On the Five Geek Social Fallacies, Part II

Last time, I talked about Michael Suileabhain-Wilson’s five geek social fallacies, giving brief descriptions and some of my brief thoughts on them. In short, while I think that recognizing faults in the nerd persona are important, the five GSFs listed both overstretch certain parts of nerd personalities while completely ignoring others. It’s really hard to boil down nerd psychology into a simple list, but the GSFs are a good place to start figuring out how we nerds and geeks operate. Bear with me while I navel-gaze for a bit.

A common theme in the GSFs is that friendship is a binary relationship. Either you are a friend, or you are an enemy. Friendship, under this definition, entails complete commonality of interests, absolute loyalty, and as much presence as possible. Friends like each other, like the same things, will do anything for each other, and will spend as much time with each other as possible. Friendship is always equal among friends. Any slight on these points is a personal attack and moves that person from friend to enemy. I’m obviously caricaturing here, but the reality is often not too far from the extreme.

GSFs 1, 2, 4, and 5 can be combined into a single statement: all my friends are all friends themselves, and everyone is welcome. It stems from a common idea that those who exclude are enemies, and the idea that a friend may not want to be around another friend, whatever the reason, moves them into the enemy zone. Nerds hate exclusion, usually stemming from school social circles and being burned by people they thought were friends. We don’t want to be hurt by excluders again, and we don’t want to hurt someone else by excluding them. Because we accept this premise, our friends of friends must be our friends, as excluding them makes us enemies in their eyes. And because these are my friends, they will accept me regardless of who I am and what I do.

GSFs 1, 3, and 5 share a common thread of “loyalty over everything because we are friends.” The act of excluding is a betrayal of the loyalty of friends, and any act that goes against friends is seen as such a betrayal. Need a ride to the airport? Done. Want some of the dinner I cooked? Of course. Come to the hockey game tonight? I have work tomorrow, but okay. We’re going to Florida for spring break, are you coming? Well, I had plans already, but…. You can see where this is going. This stems from a strong desire to keep the friends we have, and always being present is how nerds think people will like them. It makes it very hard to say “no” to anyone, even when the nerd is not in a position to live up to the promises they make.

Conversely, when people say “no” reasonably, the breach of loyalty is often blown out of proportion. What do you mean you can’t drive me to the airport? I’ve had a long week, I’m tired. Why can’t I have some of your dinner? I spent a long time making it, and I’d really like to keep it for leftovers. I thought you were going to the hockey game? I’m going to the bar with other friends tonight. Can I join you? Well, I haven’t seen them for a while, and I’d really like to catch up with them again. What about spring break? I already made plans to go to Chicago. You made plans to go to Chicago and didn’t ask me? It is often hard for nerds to accept when one of their friends has a part of their life incongruous with their perception of that friend; if they don’t act in the way that nerds expect them to act, the betrayal instinct kicks in.

This leads into another thread among nerds: all of my friends are willing to put in as much into the friendship as I am, and I’m willing to put in a lot. This is very dangerous, as it completely ignores one of the fundamental truths of friendship: friends often do not share the same level of commitment. Friendship is always a balancing act, and knowing how much social capital you’ve built up with your friends is crucial when interacting for them. It can mean the difference between them dropping everything for a major project of yours and them blowing up at you for asking for a small favor. Nerds, who think of friendships in binary, have a hard time grasping that the person they call friend may not get the same benefits from the friendship as the nerd does. It’s easy to feel betrayed when you put in a lot of work into a friendship only to realize that they don’t take it as seriously as you, but understanding what your friend gets out of the friendship can make both of your lives easier. You save your energy for other friends, and your friend gets what they want without feeling awkward that you are doting on them so much.

One major nerd social fallacy that was completely ignored in the original article (though hinted at) is that all friends share the same interests. If I like fighting games, shooters, basketball, anime, and 80s movies, then clearly all of my friends like fighting games, shooters, basketball, anime, and 80s movies. If they like RPGs, then either (1) why the hell are they my friend? or (2) crap, I have to like RPGs now. I have found this to be especially troubling, notably in that nerds feel that the way to engage your friends is by doing things you like in common, and since we are friends, we share those things in common. Thus, when we’re together, the way we engage each other is through those things we share in common. Now, this is the basis for most social interactions, nerd or otherwise, but where the fallacy comes into play is when we cannot recognize when we like something more than our friends and try to base our social interactions such that we favor our interest over theirs.

