Sure. My name is Jon Katz. I'm 68 years old. I'm an author and a journalist and I live in upstate New York in Washington County.
I used to write for Rolling Stone and some places online and HotWired and Slashdot, and I wrote a book called Geeks about some Idaho kids who basically used gaming and the internet to move out of Idaho and get to Chicago. So, you know, I've been writing about popular culture on and off for 15 or 20 years. I'm not a big gamer myself. I don't really play games much, but I do follow the industry a bit and I certainly am interested in the popular culture that respond by this.
Why have nerds and geeks been historically picked on?
Well, I think the internet culture really was initially an outsider culture, like most new cultures are. I think inventors and creators and outsiders have often created kind of alternative cultures and movements from music, movies, literature, certainly, and people forget that the internet was essentially built by kind of disconnected young men who were often social outcasts and often kind of shunned and often saw themselves as being outside of the mainstream of life. And there's a lot of intensity in that culture and some hostility and a tremendous amount of creativity.
You know, I think the classic gamer -- gaming became the popular culture of this new generation of creators. They could do it themselves, they could create it themselves. It had its own rules. It was very, very inventive. Especially for people who were somewhat dissatisfied with mainstream culture or bored in school or who lived outside the social norms. They could create new identities for themselves and a very vibrant artistic culture. You know, gaming is very colorful and it's very creative and very challenging and really focuses the brain. It's a super kind of chess for people.
So, I think they're in a long tradition. Now it's becoming more mainstream. It's a big industry. It's a gazillion-dollar industry. Lots of people are doing it.
[Laughs.] I mean, I don't know if you believe this or what you think, but someone had alleged to me that if you were born after 1990, nerds don't even really exist anymore.
Well, I think that's a good point. I know what they mean. You know, this culture is very mainstream. It's very corporate. It's very profitable.
It's not political really much anymore, and it's certainly not an outsider culture. The people who aren't doing it are the outsiders pretty much now.
This is a strange segue here, but how current are you on the American Pie movies?
I've watched them. I know what they are. I haven't watched the latest one, yeah, but I'm pretty current on them.
While not getting into assumptions about it or its content or associations, something interesting happened a couple years ago in that series where it basically was a retelling of Revenge of the Nerds but with the jocks recast as the nerds as being oppressed by the sophisticated and refined students with more earning potential. What do you make of it when these roles reverse?
Well, I think that's really the anthem, the main story and narrative of the gaming culture. You have kids who were put upon by jocks forever. They were beat up and taunted and isolated. They didn't get the girls. They weren't popular. They struggled with school. They just had a lot of trouble.
And all of a sudden, that's the culture. The tables turned and these outsider kids who were bullied and set upon -- when I did Geeks, I was in Idaho and I talked to a teacher there. I was asking him about the geek kids and he said, "Well, used to be they were the ones who would come into my homeroom to hide out from getting beat up in school and the playground. Then all of a sudden they were the only ones who knew how everything worked." And all the teachers and administrators were turning to them for help in figuring out computers and how does the internet work and how can we get this thing to turn on?
And the whole paradigm shifted. They became the powerful ones.
If you then go and take it to Silicon Valley, that's the hippest, richest culture on the earth. And that's a great power center and culture and that's the place to go. I mean, geek kids grow up and they wanna go to Silicon Valley and make a ton of money and live in the middle of San Francisco. And they're doing it.
And so, you know, they get the last laugh. I think the jock culture, which for so long has been the mainstream power culture in American schools just became almost a joke. I mean, it's still there and it's still strong. It hasn't disappeared.
But it's certainly been a massive paradigm shift in who was in and who was out.
Have you witnessed this elsewhere in your career or life, where behaviors or activities associated with one group gets embraced by another that used to oppress that group?
