Naive meritocracy and contested privilege: Insights from geekdom's meritocracy melee (DRAFT)

Joseph Reagle


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ABSTRACT: (148 words) Peggy McIntosh characterized privilege as an “invisible knapsack” of unearned advantages. Although the invisible knapsack is a useful metaphor, the notion of unearned advantage is not readily appreciated, especially among geeks, who traditionally see their culture as meritocratic. Despite—or because of—this, geek feminists have recently challenged the idea of a meritocratic geekdom. After providing brief cultural histories of meritocracy, privilege, and geekdom, I ask why are geeks resistant to the notion of privilege? Beyond the general observation that privilege in comparative and often prompts defensiveness and unproductive comparisons, I posit two specific reasons. Geek identity is informed by a relative sense of insecurity and superiority, which leads to a naive notion of meritocracy. First, some geeks question how they could be privileged given the difficulties they had in life. Second, enthusiasm for technology and fantasy is believed to be indicative of a more objective and open-minded perspective—a belief signified by geeky idiosyncrasies.

Key words: meritocracy, privilege, geek, feminism


Phil Libin, former CEO of Evernote (a note-taking app), believes that “we live in a geek meritocracy.” In a 2011 talk at the Stanford entrepreneurial program, Libin (2011) explained that, “Now is the best time in the history of the universe to start a company because we are living in a geek meritocracy today, or as close to a geek meritocracy as has ever happened.” Advances in technology allowed him to focus on creating excellent products, rather than worrying about marketing, logistics, and “other crap,” as he did in previous companies.

I understand geeks to be those enthusiastic about an interest. Hackers are geeks who are enthusiastic about exploring and building systems—not necessarily breaking into them—and, like Libin, they often speak highly of meritocracy. This can be seen in the “Jargon File,” a collection of hacker vernacular and philosophy: “hackers consider themselves something of an elite (a meritocracy based on ability), though one to which new members are gladly welcome” (Raymond 1991b).

This presumption of an ascendant and welcoming geek meritocracy is, of late, being challenged by those who identify as geek and feminist: they question the privilege of those who so often declaim geek meritocracy. For example, in 2010 Michael Arrington, founder of the TechCrunch news website, posted an essay entitled: “Too Few Women in Tech? Stop Blaming the Men.” He was responding to criticisms of Disrupt, TechCrunch’s annual entrepreneurial conference and competition. Arrington (2010) explained that “Success in Silicon Valley, most would agree, is more merit driven than almost any other place in the world. It doesn’t matter how old you are, what sex you are, what politics you support or what color you are. If your idea rocks and you can execute, you can change the world and/or get really, stinking rich.” He expressed frustration that despite Disrupt’s best efforts, “We beg women to come and speak,” they still end up with a poor showing. Thus, he concluded that “the problem isn’t that Silicon Valley is keeping women down, or not doing enough to encourage female entrepreneurs. The opposite is true. No, the problem is that not enough women want to become entrepreneurs.” Others disagreed. Stanford gender researcher Caroline Simard responded that “saying high-tech is a meritocracy doesn’t make it so” (Simard 2010; Smith 2010; Stone 2010).

Simard’s response is bolstered by arguments by geek feminists about a “myth of meritocracy.” The first critique is that meritocracies are biased towards affirming and reproducing those similar to extant community members. In Model View Culture (MVC), a periodical of alternative perspectives on tech culture, software developer Noah Slater (2014) wrote that meritocracy is based on “what we, privately, think contributors ought to look like.” One tech blogger accordingly refers to it as a “Mirrortocracy” (Bueno 2014). For example, at Disrupt 2013, just two years after Arrington’s missive, one could see reflections of androcentrism in the mirror. During the presentation for the app Circle Shake, a man appeared to masturbate on stage. Also, the app Titstare was proposed for the supposed benefit to men’s health (Morais 2013). These attempts at humor presume (and perpetuate) a particular audience. Second, it might be pushiness rather than (or in addition to) skill that is rewarded in geek meritocracies. An article on the Geek Feminism (2015a) wiki stated, “meritocracies tend to promote those who not only have the skills/experience, but are also outspoken enough to let everyone know about it.” In her study of open source software, anthropologist Dawn Nafus (2012, 679) referred to this as “pushyocracy” and noted it can be unfavorable towards women who face the double-bind of being meek-and-ignored or assertive-and-censured. Nafus’ finding was contrary to the belief she found that software development is gender-blind because software “patches don’t have gender.” Third, ironically, the notion of meritocracy can further bias. For example, management researcher Emilio Castilla (2008; 2010) has found a “paradox of meritocracy”: making merit more salient to those evaluating others actually strengthens (non-meritocratic) biases against women. Finally, meritocracy presumes “a level playing field.” Software developer Coraline Ada Ehmke (2014) wrote in MVC that “the majority of today’s technologists enjoy elevated privilege in a meritocracy because they have the luxuries of time, money, education, and preferential treatment by the world at large.” These challenges to geek meritocracy, especially the imputations of privilege, has prompted much discussion.

