Social Science and the Popular Kids

OK, this has now annoyed me enough to pontificate.

There is a study going around which commentators are discussing under titles like “The Popular Kids Who Tortured You in High School Are Now Rich“, and “Sorry, nerds: Popular kids earn more in the long run“. The study finds, using data from a 1957 longitudinal study of white males, that the high school students who were most popular at graduation were more financially successful over the course of their careers.

Now, other people have flagged the “generalizing from the experiences of 70-something white men from Wisconsin is sketchy” thing. I want to kvetch around the problem in social science of “operationalization”, which is social-scientist for “We want to study X, but that would be too logistically difficult (or impossible), so instead we will study Y and pretend that it is totally the same.”*

Specifically, the study examines “popularity” using “an objective measure of popularity derived from sociometric theory: the number of friendship nominations received from schoolmates” — i.e., who is named by the most people as one of their three closest friends.

Now, it’s not unreasonable to describe this measure as “popularity”, but it has very little to do with what “the popular kids” means in mainstream American culture (see above, “The Popular Kids Who Tortured You in High School.”). “Popular”, in the American high school context, is a measure of status. That may go along with being well-liked, but some high schools have more of a “let them hate, so long as they fear wedgies” culture.  “Popular kids” act the role of power in social situations, and thereby have power.

(I note in passing that I think popular kids get an unfair rap in many people’s memories because people resent that kind of social power whether or not it is abused.  Even if the popular kids are no more cruel than anybody else, the fact that they could torture you if they wanted is a source of pain.)

By using “popularity” to describe the property the authors examined, they guaranteed themselves a mass audience, but also guaranteed that most of that audience would inaccurately understand their findings. They also positioned their findings as counter-intuitive (“You mean the nerds will not inherit the earth?”) rather than pedestrian (“People with lots of friends do well in life, huh? Thanks for coming in”).

This is a semantic dodge which displeases me.

*OK, that’s not always what they mean by operationalize, but it would be inconvenient to distinguish more finely.^


Originally published on Google Plus

Fifteen Minutes and Counting
(Mar. 15, 2005)

A year and a half ago, I was amusing my friends with some observations on geek social life which I placed into an imaginary list of “geek social fallacies” (list format conferring, as it does, a superficial sense of authority). They told me I should write it up and post it. So I sat down, filled in the missing entry in the list (number 4, as I recall), and posted Five Geek Social Fallacies on December 2, 2003. Within the week, I’d had more visitors than in the entire lifespan of the site before that, and 5GSF was a minor net.flavor of the week.

I was unprepared for this.

Sometimes, however, things that blindside you teach you the most, and as I look back on the experience and its aftermath, I find a lot of lessons — about authorship and audience, the power of the net, and the treachery of careless diction.

Give Me Validation!

2004 was the year my attitude about writing changed. On the one hand, it was the year that I finally felt comfortable describing myself as a writer. On the other, it was also the year I learned that authorship is a double-edged sword.

I’ve earned some portion of my income from writing since 1999. For the first four years of that time, I was desperate for audience feedback. It’s possible that this was a holdover from my earlier life as an actor; my earliest understanding of an artist’s relationship with his audience is immediate and two-way. Broadcasting into the void drove me absolutely nuts. I wanted to know that people were hearing me; I wanted to engage with their reactions, good and bad. With most of my writing work, however, that was impossible.

Thus, when I realized that 5GSF was striking a chord, I started following the referrers from my server logs, to see what the conversation was. That was transformative.

I have trouble coming to terms with the way people respond to the written word; the critical element, I think, is a powerful sense of detachment. Readers, more often than not, seem not to be invested in their relationship to the text. This is a different standard from the
stage. Performance is, in some respects, harder than writing — if nothing else, you can’t revise away a misstep — but your audience is usually rooting for you. They came out to see the show; they have some personal investment in their own enjoyment. They want you to succeed, and as long as you don’t stink, you’ll probably be OK. Text, on the other hand, has distance built in. A reader needs to be wooed. If you fail to serve their needs, they have no mercy. (The exception here is if the reader is already a fan of yours, in which case they’ve made a personal investment which gives you some wiggle room.)

