Published: Reagle, Joseph (2015). “The obligation to know: From FAQ to Feminism 101,” New Media & Society, doi: 10.1177/1461444814545840 .
Abstract: In addition to documenting and sharing information geek culture has a complementary norm obliging others to educate themselves on rudimentary topics. This obligation to know is expressed by way of jargon-laden exhortations such as “check the FAQ” (frequently asked questions) and “RTFM” (read the fucking manual). Additionally, the geek lexicon includes designations of the stature of the knower and the extent of what he or she knows (e.g., alpha geek and newbie). Online feminists, especially geek feminists, are similarly beset by naive or disruptive questions and demonstrate and further their geekiness through the deployment of the obligation to know. However, in this community the obligation reflects the increased likelihood of disruptive, or “derailing,” questions and a more complex and gendered relationship with stature, as seen in the notions of impostor syndrome, the Unicorn Law, and mansplaining.
Key words: socialization, geek, knowing, gender, feminism
Brianna Laugher (2012) is a software developer who is fond of the Python programming language. On her blog techiturn (“the wordless state of a geek deep in hacking”) she noted it is often nice to have discussions where certain rudimentary things “are a given.” This can be about Python programming or feminism. She began the post with an image of a spread of hot pink business cards she had ordered for distribution at geeky events. On their front “RTFM” is emblazoned in white; the URLs for the Geek Feminism wiki and blog are printed on the back. These collaboratively developed websites are where one can read up on rudimentary “geek feminism” topics and Laugher writes “‘RTFM’ is pretty much the geek way of saying you have a responsibility to educate yourself… I like to think the bright pink takes the edge off the abruptness of the (implied) message.”
RTFM, an acronym for “read the fucking manual,” has been used for decades within computing and hacking culture and it is an exhortation for others to educate themselves before asking rudimentary questions. This and other expressions have become part of the larger geek culture which is characterized by an enthusiasm to learn, to improve, and to share. A computer geek might be excited to learn Python, to write a useful utility, and to share their learning and its fruits with others. However, in a community in which learning and sharing are so important, extant members expect newcomers to acquaint themselves with well-established knowledge, both technical and social. Indeed, there’s an array of terms, often used with irony, demarcating the stature associated with one’s level of knowledge and expertise, from the newbie to the wizard. Hence, the enculturation of newcomers is bootstrapped by one of the first norms they are likely to encounter: an obligation to know rudimentary information. For instance, newbies should gain clue by consulting the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions).
In the following sections I describe these and other lexical manifestations of the geek obligation to know. I then show how geek feminism makes use of this culture. I argue the site Geek Feminism demonstrates and furthers its geekiness through the deployment of the obligation to know about rudimentary feminist thought in the geek context. This basic information is often referred to as 101 knowledge, an import from the online feminist lexicon. Additionally, I briefly discuss issues and notions novel to geek feminist discourse including the Unicorn Law, impostor syndrome, and mansplaining. First, I provide some background on online geek and feminist culture.
The words geek and hacker have varied histories and meanings and are sometimes used interchangeably. I use them in the following senses. A geek has a passionate enthusiasm for an interest that may eclipse other life activities: “To be geek is to be engaged, to be enthralled in a topic, and then to act on that engagement” (McArthur, 2009: 62). That is, one can “geek out” about most any topic: a “reef geek” is into aquariums and “trekkers” enjoy Star Trek. One’s enthusiasm and “geeking” is typically associated with knowledge of the domain. Hence, geek knowing denotes the practices associated with how geeks accumulate, assess, create and promulgate knowledge about their intense mutual interests. That is geeks learn, they share, and they discuss the worthiness of specific information and knowers. A hacker is a type of geek that uses their enthusiasm and technical skills to explore and build complex systems. (This is in the broadest sense and not in the sense limited to criminal activity.) While now used more broadly, hacker and geek originally gained popularity in the digital realm and this is also the context of the present work (i.e., computer hackers and online geeks). These terms, and the language of geeks more generally, can be understood as what linguist Donna Gibbs (2006: 30) called a cyberlanguage, “with its own brand of quirky logic, which evolves with unprecedented speed and variety and is heavily dependent on ingenuity and humor.” This “quirky logic” is often seen in these communities’ self-reflections as most all aspects of geek culture have been articulated and even theorized by geeks themselves. For instance, one of the first substantive analyses of “What is a geek?” was by Web developer Mike Sugarbaker (1998) in the inaugural issue of Gazebo, a short-lived online “Journal of Geek Culture.” Similarly, many of the terms I discuss are included within the famous “Jargon File.” This collection of hacker jargon began in 1975 and received its greatest popular attention under the editorship of Eric S. Raymond (1991, 1997) who published it as the New Hacker’s Dictionary. Raymond is most well-known for helping found the open source movement and his explanation of its success in the book The Cathedral and The Bazaar. Raymond (2013) considers himself the “hacker culture’s resident ethnographer since around 1990” and the “Jargon File” exemplifies this intention and some of Raymond’s idiosyncrasies (Projects, 2003); it was last updated in 2003.