Peggy McIntosh ([1988] 1990) famously characterized privilege as an “invisible weightless knapsack” of unearned advantages relative to others. As McIntosh (2013, xiii) more recently wrote, “transforming learned ignorance into usable knowledge” is difficult because of beliefs about merit, diversity, freedom, and circumstance. (Additionally, some argue that the notion of privilege is imprecise and insufficiently transformative (Gordon 2004; Blum 2008; Jensmire et al. 2013; Smith 2013).) I use the geek discourse about meritocracy, the meritocracy melee, to explore why comparative notions like merit and privilege are contentious, especially for geeks. Just as the debate about “fake geek girls” revealed that geekdom’s boundaries are defined and policed relative to the mainstream, especially the movement of attention (Reagle 2015), I argue that geek identity is similarly informed by a relative sense of insecurity and superiority, which leads to a naive notion of meritocracy. First, some geeks question how they could be privileged given the difficulties they have had life. Second, enthusiasm for technology and fantasy is believed to be indicative of a more objective and open-minded perspective—a belief signified by geeky idiosyncrasies. I conclude by noting that meritocracy is often conceived of in a comparative historical sense: that things have never been better. This belief, too, is a consequence of one’s relative privilege.


I began studying the “gender gap” in online communities in 2006; my focus followed the emergence of self-identifying geek feminists in 2008. Since then, as a researcher and peripheral participant in online and Geeky Communities, I’ve collected notable instances of public discourse about gender, sexism, and geek feminism. This collection is an ongoing, long-term engagement that is complemented by specific research on geek feminism and additional sources provided to me by community members. Specific sources for the present research include a review of multiple versions of the “Jargon File,” the Geek Feminism blog and wiki, and many of the (hundreds of) online sources it refers to (including blogs, discussion sites, and social media), as well as important foundational essays about geek identity. About a dozen blog posts serve as the core sources for this work; many of these were published between 2013-2015. Analysis consisted of iteratively coding (and recoding) the content of these sources into various categories, a type of theoretical sampling or emergent design (Glaser and Strauss 1967, 72; Thomas and Jones 2006). I understand the collection and analysis of these sources as a naturalistic inquiry into geek feminism. My intention, following Clifford Geertz (1973, 27), is to “uncover the conceptual structures that inform our subjects’ acts” and construct a (tentative) system of analysis for how the notion of privilege and the critique of meritocracy are related. I use the techniques of prolonged engagement, checking the account with sources, and thick description to further its trustworthiness (Lincoln and Guba 1985, 294–99); I provide extensive references to all public discourse, opt for extensive quotation where possible so as to convey the texture of the source’s words, and make this account available for feedback from the communities being discussed.

Geeks (and Geek Feminism)

I speak of hackers and nerds as types of geeks: those with 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). One can “geek out” about most any topic. Fans, for instance, are geeks who are enthusiastic about creative content, such as fiction or music. Hackers enjoy exploring and building technical systems and nerds love learning. Many geek cultures are associated with technical and online interests.

Following my sources, I use these terms almost interchangeably, though they have distinct histories and meanings (Coleman 2014; Dunbar-Hester 2014). For instance, hacker was first defined in MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club dictionary five decades ago as someone who employed an “ill-advised” but playful technique (Samson 1959). The word also appeared in the subsequent “Jargon File,” a collection of computer-related lingo started in 1975 and which received its greatest popular attention under the editorship of Eric S. Raymond (1991a), who also 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 1997).) Beyond definitions, 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.

Geeks tend to be self-documenting, as seen in the “Jargon File,” early Internet FAQs, and contemporary wikis (Reagle 2014). The Geek Feminism (GF) wiki and blog were established in 2008 and 2009 and follow this tradition by documenting and applying feminist-related concepts to notable events (as seen in links to blogs like Feministe, Feministing, and Racialicious). GF’s founder, Alex Bayley (better known as “Skud” (2012)), wrote that “our main tactic is to document things.” Skud is a long time “open stuff” contributor and her path to GF included a pair of widely read essays about being a geek woman; she was also one of the first geeks to “question the merits of meritocracy” (Skud 2011, 1998, 2000, 2009). Today, the GF blog and wiki have about a 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.” (Feminism 2015b).