It’s difficult watching people respond to your work in that detached fashion, particularly when you have learned the first lesson of Internet criticism: never respond to a critique of your own work except to correct errors of fact, and sometimes not even then. Detached distaste is infuriating; detached approbation is unsatisfying. (Which is not to say there wasn’t the occasional visceral response that I appreciated. “Ouch. Like print out and take to my therapist ouch,” was rewarding.)

I found, after a while, that I didn’t really need to know about either. I want people to read my work; that’s what it’s for. I hope they’ll enjoy it. I’m amused that someone translated 5GSF into Portuguese. But I don’t want to read over their shoulder anymore. My thirst for audience feedback is slaked; it’s never come back.

Lightning Bugs

The most maddening thing about audience response to the written word is that the written word is like an arrow in flight. Once you loose it, you have to live with it. In performance, your feedback arrives in time for you to do something about it. You can win back an audience on stage by adjusting your performance to suit. It’s harder to judge your audience in print, and almost impossible on the Internet. I had expected the audience of 5GSF to be the clot of friends and acquaintances who usually read Plausibly Deniable. It turned out to be much larger than that.

It is extremely hard to write for everyone. Words have different connotations in different realms, and evoke different responses. Reflecting on the feedback on 5GSF, I think there are two words in the title alone which caused some problems in certain circles.

First up is the issue of what “geek” means. It’s an ill-defined subculture at the best of times, but I generally see two loose and overlapping superfamilies. On the one hand, those geeks whose common denominator is a passion for technical pursuits of all sorts — OS geeks, coding geeks, sysadmin geeks, etc.; on the other, those whose common denominator is a passion for media — comic book geeks, film geeks, anime geeks, gaming geeks, etc. I’m a game designer with a degree in performance studies. You can probably guess where I fall. I
wasn’t thinking especially rigorously when I wrote 5GSF, so while I defined my terms, I used the media-geek definition throughout. This caused problems for some readers
coming from the other side of the tracks — like, say, Metafilter.

The other loaded word was “fallacy”, which I think was more provocative than I anticipated. Many self-identified geeks take deep pride in their logical minds, and being accused of a fallacy was a slap in the face. Arguably, “pathology” or “dysfunction” would have brought
the point across more effectively; medical and pseudo-medical explanations for social phenomena seem to lack the same sting — consider, for example, the common equation of geekish cluelessness and Asperger’s syndrome, or the frequency of self-diagnosed psychological conditions in certain subgroups.

On the other hand, friends have suggested that perhaps provocative wording was an important part of the essay’s legs — good or bad, it got a rise out of people. I’m not sure yet what I think about that.

The Awesome Power of the Internet

I had a different understanding of the nature of Plausibly Deniable before 5GSF. I assumed that people would come to the front page, presumably led there by my signature or business card, or possibly a recommendation. From there, they would explore.

This is not how things work. To this day, 5GSF is my most popular page request by a factor of ten; from there, the list is in the exact order of the articles on my opinion page. People read 5GSF, and about one in ten backs up to the main opinion page, working through some percentage of the articles there before getting bored. Maybe one in a hundred makes their way to the rest of the site.

The power of net hubs is also remarkable. It’s interesting how many of the most powerful forces on the net do not themselves create, but link to interesting material elsewhere. I’ve seen it noted (but forget where) that one reason for the power of the right-wing blogosphere is that there are several right-wing blogs who serve as link clearinghouses, while left-wing blogs tend to insist on extensive commentary. It makes for deeper analysis but less vibrant conversations. Clearly I need to link more.

Fanboys and scientific realism

I’ve talked with a number of fanboyish sorts through the years whose comments on realism and consistency suggest to me that they wanted, with a deep and abiding passion, to be able to believe that their favorite media properties did, or could (somewhere in an infinite cosmos), really exist. On some level, their enjoyment of the material demanded that possibility of its reality. For scientifically-educated consumers, that usually means demanding scientific plausibility.