The Geek Feminism (hereafter GF) wiki and blog follows the tradition of documentation by chronicling notable events and defining, explaining, and deploying feminist-related concepts (seen in links to blogs like Feministe, Feministing, and Racialicious). Today, the blog and wiki have a few dozen active contributors and the wiki describes itself as being “about women in a range of geeky cultures/communities/activities including (but not limited to) the Technology industry, Science Fiction fandom, etc.” The sites were started by, and can be traced back to a pair of essays from, female software developer Alex “Skud” Bayley. A 1998 discussion about the seeming lack of female geeks prompted Skud (1998, 2000), a long time open source contributor, to respond that women were present, and geeky, though often hidden, apolitical, and likely to remain in the minority for some time to come. In 2000 she returned to the question of why there were so few women in an essay entitled “Geek Chicks: Second Thoughts”.
At the same time as Skud’s popular reflections, scholars took the cant of challenging or extending the stereotypical construction of geeks as white men. For instance, linguist Mary Bucholtz (1999) considered the nerd identity and practices of a group of six high school girls; Lori Kendall (2002) and Ron Eglash (2002) explored notions of masculinity, race, and sex in the virtual domain. Subsequently, Bucholtz (2002) made use of Skud’s essays and their associated discourse to define geek feminism as one that is committed to both feminist concerns and geek identity. In turn, in 2008, Skud adopted this term herself when she established the Geek Feminism wiki; the next year she started its group blog as a “dedicated feminist space to talk about feminism and feminists in geekdom” (Feminism, 2009).
While not specifically identified with geek feminism, Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog (hereafter FF101) also manifests feminist thought within the context of online culture. FF101 was founded in 2006 by Viv Smythe (aka “tigtog”), with contributions from fellow bloggers Andrea Rubenstein and Melissa McEwan. It was launched in March of that year and dozens of entries were often posted per month in 2007 and into 2008 and it continues to receive at least one posting every month or so. A post on a particular question (e.g., “What is feminism?”) can receive updates and edits as appropriate. Much like traditional geek communities, feminist and others (such as people of color or with disabilities) frequently find themselves beset by rudimentary or disruptive questions. Hence, these communities have developed their own language around the obligation to know, but more often speak of it as an obligation to “educate yourself” on “101” type topics—“101” is the proverbial introductory college course number. Those that refuse to do so are seen as attempting to “derail” the conversation (Derailing, 2010).
Geek knowing denotes the practices associated with how geeks accumulate, assess, create and promulgate knowledge about their intense mutual interests. A naive approach would be to see these practices as relatively objective, impartial, and free from the exercise of power. Yet, Foucault (1977: 27–28) advised “we should admit, rather, that power produces knowledge.” And that production, by way of code and documentation, “determines the forms and possible domains of knowledge.” That is, existing members can specify what is worth knowing, how to learn it, and the stature and treatment of knowers. For instance, references works (including Wikipedia, which seeks to represent “the sum of all human knowledge”) reflect the perspective of their contributors, who are typically men (Lam et al., 2011; Reagle and Rhue, 2011).
Two approaches to geek knowing can be seen in the practices of hoarding one’s knowledge and sharing it with others. The The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy exemplifies hoarding—and lording it over others. In one episode he refuses to answer a question by way of a geeky aside followed by further reticence to share: “The answer is no, and I can say it in Na’vi or Klingon, which are pretty much the same. (I have some theories on that, which I will share with you … never)” (Wikipedia, 2014).) Conversely, sharing is seen in the writings of open source advocate Eric Raymond (2001): “To behave like a hacker, you have to believe that the thinking time of other hackers is precious—so much so that it’s almost a moral duty for you to share information, solve problems and then give the solutions away just so other hackers can solve new problems instead of having to perpetually re-address old ones.” For Raymond, the sharing of information permits one to avoid boring questions as “boredom and drudgery are evil.”