Yeah, I think it's an old story in culture. It happens all the time in literature and movies. I think it happened in film. I think the big thing here is that the internet turned out to be a powerful revolutionary organizing tool for people who were traditionally outside the circle. I think this phenomenon of fringe cultures becoming mainstream is not new. I think it happened in every part of culture. Every part of film and artistry. In politics, even.
I think at this scale, it's different because the people who really didn't have a way of mainstreaming their lives and suddenly became the only ones who really understood the culture that became the dominant culture of the world.
I mean, the way you described it in Geeks is "an accidental empire they inherited," not to quote you back to yourself 16 years later.
But that's an interesting way to think about it. I think the retelling of it as people being oppressed by nerds was an imagining that they intentionally set out to be socially awkward and focus on these things that later became important. But that's not really my memory of how it happened.
Well, the geek culture can be hostile. But it's not aggressive in the sense that they don't bother people as a general rule. I mean, you have occasional trolls and stuff, but by and large, it's a self-contained culture. They're very happy -- gaming is a very internal thing. You do it with yourself. You do it with your friends. You don't go up and beat somebody else up outside.
So, I think in that sense it's kind of a benign culture.
The accidental empire, I think, occurred because these kids had no idea what they were doing and they had no idea what they were creating. They were just messing around, and all of a sudden they were in control of some of the most powerful technological tools in history. And everybody was shocked by it. And nobody really saw that coming. Nobody saw that coming. I was writing for Hotwired back when the internet heated up, and we were talking all the time about where this was going and we never imagined what happened. We didn't imagine the business implications, we didn't imagine -- and gaming is at the center of it because gaming is such a vibrant, creative, and intense culture. And it evolved completely outside the consciousness of education or politics. Nobody regulated it. Nobody understood it. Nobody taught it. It's just one of the very few mass cultural phenomenon that happened completely out of sight in a subterranean way.
Teachers had no idea what these kids were doing. And schools had no idea. And parents had no idea. Nobody had any idea because nobody else could do it. And it's one of those cultures that became balled into the culture now, which is you really need to be 14 quite literally to get it.
If you're older than that, it's just very difficult to master. It's very difficult to manipulate. It's very difficult to understand.
So, you talk about this accidental empire and the internet has taken hold in a way that you mentioned a lot of early adopters didn't foresee. Whose empire do you think the internet is now? Does it even belong to any one group anymore?
No. It definitely does not. I think it belongs to the corporate entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley.
I think that's who really runs it.
You know, the Mark Zuckerbergs and Apple and Amazon. You know, these giant super-entities. Uber. You know, they're reshaping the world in many ways but nobody is controlling them. And soon, I think nobody will be able to compete with them.
I mean, there have never been entities in the history of business that were too big to compete with. And if you look at Apple and Amazon -- Amazon is a good example of the nerd culture creating something that is now so entrenched that there's no competitors.
I mean, there's no competitor to Amazon breathing down their neck, challenging them.
And that's unprecedented. I think the same is getting to be true of Apple. They're just so big and they have their fingers in so many pies and they're so successful. And they're so well-run, I have to say, that there's really no competitor to them. And that's very new. Steve Jobs was a geek. He was a jerk.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I was going to say, he was also kind of a jerk.
He was a jerk. Nobody liked him at anywhere along the line. And he was able to take this kind of unpleasant genius and really changed my life, I mean. Steve Jobs had a bigger impact on my life than my father. You know, he's an amazing man, but he was somebody in a different culture. You know, he would've been on the fringe of some company getting fired regularly for being an idiot.
What even is fringe culture, now? Is it just the things that are not online?
That's a really good question. I'm not sure we see it, but I think it is mostly shaping around these new social network apps. You know, the video apps --
Yeah, like Periscope?
Yeah. And the dating apps. You have these cultures that have 200 million people on them, but nobody's ever heard of them.
And they're enormously influential in shaping the culture.
I have a blog and I can't keep up with them. I'm on 10 different things. And I realize that the only way to do it is to not try to -- I mean, you know, that world has left me behind. I can't really participate in it anymore. I mean, I could keep up with the mainstream stuff but you do have to be 19 or under.
