickets for an earlier PAX). Pulling these artists into explicitly geek-marketed events could help identify a distinctly recognizable lab nerd music scene, even if such a community (or at least a Wikipedia entry describing one) doesn’t currently exist on any large scale.

Designers Are Geeky, Sort Of

I’m something of a a design geek, but I’m not including any discussion of graphic design in my dissertation. Why? Well, the people whom I talk to who most vocally and centrally identify themselves as geeks/nerds don’t ever refer to design when they talk about “geek culture.” It’s relatively safe to assume that a comic book reader has also watched some anime, that a person who can tell you what 2400 bps means can also quote a few lines from Star Wars, that a self-identified gamer isn’t just talking about video games, and that any of the above felt outside of “the popular crowd” in high school. When I saw video game designer Will Wright give a talk at South by Southwest Interactive, he asked how many of us had played Dungeons and Dragons, and nearly every hand in the room went up, prompting him to say in delight, “Great, you’re all geeks!” I’m not sure he would have had the same response from SXSW attendees at one of the more graphic-design-oriented panels.

Even so, the way people throw around the word ‘geek’ these days, just about anybody can qualify themselves as some sort of geek: design geek, knitting geek, Home and Garden Television geek, etc. This usage just implies some mild self-derision about one’s ability to gush about a topic of interest to only very few other people. It’s not necessarily the level or type of knowledge that make someone geeky nowadays, but the degree to which the knowledge is esoteric. Being excited about obscure stuff can make you feel awkward, but it can also make you feel special.

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Nerdy Events For You and Me

Nerd Nite is an opportunity for self-proclaimed nerds to give talks about their favorite nerdy things in a bar. The official site went for months without an update, but a new Boston Nerd Nite (on cephalopods!) was announced just a couple days after I joined their email list. Alas, it’s on the day after I head back to Philadelphia, but you Bostonians can check it out this Saturday night. Inkling Magazine has an interesting write-up on the event’s history.

As long as I’m announcing events with geek-oriented names, please also feel free to check out Dorkbot, featuring many worldwide chapters of “people doing strange things with electricity.” I caught a neat Dorkbot party in Austin during South by Southwest Interactive (featuring Tree Wave on the stage, a Tesla coil playing the Ghostbusters theme song, free issues of Make Magazine, and free beer, among other attractions), and I hope my visit to Portugal this summer coincides with a meeting by the Lisbon chapter.

Why Parents Won’t Love Bassoon Hero

Fellow Annenberg student Deb, who studies sound and culture, sent me the following email about Guitar Hero yesterday:

Thought about you today while reading a (very) Foucaultian analysis of Western classical music practices (Western ensembles = auditory panopticons arranged around the conductor/guard tower). As everyone-and-his-congressman knows, video games lead directly to murder and mayhem, but musical training has always been touted as an influence in the other direction. Music (the antithesis of noise) orders sound, and musical training orders behavior and shapes character (or so we are told) in everyone from school children to prison inmates. I wonder if the civilizing musical aspects of Guitar Hero cancel out the violent video game aspects—if “sweetness and light” cancels out “kill, kill, kill”…

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