At the same time as Skud’s early reflections, scholars began to challenge the geek stereotype. 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) used the discussions of Skud’s essays to define geek feminism as one that is committed to both feminist concerns and geek enthusiasms. In turn, in 2008, Skud adopted this term herself when she established the GF wiki; the next year she started its blog as a “dedicated feminist space to talk about feminism and feminists in geekdom” (Feminism 2009).

Other notable project followed. In 2011, GF contributors and software developers Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora founded the Ada Initiative (“About Us” 2012), “a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing participation of women in open technology and culture.” In 2013, designer Amelia Greenhall and activist Shanley Kane (2015) launched the print and online publication Model View Culture (MVC) so as to “present compelling cultural and social critique, highlight the work and achievement of diverse communities in tech, and explore the use of technology for social justice.” (Four months after founding MVC, Greenhall (2014) left because “working with Shanley felt like I was in an abusive relationship.” Although insightful essays continue to appear in MVC, Kane has become infamous for her acerbic tweets and fraught relationships.) Also, in 2013, Aurora, Greenhall, and software developer Liz Henry founded Double Union (“A Hacker/Maker Space for Women in San Francisco” 2015), “a hacker/maker space for women in San Francisco.” I refer to those affiliated with these activities as “geek feminists” and reserve the capitalized term and abbreviation “GF” for the wiki and blog.


The notion of meritocracy is now used in a way contrary to its original, critical intention. In an unusual move, British sociologist and Labour Party activist Michael Young adapted his 1955 Ph.D. thesis into a dystopian novel set in 2034. Young intended to satirize the educational tracking of British students who were divided into three different types of schools based on early testing. The book is narrated in the future by a fictive Michael Young who favorably describes the rise of a meritocratic elite and the decline of the lower classes. The system seemingly worked well, for a time, but is challenged by a “Populist Movement” of dissidents, led by a faction of “bizarre” elite women. This unrest arises from the eventual lessening of social mobility as “the top of today are breeding [with] the top of tomorrow” and “the principles of heredity and merit are coming together” (Young [1958] 2002, 166). Despite the protests of the Populists, the fictive Young is confident that meritocracy will prevail. This confidence is misplaced: at the book’s conclusion an editor’s note apologizes for errors in the unfinished manuscript because its author was killed in social unrest.

The real Young wrote this satire so as to caricature and critique a society shifting from a class-bound nepotistic order to one in which “Intelligence combined with Effort equals Merit” (Littler 2013, 57). Alan Fox, a socialist writer, also used the term as critique at about the same time. (It is unclear whether Fox independently coined it or borrowed it from Young (Jackson 2007, 172).) Fox (1956, 13) argued that increasing access to opportunity by way of meritocratic education did not further the outcome of social equality. Rather, meritocracy is one of the “bigger and better ‘sieves’ (‘equality of opportunity’) to help the clever boys get to the top and then pile rewards on them when they get there.”

Much to Young’s dismay, the notion of meritocracy lost its critical edge when “equality of opportunity” was adopted by others as a virtue and concerns about social equity were abandoned. Decades later, Young (2001) confessed that “I have been sadly disappointed” that meritocracy was favorably spoken of in the United States and appeared in the speeches of Tony Blair at home. “The book was a satire meant to be a warning.” Young lamented that meritocracy was how the ruling class reproduced itself while depriving the working class of its own natural leaders. Those left behind “easily become demoralised” because “it is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.”

The idea of meritocracy as “equality of opportunity” was especially popular online. As seen among hackers, elite status was believed to be available to all and “based on ability.” This was also compatible with many influential geek philosophies, including individualistic anarchism, libertarianism, and objectivism (Herring 1994; Barbrook and Cameron 2004; Turner 2006; Reagle 2013; Coleman 2014). (With respect to objectivism, Ayn Rand (2014a, 2014b) was dismissive of the term meritocracy though she advocated for a similar notion, the “pyramid of ability.”) Given the longstanding importance of meritocracy in geek culture, geek feminists’ challenging of meritocracy is audacious especially because their critique is buttressed by the controversial notion of privilege.