You have to pick a lane.
Yeah, I mean, you look at something like Reddit which is, like, 100 million people on it. And people have more discussions about social issues on Reddit than in all the mainstream media. And these people aren't paying attention to CNN and they're not reading The New York Times.
And nobody really knows what they're doing. But so -- and I think the other thing about this culture that's very important is it's left the mainstream behind. They're not paying attention to the rest of the world and the rest of the world doesn't even know they exist. So you're creating these separate spheres and universes that are very powerful, incredibly wealthy.
Look at what Uber has done to the idea of an economy. And the people running Uber are like Steve Jobs. They're all unpleasant, nasty, smart people. [Laughs.] And they've shaped the whole idea of what a business is and the whole relationship between employees and -- I think the question is the great question you're asking: Are they mainstream now?
And I guess they are mainstream in a way. They're big corporate companies. They trade stocks. But they're also -- I mean, I don't think Uber has 100 employees. [Laughs.] And they're worth $40 billion.
There's been nothing like that in history.
So it's hard to know what they are. I would certainly say they've entered the mainstream. But I don't know what to call them. And they certainly are subversive.
Yeah. Well, you've written a lot about how these things intersect with media and you've written a fair amount about politicians attacking popular media. As it intersects with videogames, you hear about them being blamed for violence -- and you wrote a fair amount about Beavis & Butt-Head and the V-chip and all those things.
And Columbine stuff, too.
Yeah. What do you think the real reason is politicians attack popular media? What's really guiding them to act and speak in that manner?
Well, I think that's changing. I think they're terrified of it because they can't control it.
They don't even know where it is. And politicians, I think, historically fear things that can't be controlled. And so they're outside the mainstream, so they're a great threat to them. I think that's changing now and honestly, and I'm surprised to say this, but I think people like Donald Trump are changing it because they're using the alternative media so effectively. Donald Trump has run his whole campaign on Twitter. So he can't very well turn around and say, "Well, Twitter's dangerous."
So, I think they're all using social media now and I think that's the change.
I think the mainstream middle class is still terrified of the internet and has always seen it as being dangerous. Especially to their children. And it's a very interesting thing because the whole issue of restricting the internet and it being a place for filth and pedophiles are gonna grab their children -- it's always been a hysteria. I mean, statistically, children are more likely to have an airplane fall out of the sky on them than to be harmed going online.
But most parents don't know that. Most parents are convinced that it's a terrible threat and they have to worry about it and block it and monitor it. There are all these issues here. I think the rebellious part of the culture and a part that I have to say I admire is I think these kids today have by far the most vibrant, creative, and stimulating lives of any kids in the history of the world. They have more freedom, they have more interaction, they have more stimulation. There are certainly issues relating to stress and obsession and all, but it's a very exciting world and I think it really separates kids from their parents because parents just can't navigate it. They don't know what it is.
When I was a kid, I had a radio station and the biggest issue in my life was, "Could I listen to Buddy Holly?" You know? And my parents thought rock 'n' roll was a little dangerous.
But that was the only choice I had. Rock 'n' roll or some comic books.
These kids have, like, a thousand choices of things to do. It's a really stimulating, interesting world and it's changing their neural systems and their politics in ways that I think older people have not begun to comprehend.
I mean, they're very, very different. And I think the really angry outsider phase has ended. I just don't think that's the dominant thing anymore. I think now it's really about invention and creativity and social values.
We live in such a different media landscape than what you just described. The notion of "appointment television" --
I don't know if an average teenager today would even know what that means. But you know, we don't really live in a world where you can protest a show and insist that they air it later or even effectively censor it and block it out from broadcasting to your home.
We are now our own gatekeepers, be it with DVRs or the internet and what we orbit. With social media, we can block someone or mute them or report them and what they're bringing into our awareness. Maybe this isn't a binary of "better or worse," but do you think we're better gatekeepers than the gatekeepers were?