For example, I like video games, food, TV, anime, and movies, in roughly that order. One of my best friends likes movies, food, TV, video games, and anime, roughly in that order. We share common interests, there’s no question about that, but because they’re not in the same order, our level of engagement in any of these is going to be vastly different. To me, a great way to spend a night is with a couple bottles of wine and some great conversation about video games, food, TV, etc. My friend like to spend a night with a couple bottles of wine watching movies and playing video games. And there’s a very big distinction between the two. I get bored watching movies, and I hate playing video games drunk. My friend likes to show me some new Youtube clip or parody anime or classic movie or make me play a game they really like in the hope that I will have the same reaction. I inevitably don’t, and while we’re both old enough not to be offended by this, I can see how confused they get when I don’t have their same reaction. Another example that bleeds into other tendencies mentioned supra is that they like to go see movies in theaters, whereas I’d rather stay at home. They get almost offended that I don’t want to see a movie in the theater because it is jarring that something that means so much to them cannot have the same effect on someone they care so much about. It is this nascent jarring that I think leads to the vitriol we see on the Internet when someone writes an article we don’t agree with, but that analysis is for another post.

Recognizing that friends can have different tastes and finding ways to engage those tastes is something that nerds actually do rather well at times. Because nerd culture is so broad, we’ve come to accept that not everyone is going to share our tastes, so we can accept when, say, my friend goes to the theater to see the latest movies while I stay at home and play JRPGs. We always want to find people who share our interests, but because our own interests are so well defined, we can learn to appreciate the reasons why other like the things that we may not. Knowing what attracts our friends to their interests is the key to engaging them and building friendships, and having friends who will act reciprocally is a rare treasure. I realize that the last sentence may seem painfully obvious, but I am always surprised at how many people (usually nerds) try to engage people without finding out what motivates them.

I am way more verbose than I intended to be in this post, so let’s wrap this up. While the 5 GSFs bring up some interesting points, I think they evince a general theme in nerd culture that is reactionary to prior exclusion and depends on a binary view of friendship. It ignores the common nerd view that all friends must share the same tastes and merely touches on the differences in social capital that define most friendships. What it mostly shows is that nerd psychology is incredibly complex and cannot be canonized into a few generalizations. I’ve already written over 2500 words on the subject, and I’m just scratching the surface. But the conversation has to start somewhere, and it gives a good shorthand for identifying behaviors that we want to change and see changed in our friends. As nerds, we have to deal with nerds, and being able to recognize our own faults and helping our friends to overcome theirs will ease social tensions we already have to deal with.

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On the Five Geek Social Fallacies, Part I

Michael Suileabhain-Wilson wrote an article over 10 years ago listing the five geek social fallacies, and while I’m not sure how widespread this article is, it made it onto TVTropes. Whatever that’s worth. That said, I thought it brought up some interesting points on geeks, geek culture, and how geeks interact with the rest of the world, so let’s go through the GSFs and see if they hold sway in 2014. I will say now that I use the term “nerd” and “geek” interchangeably here, even though I think there are differences between the two.

Geek Social Fallacy 1: Ostracizers Are Evil

The idea here is that those who exclude others are evil. Given that many geeks and nerds were the unpopular kids in grade school, this mentality is understandable: those who excluded us, hurt us, and so exclusion is evil. This isn’t entirely bad; taking an inclusive approach to people and groups can be helpful to everyone. The danger comes from when you are so inclusive that you are unwilling to exclude those who hurt the group. There’s always that jerk or creeper friend that you have who you like to hang out with on occasion but don’t want them around all the time. GSF1 prevents you from actively preventing them from being around, so you start planning events in secret, hoping they won’t notice, or your events just get awkward real fast. Or you just stop doing things altogether.