The notion of privilege, an unearned advantage relative to and perhaps at the expense of others, first arose in the context of class and racism in America. In 1920, sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois ([1920] 2005) observed how “the discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing.” In 1935, he further noted that whiteness functioned to divide the interests of the working class against itself: that low-paid white laborers received a “public and psychological wage” for their complicity in inequity. Whites were given access to public functions, parks, and good schools; they populated the ranks of the police and could participate in civil society. And although the latter “had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them” (Du Bois [1935] 1995, 700–701). Decades later, Martin Luther King Jr. (1963) responded to those who asked him to delay and temper (nonviolent) protests for civil rights. In a “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he responded that the work could not be delayed because, “lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” Although King’s usage of privilege was more general, in 1967 socialist writers Noel Ignatin and Ted Allen ([1967] 2011, 149–50) returned to the class consciousness of Du Bois, amplifying and repeating his concern in such a way as to present white privilege as an agreement between the U.S. ruling class and the “misleaders” of American labor. They wrote that in exchange for helping “conquer the world and enslave the non-white majority of the earth’s laboring force,” white workers would receive “the material and spiritual privileges befitting” their “white skin.”

Du Bois’ notion, now wedded to the term privilege, was extended and popularized by Peggy McIntosh in 1988. In “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” McIntosh ([1988] 1990) shared that in her role as a feminist and educator she “realized the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious.” This insight led her to consider her own “unearned skin privilege.” She spoke of privilege as something that is conferred by birth or luck. As such, it is an unearned power (to dominate) rather than an earned strength. She also distinguished between illicit privileges (like being able to ignore the perspectives of the less powerful) and those that everyone should enjoy (like non-discrimination when buying a home). McIntosh then enumerated fifty “daily effects of white privilege,” including being able to “turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.” Her self-confessional listing has since been replicated, such as in Jonathan McIntosh’s (2014a, 2014b) essay “Playing with Privilege: The Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male.” In addition to the confessional format of her essay, it was influential for its (1) use of metaphor (“like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions”), (2) recognition that privileges of color, class, and gender are “intricately intertwined” (now often spoken of as “intersectionalism”), and (3) linking it to “the myth of meritocracy.” On the latter point, she claimed that because of privilege, “this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.” Additionally, McIntosh’s ([1988] 1990) insight was prompted by comparisons: although she lacked male gender privileges, she possessed racial privileges. As she more recently said, “I believe that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life” and that privilege “changes minute by minute, depending on where we are, who we’re seeing, or what we’re required to do” (Rothman and McIntosh 2014, para. 15).

As McIntosh’s essay became widely known, other scholars and educators reflected on how to extend and apply the work. Lewis Gordon (2004, 175) argued that the most important of McIntosh’s privileges were actually human rights and “as such, the term ‘privilege’ runs counter to their normative import since such rights are by definition imperatives that apply to and for all human beings.” Lawrence Blum (2008) offered a “mild critique” via additional distinctions. He thought it was useful to distinguish between a spared injustice (a harm avoided), unjust enrichment (benefiting from harm to others), and non-injustice-related privileges (benefits without harm). Blum’s other concerns about privilege included “its inadequate exploration of the actual structures of racial inequality, its tendency to deny or downplay differences in the historical and current experiences of the major racial groups, and its overly narrow implied political project that omits many ways that White people can contribute meaningfully to the cause of racial justice” (p. 320). This latter point has been echoed by others. Andrea Smith (2013, 265) argued that confessions of privilege lacks transformative power. Although the ritual of confession temporarily grants those with little privilege the ability to judge the powerful, “Inevitably, those with more privilege would develop new heretofore unknown forms of oppression from which they suffered… Consequently, the goal became not to actually end oppression but to be as oppressed as possible.” (The GF wiki refers to this as “Oppression Olympics” (Feminism 2015c).) Instead of such rituals, Smith argued for social transformation and political movement-building. This point was further echoed by a collective of teachers (Jensmire et al. 2013), and the challenges of teaching about privilege was the topic of an edited collection in the same year (Case 2013).

There have also been attempts to translate McIntosh’s work into the geeky domain. A video in which prominent male geeks read from Jonathan McIntosh’s (2014a, 2014b) essay on “Playing with Privilege” was featured on the Feminist Frequency YouTube channel. Science fiction author and feminist John Scalzi (2012, 2014) wanted to communicate the effects of unearned advantage “without invoking the dreaded word ‘privilege’.” Scalzi wrote that it is not that the word is incorrect, but that it is not a word that geeks are familiar with. But they do know video games, and Scalzi explained that being a “straight white male” is like “the lowest difficulty setting there is”: opponents are easier to defeat, quests are shorter, and one can gain extra powers more easily. Of course, “You can lose playing on the lowest difficulty setting”; it is just the easiest setting to win on. “The player who plays on the ‘Gay Minority Female’ setting? Hardcore.” Scholar Lisa Nakamura (2012) agreed, while also noting that Scalzi’s “absolutely unassailable white geek masculinity” permitted his message to be heard far beyond that of an actual women of color gamer such as Aisha Tyler. Comic book artist Bary Deutsch (???) created “The Male Privilege Checklist” and explained that “being privileged does not mean that men do not work hard, do not suffer. In many cases—from a boy being bullied in school, to soldiers selecting male civilians to be executed, to male workers dying of exposure to unsafe chemicals—the sexist society that maintains male privilege also immeasurably harms boys and men.” Nonetheless, men typically do experience advantages by virtue of their gender, including “the privilege of being oblivious to privilege.”

