Geek Identity, gender, and geek feminism

Joseph Reagle

Without intending to do so I’ve developed a thread of research focusing on geek culture and identity, including feminist perspectives on these subjects.

Gender Bias in Wikipedia and Britannica

Abstract: Is there a bias in the against women’s representation in Wikipedia biographies? Thousands of biographical subjects, from six sources, are compared against the English-language Wikipedia and the online Encyclopædia Britannica with respect to coverage, gender representation, and article length. We conclude that Wikipedia provides better coverage and longer articles, that Wikipedia typically has more articles on women than Britannica in absolute terms, but Wikipedia articles on women are more likely to be missing than articles on men relative to Britannica. For both reference works, article length did not consistently differ by gender.

“Free as in sexist?”: Free culture and the gender gap.

Abstract: Despite the values of freedom and openness, the free culture movement’s gender balance is as skewed (or more so) as the computing culture from which it arose. Based on the collection and analysis of discourse on gender and sexism within this movement over a six year period I suggest three possible causes: (a) some geek identities can be narrow and unappealing, (b) open communities are especially susceptible to difficult people, and (c) the ideas of freedom and openness can be used to dismiss concerns and rationalize the gender gap as a matter of preference and choice.

The Obligation to Know: From FAQ to Feminism 101

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.

Geek policing: “Fake geek girls” and contested attention

Abstract: I frame the 2012–2013 discourse about “fake geek girls” using Bourdieu’s theory of fields and capital, complemented by the literature on geeks, authenticity, and boundary policing. This discourse permits me to identify the reciprocal relationship between the policing of identity (e.g., am I a geek?) and the policing of social boundaries (e.g., is liking an X-Men movie sufficiently geeky?). Additionally, geekdom is gendered, and the policing of “fake geek girls” can be understood as a conflict over what is attended to (knowledge or attractiveness), by whom (geekdom or mainstream), and the meaning of received attention (as empowering or objectifying). Finally, despite the emergence of a more progressive and welcoming notion of geeks-who-share, the conversation tended to manifest the values of dominant (androcentric) members. That is, in a discourse started by a woman to encourage other women to be geeky, some of the loudest voices were those judging women’s bodies and brains according to traditionally androcentric and heteronormative values. Consequently, in this boundary and identity policing, women faced significant double binds, and the discourse exemplified a critical boomerang in which a critique by a woman circled back to become a scrutiny of women by men.

Naive meritocracy and the meanings of myth

Abstract: Hackers and other geeks have long described their spaces as meritocratic. Geek feminists challenge this belief as a myth. In short, so-called meritocracies reproduce extant members and favor incidental attributes; they are biased, susceptible to privilege, and unconcerned with inequitable outcomes. I agree that meritocratic claims are often unfounded and elide equitable opportunities and outcomes; such claims deserve scrutiny. Yet, meritocracy is experienced as real by some, and it is a worthwhile ideal. Given that the word myth has multiple meanings, I offer the term naive meritocracy in its place. I also suggest there are two types of naiveté about meritocracy: ignorant naiveté, which is unaware of these critiques, and subjective naiveté, by which personal experiences trumps all else. The notion of naive meritocracy permits us to be critical of meritocratic claims without sacrificing the ideal of meritocracy as equal opportunity.

Nerd vs. bro: Geek privilege, idiosyncrasy, and triumphalism

Abstract: Increasingly, geek culture is criticized as one that is biased; in particular, geek claims of meritocracy are thought to be naive because they do not recognize the privilege (i.e., unseen advantages) of extant members. But some geeks are resistant to this critique. Why? Beyond the natural tendency to be defensive and the unproductive comparison of personal suffering, there is a geek-specific reason. Geek identity is informed by the trope of geek triumphalism: early insecurity is superseded by a sense of superiority. Geeks’ intelligence, unconventional enthusiasms (e.g., technology and fantasy), and idiosyncratic dress contributed to their marginalization, leading them to believe they would never do the same to others. And these same characteristics, later in life, become sources of success and pride, leading them to think they are more open-minded, objective, and beyond bias.