I do. I really do.
I mean, there are a lot of challenges with it. Social media is a whole new idea of community and connection and it brings with it a lot of challenges. A lot of hostility. A lot of mob violence. A lot of intrusions into people's lives. A lot of excessive grieving. A lot of polarizing politicizing. I mean, there's a lot of troublesome things. But at the same time, this idea that it doesn't matter what The New York Times says anymore, it doesn't matter what publishers say anymore, if you want to write a book, you can put a book up on Amazon in half an hour. So, it's really broken down these gatekeepers and barriers.
As a writer, I started my blog in 2007 because I saw publishing changing. And I don't want to wait -- and I still write books, but basically I write on my blog. I don't want to wait three years for somebody to accept or reject my book and tell me what to put in it. I just write everyday and I say what I want and people can read it in whatever degree they want.
I have experienced -- even at my age, I'm experiencing all the time the personal liberation. I mean, I got rid of my television and I watch movies on my iPhone half the time or on my iPad. And I can get access to just about anything that I want. I don't need a cable system. I don't need television. And I have all the choices in the world.
This is true, even the way you can shop. I can go to the hardware store or I can go on Amazon. So I have a lot more choices than I ever had before and in culture in following it. I think it's having a major disconnection in the political system because I think people aren't paying attention to it.
And so, I think the politicians are talking to older, angry people who feel very dislocated. And the younger people are sending disappearing videos to each other all night.
[Laughs.] Invisible ink.
Invisible ink. And they're creating this whole new visual language. In Boston, one of the high schools there, they had to put on a play in text. The whole play was just text language. And the parents, of course, flipped out because they couldn't understand a word of it. But all the kids understood it.
And I thought that's a perfect metaphor for where we're going. It's not clear where -- I think the internet has made this political system completely irrelevant to most people. To many people. And that's part of this tension and dislocation I think you're seeing. I think older people -- especially older white people feel like they're on another planet and they don't really know what's happening. And the whole country is changing. The economy is changing.
Now, if you're a geek, there was no recession. And there is no alienation. As a geek, you always have a job. You always have an opportunity to advance. You can always enter the middle class. And you don't have a lot of these fears and frustrations that the people who have been left behind have. And that's gonna become -- and is already a big civil conflict.
You said a geek will never be wanting for a job but is there a strata of that part of the economy where -- have you crossed paths with people with those skills who can't make ends meet? Or are you saying, really, that unless you're choosing to gamble on a start-up, you're gonna be fine?
Well, this is a capitalist country and it's ruthless in that way.
It's not a utopian society. And it's not a socialist society. It's a capitalist culture, which means there's always gonna be winners and losers and sharks and -- you know, people talk about the capitalistic culture and you're either eating dinner or you are dinner.
Either way, dinner is served.
That's very true still. I'm sure there are people -- I know there are people who are exploited who are not paid well. I mean, you even take the lower-end Amazon workers or Uber workers, who are incredibly mistreated people. I think, however, the geeks are different. I think if you understand information technology, if you understand programming, if you know how a computer works, you're gonna have employment opportunities.
Now, again, it depends. There are good companies and bad companies. And smart people and not so smart people. But compared to what the rest of the economy is like -- it's the people who have been left behind in this culture that are the angriest. If you're a geek -- and I'm generalizing -- you have a lot of ways to go. And everywhere you go, you see ads for technology people, for computer people, for IT people.
Everywhere. Software engineers.
So, they're not the ones who are sitting there in the Midwest outside of these closed plants, unemployed for 15 years.
This is a quote from Geeks, something I wanted to ask you about. I'll elaborate for the transcript or maybe you can in your answer a bit, too, but you write about how Jesse considered "journalism to be propaganda shit.” But can you explain a little bit about that distrustfulness of the media from nerds?
