Stories about Software


Please Stop “Geeking Out”

Mostly, I try to stay away from semantic quibbling and I almost always try to stay away from anything sensational, so please forgive me in advance.  I’m taking a hard line of sorts with a blog post entitled, “stop geeking out.” and I’m somewhat doing so for effect.  But this is coming from a place of earnestness.

I don’t really care too much about the term “geek” in and of itself; it’s the concept of “geeking out” that frustrates me.  And it truly is the concept — I’m not interested in term policing.  It’s not like I’d blow a gasket and be insufferable toward someone saying this in front of me; rather saying it in front of me inspires sort of a vague sadness in me, upon which I wouldn’t bother to comment.

But before I get to the reasons for my objection and my sadness, let’s take a look at the origins of the term “geek” as we know it today, originating from the idea of a “geek show.

The Online Etymology Dictionary give the following for “geek”: “sideshow freak,” 1916, U.S. carnival and circus slang, perhaps a variant of geck “a fool, dupe, simpleton” (1510s), apparently from Low Ger. geck, from an imitative verb found in North Sea Germanic and Scandinavian meaning “to croak, cackle,” and also “to mock, cheat.” The modern form and the popular use with reference to circus sideshow “wild men” is from 1946, in William Lindsay Gresham‘s novel Nightmare Alley (made into a film in 1947 starring Tyrone Power).

The billed performer’s act consisted of a single geek, who stood in center ring to chase live chickens. It ended with the performer biting the chickens’ heads off and swallowing them.[1] The geek shows were often used as openers for what are commonly known as freak shows. It was a matter of pride among circus and carnival professionals not to have traveled with a troupe that included geeks. Geeks were sometimes alcoholics or drug addicts, and could be paid with liquor – especially during Prohibition – or with narcotics.

Okay, so quick recap.  Before the term meant “technology enthusiast” it meant, “idiot substance-abuser that earns a living performing unspeakable acts to amuse mobs.”  That’s quite the transition!


The Historical Connection

Let’s examine that transition a bit.  When I was a kid in the 1980s, I remember “geek” being an insult, but it was sort of interchangeable among a bevvy of insulting synonyms: dork, dweeb, nerd, etc.  You can go looking for meaning in a taxonomy if you’re so inclined, but I don’t remember much distinction.

But, as I’d learn later, “geek” had a special and unique flavor of implication.  It conveyed obsession and interest in technology.  Interesting.  But how do you get from “slow-witted alcoholic that will eat chicken heads for free booze” to “guy that really, really likes computers?”

The answer, I suspect, lies in the history of “the IT Guy.”  I’m not talking about people that wrote Fortran and Cobol or people that used punch cards.  Think, instead, the people that serviced computers when they first started appearing in 80s and 90s offices, for word processing and spreadsheets.

This would have been the first broad context in which the public interacted with computers, and these were mystical, magical (and, when things went wrong, frustrating) devices.  And, of course, those computers wouldn’t have trained their own users or fixed themselves, so some person had to show up and do it instead.  Enter the IT Guy.  He’s awkward, he speaks in jargon, he looks at his feet, he does a terrible job of explaining things, and he’s an all around weirdo… but he does have a knack for fixing the things.  Where do they find this guy, anyway?

To understand what this must have seemed like to business people, imagine if we discovered that, somehow, really large spiders make the office more productive.  Next month, your management announces that spiders the size of softballs will be roaming around your cubicles, making life better.  But, they’re finicky arachnids, so they need a Spider Guy to keep things humming.  And so, you’re suddenly confronted with this weird dude that talks lovingly about spiders, lets them crawl around inside his shirt, and does an impressive job of wrangling the beasts somehow or another.

He’s a nice enough guy, but every time you talk to him, it just kind of feels… off.  Dude REALLY likes spiders, and he immediately loses you in spider-babble every time you try to engage him on this front.  When you switch to what you know — the business — you realize he doesn’t have the faintest clue about business or how spiders help it.  He’s just in it for the spiders.  What a geek.

This, I suspect, is how the term made the jump from P.T. Barnum’s world to ours.

Taking Pride in Incompetence

Alright, so if we look back through the lens of history, we can see that things mellowed from “hideous spectacle” to “unrelatable person with a mild fetish.”  That’s something, I suppose.  But it’s hardly great.

Let’s consider the spider guy and what it means for him to “geek out.”  The result of this action on his part is that you’re treated to a discursive, often-disgusting, treatise on mandibles, pedipalps, tubuliforms and egg sacs.  Maybe he’ll pull a handful of crickets out of his pockets and say, “watch this” in spite of your protestations.  Whatever it is, you can be sure that only one of you is enjoying the conversation.

A man geeking out by walking his giant pet spider.

But the trouble here isn’t so much the content as it is his ineptitude at conveying any value.  You can’t understand him, let alone get any sort of impression as to why you should care or what value this might be providing you.  He loves spiders for reasons you can’t fathom, and your position changes not a whit for all of his talking.

He is in no way advancing his own cause of spider appreciation in spite of his best efforts.  Instead, he’s engaging in a purely self-indulgent activity, and he’s not alone.  When people “geek out” about things, this is the core of what they’re doing — allowing themselves to be infatuated with their own interest in a subject to the point where demonstration of value or import goes completely out the window.