In both approaches knowledge is valued. The difference is that Raymond (and most of the geeks focused upon here) value the creation of novel knowledge. Also, in both cases, others’ recognition of knowledge is symbolic capital. For theorist Pierre Bourdieu (1986), capital is accumulated time and effort which then has the capacity to “appropriate social energy” towards particular ends. This effort and social energy is captured in different types of capital (economic, cultural, social, and symbolic) which, through additional effort, can be transformed into the other types. Economic capital is one’s financial assets, perhaps accumulated from one’s labor. Cultural capital is one’s holding of cultural values, habits, and tastes; it is acquired both explicitly and tacitly and includes things such as education and style of speech and dress. Geek knowledge itself is a type of cultural capital acquired from the time spent learning or the economic capital expended on activities, such as buying comic books or attending conferences. While social capital is the value of one’s social network and is dependent upon one’s embeddedness in a group, symbolic capital is related to the honor and recognition of the individual. Comic Book Guy’s display of Klingon is symbolic capital when recognized by others. Similarly, Raymond (2001) wrote that “maintainers of major technical FAQs get almost as much respect as open-source authors” because it takes knowledge and skill to write such a FAQ well and it serves to elevate discussion.
Despite the differences between hoarding and sharing, they often coexist: even hoarded knowledge is exchanged, and shared knowledge is not necessarily accessible. Hoarded knowledge must be exchanged, at least in part, to verify possession of it. Or, it might be exchanged for other types of capital—including other rare knowledge. Similarly, understanding shared knowledge might require effort and preexisting cultural capital in order to make it one’s own. Consequently, while I am focused upon communities that value sharing, one ought not to forget that there are exchanges of power and capital—even if these issues more easily come to mind with hoarding and lording.
In the following sections I explore geek knowing by way of two sets of terms, those associated with (a) the obligation to know (e.g., “Read the Fucking Manual”) and (b) those that differentiates the stature of knowers (e.g., “newbie”) and the extent of knowing (e.g., “grokking”).
Anthropologist Biella Coleman’s (2010, 2013) ethnographies of hackers show that enculturation within hacker communities entails more than learning conventions about how to best package and release software. (I follow John Berry’s (2007: 547) distinction between enculturation, the (often informal) acquisition of the values and behaviors of the surrounding culture, and socialization, the deliberate transmission of culture to the newcomer.) In what Coleman described as “ethical enculturation” newcomers learn the explicit and tacit knowledge (be it technical, social, or ideological) needed to effectively interact with other project members and gain acceptance. Despite the importance of occasional face-to-face meetings among otherwise virtual geeks, most of their communication, production, and culture is textual. (Even during hacker conferences people are communicating and collaborating online.) A novelty of this is the extent to which participants document themselves, as seen in the “Jargon File” or the English Wikipedia’s dozens of essays, guidelines, and policies (Reagle, 2010). As Skud wrote in a blog post that attempted to characterize geek feminism, “our main tactic is to document things.”
To some extent this grows out of my original (very personal and individual) reason for starting the GF wiki back in 2008: I was making an effort to learn more about women’s experiences in geek communities and to contextualise that within the framework/jargon that feminism had already developed in non-geek contexts. My tendency when learning something new is to write documentation to help cement the idea in my own mind and to (hopefully) be of use to others in the future. (Skud, 2012)
Given the centrality of knowledge and text, community members often make significant efforts to document domain knowledge, such as Captain Kirk’s middle name, and social knowledge, including norms—the shared expectations of how members of a group should behave. This documentation is useful for (1) personal learning, as exemplified by Skud above, and (2) for newcomers to learn what they wish or need to know; it (3) is efficient for experts by saving them the need to redundantly tutor newcomers on rudimentary topics and (4) can help defend against attempts to disrupt or “derail” community discourse. Hence, the obligation to know can be understood as a bootstrapping norm that sets the stage for newcomers’ acquisition of additional domain and social knowledge.
Prior to the Web, Usenet served as the Internet’s primary venue of public discourse; this often entailed asking questions and receiving answers (Q&A). While it initially surprised scholars that online Q&A happened between people “despite their lacking a personal connection” (Constant et al., 1996) such helpfulness was common on Usenet and continues to be so at sites like Yahoo Answers, Stack Overflow, and Quora. While these more recent sites let users tag questions and vote for answers, finding information on Usenet was not as easy. It consisted of hundreds, and eventually thousands, of newsgroups (many with their own varied subcultures) and upon subscribing to a group one was confronted with hundreds, if not thousands, of existing messages. Additionally, if one’s local Usenet server was modest, it might limit the number of recent messages available for reading. Hence, the history of the group was lost and the same questions were asked repeatedly.