Well, yeah. This is an outsider culture. I mean, they're outsiders. They have the same suspicion of principals and drama clubs and education.
They're just suspicious. Because they've lived outside the culture and the culture was never very good to them. In terms of the media, when someone like Jesse looks at the media and sees people who are just utterly clueless about what he's doing and says a lot of stupid things about it. I mean, the media got everything about this culture wrong. I mean, they didn't see it coming and they didn't respond to it and they didn't know what it was and they basically lead the charge claiming it was dangerous and destabilizing.
And I'm a journalist and I love journalism, but I have to say: Journalism profoundly failed to grasp the implications of the new culture, and they also covered it in a very aggressive and incompetent way as a general rule. It's only in the last two or three years ago that I think even publications like The New York Times have gotten serious about covering Silicon Valley or the implications of things like -- when do you ever see a decent piece on gaming? You know, which is a central culture to tens of millions of people.
It's a slow trickle and part of the reason why I'm working on this project and doing this interview series is to have an engine that I can pitch articles to those places and try to bridge that gap.
It's a good gap, but I think you're gonna see that these institutions are just gonna be not very relevant. You're gonna have to be pitching them to the new ones.
More people are following the campaign on BuzzFeed by far than The New York Times.
What was that like for you, then, as a journalist being enmeshed in this community trying to tell those stories?
I decided to leave a journalism. That's the main reason I left it. I wanted to write books and I wanted to be free to write about it. So I don't think there's really many places in journalism where you can do it. In conventional journalism. I think there are a lot of places in the new journalism, and the new journalism is just rising up and evolving. I mean, it's places like New York Times reporters are going to work at BuzzFeed. They're going to work at these places and I think the model for the new journalism is much more apt to be The Huffington Post. Places like that that are maybe not great journalistic institutions, but they're very interactive.
And the mainstream journalism is still not interactive. I mean, The New York Times is still struggling to get people to buy them online. And they still claim that they care about what we think, but we know they don't care what we think. [Laughs.]
They're just trying to hold onto their jobs.
I don't want to ask something like, "Where did old journalism fail?" But I find myself wondering: Was it sort of a mistake to act or pretend in winkingly saying that editorial and sales were supposed to be church and state?
I think journalism failed in creativity. I mean, you know, the real challenge -- journalism essentially for years made most of its money on classified advertising.
Which was really just lists of text and what is Craigslist but a list of text? Any newspaper in the country could've done that. And none of them did it. And they just waited too long. They waited until this new culture was entrenched and profitable and had completely taken over the culture of the young. So they had no future. I mean, geeks -- anybody under 19 is not gonna wake up dreaming up working at The New York Times. They want to be out at Facebook or someplace or Reddit or a video app. They just let the culture slip away from them. I think they could've dealt with it. I mean, a lot of people within the newspaper culture were sounding the alarm. I mean, I was one of them. I remember giving a speech to a bunch of newspaper editors and saying, "You can't let Craigslist do it. This is just a list of classified advertising. You've been doing this for 100 years.”
And none of them would do it. I mean, not one. I can't name one newspaper in the whole country that really changed radically and tried to deal with this new challenge.
So that's the old story of culture, too. I mean, nothing lasts forever and you either change and adapt or you perish. Now, some of these newspapers, like the Wall Street Journal saw it coming, and they changed, and they're making money. And The New York Times is beginning to make some money online. So they'll probably exist in one form or another. And I think these new institutions like Reddit -- I don't know about Reddit, but BuzzFeed? They're gonna be the future. That's gonna be the future of journalism. And we don't know what they're gonna look like yet. I think they're beginning to get more serious and they're getting more coherent and they're starting to talk and act like journalists. But it's gonna be a very intense transitional process. It's not really clear yet.
One thing I do see is there used to be a journalistic center. You know, The New York Times and the networks and Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. They really shape the civic center of the country. Now there is no center, so nobody knows how many empires are out there with their 100 million people. So, I think that will change. I think that will clarify itself. But it will take a while. And I don't think we know.