Geek Insecurity

Geek identity is informed by a relative sense of insecurity and superiority. One can find evidence of the former in a discussion about geek privilege. In December 2014, Scott Aaronson (2014), a computer scientist at MIT, posted an entry to his blog about the “sad news that Prof. Walter Lewin, age 78—perhaps the most celebrated physics teacher in MIT’s history—has been stripped of his emeritus status and barred from campus.” MIT found that Lewin had harassed students of an online course, and it took the step of removing recordings of his lectures from MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW). Little was known about the harassment and much of the initial discussion focused on the wisdom of removing Lewin’s famed lectures. (Details of Lewin’s abuses would be more fully revealed by a victim a month later (Straumsheim 2015).) Although Aaronson believed the charges were “extremely serious” and that Lewin should “be treated as harshly as he deserves,” he believed that depriving the world of Lewin’s lectures would be “a tough call” even if Lewin “had gone on a murder spree.” Over 500 comments followed this post in the next few weeks.

One of those comments charged that Aaronson’s post was callous. Anand Sarwate (2014), an electrical engineer at Rutgers, claimed that “ignoring the real hurt and trauma felt by those who are affected by Lewin’s actions is an exercise in privilege.” Subsequently, Aaronson wrote that “much as I try to understand other people’s perspectives, the first reference to my ‘male privilege’ – my privilege! – is approximately where I get off the train, because it’s so alien to my actual lived experience.” Aaronson explained that “given what nerdy males have themselves had to endure in life, shaming them over their ‘male privilege’ is a bad way to begin a conversation with them.” He confessed that for much of his life, especially during his adolescence, he was deeply lonely and anxious: “I spent my formative years—basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s—feeling not ‘entitled,’ not ‘privileged,’ but terrified.” He was terrified that his sexual interest in women might cause him to be “scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison.”

It was on this question of privilege that a broader discussion ensued (alecco 2014; octorok 2014). Feminist author Laurie Penny (2014) responded in the New Statesman that as a nerdy teenager she had also been terrified of the opposite sex and “of making my desires known—to anyone.” And “unlike Aaronson, I was also female, so when I tried to pull myself out of that hell into a life of the mind, I found sexism standing in my way.” Arthur Chu (2015), a popular blogger and former Jeopardy champion, sympathized with Aaronson’s feelings: “I’ve felt a lot of those feelings and, more importantly, I’ve known my share of guys who were that bad off.” But Chu noted that although Aaronson’s pain “came from things that happened inside his head,” many women also faced being “harassed and groped by men in the tech world.” The advice columnist Dr. Nerdlove (2015) feared that by “mythologizing the nerd as downtrodden and powerless,” nerds end up treating others badly, “ironically enough, in much the same way that the jocks and bullies act towards us.” Importantly, geekdom’s resistance to this critique likely arises from seeing itself as different from the mainstream: “We’ve been rejecting what the world thought about us for so long that we’re unwilling to see that criticism isn’t necessarily an insult and that sometimes they’re right and we’re wrong.” In a similar thread, scholar Zeynep Tufekci (2014) noted that even if “tech guys” were not jocks or jerks in high school, geek culture can still be gendered and biased such that there are “cumulative effects in that many women—and men—who don’t fit into the ‘bunch of weird nerds’ culture will leave the field.”

This discourse reveals two difficulties with challenging privilege, especially that of those who feel insecure about their social standing: comparing suffering and arousing defensiveness. In a better world, the sharing of suffering would lead people to be more compassionate, as sometimes happens, but in many cases the opposite can happen, such as when “the goal became not to actually end oppression but to be as oppressed as possible” (Smith 2013, 265). The inherent hazard with meritocracy and privilege as ideas are that they are relative, leading to unproductive and alienating comparisons at the individual level.

Also, the imputation of privilege is often expressed as a personal challenge and taken as a personal insult—even if the greater concern is structural inequities. In this case, Aaronson wrote of the “sad news” that the public was losing Lewin’s instructional videos. Comparatively little was said about the welfare of the victims. It is unfortunate that we can more easily speak about what is visible (Lewin and his videos) rather than not (the victims). It is also human to more readily see the world from the perspective of those most similar to one’s self. Yet the imputation of privilege often pushes this insight further away. Consider an alternative claim: “Your attributes within a larger social structure (be it race, gender, class, or educational level) are preventing you from appreciating a (less fortunate) person’s perspective.” Such a statement might have been less likely to prompt Aaronson to “get off the train.” Granted, this could be read as a tone argument: that “feminists would be more successful if only they expressed themselves in a more pleasant tone” (Feminism 2014a). At the descriptive level I agree: tone can prompt a response that serves as a red herring or distraction from substance even if, normatively, one should still focus on “engaging with sound arguments.”

