Last Monday saw the opening of a new Threadless brick-and-mortar store in Chicago (link via Tcritic). In case you’re not familiar with Threadless, this is notable because it used to be an online-only venture, a sort of odd union between traditional consumer capitalism and brand-spanking-new Web 2.0 collaboration. The site was founded on the premise of having users submit designs and vote on which designs they like and would buy, though recent years have seen it introduce special lines of shirts not voted on by the audience.
My main sites for researching geek culture over the last couple years have been conventions for fans and techies. This year, though, I aim to be even more of a nerdy nomad, moving between large and small events alike. This means going to local geek events, such as those for Geek Night Philly, Nerd Nite Boston, Nerds NYC, and local chapters for Dorkbot and Make. It also means attending some shows for nerdcore hip-hop acts, wizard rock concerts, and geeky performances in general.
My big question now, then, is whether there’s a handy RSS feed or mailing list out there that will tell me when I can expect such groups to come to town. If you know of any such resource, please do let me know. For now, here’s what I’ve been able to compile on geeky music that you may find interesting.
Nerdapalooza: A (postponed) music festival to feature geek rock and nerdcore hip-hop.
Rhyme Torrents: A nerdcore forum frequented by artists and fans, also hosting several compilations of nerdcore mp3s.
Nerdcorehiphop.org: Supposedly includes a listing of nerdcore gigs, but I’m not finding much that seems recent. Lots of other links off that page, though.
Nerdymag: Online magazine about the nerdcore scene and culture.
This week’s Escapist Magazine is devoted to roleplaying (or rather, the lack thereof) in video gaming. A couple interesting points jumped out at me.
First, Nova Barlow’s “World of Warcraft Killed My Inner Actor” explores how the design of games ostensibly modeled on RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons actively discourages actual roleplaying:
With content designed mostly to retain players who have maxed out characters, character development also takes a backseat, because your impact on the world is limited. Games like EverQuest (and every MMOG thereafter) drove this point home. It’s a matter of necessity: Content can’t be generated fast enough for every single guild to have a unique dragon to slay. So everyone gets the same experience. Character development, the cornerstone of roleplaying, grinds to a standstill and becomes a laundry list of epic drops. What draws a lot of people to roleplaying is the opportunity to be unique in a strange land, but no matter how many options you get at the outset, at the end of the day we all look the same.
Infinite Canvas: The Art of Webcomics brings comics from the web page to the MoCCA stage. The exhibit explores three aspects of online comics: the unique format and design of webcomics, their appeal to niche audiences, and the transitions between web and print comics.
Curator Jennifer Babcock, who also draws the syndicated webcomic Câ€™est La Vie, explains that webcomics are free of the space constraints and editorial censorship to which printed comics are often subjected. Webcomics also provide an outlet for a greater diversity of creators and audiences, she says, resulting in numerous niche-specific features.
I’ve already pondered on the issue of webcomics reaching niche audiences on this blog, so I’ll set that aside for now. What puzzles me somewhat about this exhibit, however, is the focus on the “unique format and design,” especially the decision to title the exhibit “Infinite Canvas.”
I really meant to respond in grander fashion to Tom’s post on alternate status hierarchies, as he’s tapping into an ongoing discussion that is at its heart about geeks’ social and media engagement. I wrote a comment on his post while in Seattle, and suggested I might blog about it further. Then I flew back, started playing catch-up, and … well, we all know this story. At least I think I can still stand by my original comment to him. Anyway, I wanted to direct your attention to it in case you felt like contributing at all.
As a follow-up to an earlier post, consider a conversation in the XKCD forums regarding a formula for acceptable age limits for dating. It offers another interesting glimpse of how math (sort of) helps us think about our lives. My favorite exchange:
Is it sad that I have both heard of and used that formula before?
I’d say no, but since I’m trying to remember where my graphing calculator is, I’m hardly impartial.