Geek Social Fallacy 2: Friends Accept Me As I Am

GSF2 also starts in a place that is good: having a safe haven where you are welcome is something that everyone needs. Geeks often have difficulty finding groups that share similar interests and fit with their personalities. Problems arise when acceptance into a group means those friends cannot criticize your flaws. None of us are perfect, and there are times when we need someone to help us not be jerks or creepers. Those with GSF2 take criticism personally and as an attack, something that friends don’t do (so they think). This makes groups conflict-averse, leading to friends being passive-aggressive toward each other and taking what could be minor conflicts and turning them into an explosion of hatred later.

Geek Social Fallacy 3: Friendship Before All

This one can be particularly dangerous. The ultimate conclusion is that friendship is binary–all friends will do things for all other friends without hesitation or self-regard. Loyalty is something that we want to have, but loyalty at the expense of our well-being will ruin the friendship that supposedly comes before everything else. It’s especially difficult when one friend is clearly more invested in the friendship than the other, and the former has GSF3. The former thinks that the latter should be doing more for the friendship, but the latter doesn’t get the same out for what they put in. This also makes favor-swapping difficult, as the social capital is uneven between the two friends. The GSF3 friend may ask for more favors on the assumption that, because we are friends, we will do it. If you ask someone with GSF3 for a favor, they will drop everything to do it, regardless of how onerous the task is for them compared to how unimportant it is to you.

Geek Social Fallacy 4: Friendship Is Transitive

This one makes sense on a basic level–if two friends have found something in me that the like enough to make us friends, then surely they will find something in each other to become friends too. After all, many of the friends that I’ve made were people who were friends of friends. Where this falls apart is we realize that our friends often become our friends for different reasons. My friends from band and my friends from law school have very different reasons to be around me, and trying to mesh them together is like trying to weld aluminum and steel. Or any time one of your friends breaks up with their partner and you are forced to choose which friend you want to keep. This one is a little less dangerous since most of the geeks I know figure out how to separate their social circles easily, and the worst that happens is a few awkward parties.

Geek Social Fallacy 5: Friends Do Everything Together

This is subtly different from GSF1; in GSF1, the act of exclusion is what drives the fallacy, and the excluder is solely to blame;  here the idea is that everyone has to do everything, so those who don’t want to participate are seen as odd, and the lack of invitation is seen as an attack itself. This breeds tension usually in conjunction with GSF4 and GSF1, where combining disparate groups of friends doesn’t make sense but trying to separate them seems to offend someone. Even in a single group of friends, there are times when a smaller group may want to do something on their own, or we have to talk about the jerk in the group and how we’re going to deal with them, or some people want to do something the rest of the group doesn’t normally like. Also imagine if you have a somewhat large group of friends and how onerous collaborating with all of them can be.

This is approaching 1000 words, and I’ve got a lot more to say on the GSF, so I’m going to have to split this post into two parts. As a preview of what’s to come, I think there are some underlying personality traits that spawn the 5 GSF, and I think that some of these are not distinct enough to be their own GSF. I’ll also talk a bit more paradigmatically, trying to exemplify what can actually happen and how to deal with it.

Why IP Lawyers and Scholars Tend to be Cynics

My copyright professor once said that when you study copyright law, you naturally become a cynic. My patent professors have both stated in class that they are legal realists, and their International IP class focuses heavily on the realpolitik and the dubious sausage-making of various IP treaties. It got me thinking: is there something intrinsic about IP law that leads toward realism and cynicism?

My public interest friends have very lofty, idealistic goals. They want to be public defenders and help the poor, or fight for the rights of *insert group here*, or fight against corruption in politics. All noble and valid purposes, I make no light of their career paths. But if there’s a single trait they all share, it’s that there’s some moral or ethical underpinning that trumps all other motivations. While I applaud their efforts, I find it hard to discuss policy with them because every debate tends to devolve into “helping people is awesome, man.” When your sole motivation is helping a certain group, it can be hard to look at the greater ramifications of a decision or action.

