A Community That Explodes the Myth of the Antisocial Geek
Perhaps one of the most worrisome and tiresome stereotypes in modern society is the portrayal of geeks as antisocial individualists. In this sad age where the evening news seems cursed all too often with gut-wrenching reports of teenagers who have somehow snapped and harmed classmates or teachers, the dreadful stereotypes about geeks seem to live on in spite of fact and reason. It seems that just minutes after every one of these tragic episodes, a wild flurry of "experts" appear in the popular media trying to explain what happened.
These accusations seem to hover around the old stereotype of geeks as antisocial people. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, geeks are quite social. They just have a different sense of priorities. But having a different sense of priorities is a far cry from being a social miscreant.
In fact, the community uses a number of ways to socially connect with each other. Many of them are basic tools of the Internet, such as email, Internet Relay Chat (IRC), mailing lists, and Web-based forums. Others are community news and discussion sites like Slashdot and Linux Today. But the most personal methods of socializing concern user group meetings.
Especially prevalent in the Linux community, where they are called LUGs (for Linux Users Groups), user groups are local bands of people who come together periodically to talk about subjects pertaining to Open Source software. Naturally, the content and frequency of these meetings varies according to the wishes of the attendees. But many of them feature installfests, which are events where people can bring in their computers and have the local experts install Open Source software on them.
Out of these local user groups occasionally grow larger technical conferences. Unlike many computer shows where the vendor-filled exposition floor is considered the center attraction, these technical conferences focus on producing high-quality technical seminars for geeks to hear about various Open Source technologies. The exposition floor, if it exists, is generally a sidebar to the conference itself.
But these very social occasions are important cornerstones of the not-so-antisocial geek community. These events allow geeks to meet, socialize, and talk about the things that matter to them. They also bring about two important community activities: the delivery of technical presentations and the sipping of beer.
The Rise of Geek Speaking
The growth of user meetings within the community brought about the role of geek speakers.
The common culture frequently characterizes geeks as lacking the skills to do formal presentations. Instead, society often points to managers and salespeople who can stand up in front of a crowd and talk with ease.
In the past 20 years, I have seen many people do presentations of one kind or another. I have seen many businesspeople of importance stand up and deliver their speech. I have observed their polished and poised ways as they deliver their points in carefully rehearsed and measured tones. I have heard them make the obligatory jokes that all good speakers make at the exact time in the speech when they are supposed to be made. I have watched the crowd applaud graciously as the speaker concludes his remarks and takes his seat. And I have turned to the person sitting next to me and said, "He spoke very well, but what did he say?"
In the past decade, I have witnessed some presentations that stood above the rest. They were informative, dynamic, funny, and interesting. And, as strange as it might seem to some people, they were all delivered by geeks.
How is this possible? The secret, I believe, is in the context. When the typical geek in high school is told to speak about something that the teacher thinks is important, he may lack enthusiasm and be very aware of his assigned role as the outsider of mainstream society. Standing up in front of people in that atmosphere is like going to the zoo only to find that you are one of the animals in the cage.
But, when the geek is given the opportunity to speak about something that really matters to him, and can speak to a group that actually wants to hear what he has to say, something almost miraculous happens. The shy, introverted geek discovers his voice. He discovers that he really can speak after all.
I have heard professional speakers whose speeches came to a dead halt because the system containing their slides died. And I have seen geek speakers facing the same problem deliver an informative and witty presentation without the aid of any notes or slides at all.
In the same way that geek culture changes the priorities in the society to match what geeks find important, so do geek speakers employ the elements that they feel make for solid communication. Geek speakers tend to have a very clear message in mind when they speak. They also tend to have a passion for the subject matter. And they know what makes them laugh about the subject, so they share it with their listeners.
This form of communication is very important to the community. First, it is helpful for proper geek-to-geek communication. Many geeks take advantage of the technical sessions at conferences to become acquainted with projects they have not dealt with before. If someone stands up and gives a standard content-free marketing pitch for the project, it would put most geeks to sleepand the few who remained awake would not be in an especially pleasant frame of mind. Likewise, a lifeless recitation of slides would be insufficient, as geeks tend to require answers to pointed questions and become frustrated when the presenter has neither the knowledge to answer the question nor the flexibility to accommodate audience interaction.
But a good geek speaker can react well with a geek audience. The speaker knows his subject matter, so the presentation itself has valuable information. Most audience questions are not difficult to handle because he has a depth of knowledge in the subject. And the thought of departing from the preordained presentation is not threatening in the least because he is talking about subjects he knows well.
The result of this is that the geek speaker is able to effectively impart valuable knowledge to the geek audience. This is very important because the realm of Open Source software is far too wide for any one person to master. So, an effective geek speaker is a tremendously valuable asset to quickly educate other geeks regarding the status of projects outside of their sphere of participation.
The second vital role of the geek speaker is as an interface to the outside world. As Open Source grows in popularity, there is a steady influx of people coming into the community and looking around. This is especially evident at Open Source trade shows and conventions, where many newbies join geeks in attending technical sessions to understand the technology.
This is the situation where not only the knowledge but also the passion of the speaker becomes important. Part of the job of the geek speaker in that instance is to impart some of his excitement for the technology to the newbie. If the speaker can get the outsider to comprehend not just the technical advantages of the software, but also the excitement that he feels for the project, he is well on the way toward convincing the newbie that this project, in particularand Open Source, in generalis something worth pursuing.
In a world where it seems every salesperson feigns delight over his mediocre product line, the presence of genuine excitement and real conviction stands out in the minds of those who listen. The role of the geek speaker in imparting this genuine excitement to the listener should not be underestimated. It is the means by which many newbies realize that Open Source is not just about software, it is about people and the community they have formed.