I don't think we even know the form it's gonna take. I think the revolution in visual tech is amazing. I mean, people are really telling stories in short videos now. They don't need these long, cumbersome stories.
My blog has been interesting for me because I write in sort of traditional journalistic form.
I write longer blocks of text. And it's very successful. I mean, I've got, like, 4 million people on it. So there's definitely an appetite for that. But I actually write like a newspaper columnist would have written 50 years ago. And that's interesting. There's a lot of that on the internet. A lot of blogs are filling that role. And I think that's really the individual outlet is definitely the future in many ways for young journalists -- people like yourself as well as for people like me, because within that context you have a lot of freedom to find an audience and express yourself and use the technology. I'm gonna do some podcasts and I'm gonna do some audio, reading some pieces. I might do some videos from time to time. But mostly I stick to the standard column format. I find that people are very comfortable with it.
Well, it's familiar, but also they are beginning to get hungry for coherence. They want something they can just read and absorb that's not gonna hit them in the head or change colors or disappear in three seconds.
And that's the interesting thing. That's gonna continue to be a viable outlet for people and I think it's a great avenue for individual writers because they can establish personalities and set forth their themes and write freely and stand out.
Can you draw a direct line between something like the 24-hour news cycle and something like clickbait journalism? Or do you think they're parallel phenomena?
Well, I call it hypermedia. [Laughs.] The problem has always been you can't fill that much time and space with creative content. You know, you run out of coherent, important things to say. So you end up either repeating yourself or just reaching for things or just doing what the cable networks do, which is basically just screaming at people and using argument in place of journalism. And so they've set up this left-right dichotomy so they can debate things.
And I think that's causing people to look for more coherence. I think it's just a chaotic and quarrelsome and disturbing environment that I think people are kind of addicted to but also don't like very much. And I think you see it affecting the political system very directly, because everything is about raucous arguments and extreme positions and judging and attacking people.
So I think the next thing is -- and I think it's beginning to happen, is I think people want something better. I do think the internet is a culture in which cream rises. I think the better thinkers, the more intelligent thinkers, are going to emerge and stand out. And, you know, I think I even found it in my own life as the blog is becoming more successful, I'm able to ask for payment for it and people are paying me for it. And that wouldn't have happened five or six years ago. And they pay me for it and they thank me for letting them pay me.
They say, "Thank you for doing what you do so I can read it everyday." And I'm always puzzled by that. I'm not claiming to be a genius or anything but I'm actually giving them something they can't get elsewhere. I don't scream at people and I think there's something very significant in that. I think that's really beginning to happen. I think blogs are definitely -- as with everything else on the internet, journalists are being freed of structures. And they are free to find something that they can have something useful to say and report on. I mean, I've been involved writing about the New York carriage horses for the last two years. A big departure from Geeks. And I've had an amazing impact on that story. I'm flabbergasted.
I do remember, you used to be tight with the Slashdot community, or at least that was my memory of it. Though were not there very long. What changed for you?
I was only there very briefly. I'm not a Linux person and I'm not an open-source person. So they just wanted me to write there for a while. I was never a great fit. The real geeks were there and they were not crazy about me at all.
But I loved being there. I loved the vibrancy of it and I loved what I wrote and there were a lot of people who liked it.
But that was just an experiment on my part to sort of see where that culture was gonna go. It was too technological for me and I couldn't really keep up with it, and they really wanted mainstreaming programming journalism. I wrote a lot about Columbine there. And I loved being there. I love the independence of it, I love the voice of it.
But it wasn't really for me. I wasn't prepared to commit myself to being totally technological.
Yeah. You had some very vocal critics there.
Just everything -- reaching further than your work, which is a weird list but --
Well, but as you're saying, it is a very angry culture. It wasn't just me. They would crap on everybody. They just were pissed off and they resented an outsider. Especially a non-technical outsider.