As defined in the “Jargon File,” frequently asked questions were compiled into a list which served as “a compendium of accumulated lore, posted periodically to high-volume newsgroups in an attempt to forestall such questions” (Raymond, 1993). For instance, the rec.models.rockets FAQ explains it “is an attempt to compile a number of questions and suggestions that have been repeatedly posted to r.m.r into a single, quickly readable document.” Like many Usenet FAQs, it grew rather large, necessitating that it be broken into multiple parts (von Kiparski, 2002). The complete FAQ includes questions on substantive rocketry as well as meta questions related to archives of newsgroup postings and other Internet resources.
In this Usenet context, the obligation to know was a bootstrapping norm to first “read the FAQ” for any particular group before asking a question. However, those new to the Internet and Usenet, such as incoming college freshmen, were usually ignorant of this. (The irony that the exhortations include jargon not likely known to the newcomer is a reflection of the playfulness of the culture and expectation of self-reliance.) Accordingly, college freshmen, new to the Internet, were seen as an “influx of clueless newbies who, lacking any sense of netiquette, made a general nuisance of themselves” (Raymond, 2003). (This is reminiscent of sociologist Talcott Parsons’ (1991: 143) comment on the socialization of newborns as resistance to an ongoing “barbarian invasion.”) Fortunately, the freshmen “could be assimilated within a few months,” often by way of FAQs. Indeed, the over three thousand FAQs at the Internet FAQ Archives (Index, 2013) show the genre was extremely popular and persists even if Usenet is little used today.
Among geeks, the availability of information creates a social expectation of knowing it. As captured in Bucholtz’s study of a small group of high school girls, when one girl, Fred, lost face “She recovers from this (minor) social setback by invoking the authority of a reference book. In this way Fred can safely assure her interlocutor that, although she does not yet know the answer, she soon will” (Bucholtz, 1999: 215). Similarly, Coleman noted that while hackers are willing to share with and help one another, they also value the effort put into producing documentation and the self-cultivation necessary to learn from it: “RTFM is a comedic, though stern, form of social discipline. It pushes other hackers to learn and code for themselves as well as affirms that effort has been put into documentation—an accessible form of information that benefits the group—but in a way that still requires independent learning” (Coleman, 2013: 110–111). This attitude is exemplified in the ten-thousand word document “How To Ask Questions The Smart Way” by Raymond:
We’re (largely) volunteers. We take time out of busy lives to answer questions, and at times we’re overwhelmed with them. So we filter ruthlessly. In particular, we throw away questions from people who appear to be losers in order to spend our question-answering time more efficiently, on winners. If you find this attitude obnoxious, condescending, or arrogant, check your assumptions. We’re not asking you to genuflect to us—in fact, most of us would love nothing more than to deal with you as an equal and welcome you into our culture, if you put in the effort required to make that possible. But it’s simply not efficient for us to try to help people who are not willing to help themselves. It’s OK to be ignorant; it’s not OK to play stupid. (Raymond, 2014)
Raymond’s aside about genuflecting, Bucholtz’s reference to the authority of a reference book, and Coleman’s characterization of this as “social discipline” invites to mind theorist Michel Foucault’s notion of knowledge-power. In this case, the power-laden relationship is the balance of expectation (and associated effort) between extent members and newcomers. This then has some intersection with questions of gender and styles of interaction. In her study of “gender trouble” among FM radio hackers, Christina Dunbar-Hester (2008) noted that an occasional female attendee of the “geek group” found the competitive atmosphere and expectations of self-reliance to be alienating; instead of being welcoming to novices it was more “an opportunity to show your balls.” Dunbar-Hester wrote this likely excluded women, who were more likely to be novices, as they would likely “become frustrated and stop attending if they did not fit into the quiet, competitive dynamic forged by the men in the group.” Again, existing members can specify what is worth knowing, how to learn it, and the stature and treatment of knowers. While much of this is often implicit, when considered explicitly, from the point of view of existing members, the question is how much effort must be expended on newcomers relative to the likely benefits they will bring? For example, the Linux kernel community is infamous for its harshness as exemplified by its founder Linus Torvalds (2013), who once quipped “Publicly making fun of people is half the fun of open-source programming. In fact, the real reason to eschew programming in closed environments is that you can’t embarrass people in public.” The relative success and complexity of Torvald’s project likely reflects that the effort to mentor newcomers to the point of becoming contributors (by way of teaching and correcting mistakes) is high. Of course, there are kinder, and likely more productive, ways of addressing newcomers, including mentoring, sandboxes (where newcomers can experiment and learn), and graduated levels of responsibility (Kraut et al., 2012: 218–220).