This instinct is one reason why books like The Physics of Star Trek — which explains in detail how Paramount’s accreted technobabble is not, in fact, incompatible with modern understandings of physics — are successful. They help bolster the theoretical possibility of genre media.

There’s a certain indifference to metaphor there, as if a narrative that isn’t literally possible is just a lie, and a not particularly competent one.

It reminds me somewhat of the accounts I’ve heard of fiction during classical Islam, when prohibitions against lying demanded that every story be qualified with a formula like “so it is said” or “but Allah alone knows the truth”. The story is then framed as a tale that might be the truth, even if it’s clearly fictional.

It also puts me in mind of the thesis among some science fiction readers that proper science fiction is a blueprint for the future, and any SF book which fails in this mission by contradicting established fact is just useless.

So what’s going on there? I suspect that for at least some advocates for literal realism, the notion of fictional realms as not merely fantasies, but alternate realities, is crucial to their enjoyment. It’s a sort of amplified escapism; they want to believe that there exists another place in spacetime where they might live different, possibly better lives. They may not be able to go there, separated from the fictional realm by centuries of time or by dimensional boundaries separating alternate universes, but the supposed existence of the alternative is comforting. A mere fantasy lacks the same power.

I think it’s akin to preferring to daydream about winning the lottery rather than daydreaming about learning how to throw fireballs — fantasies as hypotheticals, rather than as entertainments.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Sometimes the mainstream is shallow

An interesting point emerged a while back in an email discussion I had with the redoubtable Sean Collins about his ongoing crusade against backhanded compliments given to comic books in the mainstream media. He asked if he could post it, but, well, he didn’t. So I’m going to.

There is an ongoing … problem? Issue? Phenomenon? In any event, comics have now reached a level of cultural impact that the more literate examples of the form sometimes get reviewed in mainstream literary venues — the New York Times, Salon, and whatnot. However, these reviews, even when they’re positive, almost invariably spend a good chunk of time reassuring the reader that comics are widely known to be subliterate drivel, power fantasy, preadolescent ya-yas, etc., and generally tearing down the medium before proceeding to the reasons why the book under examination rises above the filth of its roots. Those who love comics do not love this approach.

There’s a certain amount of frustration involved here, I think. The literary comics are supposed to legitimize the medium in a certain way. At the end of the day, Maus is supposed to make your relatives not give you crap for reading comic books. But the equation doesn’t work if the mainstream insists on severing the relationship between literary comics and the rest. The problem, it seems, is how to educate the mainstream about the medium, and how even the crap is, at least, no crappier than crap TV or crap novels. And so the intellectuals of the comic world wait for that mighty breakthrough volume which will have such obvious merit that the world will at last have to acknowledge the potential of the medium.

I don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t think the problem really is the mixture of snobbery and ignorance that it’s traditionally held to be. Rather, it’s a psychological thing.

The problem is no longer that the mainstream doesn’t know what comics are. The problem is that the mainstream knows what they were, and doesn’t want to know what they’ve become. All those “normals” who used to love comics when they were nine are not the medium’s natural allies. They don’t especially care what comics are doing now, or what they may be capable of. For them, comics are a quintessential part of their childhood. Insofar as they want anything from comics, they want their early-70s comics back. Ideally, they’d have their early-70s comics back as they knew them as a nine-year-old, and anything which interferes with that retro fix is an unwelcome distraction.

No one wants to admit that their childhood is gone. In practice, this means that most of us assume that everything we knew as kids is the same as it was, and kids today do things like we did, until facts intrude. It’s what makes parents so desperately uncool. It’s what depresses older video game fans when they discover that today’s kids think that Tetris is lame and should blow up more. No one wants to admit that their childhood is gone, no one wants to admit that they’re getting older, and no one wants their entertainment media to serve up a side order of the cold wind of mortality.

In a way, it’s a testament to the critical dedication of these mainstream reviewers that they get past nostalgia to give comics fair and positive reviews. But I think that the prefatory smackdown is their way of resolving the cognitive dissonance — of reassuring themselves that regardless of this single intrusion into the world of adult literature, comics as a whole are still the stuff of simplistic playground idylls. It’s how they keep that 9-year-old clutching his 1974 Amazing Spider-Man to his chest alive.