In any case, these issues of “oppression Olympics” and tone policing reveal the utility of Scalzi’s likening of “the dreaded word ‘privilege’” to a video game’s difficulty setting. This is a type of game readily understood by the geek, and it is a metaphor that is less likely to arouse personal defensiveness and the unfruitful comparison of suffering. It places focus on the inequities of the game rather than the circumstances of the player.

Geek Superiority

Unlike the messy world of high-school insecurity, the computer is thought to be objective: You can prove that your code runs and that it runs faster than the alternatives. In fact, the Internet was built by engineers under the famous credo that “rough consensus and running code” is preferred to “kings” and even the democratic governance (Clark 1992, 19; Reagle 1999). This was the attitude encountered (and challenged) by anthropologist Dawn Nafus (2012) in her study “‘Patches Don’t Have Gender’: What is not Open in Open Source Software.”

Like many geeks, Meredith Patterson (2014), is fond of this “constructivist” mentality, as she calls it. Patterson, a technologist and science fiction author, claimed that you can’t argue with code: “Programming is an inherently constructivist discipline.” Patterson continued: “Some programmers can leave constructivism at the office, but hackers live and breathe it.” Hence, constructivists require others to unambiguously demonstrate and prove a claim. For instance, according to Patterson, her people, the weird (or “outsider”) nerds, have ample reason to fear incursions from the mainstream because their “own lived experience yields proof after proof that they, and their outsider norms, will be first against the wall when the popular kids come.” When “cool” nerds and “brogrammers” arrive, “weird” nerd acceptance is threatened. (This is in contrast to Tufekci’s (2014) opposite concern that the “many women—and men—who don’t fit into the ‘bunch of weird nerds’ culture will leave the field.”) Interestingly, Patterson has invoked the superiority of geek rationality to underscore a geek insecurity.

More importantly for Patterson, geek feminists threaten the community and its constructivism with distractions about social identity, gender, and bias. “Code is no respecter of persons. Your code makes you great, not the other way around.” For Patterson, to foreground feminist concerns is excessive because “we want our decision procedures to consider identity when contextually appropriate … but not when the distinctions it introduces only muddy the waters, or worse, refocus problem-solving effort away from the roots of those problems” (Patterson 2014).

For Patterson, geekdom had proven to be a safe sanctuary from the challenges of “growing up with autism.” This is a space where “we fit in a little better without having to try so hard.” Correspondingly, nobody every told her “no girls allowed” (Patterson 2013). Unlike what she has faced for being autistic, her experiences of gender bias have been unnoticed, rare, or easily overcome. In a rare instance of gender discrimination, Patterson only learned of it when “it was brought to my attention long after the fact.” Unbeknown to her, someone had dismissed her technical proposal because of her gender; she subsequently implemented it herself. When she later learned of the discrimination, “I literally doubled over laughing at how nonplussed he must have been to see it not only implemented, but implemented to ‘rousing success.’” Patterson’s geekiness rendered her immune to slights, and her code allowed her to triumph. Other women have told Patterson that her experiences of a welcoming geekdom are not typical. She conceded that this may be true, but that “maybe other women would have a better time of things if they tried walking around in my shoes for once” (Patterson 2013).

Eric Raymond (2015), who wrote of geekdom as a welcoming meritocracy twenty-five years earlier, appreciated Patterson’s position. Although there is room to “make the hacker culture and the civilization it serves a better place,” Raymond had come to see those who speak of “white privilege” or “patriarchy” as “thin rationalizations over bullying, dominance games, and an endless scream of monkey rage.” Instead, those who would criticize must first demonstrate their technical chops.

If we go back to Raymond’s (1991b) “Jargon File,” we can see earlier evidence of presumed superiority in the terms used for social status. Hacking is a meritocracy, topped by the alpha geek, wizard, or “true-hacker.” Additionally, hackers are said to “dress for comfort, function, and minimal maintenance hassles rather than for appearance”—so much so that some might “neglect personal hygiene” and “quit a job rather than conform to dress codes.” Such a culture seems more focused on substantive merit, and it is more welcoming to those with sensory sensitivities, like autistics. This “low tolerance” for matters of appearance is said to even extend beyond long hair and bare feet towards a purported blindness of gender and color: “after all, if one’s imagination readily grants full human rights to future AI programs, robots, dolphins, and extraterrestrial aliens, mere color and gender can’t seem very important any more.” In this view, geeks are thought to be more objective in their concern with functionality and more open-minded by virtue of their rationality and enthusiasms.

