Alpha geeks

This won’t be the most linear discussion. I’m going to talk about a few different things and then (attempt to) tie them together.

I’ve had elements of this post bouncing around my head for a while, but part of it ties with something I wrote yesterday: a sign of good communication patterns is that when a person has information someone else needs, they share it openly, and do not use it for power or control.

Why is that important? Well, saying “I know how to do that and you’re dumb if you don’t” is the mark of an asshole, and yet it’s not exactly discouraged throughout geek culture. (Thankfully, there are some very nice people who work with technology and do not do this. Or else I wouldn’t be doing half the cool things I am.)

The term “alpha geek” goes back a while, but one of the most prevalent uses of it at the moment comes from Tim O’Reilly, the publisher. He describes his job as watching what the alpha geeks (hackers, innovators, people stretching available technology in interesting ways) do, in order to figure out what direction technology is headed in. As a business strategy, this isn’t bad. Watching what people are doing on the edges to figure out where the center is headed works in other fields too. But right now, what I see is not just tracking innovators, but publicly discussing who they are, what they do, directly marketing to them and promoting their individual activities (through things like the Radar blog and Make magazine, and Boing Boing, and a whole cluster of other sites).

What happens when geeks (a crowd not known for an insistence on stellar social skills, as discussed above) find out that they are their own very special industry and marketing category? It’s more encouragement for “I know how to do this stuff and you don’t so you’re dumb.” Okay, maybe the real innovators have better things to do than flaunt their coolness, but we all believe we are smart and special, and clearly part of the top crowd in our skills and knowledge. (Don’t believe me? Try screening resumes sometime.) So this doesn’t actually limit the puffery to people who might get away with it (after they’ve won the Nobel Prize or make low-cost spaceflight a reality).

I think something about the marketing and analysis process is corrupting what’s important here. I think that the “alpha geek” label encourages entirely the wrong point of view. Are the only people we care about in tech-land the cutting edge innovators? For all the talk about “creating passionate users” and “user-driven design” we seem to be forgetting that we, the technologists, are also users. We all work with things someone else built, on a daily basis. Is the edge, the innovation, the only part of the process anyone cares about? If working with Rails is really awesome at first, and then sucks after six months when you learn what’s under the covers, that matters, right?

I think it’s time to quit talking about alpha geeks, to quit trying to make ourselves special, and take a more holistic view. I don’t care about being a rockstar. I just want to do something interesting and mind-stretching and fun. Don’t you?

3 responses to “Alpha geeks

  1. You’re right. But I wouldn’t limit this analysis to the tech community. I think that with any activity that takes a special skill, there will always be those people who see it as an end, rather than a means. Generally, they’re in it for self-centered rewards (recognition by peers, primarily) rather than creating things that will benefit others. Newbies to the community see the rockstars as the model, so they strive toward rockstardom. Because the rockstar crowd attracts people, the marketers jump on board. You get the idea. You wrote the post.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that this is just one of those things we have to live with. We can lessen the effect by not buying into the marketing and trying to promote our own point of view. But as long as there are people who are externally-motivated (which there always will be), this situation will exist.

    I guess I take some comfort in knowing that the tech community could be a *lot* worse off than it is. Have you ever looked at a magazine for guitar players?

  2. Also, I was wondering if you’d be interested in expanding on this:

    > If working with Rails is really awesome at first, and then sucks after six months when you learn what’s under the covers, that matters, right?

  3. Wanting to be a superstar: American Idol is a great example of the marketing power of that idea, right? On one level, it’s pretty harmless, but if you’re trying to do something, and the only potential collaborators are rockstar wannabes, that’s a problem.

    I’ve seen people refer to the “writer role playing game” as another example of this. Some people are more concerned with getting to say, “Yes, I am a writer” than actually doing the writing and then trying to sell it. This keeps vanity presses in business.

    As for Rails: I just threw that out as an example because it’s what I’m working with right now, and because I think most Rails devs eventually reach a point where they ask “why does Rails do things that way?” and hear “because DHH says so”. Their focused approach has been a huge asset, but I could do without the attitude. I think it’ll be a huge weakness in the long run if the focus on limiting the core code also curtails development of a diverse set of extensions and plugins.