Geeking out as a conversational paradigm


After I graduated college I couldn’t find a job straight off, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I ended up staying home with my parents for a bit, in suburbia, and nearly losing my mind.  The one thing that saved me was weekly four-hour coffeeshop sessions with two friends.

The conversations gave me something I had in high school and college, but now was suddenly in short supply. It was a sort of conversational style that wasn’t really expressive or rhetorical, but on a good night it could feel effortless. I just thought of it as “good conversation”, but it was clearly more of a style.


A picture of a Denny’s for our non-American readers. It’s a chain, the coffee is horrible, but it has free refills and they tend to not kick you out.

I said this to Milo, one of those two friends, one night at the Denny’s.

“Oh, you mean geeking out?” Milo asked.

“Geeking out?” I said. It was 1993, and the first time I’d heard the term.

Milo outlined the nature of geeking out. To him, a “geek out” was a wide-ranging conversation that obeyed different sorts of rules than other conversations. It was emotional, but not primarily expressive. It encompassed disagreement, but it was not debate.

The major rule of the geek out session was each conversational move should build off previous moves, but extend them and supply new information as well.  I tell you something, you find an interesting connection to something you know and you make that connection.

It had disagreement, but it didn’t work like a debate. The goal of a geek out when it came to disagreement was to map out the disagreement more fully. If you dropped a stunning proposition like “Mad About You is the most underrated show on TV” on the table, that’s exciting in a geek out, even if it’s painfully wrong, because it hints that we may share profoundly different information contexts, and this disagreement has surfaced them. Now we get to dig in, which is sure to bring in some novel information or connections.

In an expressive conversation I want you to know exactly how I feel. In a debate, I want you to understand and respect my point of view.

In a geek out I want to know the most valuable and interesting things you have in your head and I want to get them in my head. The people that understand the form may look like they are debating or expressing, but they are doing something much much different.


I don’t know if all this was so succinctly expressed at the table that night. I do know that when I went back to school I became fascinated with discourse analysis. I entered the Literature and Linguistics program at Northern Illinois University. I initially went to work on stylistics, but a course with Neal Norrick turned me on to the possibilities of conversational analysis.

Over the next few years I’d record dozens of conversations of this sort and play them back, listening for the conversational moves. My friends just got used to me having the tape recorder around. My wife, Nicole, looked at the tape recorder a bit weird when I brought it on our second date back in 1995, but when others told her — “Oh, that’s just Holden with his project” she rolled with it, and didn’t run screaming, for which I am forever grateful.


A selection of my mid-1990s recordings of conversations. I made too many to buy decent tapes. The tape names reflect either subjects or participants.

Because I was a grad student at the time, and grad students need to find a niche, I was particularly obsessed with a type of geeking out involving what I called “possible world creation.” But the broad insight that fascinated me was that people co-construct many “geek out” conversations the way that improv artists construct a scene. A conversation is something you have, but it’s also something you build.

It’s 20 years later, and the term “geeking out” has been claimed by others now, I suppose. But looking at it now after soaking in Connectivism and theories of social learning for a decade, I see something else that fascinates me. It’s true that the conversation of the “geeking out” session (as defined by Milo) is co-built. But it looks like something else too. It looks like network mapping.

In fact, if alien robots were to observe geeking out, I think this is what they’d see. We’re little creatures that roam around, experiencing things while disconnected from the network, learning things while disconnected from the network.

Occasionally we meet up, and there’s this problem — I want your insights, your point of view, the theories, trivia, and know-how you have. And as importantly, I want to know how you’ve connected it and indexed it.  So we traverse the nodes. I say I have a data record about John Dewey. You say, I’ve got one of those too, it’s connected to this fact over here about James Liberty Tadd’s weird drawing pedagogy. I’ve never heard of that, but as you talk about it I realize it connects with this 1890s obsession with repeated designs and Japanese notan, and how that led to the book that would lay much of the foundation for art education, the Elements of Composition.