And it wasn't a great fit for me either, but I must say I really loved writing there and I really loved the freedom I had. I loved the issues I was exploring. But I also, you know, have seen many places other than that where the geek culture can be a very hostile place.
I saw this thing that apparently you were accused of inventing a mythical version of yourself? Do you remember that?
I don't remember that one. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] Oh, it said you've been accused of "everything under the sun, from pedophilia to plagiarism to inventing a mythical version of yourself."
I didn't even know that.
I went through a thing myself last year, where I was interviewed by USA Today for this project. They framed my project as focusing exclusively on Gamergate, which I'm sure you can tell 40 minutes into our call this is the first time I'm mentioning it, and it's not. But what had popped up on Reddit was a lot of unflattering things about myself as well -- I’m stupid and doing this project to get sex and game companies were paying me money just to do this even though I have a Patreon -- as the possibility that I was an alter ego for the writer at USA Today who interviewed me.
All kinds of things. Twitter was unusable for a couple of days, and so I made the “sacrifice” of just not using Twitter for a few days. But there is that same tension, that uncertainty, the whole, “Is something gonna happen? Are they gonna send the SWAT team to my house or empty my bank account and try to embarrass me somehow? Are they going to come after my family? Should all my female friends be concerned for their safety?” But none of them are actually looking to have a conversation, they just want to bludgeon you with their opinions into submission. You just are walking around wondering these things every single second of every single day, and aware anything you say or said could be made into some headline for some reason.
I understand anger and how easy that is to express online but in things like that have happened to you or me, are they trying to just amuse themselves? Are they trying to slam someone they don't know to feel better about themselves? It's probably hard to generalize about, but for people who have no compass for this sort of thing at all, why does this pattern play out regardless of who's being fed into the harvest?
Well, I have been sort of experiencing it for 25 or 30 years now, so I'm kind of used to it. It's only part of the story. I mean, most people aren't like that.
But I think there is a very disturbed and aggressive part of the culture and one day people are gonna have to deal with it. I mean, I think it was tolerated for years. If you even look at things like Amazon reviews, which are just unbelievably vicious and crazy -- and Amazon is actually beginning to challenge that.
As a writer, I've written 28 books, and it's only in the last four or five years that you even have the chance -- one of the people who didn't like my books was accusing me of murdering puppies. She'd go on all my websites and say, "He murders puppies. He takes them in his barn and he kills them." And so, she would review all my books. And eventually -- it wasn't even me. One of my readers forwarded this to Amazon and said, "This is not right."
And they stopped it. I didn't know anything about it until it was all over. But they shouldn't have allowed that. They should take responsibility for their words. But it's been enabled everywhere, from Slashdot to Reddit, everyplace. Nobody has really taken responsibility and that's why they started blogs in the first place, so you could moderate comments.
So I think it's a real problem. I think it's the underside of the culture. And my problem with it -- none of these things have hurt me. I mean, if you're accused of having a mythical self, that's great. [Laughs.] That could be great for me.
I don't even know what that means.
I don't either.
And even if you're accused of murdering puppies, you know, it's never harmed me. But it's hateful, and I think really what it does is it kills free speech. The problem with it is it causes many many people who have things to say to hide.
And that's not healthy. The people who really see themselves as expressing themselves freely are damaging free speech in a very basic way. So, the internet is a free space. Anyone -- you, me -- anyone. You can't talk to anyone about this who hasn't experienced this.
And essentially, even at Slashdot, which I really love Slashdot, but I didn't do anything but express my opinion there and I was accused of everything from mass murder to plagiarism. And that's just accepted. And somebody should control that. And someone should say, "We don't do that here."
On my own Facebook page and my own blog, I don't allow that. Anyone that's hostile, I just remove them immediately. And so it's very rare. You know, people hardly ever do it. I think, also, you learn, personally, as you did, not to engage and it goes away. But I think it was the tradition by these kind of angry outsiders, mostly male, who use the internet as a vehicle for expressing their frustration and anger.