Those communities who actively wish to be welcoming must counteract both individual personalities and the social tendency to raise barriers to entry. For example, Wikipedia has a norm of “Don’t bite the newcomers,” though in practice its community is often seen as being “fighty,” and its number and diversity of contributors likely suffers as a result (Gardner, 2011; Wikipedia:Please do not bite the newcomers, 2009). Elsewhere, with respect to RTFM, some find it to be too stern and recommend the gentler expansion of the acronym (“read the fine manual”) or that it be abandoned altogether. As one contributor to Stack Overflow, a programming-focused Q&A site, noted: “‘RTFM’ is rude, no doubt about it. However, links to the manual in comments are perfectly acceptable, and sometimes the only appropriate response to a question. So when posting a manual link, be smart. Drop the RTFM and use nicer wording” (Pekka in Adler, 2009). Similarly the code of conduct for the Ubuntu forums states that “RTFM,” “STFU” [shut the fuck up], and “LMGTFY” [“let me Google that for you”] “are unacceptable and will not be tolerated” (Ubuntu, 2014).
Hence, the obligation to know exists in tension with the expectation of asking questions, the balance of which is continually negotiated among community members.
Just as the Usenet and hacker cultures developed a norm of and vocabulary for an obligation to know, so too have online feminists. However, the obligation to know there arises more directly as a defense to a “privileged”—and even insincere—demand to be educated, a defense I describe as referential resistance. While an often repeated question about model rockets can be tiring, questions about controversial issues or those associated with a facet of one’s identity (e.g., disability, race, or gender) are especially so. For instance, blogger Annaham of Disabled Feminist rejected the demands that “if you don’t drop everything and rush over to educate me, well, you’re just a big meanie who must not want my support after all.” In an entry (among others tagged “101”) she wrote that the well-intentioned but ignorant need to “Go educate yourself (please!)” as “sometimes, those of us with conditions that intersect with our ability to do this work end up burnt out, frustrated, or we lose our patience.” For those with less noble intentions, such as those that ask “if women like sex just as much as men do, then why is rape so bad?,” one can resist such baiting by way of reference to FF101’s answer and discussion (Tigtog, 2008).
Beyond the burden of educating others or resisting abuse, “101” knowledge also permits more substantive discussion. Fifteen years ago, as the Python programming language gained in popularity, some criticized Python as an odd duck; for instance it used whitespace (i.e., indented code) rather than matching braces to delineate code blocks. When one is new to a computer language, or when a language itself is new, discussions of the merits and demerits of these design choices are exhaustively debated in “language wars.” But for those who have already chosen to develop in Python these discussions are boring. Brianna Laugher, with whom I began, noted a similar dynamic in discussions about women in technology: the conversation in a women-friendly forum is superior.
It’s not just that the conversation is different when I have it with women; it’s different when I have it with people that have bothered to do any reading about the topic at all. It’s like if you went to a Python meetup and all people wanted to talk about was “whoa, significant whitespace!”… At some point it’s nice to have a discussion where those things are a given. (Laugher, 2012)
The GF sites (blog and wiki) are a place where such discussions can happen and anyone who identifies or is interested in feminism is welcome: “One small caveat, though: you might want to read up on Feminism 101 first, because we do tend to assume you already know most of that stuff” (Geek Feminism, 2013).
While geek feminists use the traditional geek lexicon associated with knowing, they also face novel circumstances. First, as noted, the valence of the exhortation to “read the fucking manual” is gendered: men are able “to tell someone to RTFM without ever being accused of PMS” (Male programmer privilege checklist, 2013).
Second, women online, especially self-identified feminists, face aggression and harassment from trolls and haters. Historically, trolls provoked Usenet newcomers with outlandish statements that were intended to incite flamewars. The term troll likely arises from the practice of “fishing” or “trolling for newbies”; the aphorism “don’t feed the trolls” advises that one should ignore “flame bait.” However, today, whether from insincere trolls or sincere haters (i.e., genuine misogynists), such speech can be vitriolic.
In a paper entitled “Your A Ugly, Whorish, Slut,” media scholar Emma Jane (2012: 3) wrote that such “e-bile” is characterized by profanity, ad hominem invective, stereotype, and hyperbolic imagery of graphic (often sexualized) violence that manifests as a threat or wishful thinking. Even tamer forms of trolling have long targeted feminist communities. Linguist Susan Herring (2002: 377) defined a troll as one who sends messages that appear outwardly sincere, that are designed to attract predictable responses or flames, and that consequently waste time by provoking futile arguments. In Herring’s study of a troll at a feminist forum, “Kent” employed the tactics of refusing to acknowledge others’ points, willfully misinterpreting others’ motives and views, and attacking others for ignoring him while implying he could change if people would simply explain their concerns to him. As GF (Feminism 101 discussions, 2013) noted the “continual insistence on receiving Feminism 101 education” frustrates substantive discussion, “centres the discussion around the experiences, perspectives and beliefs of men,” requires women to play the role of the online etiquette schoolmarm, ignores the existing 101 resources already written, and permits trolls to take over a discussion space. Indeed, such an interlocutor in known as a “concern troll”: “an actual or potential ally who simply has some concerns they need answered before they will ally themselves with a cause” (Concern troll, 2013). “Kent” may have been more effectively managed had something like the GF and FF101 websites existed at that time.