When you start thinking of geeking out as a sort of database synchronization protocol, it makes a lot of sense. Consider the following geek out session, and note the way the moves try to reconcile multiple conflicting networks of knowledge during our sync-up session. I’ve compressed the moves from the stop and start they’d normally be to make it more apparent what’s going on:

  1. You tell me about your disappointment with the last Joss Whedon film.
  2. I say that relates to a piece I read on Whedon and the death of auteur theory and describe it. Others ask about the article.
  3. A third person says, how come music didn’t go through auteur theory? Kind of interesting, right?
  4. Person #4 says well, it sort of did. Dylan was auteur theory in music.
  5. How’s that, other people at the table say?
  6. Person # 4: Because he wrote his own music, he introduced the “singer/songwriter” vs. the Tin Pan Alley model.
  7. But wait, you say – Leadbelly was a singer songwriter. The blues guys were singer/songwriters. So how exactly did Dylan invent it?
  8. Hmm, that’s interesting person #4 says. But of course they were altering traditional songs.
  9. So was Dylan, you say, so I don’t quite buy it. His first album was all covers, right?
  10. Wait, I say, I don’t so much care if Dylan *was* the reboot of the auteur — he was seen that way, and that’s what’s interesting.
  11. We talk about the early 60s a bit. Person #3 brings up Lou Reed because he always brings up Lou Reed.
  12. We groan. You know — some things don’t related to Lou Reed, we say.
  13. Person #3 resumes. You got a lot of things going on in 1960 — in film there was industrialization, at least from the perspective of the Cahiers crowd. But I think there was a sort of media as a lifestyle thing. Media subcultures.
  14. That’s bullcrap, says person #4. Media subcultures are as old as civilization.
  15. Give me an example of that, I say.
  16. Oh there must be hundreds. says person #4. You know how Aristophanes was “low humor”?
  17. Wait, who was Aristophanes, says person #2.
  18. Person #4: “Ancient Greek playwright. Made biting political satire but also the occasional fart joke. So anyways, some greeks thought he was the best thing ever, others thought it was the end of civilization. That’s a media subculture, right?”
  19. But isn’t modern media different, you say? It’s more than what you consume. You remember reading a Tom Wolfe piece from the early 60s on how teens use the radio. And the thing he said was — and you’re interpreting here — is they didn’t so much listen to music as use it as a personal soundtrack.
  20. Is that in that “Kandy-Colored” whatever collection about custom cars and stuff I ask.
  21. Yeah, you say. And we continue…

If you have a minute, go through those moves. There’s not a lot of debate or expression. It’s an intense session we’re you’re networking information together, and where there are clashes it’s almost like a data inconsistency error. Look, I want to take in your Dylan connection, but it conflicts with my Leadbelly knowledge map — how do I resolve that, show me….

Of course, I’m sure what I call geeking out goes back to the beginning of humanity. The structure of storytelling, for example, is very similar. You tell a story, and I say that reminds me of this other story — have you heard it? Night after night cultural information propagates, but so do the connections between those stories. We don’t just get the content, we get the map.


Federated wiki tends to operate in this way, at least in the happenings we’ve had (and we’ll have another soon, get in touch if you’re interested). Federated wiki is asynchronous, but it seems to follow in the same grooves. I thought initially that people would re-edit people’s pages a lot, and they do edit them. But the main thing they do in those edits supplement the information by adding examples and connections to the page or by linking to other pages where they share a related fact.

What’s weird, when you think about it, is not really that federated wiki falls into this “geeking out” structure.  What’s weird is so little on the web does. The primary modes of the internet are self-expression and rhetoric. I’m doing it here in a blog post. This isn’t geeking out – it’s some exposition, mostly persuasion, outside a link here or there, nothing that couldn’t have been published in print a couple thousand years ago. Twitter is debate and real-time thought stream. Blog comments are usually debate. Some forums have little flashes of this, but they don’t traverse as much ground.

That said, maybe I’m missing something. Are there other forms on the web where the primary form of communication is this free flowing topical trapeze? Did the geeks really build a web that doesn’t support geeking out? And if so, how did that happen?

My thought is that we’re increasingly frustrated with conversational forms that are not a great fit for the web. But this one conversational form, which is built on something that feels like the hyperlinking of small documents – we don’t seem to have technologies around that. Why?

13 thoughts on “Geeking out as a conversational paradigm

  1. We used to have lunch-time geeking out sessions at a previous work-place. Because they’d would inevitably tend towards statements about people (“there are two kinds of people…” – and then you’d lose points if you didn’t list at least five). We called them “crap social theory” sessions. They had to be crap – that is, wrong, but insightful – as an essential criterion for free-flowing dissection. True mastery consisted in slowly turning the discussion 180 degrees without anyone noticing, until you were attacking your former position and all your previous attackers were defending it, at which point you could finish with a flourish by suddenly agreeing with them. *Many* extra points if you did that without knowing you were doing it. But these weren’t empty rhetorical games – they were indeed mapping the issue, as you say.