This also led my friend Jordan to calculations on the probability of finding a girlfriend. The validity of this analysis is apparently in dispute. Let us remember that the odds change depending on context: If you’re determined to date a gamer, for example, you may have a better chance of finding a mate at the local arcade than in, say, Chuck E. Cheese’s, where the people playing games are likely to be minors, and the adults are more likely to be married parents. (Exception: You may also find the occasional group of twentysomething guys who recall that Chuck E. Cheese’s serves beer for the parents and decide to show up for the novelty of getting drunk with an animatronic animal band. I learned of this practice from someone at South by Southwest Interactive.)
At the end of this month, the second annual Come Out and Play Festival will be occurring in Amsterdam. I went to last year’s inaugural festival in New York, and it provided an excellent introduction to alternate reality games, street games (for folks of all ages), and “big games,” as they’re sometimes known. I attended COaP to do a short ethnographic film exploring what this gaming culture is about and what it’s like to actually play some of these things.
Very soon, I would like to put the post on Bioshock I’ve been taking occasional notes for, reflect a bit on the dissertation proposal writing process, and discuss how the image of the Jewish male fits into the nerd stereotype (which came up in my proposal defense and when someone from The Jewish Chronicle recently told me about an article he’s writing about nerds, both of which inspired me to find this “nerd vs. nebbish” article from 1998). For now, though, it’s all I can do just to keep up with some links that have been piling up.
Reflections on Comic Con: David Glanzer, director of marketing and public relations for the huge pop culture festival known as Comic Con, has given a couple interviews with The Comics Reporter‘s Tom Spurgeon and Comic Book Resources‘s Jonah Weiland. Apparently the show saw 125,000 this year. I believe it, especially considering how much waiting in line has become a standard feature of the weekend. Some people I spoke with waited in line for hours in the hopes of seeing the trailer for the next Batman movie (i.e., waited in line for a commercial) at the DC panel, but it was not shown. Anyway, there’s a lot of business-oriented stuff in those interviews (which some of you may find more engaging than others), but also some interesting stuff about how conventions function within geek culture, such as when Tom asks about the con’s role to “consummate (in the g-rated sense) on-line friendships,” which leads to increased space for clubs. Actually, even more space seemed needed for that this year, I think; the Browncoats’ (Firefly/Serenity fans’) meeting seemed filled to capacity with regulars, so I had to meet folks through other means, chatting with some fellow Browncoat-curious attendees standing outside.
The Vibe of PAX: Mike (“Gabe”) at Penny Arcade reflects on how the vibe of PAX is so different from other conventions because it really feels by and for the gamers themselves. Having been to PAX three times, this actually sounds pretty accurate and not just touchy-feely, self-congratulatory stuff. While the con hosts plenty of panels and the obligatory exhibitors’ room, much of the space simply hosts tables with tabletop games going, beanbag chairs seating handheld gamers, and TVs and computers for console and PC gamers. People are just there to have fun with friends and strangers, participating in the hobby that brought them all there in the first place. Plus, Mike and Jerry go out of their way to make the visitors feel like they’re the ones in charge, allowing people to come onstage to fulfill silly requests, and fielding every personal question (except who would win in a fight between ninjas and pirates). My first year there (before I was officially there for research), they even let my friend Tony take a photo of my friend Kai pretending to lick Jerry’s head. “You were a good sport about that,” I told him, to which he replied, “I am here for your amusement.” He wandered off, presumably to do something more official. Now that is dedication to your fans.
Update (again): Mike also posts links to PAX desktop wallpapers made by PA designer Kiko. As of now, some of the links seem to not be working, but I expect that will be fixed. (Yes: see the Flickr set on PAX culture in particular. This is fairly representative of what it looks like from the convention floor: a huge line, colorful shirts, and DS’s aplenty.) For now, you can still see a good pic of a giant crowd holding aloft their phones and DS’sâ€”the PAX equivalent of holding up a lighter at a concert.