While geek feminists inherit the notion of trolling from geek culture, this is complemented by adoption of the notion of “derailing” from feminist discourse. As the sarcastic “Derailing for Dummies” put it, the statements “if you won’t educate me how can I learn?” and “if you cared … you’d be willing to educate me” can serve to suppress and exhaust the voice of a marginalized group (Derailing, 2010). Hence the obligation to know in this case serves as a referential resistance, a defense to simple ignorance and purposeful disruption via reference to an existing 101 resource.
Some geeks argue that the profanity and dismissiveness of “RTFM” is unfriendly and alienating; similar arguments arise in the context of feminist notions of “101” and “derailing.” For instance, some note that the sarcasm of “Derailing for Dummies” can be off-putting and linking to the site can itself derail a conversation. Hence, the alternative guide “Derailing 101” was written so as not to “alienate those who have yet to understand completely the 101 issues of privilege” and “provide allies and other learning folks a resource without the snark. If you’re worried about being seen as a concern troll, or see your comments often being dog piled by angry offended people, this is the post for you” (alanasimonethomas, 2013).
Similarly, in 2012 a discussion about the “dark side” of geek feminism touched on the feminist policing of some women with respect to their clothing (e.g., “sexualizing” attire), relationships (e.g., saying one was accompanying one’s boyfriend to a geek event), and language/knowledge. Technology journalist Rikki Endsley wrote that the references to the GF wiki can be daunting.
Often when people try to speak up about geek feminist issues, they are confronted with labels or incidents that have been archived in the Geek Feminism Wiki. Frankly, it feels like typing on eggshells when you approach any topic that could fall under the “geek feminist” label… The thing is, I’ve already spent more time on the “geek feminist” topic than I should have this week. I don’t want to “educate” myself by reading up on any more of the labels listed in the GF Wiki. If that means you think I see it in my “interest not to be educated”, then so be it. I see it as “I’m a journalist, which means I’m way behind on some deadlines.” (Endsley, 2012)
Consequently, online feminists share many of the conditions which prompted the emergence of the obligation to know in traditional geek culture and adeptly employ its lexicon with some of its own additions. It also shares the same dynamic of documentation being both helpful and (at times) intimidating. However, this dynamic exists within an environment which can be more embattled than ordinary geek contexts.
The OED (2013) defines “newbie” as a beginner or newcomer to a particular activity. While it likely originated in military slang, it gained popularity in the context of online communities where it has many variations (e.g., noob, newby, nubie, newbee, and newfag). In geek culture, where knowing is valued, the extent to which one knows is reflected in one’s stature (Kendall, 2008: 496–497). In addition to the entry for newbie, the “Jargon File” has over a dozen of such designations, across varied contexts, such as “muggle” from the Harry Potter fandom.
Of course, one can (and is) expected to mature. The “Jargon File” includes mentions of fledgling hackers existing in a “larval stage,” an intense period of focused learning and hacking (Raymond, 1993). Anthropologist Tom Boellstofff described the maturation of participants of Second Life as a “life course.” Characters in this virtual environment are born on “Orientation Island.” This setting provides basic information about avatar movements using the keyboard and mouse. However, it does not teach the many the social norms associated with moving beyond “newbie” stature. Boellstorff (2008: 123–126) wrote of new residents who describe their initial experience as walking around in a daze or as being a student without a class or teacher. Their newness is revealed to others by their lack of skill with embodiment (e.g., awkward avatar movements), social norms (e.g., not standing up or otherwise indicating that one is teleporting away), and game mechanics (e.g., newbies sometimes accidentally wear the boxes that virtual apparel came in). However, some friendly residents teach classes within Second Life and many resources (including wikis and video tutorials) exist elsewhere online. Hence, members can progress from newbie to midbie and even oldbie stature. While oldbie is not commonly used outside of Boellstorff, in hacker culture the designations of alpha geek, wizard and elite are common—with the latter term becoming tainted by those of little skill claiming it.