    Where I think this sort of discourse goes beyond hyperlinking and database synchronization is in the very active feedback loops. Beyond “I see you think X, and here’s my related material” and “You think X, well here’s my response” is “If you think X, I’m going to think anti-X just to see how that goes”, or, “I’m going to take over as X advocate but exaggerate it, to see if I can get you to attack my extreme take on X”. That sort of stuff is *really* hard to do online due to the cripplingly small emotional bandwidth available- see endless tedious discussion threads that devolve into people pointing out minor logical inconsistencies, whereas logical inconsistencies are the very lifeblood of crap social theory sessions.

    • This is excellent! Yes, part of geeking out is that you’re decidely NOT angling to construct a persona. You groan at the guy who pushes Lou Reed every time because that’s not how it works. You have to be responsive to the conversation, even if that means building out connections that you’re ambivalent about, just to see where they lead.

      You can’t do that online, because online you are what you say, and godforbid you say something wrong…

      • Yes, part of geeking out is that you’re decidely NOT angling to construct a persona. You groan at the guy who pushes Lou Reed every time because that’s not how it works. You have to be responsive to the conversation, even if that means building out connections that you’re ambivalent about, just to see where they lead.

        I keep thinking about this observation in comparison with James Paul Gee’s idea that “learning a new domain, whether it be physics or furniture making, requires the learner to take on a new identity: to make a commitment to see and value work and the world in the ways in which good physicists or good furniture makers do.” From Gee’s point of view, it seems like “angling to construct a persona” is absolutely necessary to learning, but your geek-out-as-networking idea suggests quite the opposite. Constructing a persona gets in the way of networking (and therefore learning) because it prevents you from building out ambivalent connections.

        I wonder if there are certain domains in which it’s advantageous for learners to construct a persona and others where it’s not. I’m thinking in particular about Land and Meyer’s notion of threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. Their idea is that some academic concepts are particularly troublesome because they require you to do more than just tack a new idea on to old ones. You have to integrate that knowledge with old ideas and thus reinvent how you see the world. Land notes that there can be a sense of loss in this process because you have to give up a part of your identity; you have to change your world view. Many students fight this; they resist that new identity.

        Actually, as I’m writing this I’m wondering if these two ideas aren’t just different stages of the same process. First, you need to geek out; you need a friendly space that’s explicitly not about constructing a persona in order to try on new ideas that might otherwise feel threatening. Eventually though, if you want to leave this “liminal state” then you’ll have to engage in activities that are to the contrary, very explicitly about constructing an identity.

        This semester, I’ve been teaching a hybrid precalculus course with blog assignments (very) loosely modelled after ds106. I told the students that if they couldn’t figure out how to complete the weekly blog assignment then they should just blog about what they tried and where they got stuck. I had imagined this would get a dialogue going and students would help each other resolve mathematical misunderstandings. In reality, students were very resistant to writing about topics that they didn’t fully understand. I think they felt like I was asking them to embarrass themselves online, to publicly announce to their ineptitude. Blogs are really all about constructing an identity. I wonder if a more geek-out-friendly tool like Federated Wiki’s might have been a better starting point. Students could network ideas and then once they felt less ambivalent about them, then they could write a blog post to solidify this new identity.

    • Oh, and the other thing you remind me of is that lists are huge in geek out culture, precisely because the the interaction over the list pushes people out to the edges of their knowledge. We’d do it with music. Top ten guitar solos. Five best lyrics from 80s synthpop. Six solo artists better than the bands that made them famous.

      None of these lists mattered, but it’d push you to do a sort of collaborative reindexing of your knowledge that was fun, and you’d always learn something in the process.

  2. Before trying to wade in with a coherent comment, let me (a) give appreciation for bring such a vivid metaphor to the table; and (b) acknowledge that in the pre-web 1990s your nickname was “Holden”. Just noticing.

    What you describe rings familiar too of dorm room conversations. And I know someone who grew up in a home where this was the norm for dinner conversation.

    If i had to try and tease out some of the characteristics of the geek out session as described:

    * Participants are totally present, and in the same space. Not just their physical presences, but they are not paying attention to other conversations or media, they are not checking their watch because they need to be somewhere. Committing a few hours for pure conversation seems like some museum exhibit experience.