It’s going to be hard to write a comic book good enough to kill a 9-year-old for.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Five Geek Social Fallacies

Within the constellation of allied hobbies and subcultures collectively known as geekdom, one finds many social groups bent under a crushing burden of dysfunction, social drama, and general interpersonal wack-ness. It is my opinion that many of these never-ending crises are sparked off by an assortment of pernicious social fallacies — ideas about human interaction which spur their holders to do terrible and stupid things to themselves and to each other.

Social fallacies are particularly insidious because they tend to be exaggerated versions of notions that are themselves entirely reasonable and unobjectionable.  It’s difficult to debunk the pathological fallacy without seeming to argue against its reasonable form; therefore, once it establishes itself, a social fallacy is extremely difficult to dislodge. It’s my hope that drawing attention to some of them may be a step in the right direction.

I want to note that I’m not trying to say that every geek subscribes to every one of the fallacies I outline here; every individual subscribes to a different set of ideas, and adheres to any given idea with a different amount of zeal.

In any event, here are five geek social fallacies I’ve identified. There are likely more.

Geek Social Fallacy #1: Ostracizers Are Evil

GSF1 is one of the most common fallacies, and one of the most deeply held. Many geeks have had horrible, humiliating, and formative experiences with ostracism, and the notion of being on the other side of the transaction is repugnant to them.

In its non-pathological form, GSF1 is benign, and even commendable: it is long past time we all grew up and stopped with the junior high popularity games. However, in its pathological form, GSF1 prevents its carrier from participating in — or tolerating — the exclusion of anyone from anything, be it a party, a comic book store, or a web forum, and no matter how obnoxious, offensive, or aromatic the prospective excludee may be.

As a result, nearly every geek social group of significant size has at least one member that 80% of the members hate, and the remaining 20% merely tolerate. If GSF1 exists in sufficient concentration — and it usually does — it is impossible to expel a person who actively detracts from every social event. GSF1 protocol permits you not to invite someone you don’t like to a given event, but if someone spills the beans and our hypothetical Cat Piss Man invites himself, there is no recourse. You must put up with him, or you will be an Evil Ostracizer and might as well go out for the football team.

This phenomenon has a number of unpleasant consequences. For one thing, it actively hinders the wider acceptance of geek-related activities: I don’t know that RPGs and comics would be more popular if there were fewer trolls who smell of cheese hassling the new blood, but I’m sure it couldn’t hurt. For another, when nothing smacking of social selectiveness can be discussed in public, people inevitably begin to organize activities in secret. These conspiracies often lead to more problems down the line, and the end result is as juvenile as anything a seventh-grader ever dreamed of.

Geek Social Fallacy #2: Friends Accept Me As I Am

The origins of GSF2 are closely allied to the origins of GSF1. After being victimized by social exclusion, many geeks experience their “tribe” as a non-judgmental haven where they can take refuge from the cruel world outside.

This seems straightforward and reasonable. It’s important for people to have a space where they feel safe and accepted. Ideally, everyone’s social group would be a safe haven. When people who rely too heavily upon that refuge feel insecure in that haven, however, a commendable ideal mutates into its pathological form, GSF2.

Carriers of GSF2 believe that since a friend accepts them as they are, anyone who criticizes them is not their friend. Thus, they can’t take criticism from friends — criticism is experienced as a treacherous betrayal of the friendship, no matter how inappropriate the criticized behavior may be.

Conversely, most carriers will never criticize a friend under any circumstances; the duty to be supportive trumps any impulse to point out unacceptable behavior.

GSF2 has extensive consequences within a group. Its presence in substantial quantity within a social group vastly increases the group’s conflict-averseness.  People spend hours debating how to deal with conflicts, because they know (or sometimes merely fear) that the other person involved is a GSF2 carrier, and any attempt to confront them directly will only make things worse. As a result, people let grudges brew much longer than is healthy, and they spend absurd amounts of time deconstructing their interpersonal dramas in search of a back way out of a dilemma.