Fellow Annenberger Deb L. emailed me a scan from the catalog of freshman writing seminars happening this semester at Penn. I was able to scrounge up full descriptions from the Critical Writing course listing.
ENGL 009 314 TR 1:30pm-3:00pm Smith
Brains, Jocks, Burnouts, and Rebels
What is a nerd? A Jock? Have these identities always existed in school, or are they new? Do they exist across cultures, or are they a uniquely American phenomenon? How is it that unique individuals embrace these categories or are pushed into them? This course will explore identities as they exist in high schools, and students will engage in critical writing around the creation and definition of identity categories, both generally and in terms of personal experience.
“Brains, Jocks, Burnouts, and Rebels” is about high school hierarchies (with a description starting with the words “What is a nerd?”), and “Freaks and Geeks” is about fandom (“Most of us would admit to being a freak or a geek about somethingâ€”in other words, a fan”).
ENGL 009 319 MW 3:30pm-5:00pm Cook
Freaks and Geeks
Most of us would admit to being a freak or geek about something — in other words, a fan. This is a class about fan culture, in which we will think critically about the idea of the fan and his or her relationship to literary and cultural production. Using critical essays, documentary films, novels and websites, we will study the theory and practice of fandom. We will examine the ways fans creatively demonstrate their enthusiasm for literary classics like Shakespeare and Austen, consider the communities created by contemporary phenomena like Star Trek and the Harry Potter books, and explore the idea of a cult classic and what it means to be part of a cult following. In short weekly assignments and several longer, formal essays, students will discuss their own experience as fans and reflect upon the ways in which fandom constitutes a unique mode of reading a text, whether it be a novel, television show, film, or piece of music.
I’m fascinated that in two pages you get such different takes on practically the same concepts. One conceptualizes nerdiness as part of a distinct social category, and the other assumes that we all have a certain amount of geekiness, our “own experience as fans.” It’s often quite intentional to refer in one case to “nerds” and in the other to “geeks,” although there’s little ambiguity about the oddity associated with the word “freak.”
If you’re a Penn student, note that the last day to add a writing class is September 14th!
At Media in Transition 5, I had the good fortune to be placed on a panel alongside Lori Kendall, associate professor of library and information science at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. She’s one of very few academics devoting significant attention to the cultural role of the nerd. Her MiT5 presentation was called “White and Nerdy: Current Meanings of the Nerd Stereotype” (conference abstract here). A version of that paper has recently been accepted to Journal of Popular Culture. The journal has a long backlog, though, so she’s given permission to link to a prepublication version now titled “White and Nerdy: Computers, Race, and the Nerd Stereotype” (which is pretty close to what you’ll see in the journal).
The Times article on Mary Bucholtz’s research seemed to get people pretty interested in talking about nerds and race (both here and elsewhere, including Journalista, Newsarama, Power Word: Blog, Angriest Rice Cookerâ€”which has a comment thread worth checking outâ€”and others), so I thought it might be worth reviving that conversation through another person’s take on the matter. Overall, I got the impression from the commentary on Mary’s research that people denied (maybe even resented) the implication that nerdity is a “hyperwhite” identity, as it implies an oversimplified black/white duality. People also seemed to think it hurt her credibility to claim that nerd identity is always actively chosen, as opposed to some combination between actively taking on a role and having a role assigned by school hierarchies or culture at large.
I’m interested to see how people respond to Lori’s paper, then, considering that she’s analyzing cultural forms created by nerds and geeks themselves, who quite clearly invoke a black/white dualityâ€”namely, nerdcore hip-hop and Weird Al’s “White and Nerdy” rap video. You can argue that hip-hop is mainstream enough that it’s no longer a “Black” phenomenon, but let’s be honest with ourselves here: Nerdcore artists frequently rap in an affected “gangsta” persona, and the overwhelming majority are White. Why should nerdity be connected to whiteness in this way, and is this connection problematic? Please feel free to check out the the paper and let us know what you think.