    * The goal of conversing is not to advance a viewpoint, to be “right”, but its to seek alternate viewpoints, to increase one’s awareness of nodes of information. When we blog we are trying to make a stand. When we tweet we are trying to ?? often assert. How much is listening?

    * There seems to be a minimal threshold of trust built in from experience, and also a willingness to put out something that would be shot down.

    * There might be some factor about the number of participants. Could you geek out at a table of 200?

    Of course not all is replicable in a distributed, asynchronous environment. Some of this seemed to happen in the group discussions this time around. And the idea mixing seemed to be really high around the history of hypertext activity.

    Definitely keep me on board for another happening. I fell off a bit this last time with other “stuff”. I know there is something there there, and we are fortunate your fervor runs this strong.

  3. I wonder if this kind of conversation isnt seen as basically recreational. Its the fun of it, the two and fro of ideas that engages. It is purposeless, almost phatic. Though there are elements of this in, for example a fedwiki happening, everyone seems to have an underlying purpose, and in a lot of our uses of the Net there is perhaps a need for a purpose, to justify it. The very term geeking out seems to imply something like “goofing off”. So nobody built for the that, maybe…
    That said, I think there are many spaces on the Net where geeking out can happen. I don’t use FB much, but what I see many do there seems similiar, more “recreational” sharing for the sake of it, for the sake of “seeing” each other, rather than any other “purpose”.

    • This might be true of “geeking out” as most people define it, but it’s not really true with the activity described above, where phatic hardly applies.

      Facebook is certainly a place to share pieces of information you come across, but you don’t traverse the nodes in this way. You get the list of buildings but you don’t get the paths between them.

  4. For me Twitter occasionally breaks out into a kind of micro geeking out in the way that you describe, but Alan’s right: it’s woven from longer experience of the bits and pieces other people carry with them. It’s tripped by presence and synchronicity, and it’s over in a flash. I do relate Twitter to your sense of the passages of familiar banter in which new things bob up.

    But I’m not sure Federated Wiki really works for me in this way. My experience is of something quieter, a kind of fruit-picking conversation. It’s not quite purposeless, and it does go beyond the phatic, but it has some things in common with wandering.

    Where it connects for me with geeking out is that it’s social. But without being, you know, Social.

  5. This is interesting. Thanks, as usual, for yet another fun, thought-provoking post.

    There are a couple of aspects of what you’re describing that jump out at me. For starters, these are pointless, by which I mean you don’t generally enter them with a goal. You’re not primarily trying to persuade somebody and you’re not primarily trying to make yourself known or understood. By definition, this means that any attempt to graft an assessment onto this sort of activity will kill it. These conversations are necessarily and essentially pointless.

    To the contrary, they are a form of play, which means that, whatever “rules” or “goal” or “scoring” may be present, they are understood to exist in order to make the activity fun rather than being the real reason for the activity. Musical improvisation is a good example of this. It can be both personally expressive and competitive, but those aspects are often secondary to the creative exchange.

    I believe one big reason that this sort of play doesn’t happen on blogs is the strong sense of ownership attached to them. My blog is my space. When you comment, you are commenting in my space. You can comment from your space in your own blog, but you’re kind of reaching across the void there. Ownership gets in the way of this sort of exchange because you need to sublimate the ego to make it work, and blogs actually encourage the opposite. (This is one reason why I have never felt that blogging is the be all/end all for teaching and learning conversations. Aggregation doesn’t solve this problem.) I also think it’s hard to do this kind of play asynchronously, and that the bigger the unit of thought, the less well this works. Conversations are short bursts of thought. We don’t usually blog that way. (I certainly don’t.)

    I’ve personally been puzzled by the whole transient media craze now, in the way that I am usually puzzled by some important social media trend that an old introvert like me does, but maybe the transience is relevant here. I recently heard a photographer on PBS talk about how he had been trained to think of his photographs as documents but that his daughter, via her smart phone and snapchat and that sort of thing, thinks of her photographs as contributions to a conversation. Let’s run with that for a bit. What are the characteristics of photos as a conversation? Here are some: (1) No strong prior-established goal, (2) no rules about where the exchange can go, other than established tacit social conventions, (3) no expectation that the contributions will be scrutinized outside of the moment, (4) a goal in the conversation to contribute something that the others will find pleasing or satisfying, rather than to be understood or to “win”, (5) if not synchronous communication, at least a sense of immediacy, (6) conversational units that are short enough and open enough to interpretation and “play” that they invite responses.

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