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:
- You tell me about your disappointment with the last Joss Whedon film.
- 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.
- A third person says, how come music didn’t go through auteur theory? Kind of interesting, right?
- Person #4 says well, it sort of did. Dylan was auteur theory in music.
- How’s that, other people at the table say?
- Person # 4: Because he wrote his own music, he introduced the “singer/songwriter” vs. the Tin Pan Alley model.
- But wait, you say – Leadbelly was a singer songwriter. The blues guys were singer/songwriters. So how exactly did Dylan invent it?
- Hmm, that’s interesting person #4 says. But of course they were altering traditional songs.
- So was Dylan, you say, so I don’t quite buy it. His first album was all covers, right?
- 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.
- We talk about the early 60s a bit. Person #3 brings up Lou Reed because he always brings up Lou Reed.
- We groan. You know — some things don’t related to Lou Reed, we say.
- 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.
- That’s bullcrap, says person #4. Media subcultures are as old as civilization.
- Give me an example of that, I say.
- Oh there must be hundreds. says person #4. You know how Aristophanes was “low humor”?
- Wait, who was Aristophanes, says person #2.
- 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?”
- 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.
- Is that in that “Kandy-Colored” whatever collection about custom cars and stuff I ask.
- 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?