A few years ago, Lore Sjöberg, famous internet humorist, put into flowchart form what has been subconsciously understood among geek culture for as long as I’ve been a geek. There is an implicit hierarchy of respect among the geek tribes. Producers of paid, commercial content sit at the top of the cultural hierarchy and command respect far and wide. Furries, child gamers, and fan fiction writers rank at the bottom, with some combination of all of the above being the ultimate untouchable caste, and don’t command respect from much of anyone. Somewhere in the middle are fans of various geek hobbies, the consumers of commercial content produced at the top of the pyramid.
The flowchart is amusing, and was generally meant in good fun. It strikes us as funny because it is true, if not often said. Most everyone with which I have shared it has examined the chart and, regardless of where they feel they themselves fit in, agree with the structure. The chart simply describes that those above feel that they themselves are “less geeky” than those below. “Less geeky,” but by whose terms, exactly?
The word “geek” is a mixed term for anyone of a certain age. Prior to the real kickoff of the information age, say, the early 1990s, “geek” was still a pejorative term for people who didn’t fit into the mainstream (whatever that may be). In my experience, it is almost never leveled in a negative way today and is often meant as a compliment. In the Bad Old Days before the geek yearbook stereotype turned from “most likely to be 30 and still playing D&D in parent’s basement” into “most likely to be a billionaire before 30”, many fans were targeted with the word in a hurtful manner. If you’re on that chart, you’ve almost certainly been made fun of for it by someone. Such is life, and convincing the mainstream to accept us is a much larger battle than the one I wish to address here. But how about we take a break from bagging on one another?
The need to feel power and superiority is sometimes stronger in those who have had a harder time being accepted by others. The conventional wisdom is that the bullied will jump at the chance to bully someone they perceive to be weaker than themselves. The existence and practice of the geek hierarchy is direct evidence of this phenomenon. I know that not all geeks had difficult times as youth, but I feel safe in saying that it is a common experience.
I can’t speak to those who aren’t on the chart, at least not in this forum, but I can speak to some of those who are on it. I have a simple request: let’s burn the hierarchy to the ground. Let’s stop feeling superior over our fellow geeks because our passions are different and perhaps slightly more acceptable to the mainstream. Do we really want to rate our individual worth by that metric?
The curious thing to me about the hierarchy is the way it values and devalues creativity of different forms. Writers who are published can command respect, even the lowliest semipro such as myself (according to the hierarchy anyway). A fanfic writer with tens of thousands of online fans and a much larger impact on the lives of his or her fellows, is seen as inferior? I have my qualms with appropriating the copyright of others, but the message our culture sends about working within or outside of the system, and how you will be perceived for it, leaves me very uncomfortable with it all.
I have been scornful of furries and fanfic writers in the past. I freely admit that I have not lived by these words until recently. Perhaps it has something to do with recently turning 30, and reevaluating my life so far, but I have lost interest in feeling superior on the basis of interests and passions.
I am not arguing that you should share those passions. You don’t have to like fanfic or fur suits, or fur suits with unspeakable holes sewn in. I am not arguing against criticism of the things themselves. What I dream of is an internet geekdom that respects the person, regardless of their freakish obsession or hobby. If this sounds suspiciously similar to the Christian ethic, “love the sinner, hate the sin,” I will admit that the sentiment is essentially the same.
So be critical of fan fiction itself. It’s probably not written for you anyway, and I don’t know why you would waste your time on something you dislike, but it’s your choice. Criticism of art is incredibly important in our society. But when you cross the line and make the writer the target of your scorn, you’re hurting a real person. Just like you were hurt when you were young, awkward, and into unpopular things. High school, junior high–they’re over. Let’s move on, and set a tone of respect online for one another. I don’t know about you, but I found all that condescension to be exhausting. Lastly, remember this: fans are not slans. Nor are published authors. We’re all just people, trying to make a living and stay entertained.
Like most things geeky, XKCD draws and says it best. “It’s easier to be an asshole to words than to people.”
Jeremiah Tolbert lives with two cats and a wife in the foothills of Colorado. He spends more time on the internet than is healthy.