Naive meritocracy and contested privilege

Joseph Reagle

Naive meritocracy and contested privilege:
Insights from geekdom’s meritocracy melee

Joseph Reagle, Northeastern University 

My Evolution

“Why the Internet is Good”

leaders advanced by their technical merit rather than telegenic appeal (Reagle 1999)

“Free as in Sexist?”

The belief that openness and freedom necessarily rule out discriminatory behavior may be a consequence of androcentrism in the free culture movement. (Reagle 2013)

Is geekdom a meritocracy?

“Stop blaming the men”

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. (Arrington 2010)


saying high-tech is a meritocracy doesn’t make it so (Simard 2010)

Challenging “mythocracy”

  1. “mirrortocracy” (Bueno 2014).
  2. “pushyocracy” (Nafus 2012)
  3. “paradox of meritocracy” (CastillaBenard 2010)
  4. privilege (“time, money, education, and preferential treatment”) (Ehmke 2014)

Why do geeks resist the notion of privilege?



To be geek is to be engaged, to be enthralled in a topic, and then to act on that engagement. (McArthur 2009)

Hackers are enthused about systems; nerds about learning.

hackers consider themselves something of an elite (a meritocracy based on ability), though one to which new members are gladly welcome. (Raymond 1991)


Equal opportunity vs. outcome

By 1990 or thereabouts all adults with IQs of more than 125 belonged to the meritocracy (Young 1958, p. 166)

The book was a satire meant to be a warning. (Young 2001)


privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks. (McIntosh 1988, sec. 1)

Why do geeks resist the notion of privilege?

1. Comparative concepts

Merit and privilege are both relative, leading to unfruitful comparisons of individuals’ worth and disadvantage.

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. (Smith 2013, p. 265)

This can be called “Oppression Olympics” (Feminism 2015).

2. Inferiority

reference to my “male privilege”—my privilege!—is … alien to my actual lived experience…

nerdy males [who] pull themselves out of the ditch the world has tossed them into, while still maintaining enlightened liberal beliefs, … don’t deserve blame for whatever feminist shortcomings they might still have. They deserve medals… (Aaronson 2014)

3. Superiority

<suit> 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 1991)

4. Fear

Both groups [“brogrammers” and “geek feminists”] are latecomers barging in on a cultural space that was once a respite for us… (Patterson 2014)


“We live in a geek meritocracy…”

… or as close to a geek meritocracy as ever happened…. Is there any point that you think you would rather like—would just 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 like when, when was there ever a better time? (Libin 2011)

Libin’s question reveals another privilege:

the relative frame of comparison.

Even if we agreed that the present is preferable to the past,

everything is not awesome for everyone.

For many, geekdom is meritocratic relative to their experiences,

but that does not make it universally meritocratic;

it is naive to think so.