But, in the modern context of “geek out,” I’d argue that we go even a step further.  When the original IT guy or our spider guy were “geeking out,” they were doing so haplessly.  Today, we’ve taken back the term so strongly, that we tend to value this outreach incompetence.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about with all of those acronyms.”

“Yeah, I tend to geek out.  Sorry, not sorry.”

Valuing Arcania and Complexity

It gets even worse, though.  Let’s say that you’re immersed in geek out culture, and you start to embrace it as a badge of honor.  If your circle is insular enough, you may get to the point where being understood is a sign of weakness.

Do you snort at anyone that can’t rattle off common regex recipes?  Do you scoff at people that don’t have strings of github command line sequences at their fingertips?

I was listening recently to an episode of the podcast, “Developer on Fire” with Jimmy Bogard.  In it, he talked about having the Webforms event cycle memorized at one point in his career, and taking a lot of pride in it.  As best I can recall, he then talked about looking on that regretfully, wondering why, instead of taking pride in his ability to get good at something complex, he didn’t take the opportunity to help simplify it for others.

In other words, why did he “geek out?”  Why didn’t he, instead, help others understand and help simplify?  Why didn’t he ask, “does it have to be this hard?”

If we unwind this a bit, interesting questions emerge.  Instead of memorizing all sorts of git command-line-fu, why not ask if these workflows couldn’t be simplified?  Instead of memorizing all sorts of regex, why not work on a natural language parser that spits the things out so others don’t have to suffer through them?

Don’t Geek Out; Create Abstractions

You’ll notice that I’m lamenting the term “geek out” and the navel gazing that it implies.  I’m not, by any stretch, lamenting deep knowledge or study.  In order to simplify git workflows, you need to know git well.  In order to write a natural language to regex converter, you need to know regex like the back of your hand.  If you’re going to use tarantulas to help a business, I assume you’re going to need to know spiders really well to pull that off somehow.

But also notice that you’re applying this deep knowledge so that others don’t have to.  You’re providing an abstraction and allowing people who don’t have your knowledge to, nevertheless, extract benefit from the topic that you know.  In an important sense you’re doing the opposite of geeking out.  Instead of a wall, you’re offering a bridge.

So, please, let’s stop with the idea of “geeking out.”  It’s signing off on self-indulgent blather and elevating it to a virtue.  And, frankly, it’s part of the reason that our profession has a hard time getting away from being bossed around by outsiders.  Think back to the sideshow geek biting the heads off of chickens or bathing in spiders, and understand that the essence of “geeking out” is admitting to having no concept of or care about value.

“Do you even know why anyone pays you for this?”

“Nope, no idea, just like me some chicken heads and spiders.”

Please stop doing this.

I understand the term “geek out” colloquially means, “get so excited and passionate about a topic that you can’t help but go on slightly awkward tangents.”  But why do we accept incoherence as a sign of enthusiasm?  Why should we be saying, “Dude, I love this so much I’m inarticulate!”

How about “I love this so much I teach it to novices,” which will gain you notoriety?  Or how about, “I love this so much I simplified it,” which is a solid business model?  If you settle for, “I love this so much that I make people uncomfortable,” you’re doing nothing but bragging to your cohorts that you can eat more spiders than they can.  You deserve better, and we, as a profession, deserve better.

As I said in the beginning, I’m not going to stamp my foot when people use this term, nor am I asking for a vocabulary change.  I’d like to see the term go away because I’d like to see this kind of thinking go away.  All I’m really asking for is that next time you announce that you’re about to “geek out” about something, stop and ask yourself if what you’re about to do is actually useful.

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Thomas Lassanske
Thomas Lassanske
7 years ago

I never thought of it this way, but I have always gotten a lot of enjoyment out of understanding a technical subject well enough that I can explain it clearly to others (and perhaps even improve upon it).

Erik Dietrich
7 years ago

I think that’s a healthy way to tackle a subject you love. Learn it well enough that you can help others and make it more accessible.

Matt Keen
7 years ago

Couldn’t agree more. Git command lines especially seem to be one of those irritating things that people see as a rite of passage, and most of the tools reflect that. Took me a while to find a git client that actually abstracted workflow nicely for me so I didn’t have to care.

Erik Dietrich
7 years ago
Reply to  Matt Keen

Rite of passage is an excellent way to put it. And, when people view it that way, they completely cease to question not only the value of the activity, but whether it could be improved somehow.

Nathan Armstrong
Nathan Armstrong
7 years ago
Reply to  Matt Keen

Very much this. It’s essential to understand the core of Git’s mechanics and abstractions in order to _trust it properly_ (one of the fundamental aspects that makes Git so powerful), but when I see someone rolling their eyes at Git Extensions because ‘you’re too dumb to use the command line’, I can only shake my head and sigh, especially when they spend a fair chunk of their time trying to look up the right command or figure out what the commit graph looks like.

marc Towersap
marc Towersap
6 years ago

uh, maybe you better look a little harder at the history of the term ‘geek’, particularly past the circus-reference. geek != computer-related. you had band geeks, music geeks, science geeks, drama geeks, etc. while I do agree there are some serious regex geeks who can do a lot of things in a single commandline who go a bit too far, regex is a great way to accomplish things, and, like most things, can be taken a bit too far. don’t throw away regex just because some go too far with it.