Depending on a geek subculture’s perspective on newbies, as future contributors or as clueless distractions, expectations about their behavior differ. For example, in her study of participants of a text-based virtual environment, Kendall (2002: 235, 51–53) noted that newbies are expected to hang out quietly and learn by watching. Otherwise, or in any case, they are harassed or expelled from certain rooms. In other contexts, people may identify themselves as newbies purposely, so as to elicit help, kindness and patience: “Help a noob and feel great. You may be rewarded with some crappy first time animutation!!!” (as quoted in Kendall, 2008: 497) However, silence and self-deprecation can be bruising to the ego, and it is not uncommon for people to pretend to know more than they do. Boellstorff (2008: 125) wrote of a Second Life resident who typed “afk” (away from the keyboard) for two months before asking what it meant because he didn’t want to look like a “noob.” Yet, such pretensions can prompt criticism. Much like the demarcation of types within the 80s punk rock scene (especially the distinction drawn between real punks and pretenders (Fox, 1987)) geek culture has similar designations. The “Jargon File’s” definitions for posers, wannabees, and weenies speak to a pretense that exceeds ability.
Similarly, the lexicon associated with the obligation to know distinguishes the extent to which one knows. In geek culture, clue is a back-formation of clueless (someone lacking a commonsensical or rudimentary understanding). These terms are seen in the definition of clue-by-four: “The notional stick with which one whacks an aggressively clueless person.” To be “clueless” or “brain-damaged” is to know below the rudimentary level. To have clue is to know. To grok is to know in a deep, exhaustive, and intimate sense: “When you claim to ‘grok’ some knowledge or technique, you are asserting that you have not merely learned it in a detached instrumental way but that it has become part of you, part of your identity” (Raymond, 2003). (This word is borrowed from Robert Heinlein’s fictional account of a Martian visitor in Stranger in a Strange Land.)
Also, the quality of the information (or “bits”) one knows is important. For instance, the FoRK email list of the latter half of the 1990s (populated by proponents of the nascent Web) had a culture that stressed novelty and clue. Its own (pompous, irreverent and large) FAQ included varied claims and rules on the subject. For instance, it defined itself as “where the 3%, the bitful and clueful, go to exchange bits and clue, so that they may avoid being 97%ers for at least one more day.” Failing to maintain this standard could result in a penalty: “if you forward old bits to FoRK, you must pay the penalty of finding new bits within 24 hours, or suffer the fate of being tagged a 97%er by your peers” (Khare, 2013).
The value accorded to different types of knowledge is further reflected in additional stature designations. Among illicit hackers, script kiddies are those who use the scripts and techniques developed by others to attack computer systems. In the “Jargon File,” a muchkin is a mildly derisive term for younger hacker aspirants who use simple technology. A read-only user only reads content “rather than writing code or purveying useful information” (Raymond, 1993). Beyond the rudimentary level, geek culture values knowing novel and challenging information, widely and deeply.
While GF and FF101 recognize different types of feminism there is little explicit terminology for the stature and extent of feminist knowing beyond a rudimentary level. While 101, FAQ, and RTFM capture the obligation to know, there is no discussion of feminist alphas, wizards, or grokking. While feminism can be useful insofar it facilities women’s “geeking out,” it is rarely an object of geekery itself. Indeed, even well-intentioned discussions or questions about gender are commonly lamented as an impediment to women’s “geeking out.” So much so that the presumption that female geeks are interested in talking about gender can be problematic. For instance, Emma Jane Hogbin and Gabrielle Roth followed the geek tradition of positing laws of social behavior with the Unicorn Law: “If you are a woman in Open Source, you will eventually give a talk about being a woman in Open Source.” (The name speaks to the common belief that technical women, like unicorns, are rare and invisible until they choose to show themselves.) GF noted that being invited to give a unicorn talk is “double-edged sword” since it may increase women’s visibility but “speaking on a non-technical subject may cause people to see women as non-technical, and any talk about women’s issues is likely to attract negative responses including harassment” (Unicorn law, 2011). While some women may want to share their experiences, or do not find such requests objectionable, others may find them “othering,” or, after time, an exhausting “second shift” (Skud, 2009). GF portrays this as a type of “sexism consulting” that is a cost born by women who would rather focus on their “geeking.”