Correspondingly, the mainstream’s concern with appearance is representative of its inferiority, as seen in the humorous description of a “suit” in the “Jargon File.”

n. 1. Ugly and uncomfortable “business clothing” often worn by non-hackers. Invariably worn with a “tie”, a strangulation device which partially cuts off the blood supply to the brain. It is thought that this explains much about the behavior of suit-wearers. 2. A person who habitually wears suits, as distinct from a techie or hacker. See <loser>, <burble> and <brain-damaged>. (Raymond 1991b)

In a series of famous essays among geeks, programmer and venture capitalist Paul Graham (2003, 2004b, 2004a) wrote about the identity and behavior of hackers and nerds. He concluded that hackers’ desire to focus on interesting work and to be thought smart was so strong that “sometimes young programmers notice the eccentricities of eminent hackers and decide to adopt some of their own in order to seem smarter.” Because geeks believe they judge and are judged on intelligence and skill, they often cultivate and celebrate idiosyncrasies relative to the mainstream. It is a culture that exhibits “The Red Sneakers Effect,” meaning that status and competence can be inferred from signals of nonconformity (Bellezza, Gino, and Keinan 2013). Sometimes, geek idiosyncrasy is even recognized by the mainstream, such as Mark Zuckerberg’s penchant for hoodies. (Although Zuckerberg’s hoodie has been argued to be “savvy, not snotty” (Nugent 2012), hoodies worn by young black men prompt a different debate about thuggishness and fear (Givhan 2012).)

There is much to appreciate about the geek culture. It can be a haven from mainstream strictures, a community of like minded enthusiasts, and, at its best, a space that welcomes novelty and difference. It can also be a place where many feel they are judged for the merit of their intellect and creativity rather than social adroitness, dress, and popularity. For this reason, many geeks see it as superior to the mainstream. But like any other community and culture, it has its biases and exists within larger social structures. And much as geek inferiority obscures the presence of those biases, so does geek superiority. Indeed, the narrative of a misfit who finds a new home and ultimately triumphs is a powerful one, but one that can be naive to the fact that not everyone’s circumstances are equal. This is what I refer to as naive meritocracy—which I prefer over the “myth of meritocracy.” For some, geekdom is meritocratic relative to other communities, but that does not make geekdom universally meritocratic, and it is naive to think so. Although the abstract notion can be laudable, meritocracy’s implementation can be buggy and its results flawed.

Shirts and Privilege?

The story of geeks as oppressed underdogs who eventually come out on top is a common one. In a five thousand word essay on “Why Nerds are Unpopular,” Graham explained that young nerds fail to appreciate that being popular takes effort. Instead, they spend their time learning “to make great things,” like designing rockets, writing well, and programming computers (Graham 2003). This preference, combined with the uninspiring and prison-like environment of school leads to a barbaric culture in which nerds fair poorly. However, after leaving school, the mature nerd can find like-minded peers with whom they can indeed “make great things” and for which society will reward their efforts. The trope of the insecure but triumphant nerd is even recognized in the 1984 film Revenge of the Nerds. (The disguised protagonist’s sex with and eventual winning of a popular cheerleader, by leading her to think he was her boyfriend, complicates some geeks’ appreciation for the movie (greeneyedtrombonist 2015).)

Geeks experience social disadvantage in high-school, but transcend it by virtue of their smarts and enthusiasm. Sometimes their triumph is in making “great things” is even celebrated by the mainstream, as are their idiosyncrasies. To exemplify the relationships between idiosyncracy, merit, and bias, consider two cases about something seemingly trivial: the content and fit of shirts.

In August 2012 the mass media was abuzz with stories and images of “NASA Mohawk Guy.” This was the nickname bestowed by Internet users on NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowsi, flight director for the Mars rover landing. His colorful haircuts were widely reported on in the mainstream press, and, in a congratulatory phone call, President Obama even joked about the haircut with Ferdowsi and later invited him to the Inaugural Parade (KWM 2013). In this case, geek idiosyncrasy was recognized outside of geekdom as a signifier of technical and scientific merit.