My friends who want to do corporate law aren’t much better. They want to create mergers between major companies, or lobby in Congress, or draft multimillion dollar secured transactions. Again, all lofty goals and I appreciate everything these lawyers do for our businesses, but I tend to find their single trait to be a fascination with the process of being a corporate lawyer. It’s as if there’s this cursus honorum that all corporate lawyers must take: work 90 hours a week in a big NY firm, jump ship after 5-6 years to an in-house counsel position, and climb the corporate ladder until you can tell young attorneys how this circle starts again. And maybe it’s true, I’m not familiar with big corporate law. Even if it is true, it’s almost autistic the way that my corporate law friends approach their careers: this is the way that we do things, this is the way things happen, and this is how our system runs. Debating policy with them tends to devolve into “but that’s how it’s done.” I appreciate a predetermined process, but I’ve seen enough lawyers to know that the law market is vast and that legal careers take many forms other than “the process.”

So what about IP law? The presumption is that I’m going to write a paragraph telling you why IP lawyers are somehow superior because we don’t fall into blah blah blah no. We are just as guilty as the rest of the lawyers. But there are a few things that explain why IP law and those who study it have certain views on the law.

IP law is not founded on moral or ethical grounds; it is purely economical. Patents are not granted because we like inventors, but because we like inventions. Copyright is not a protection of the author but a bargain that trades a temporary monopoly for future use by the public. Because of this amoral attitude, those who write IP laws (and those who lobby for them) are very frank about why they want these laws: money. It’s no secret that the purpose of IP law in general is to give creators monopoly prices now in exchange for giving something useful to the public, and admitting that motivation honestly makes everything so much easier. We’re honest about our motivations, which makes the process of creating IP laws more clear. This motivation encourages us to cut through the things we see as bullshit, like morals or processes, and makes us feel grounded because we know “how stuff really works.” It forces us into a cynical, realistic attitude because IP law is founded on cynical, realistic principles. When Disney is blunt about why it wants to extend copyright laws (Steamboat Willy is about to become public domain and they don’t want Mickey Mouse out of their control), you can’t help but be a little cynical.

Public interest and corporate law could use a dose of cynicism every now and then; keeping one foot on the ground and recognizing the true motivations of actors can be a useful skill to ground a lawyer’s actions in reality. Conversely, I often worry that IP lawyers may be too cynical for their own good. Within IP law, it makes sense, but what I find is that such an attitude can bleed into other parts of life where cynicism and economics are not the sole motivators. Sometimes there is a cursus honorum to navigate, and sometimes the bullshit exists for very good reasons. I think that since many IP lawyers have science or engineering backgrounds, the tendency to be cynical about legal theories that seem too theoretical is very tempting.

I don’t have any major insights; most of what I’ve seen is fairly obvious. But I’m always intrigued by how and why people act, and finding trends in personalities among subsections of a profession is an interesting exercise I like to do. So yeah, those of us who study IP tend to be cynical. The motivation behind our laws and the personality traits of those who practice it tend to lean in a legal realism/legal cynical manner. The obvious next step would be to see if European IP scholars, where moral rights and other ethical considerations are given much more consideration, have different personalities, and if so, how they are different.

Getting Shit Done

I hate officer elections. I’ve been a part of several student organizations and seen many officers come and go, and it always astounds me how people can both be ignorant of the day-to-day workings of an organization and simultaneously completely miss the overarching purpose of a group. One day a year, we all dress up pretty and try to convince each other that we would be the best to hold a title, whether it be President, Vice President, Treasurer, Publicity Chair, or whatever. We talk about our past successes (how many times we made block, how many speakers we brought in), and our “unique” ideas for the future (start a blog, engage with the rest of campus, member retention). We throw in our votes and select the 4-6 people to run our organization for the next 365 days, and then forget about everything as the summer approaches. Suddenly, September rolls around, and we have to start doing the things that we did last year, because reasons. Lots of emails are sent, and angry officers bitch behind each others’ backs because no one is doing anything and no one knows how to do anything. The people in charge all point to each other and say “you do it, I’m busy” while the rest of the organization is sitting patiently wondering when someone with a title will get something done. None of the new ideas are actually implemented, and the organization struggles to live up to the mediocre year it had before.