While the Unicorn Law speaks to the presumed innate expertise of women in open source by virtue of their gender, some women are hesitant in claiming geek identity and expertise. Hence, the flipside of “alpha geek” braggadocio is the notion of “impostor syndrome” in which people “think that their accomplishments are nowhere near as good as those of the people around them” (Feminism, 2013). This has proven to be one of the most popular topics of discussion among gatherings of women geeks (AdaCamp Washington DC, 2012, 2013) and is often discussed in light of the confidence (or cockiness) in knowing traditionally exhibited by (male) geeks. In fact, the incongruence between one’s gendered knowing and confidence is further captured in the notion of mansplaining. One Urban Dictionary definition characterizes this as a patronizing explanation that assumes total ignorance among the listeners. “The mansplainer is often shocked and hurt when their mansplanation is not taken as absolute fact, criticized or even rejected altogether. Named for a behavior commonly exhibited by male newbies on internet forums frequented primarily by women” (Mansplain, 2011). As one blogger described it: “The mansplainer’s problem isn’t so much that he’s trying to teach a woman something, but rather that he takes it as a given that she doesn’t already know whatever it is he is going to tell her” (Fannie, 2010).
Obviously, women geeks value knowing novel and challenging information, widely and deeply. And they may reach an alpha or wizardly level of proficiency, though they may be less keen to claim as much relative to their male peers. However, feminist knowledge is rarely the topic of such geekery itself and feminist knowing can be liberating when it elucidates other hindrances, taxing when it becomes an obligation to educate others, and even intimidating to those who face a semester’s worth of reading.
Geeks often relate to their passionate interests by way of knowledge. Geek knowing denotes the practices associated with how it is accumulated, assessed, created, and promulgated. This knowing, and its lexicon, now has decades of history within geek culture. For instance, one might hear “newbies should gain clue by consulting the FAQ.” Two stances often taken by geeks with respect to knowledge is that of hoarding and sharing. While hoarding might be found among consumers of proprietary cultural goods (like comics), projects like Wikipedia and open source software are predicated upon sharing. In the latter case, shared knowledge provides the scaffolding for a level of engagement that these geek prefer: deep knowing (or “grokking”) and the creation of novelty. (Otherwise, that which is seen as redundant or rudimentary is thought to be boring—or even “evil.”)
Documenting and sharing redundant and rudimentary information serves a number of purposes. It permits extent community members to have more engaging interactions, be it about the Python computer language or women’s involvement in technology. Its production might be the product or the result of increasing one’s own understanding (such as when Skud was grappling with feminist concepts). It can save time for the expert and the newbie, and according to Raymond, if done well can earn the author respect, acting as a type of symbolic capital. Additionally, as evidenced by the Geek Feminism wiki, it permits the collaborative accumulation of many people’s contributions. While it also entails the exercise and reification of power it can also provide a form of resistance to those that ask (naively) rudimentary or (perhaps purposefully) disruptive questions.
A consequent of the free sharing of information is an attendant obligation: the obligation to know. This norm, too, has a long history within geek culture and manifests in terms such as RTFM and FAQ. With the rise of geek feminism we see how this obligation serves those who identify as both geek and feminist. Granted, these two cultural spheres are not perfectly congruent. Geek spaces are often historically and predominantly male and the knowledge produced often reflects that perspective. Even the obligation to know can be gendered as seen in the privilege that men can “tell someone to RTFM without ever being accused of PMS.” (The gendering of geekness was recently highlighted through public discourse around the policing of “fake geek girls” (Reagle, 2015).) Despite this, the obligation is relatively respected. In a period during which impediments to women’s participation in free culture are widely discussed, it permits feminist notions (such as “101”) to be spoken of in terms which are already understood. That is not to say all such notions and their related arguments are agreed to, but the intersection of geekdom and feminism serves to highlight this norm, an obligation to know, that exists within both communities and bolsters the development of the new geek feminism identity. In particular, the obligation to know serves as a defense, as a referential resistance, to a “privileged”—and even insincere—demand to be educated. While an often repeated question about model rockets can be tiring, questions about controversial issues or those associated with a facet of one’s identity (e.g., disability, race, or gender) are especially so and telling someone to “RTFM about 101” material can be useful—as well as alienating.
Despite the significant intersections between online geek and feminist cultures, there are also novelties. Among geek feminists, the obligation to know reflects the increased likelihood of disruptive, or “derailing,” questions and a more complex and gendered relationship with stature, as seen in the notions of impostor syndrome, the Unicorn Law, and mansplaining. Nonetheless, the notions of geek knowing and the obligation to know provide a useful frame for understanding online cultures.
Acknowledgements: In addition to anonymous reviewers, I thank the following for discussing this topic with me or reviewing a draft: Valerie Aurora, Alex ‘Skud’ Bayley, Sky Croeser, Christina Dunbar-Hester, Brooke Foucault, Mary Gardiner, Emma Jane Hogbin, Brianna Laugher, and Gillian White.
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