Two years later, on November 12th, 2014, an undertaking by the ESA (European Space Agency) brought attention to another science geek, the tattooed Matt Taylor. Taylor was the Project Scientist for the Rosetta mission, which had successfully landed a spacecraft on a comet— the lander was tattooed on his thigh. In an interview, Taylor can be seen wearing colorful bowling shirt patterned with illustrations of armed, scantily clad women (i.e., girls with guns). He was reported as describing the landing as “the sexiest mission there ever has been” and a difficult one: “She’s sexy, but I never said she was easy” (Plait 2014). Rose Eveleth, technology editor for The Atlantic, tweeted a picture of Taylor with a sarcastic remark: “No no women are tooooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt.” This was soon retweeted thousands of times and the controversy came to be known as #shirtstorm and #shirtgate. Eveleth’s tweet was a widely seen as a challenge to the supposed objectivity of geek meritocracy.

Besides what appears on shirts, geek feminist have noted that the shirts’ actual fit is problematic. In geekdom, the T-shirt (emblazoned with a logo) serves to identify (1) one’s divergence from mainstream norms (e.g., “suits”) and (2) one’s alignment with a specific interest (e.g., via the logo of a software project, conference, or fictional character). As the GF wiki documents, such T-shirts are often given as event “schwag” (free promotional items) and often tailored for men. These fittings present a double-bind for women. If they choose not to wear the T-shirt, they might not be seen as fully geek or as a team player. Wearing an ill-fitting T-shirt also presents an unpleasant choice to women: “wear a too-small shirt, emphasizing the breasts, or wear an ill-fitting straight-cut shirt,” both of which “can compound any discomfort they might already feel at being in a minority” (2014b). In a field historically dominated by men, it is not surprising that t-shirt sizes were, historically, tailored for men. I do not mean to imply that this is an act of intentional, overt sexism. Yet, it is the manifestation of a historical privilege. Consequently, it should be identified as such. Otherwise, history continues to perpetuate itself. (The GF wiki recommends that shirts be offered in women-friendly styles, that attendees preregister their shirt size so they are guaranteed a good fit, or that organizers offer alternative schwag.)

Whereas insecurities and suffering relative to the mainstream can lead some geeks to think that they are without privilege, a sense of superiority (as reflected in idiosyncratic presentation) may lead to the belief that they have transcended bias. However, this is undercut by these two cases of geek shirts. Although idiosyncrasy can signify a concern for substantive merit, it can be alienating. Similarly, the fit of t-shirts can embody and perpetuate unintended bias.


Unlike Michael Arrington’s (2010) claim that Silicon Valley (and his Disrupt conference) is merit-driven and that women simply fail to participate, Evernote CEO Phil Libin (2011) was not referencing gender when he opined that “we live in a geek meritocracy—or as close to a geek meritocracy as ever happened.” Libin’s presentation preceded much of the meritocracy melee; he was speaking of his excitement for creating great products in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Technology now allowed him to focus on creating excellent products, rather than worrying about marketing, logistics, and “other crap.” Libin (2011) believed “we live in a geek meritocracy” because there has never been a better time to start a tech company. His final argument for the achievement of “geek meritocracy” was by way of a question: “Is there any point that you think you would rather change your life today for? Would you be back in 1992, would you go back to the ’70s, would you go back to the 1500s? When was there ever a better time?” That is, we live in a geek meritocracy because the present is preferable to the past.

This question reveals a privilege in Libin’s historical thinking. Even if every geek (including feminists) agreed that the present is preferable to the past, this does not mean things could not improve. Geek feminists can easily conceive a future where things are better, and the presumption of meritocracy achieved (or even approached) is an impediment to that future.

The idea of meritocracy is often used naively. Even if we abandon Young’s meritocracy as “satire meant to be a warning” and accept “equality of opportunity” as valuable, opportunities are not as equal as we might hope. Meritocracies can be biased towards affirming and reproducing attributes of extant members, and they can then favor incidental attributes of those members, such as pushiness or idiosyncratic dress. Also, the very notion of meritocracy can create biases against non-majority members, and it presumes all members have equitable competitive circumstances. The notion of privilege can provide a useful corrective, although it often inflames discourse when it prompts personal defensiveness rather than action to remedy structural inequities.

One might be cynical and claim that some geeks resist the imputation of privilege because they wish to maintain the status quo. Yet, for many, geekdom has been relatively meritocratic; the problem is to naively assume it is universally so. This naive understanding of geek meritocracy is then obscured by a coupling between the feelings of insecurity and superiority. Hence, much as privilege can be understood as the level of difficulty in playing the game of life, it can be understood as a tool for revealing bias in thinking. While naive meritocracy elides the existence of privilege, privilege provides a tool for informing naiveté. The geek meritocracy melee demonstrates this relationships as well as possible origins of that naiveté and the limits of the notion of privilege.


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