Is the Web Overrun by Geeks, or Is Everyone Geeky Now?

Awhile back, I read about a Pew study on sites like Digg and Reddit. According to the BBC, the study found that “Seven out of ten of the stories selected by the user-driven [news] sites came from blogs or non-news websites with only 5% of stories overlapping with the ten most widely-covered stories in the mainstream media.” Also, “In a week dominated by stories about Iraq and the debate about immigration, users were more interested in the release of the iPhone and the news that Nintendo had surpassed Sony in net worth.” One of the authors admits that the “technology bias” was probably due to enthusiastic “early adopters” of such sites. I think that’s kind of an understatement. I think the sites they were looking at in the study were geek-dominated sites, and what they’re seeing is—to some extent—a geek-driven news agenda. You know me, of course—maybe I’d have called you a witch in Salem if I had been doing my dissertation on witches back then—but I doubt this is my imagination. I dropped by a Reddit Meetup on Halloween which seemed overwhelmingly male and sported a disproportionate number of people dressed as video game characters.

Not long after I read about the Pew study, I came across a link that keeps track of the most visited Wikipedia pages in a given month. As of when I’m checking it now, the top 10 include Naruto, Guitar Hero III, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Heroes, and Transformers (film), among others. If you don’t count generic pages like the entry page, pages about stereotypically geeky media products (anime, video games, fantasy literature, superheroes, robots, etc.) account for over half of the top ten results. Sex-related and Xbox-related pages figure prominently in the rest of the list. Sure, you occasionally see something like 50 Cent or America’s Next Top Model, but what we’d typically consider “mainstream” seems pretty outpaced here by what we’d consider “geeky.”

In a seemingly unrelated story I discovered around the same time time as the above two, Nancy Baym referred to a Time article by someone from Hitwise, a company which tracks web traffic. The article suggests that fanfic is a much bigger destination on the web than many probably imagine: is the largest site in market share of visits, capturing 34.7% of the visits to the entire [Entertainment/Books and Writing] category. As of the week ending Aug. 25, 2007, the site ranked in the 159th position of over 1 million websites, putting ahead of sites such as

This is certainly news to me, but I’m concerned that we are kind of discussing apples and oranges here: is regularly updated with new creative content for people seeking entertainment (and has Harry Potter on its side); is updated with ads and relatively static content for people seeking information (save for Apple “fans,” a minority within a minority of computer users who probably go to other blogs which would filter relevant information for them). Still, it’s interesting that a fanfic site made the list at all.

What does all of this mean? A couple simple explanations for these trends come to mind.

The first explanation is that geeky interests have become way more mainstream. This seems to be Nancy’s interpretation of the news that fanfic is a major web destination—i.e., there must be more people reading fanfic than we ever imagined.

The second explanation is that a minority of people with geeky interests disproportionately account for massive amounts of web traffic—i.e., the web is still more geek-dominated than we’d like to admit.

I’m inclined to guess that there’s some truth to both of these explanations, but that the second may explain some of these statistics better than the first. It’s no surprise that we see Wikipedia pages dominated by the geeky products most embraced by mainstream culture. This is arguably indicative of the mainstreaming of that which was once considered only geeky. Still, I think Reddit may be something of a microcosm for the web as a whole: While you can find just about anything on the web, some of the most visited destinations still represent the esoteric interests of a minority of computer-savvy fans and enthusiasts.

Malcolm Parks mentioned in one NCA panel that large numbers of people with broadband access are still what we would consider light or infrequent users. This got me thinking back to the above links, which I had sitting around in a draft post for awhile, not sure how to connect the dots between them. Now I’m thinking of who the heavy web users are: They may not be computer experts, but may still share some of the geeky predilections shared by hacker and IT cultures. This is probably partly due to traditionally shared interests among overlapping subcultures, and perhaps in part because keeping plugged into fan subcultures on a daily basis requires a certain baseline of computer facility.

While the term “digital natives” is misleading, there is some sense to the idea that young people growing up with computers now will probably be the major population online in the long run. What will be interesting to see, then, is whether fanfic sites and geeky movies still figure so prominently in top-visited pages once computer skill is not so closely connected with other geeky interests.

6 thoughts on “Is the Web Overrun by Geeks, or Is Everyone Geeky Now?

  1. I agree that we are definitely seeing an echo chamber effect in these numbers.

    While I was reading this though a thought occurred to me. The early life of a geek usually involves a certain degree of isolation from one’s peers. In the past, this dictated a certain degree of social isolation over all. It wasn’t until college, or at least post-high school, that geeks began to find a social network that they fit into.

    Today’s young geeks though have the internet as an outlet where they can minimize that sense of social isolation by connecting with other geeks online. Since humans are typically social animals who crave a certain degree of social interaction, it makes sense that those of us who are unable to find that social element in our day to day lives fill that void through using the net.

    I guess what I’m getting at is the question of whether the preponderance of geeks online isn’t a natural outcome of the social situation that geeks tend to fall into?

    If this is the case, I wonder what kind of long term effect this will have on the stereotype of the socially inept geek. A significant element in the rise of this stereotype is that degree of isolation that we face during our formative years. Limit that isolation and what effect does that have?

  2. I’m wondering about the timing here. Stories that make it out into the national news are routinely discussed weeks in advance online. I’d love to see someone do a comparison of the first time story X gets mentioned online versus when the Gang of 500 glom onto it.

  3. Regarding Matt’s point: A couple years back, when I started researching geek culture, I asked an interviewee why he thought non-computer geeky things still get lumped in with computer geekery, and he noted that when he was a kid, he had to turn to BBS’s to find anybody with similar interests. There’s also an essay early on in She’s Such a Geek! that implies this, at least for one contributor. I’ve heard a few other examples along these lines as well. I’m curious as to how common this is.

    Personally, I met some fellow geeks in middle school, and it was through them that I started using computers as a tool for entertainment and social connection. Following that, early BBS’s were definitely one way that I tapped into broader networks related to my interests—I even met my first girlfriend on a BBS (insofar as someone you hold hands with in eighth grade counts as a “girlfriend”)…

  4. It would be cool to see some statistics about who is using the internet combined with stats about how frequently/long they use it, and cross referenced with which sites/subjects are getting the most traffic. In other words, even if “geeks” are a smaller proportion of internet users (than before), they probably access the internet much more frequently. This has a snowballing effect — if you only use the internet to check your email or Yahoo news, then you might be less likely to understand the utility of wikipedia, digg, etc. You kind of hit on this in your paragraph where you mentioned Malcolm Parks.

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