Ironically, GSF2 carriers often take criticism from coworkers, supervisors, and mentors quite well; those individuals aren’t friends, and aren’t expected to accept the carrier unconditionally.

Geek Social Fallacy #3: Friendship Before All

Valuing friendships is a fine and worthy thing. When taken to an unhealthy extreme, however, GSF3 can manifest itself.

Like GSF2, GSF3 is a “friendship test” fallacy: in this case, the carrier believes that any failure by a friend to put the interests of the friendship above all else means that they aren’t really a friend at all. It should be obvious that there are a million ways that this can be a problem for the carrier’s friends, but the most common one is a situation where friends’ interests conflict — if, for example, one friend asks you to keep a secret from another friend. If both friends are GSF3 carriers, you’re screwed — the first one will feel betrayed if you reveal the secret, and the other will feel betrayed if you don’t. Your only hope is to keep the second friend from finding out, which is difficult if the secret in question was a party that a lot of people went to.

GSF3 can be costly for the carrier as well. They often sacrifice work, family, and romantic obligations at the altar of friendship. In the end, the carrier has a great circle of friends, but not a lot else to show for their life. This is one reason why so many geek circles include people whose sole redeeming quality is loyalty: it’s hard not to honor someone who goes to such lengths to be there for a friend, however destructive they may be in other respects.

Individual carriers sometimes have exceptions to GSF3, which allow friends to place a certain protected class of people or things above friendship in a pinch: “significant others” is a common protected class, as is “work”.

Geek Social Fallacy #4: Friendship Is Transitive

Every carrier of GSF4 has, at some point, said: “Wouldn’t it be great to get all my groups of friends into one place for one big happy party?!”

If you groaned at that last paragraph, you may be a recovering GSF4 carrier.

GSF4 is the belief that any two of your friends ought to be friends with each other, and if they’re not, something is Very Wrong.

The milder form of GSF4 merely prevents the carrier from perceiving evidence to contradict it; a carrier will refuse to comprehend that two of their friends (or two groups of friends) don’t much care for each other, and will continue to try to bring them together at social events. They may even maintain that a full-scale vendetta is just a misunderstanding between friends that could easily be resolved if the principals would just sit down to talk it out.

A more serious form of GSF4 becomes another “friendship test” fallacy: if you have a friend A, and a friend B, but A & B are not friends, then one of them must not really be your friend at all. It is surprisingly common for a carrier, when faced with two friends who don’t get along, to simply drop one of them.

On the other side of the equation, a carrier who doesn’t like a friend of a friend will often get very passive-aggressive and covertly hostile to the friend of a friend, while vigorously maintaining that we’re one big happy family and everyone is friends.

GSF4 can also lead carriers to make inappropriate requests of people they barely know — asking a friend’s roommate’s ex if they can crash on their couch, asking a college acquaintance from eight years ago for a letter of recommendation at their workplace, and so on. If something is appropriate to ask of a friend, it’s appropriate to ask of a friend of a friend.

Arguably, Friendster was designed by a GSF4 carrier.

Geek Social Fallacy #5: Friends Do Everything Together

GSF5, put simply, maintains that every friend in a circle should be included in every activity to the full extent possible. This is subtly different from GSF1; GSF1 requires that no one, friend or not, be excluded, while GSF5 requires that every friend be invited. This means that to a GSF5 carrier, not being invited to something is intrinsically a snub, and will be responded to as such.

This is perhaps the least destructive of the five, being at worst inconvenient. In a small circle, this is incestuous but basically harmless. In larger groups, it can make certain social events very difficult: parties which are way too large for their spaces and restaurant expeditions that include twenty people and no reservation are far from unusual.

When everyone in a group is a GSF5 carrier, this isn’t really a problem. If, however, there are members who aren’t carriers, they may want occasionally to have smaller outings, and these can be hard to arrange without causing hurt feelings and social drama. It’s hard to explain to a GSF5 carrier that just because you only wanted to have dinner with five other people tonight, it doesn’t mean that your friendship is in terrible danger.