The single biggest mistake that we make as members of an organization is that we assume that things will operate in the exact same manner as they did last year. As if the organization exists separately from us and that some mysterious entity will make sure everything happens according to plan because reasons. As if actions just happen without someone to do them. We are all part of organizations that do things, and someone has to do the thing in question. Doing things is our job.

When someone does show up to do their job, we praise them as going “beyond the call of duty,” which is literally a lie: they did exactly what we elected them to do, and we shower praise on them because they did something, as opposed to nothing. I’ve always hated this mentality that the people who show up to do things are somehow “going beyond what is expected.” It implies that the average person does nothing, and that doing any scintilla more than nothing is something to be praised. Most of the organizations I’ve been involved with have several events that have to happen for the organization to function, whether they are recruitment events, service projects, social events, coffee hours, speakers, symposia, or whatever, and the logistics of planning and running such events require a bare minimum amount of involvement and effort from members. We often praise those who we say do more than is expected, but all they’re really doing is getting shit done.

Getting shit done is both the minimum level of involvement to make an organization run and the threshold that will guarantee you the praise of your peers. Lofty ideals and grand visions for the future are nice, but the most praise that I’ve seen given are to those who make sure shit gets done. Every organization has awards for that person who works behind the scenes organizing events and planning for the next one; I’ve received several such awards. And I’ve never deserved one. The standard for our organizations should not be to simply do the things that have to happen, but rather to move the organization forward. That requires a strong amount of “getting shit done,” that is, performance of the basic logistics of the things we do, and also a strong push forward, a measure that furthers our organization’s purpose and shows a new idea actually performed.

Which brings me back to officer elections. I have seen too many officers elected who had grand ideas for whatever position they are in but who end up either struggling to maintain the status quo or completely checking out, leaving several strong and active members without direction and leaving the organization worse off because shit isn’t getting done. Most don’t know how to run an event, so they rely on non-officers to run such events without any guidance. If they have new ideas, those ideas are left off, often to the disappointment of the members who voted in those officers solely because they had interesting, new ideas that never develop. So what are we left with when those officers realize the responsibilities of their positions? Officers who don’t know how to run events and flounder as they try to maintain a minimum status quo, and non-officer members who are ready to act but don’t know how to run events and won’t act in a manner that steps on the toes of the officers. Members are afraid to take leadership roles because they believe that the officers are the sole directors of an organization. Such an attitude leads to stagnation and regression. The strong momentum built by our predecessors grinds to a sudden halt.

While there is no single solution to this problem, I have some ideas that can mitigate several of these problems. The single most important thing for elected officers to do is to identify the members of the organization who have logistical skills and give them the space and power to perform the tasks that need to be done. This requires a lot of humility, because it means that you, as the elected officer, do not know everything about the organization, and you depend on the help of someone else just to meet the status quo. If you cannot do this, and are convinced that you know everything there is to know about your members, then step down now and give your position to someone else; your organization will be better without you. Now you need to convince those non-officer members that they should listen to you; ask them how things happen, and show up and do it. Your actions will always speak louder than your words; experience trumps lofty ideals every time. Once you’ve identified those members who get shit done and convinced them through your actions that you want to help them get shit done, now you give them an avenue to expand the organization, possibly through one of your ideas that you want to do, or by focusing on an idea they have and giving them the latitude to act on that idea. A new venture, even a failed one, shows progress; it exemplifies the aspects we all want from our members: innovation, action, and leadership. It encourages non-officers to take a larger role within the organization and reinforces the role of officers to lead the organization to progress. Finally, remember that at the end of the day, you have to do everything. If you cannot do everything that needs to be done, then you have no business being an officer. I’m not saying that you have to man every station, but if you do not know how to order catering, to organize uniform racks, to plan a banquet, to make coffee, or to find a speaker (or whatever your organization does), learn from those who do know.