For some reason, many GSF5 carriers are willing to make an exception for gender-segregated events. I don’t know why.


Each fallacy has its own set of unfortunate consequences, but frequently they become worse in interaction. GSF4 often develops into its more extreme form when paired with GSF5; if everyone does everything together, it’s much harder to maintain two friends who don’t get along. One will usually fall by the wayside.

Similarly, GSF1 and GSF5 can combine regrettably: when a failure to invite someone is equivalent to excluding them, you can’t even get away with not inviting Captain Halitosis along on the road trip. GSF3 can combine disastrously with the other “friendship test” fallacies; carriers may insist that their friends join them in snubbing someone who fails the test, which occasionally leads to a chain reaction which causes the carrier to eventually reject all of their friends. This is not healthy; fortunately, severe versions of GSF3 are rare.


Dealing with the effects of social fallacies is an essential part of managing one’s social life among geeks, and this is much easier when one is aware of them and can identify which of your friends carry which fallacies. In the absence of this kind of awareness, three situations tend to arise when people come into contact with fallacies they don’t hold themselves.

Most common is simple conflict and hurt feelings. It’s hard for people to talk through these conflicts because they usually stem from fairly primal value clashes; a GSF3 carrier may not even be able to articulate why it was such a big deal that their non-carrier friend blew off their movie night.

Alternately, people often take on fallacies that are dominant in their social circle. If you join a group of GSF5 carriers, doing everything together is going to become a habit; if you spend enough time around GSF1 carriers, putting up with trolls is going to seem normal.

Less commonly, people form a sort of counter-fallacy which I call “Your Feelings, Your Problem”. YFYP carriers deal with other people’s fallacies by ignoring them entirely, in the process acquiring a reputation for being charmingly tactless. Carriers tend to receive a sort of exemption from the usual standards: “that’s just Dana”, and so on. YFYP has its own problems, but if you would rather be an asshole than angstful, it may be the way to go. It’s also remarkably easy to pull off in a GSF1-rich environment.

What Can I Do?

As I’ve said, I think that the best way to deal with social fallacies is to be aware of them, in yourself and in others. In yourself, you can try to deal with them; in others, understanding their behavior usually makes it less aggravating.

Social fallacies don’t make someone a bad person; on the contrary, they usually spring from the purest motives. But I believe they are worth deconstructing; in the long run, social fallacies cost a lot of stress and drama, to no real benefit. You can be tolerant without being indiscriminate, and you can be loyal to friends without being compulsive about it.

Hey, Are You Talking About Me?

If I know you, yeah, probably I am. It doesn’t mean I don’t love you; most of us carry a few fallacies. Myself, I struggle with GSF 1 and 2, and I used to have a bad case of 4 until a series of disastrous parties dispelled it.

I haven’t used any examples that refer to specific situations, if it has you worried. Any resemblances to geeks living or dead are coincidental.

Nitpicking and the fannish tithe

I’ve been thinking lately about various issues of geek culture. Partly as a result of my attempt to essayize my off-the-cuff remarks on geek social fallacies, but also as a result of watching the always polite, respectful, and intelligent discourse that characterizes online fan forums.

One fannish behavior that I can’t quite figure out is that fan consumers often seem to have no investment in enjoying the products they buy.

In most of life, spending hard-won cash on a product or service gives you a certain investment in the enjoyment of that experience. You paid for it; you have an incentive to enjoy it. But many a fan seems to regard their fan-interest purchases as something forced upon them, as if they took an oath to tithe a certain percentage of their income to their hobby, regardless of whether there’s anything that they actually want.  So they consume, and critique, hobby products the way you might engage with junk mail or TV commercials — something imposed upon you, which has the burden of proof to demonstrate that it is worth your time.

I wonder if the phenomenon is connected to the completist ethic.  Even if a fan didn’t like a work, at least they know it.  If they didn’t have it, its absence would eat at them.

Originally published on LiveJournal