If there’s one message that I’ve learned working in student organizations for several years, it’s that getting shit done is the hardest thing to do and yet the single most essential part of an organization. We like to assign ourselves with lofty titles and pretend that our responsibilities separate us from the average member, but we must always remember that if we can’t get shit done, our organization grinds to a halt. Don’t let the momentum from your organization die as it has for so many of mine; get shit done.

Why I’m Starting a Blog and Why No One Should Read It

I’ve never really liked blogs. Not personal ones like these. I often read blogs, mostly because they have posts on a topic I really like, e.g. MGoBlog, which covers Michigan sports, the MTTLR Blog, which talks about technology and law (I was a Production Editor for the Michigan Telecommunication and Technology Law Review, or MTTLR), or posts from sites like The Escapist and Gamasutra, which focus on video games. When properly focused on a single topic or idea, a blog can be a very powerful tool and a great source of information. There are great places for people to post their ideas on focused topics, like PolicyMic for politics or Gamasutra supra for games. My good friend Katie Garlinghouse Milliron has an illustrated cheese blog, the Art of Cultures, that really exemplifies the best kind of blog: short, to the point, interesting, and focused on a unique topic.

But then there are the blogs that I hate: blogs that exist for no apparent reason. Usually someone has a crazy idea for “hey, I want to tell the world how awesome my ideas are” and just starts writing. Maybe the person has a master plan for posting 1-2 times a week on topical issues or grand navel-gazing and hopes to be the next Buzzfeed, but they write for a few years and then things happen and they stop. Maybe they think they’ve got these great intuitions on things even though smarter people discussed and dismissed their ideas centuries ago. They may have 10% interesting content hidden in their depths, but most of it is CRAP. And there are very good reasons why it’s crap: no one gives a shit what you’re thinking, and you’re not as smart as you think they are.

So the question remains: why am I doing what I wholeheartedly think is a useless and selfish endeavor? My high school band director had a saying: “Every time you point at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at you.” I am just as guilty as the rest of these bloggers. I think I’m pretty damn smart (even though I know I’m not), and even though I have used the topic-specific blogs before, I just feel like doing something on my own. You have absolutely no reason to read these posts, and I don’t expect you to. Anything interesting I might say has already been said or refuted somewhere else. Like the rest of these bloggers, I think I’ve got some cool stuff to say, and I’m going to say it whether or not anyone reads it. It’s basically my sandbox to hone my writing skills and get some thoughts out on topics that I think are not well covered these days.

So now that I’ve explained why no one should read this blog, let me tell you about the person whose work is clearly unimportant and uninteresting. My name is Peter Keros. As of this post, I am a third-year law student at the University of Michigan. I’ve been at Michigan for nine years now, getting both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Mechanical Engineering prior to law school. My goal is to be a patent litigator in Southeastern Michigan. I’m from West Bloomfield, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. I’m Greek, and like many Greeks, my family has been in the restaurant business since we came over from Greece, which is about 100 years now. In addition to engineering, video games, and law, I am a clarinet player, and was a four-year member of the Michigan Marching Band in undergrad. I was also an Active member of Kappa Kappa Psi, the honorary band fraternity, for five years, and maintain a Life membership now. Politically, I’m a social moderate and a fiscal conservative, leaning libertarian in most instances. I’m a devout Greek Orthodox Christian, which is interesting when you grow up in a predominantly Jewish community with a strong evangelical Protestant population and surround yourself with atheist scientists for friends. I am a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative/libertarian policy organization at most law schools, including Michigan, where I am a 3L board representative. My one real skill is that I’ve been around enough organizations (whether they be restaurants, bands, fraternities, law school groups, etc.) that I think I have a decent handle on what makes a good leader and how good logistics operate. That and I know a thing or two about combustion. I like video games, food, wine, microbrews, Canadian sketch comedy, and business in general, specifically starting up small businesses.

Like most of these blogs, I expect a flurry of posts in the first few weeks only to slow down and end with a whimper, probably sometime around when I take the bar exam. In the meantime, let this be the exercise in futility that most of these blogs are, and let’s have some fun while we’re at it. These are my thoughts, not yours, and you have no reason to read them. Enjoy the ride.