See, and I think sometimes this gets painted in too simplistic tones. A colleague of mine said in an email recently that "nerds are awful and always have been." And I don't really believe that, but I agree with you that it does need to be dealt with. But I don't really know what that looks like, either. What does that look like? How does it get "dealt" with?
I think the nerd culture is very interesting and very diverse. I think generally it's a pretty peaceful culture, and it began as a culture where the political ethic was information wanted to be free.
And so you were expressing that freedom by attacking anybody you felt was different or an outsider or strange or disagreed with you. And I think the way to resolve it is the way Amazon -- you know, you have to take responsibility for your words. And if you're Reddit or any other site, you're responsible for the words people put up. And they have easy technology to do it. You can either have members moderate, or you can have people report abuse, and I think you're beginning to see this. If you attack someone in the way you were attacked or I was attacked, they should be removed. Even Slashdot, which is a raucous and free place, and I commend them for that, but they shouldn't allow personal attacks on people. And if they allow it, then they're enabling it.
And that's gonna change because I think it's interfering with their ability to make money. You know, people don't want to be on these sites where people are getting attacked. So, Amazon is beginning to really police those comments more and remove offensive ones. So, over time, that will get better. But I think that's the only way to do it. I don't think you want to ban it, or that you could ban it. But there's no site that you're mentioning -- I mean, Reddit likes the hostility because it works for them. It draws people. One of these days, and I think they're already beginning to question that -- you know, a lot of websites, even Gawker has begun to question it.
So, you know, we don't need to be that nasty that we have to out-gate people. You know? [Laughs.] And you're astonished that it's even controversial. I mean, a bunch of editors quit because they weren't going to attack gay people for being gay.
But, still, they did, and they're saying, "We need to change. People don't want to do that anymore.”
I know you said you don't really pay attention to it, but what is your perception of videogames as a subculture?
I pay attention. I don't have the reflexes anymore to play them. [Laughs.] But I think it's one of the most creative cultures in the world. I think it's a phenomenally creative, colorful, challenging culture. It's a whole, rich universe. I think it's amazing. I think it's never gotten the credit for the level of sophistication and creativity that it has created. I think Gamergate is very significant because it's absolutely true: This culture is overwhelmingly male and its hostility has just been enabled for too long. And I think it's just time -- and I think it's happening -- for these companies and creators to say, "Okay, you do what you want and be free. You just can't be attacking people or threatening them."
And I think when they start taking strong positions against that, it will stop. That's the only problem with it. I mean, it deserves better than that. It deserves more respect than that. And I think it's too important to be tainted with that.
A lot of the corporate culture around this stuff is a culture of silence. I mean, a lot of the focus is on marketing. It's strange, because I've learned, and I knew this before, but I've learned through this project that the workforce who makes games is largely invisible and when it comes to the sorts of topics that are relevant to Gamergate, a lot of the companies just chose to keep their mouths shut. They didn't feel like work was the appropriate place to talk about it. And it just feels like a lack of ownership, when you have your audience eating itself.
The modern corporation has one function, which is to make money.
They are responsible only to their stockholders. And they're not accountable for anything else but making money. So they will only do what is profitable for them to do and they will never do voluntarily what is unprofitable, unless it becomes unprofitable. So, it's very expensive to take responsibility for things like that. They hate controversy of any kind because it potentially threatens profits. And it's also expensive. Amazon is willing to spend the money to have members moderate reviews. Somebody's gotta set that up and spend time and pay people for it. They're not gonna do it if they don't have to do it.
So, the only way they're gonna do it is if they start losing customers. If people say it's too hostile or people say, "Okay, we really want women and we want them to be safe here. We're gonna have to make it safer." Then they'll do it if they can make profit.
But I think the corporation has no conscience. And old media used to have a conscience. I mean, you know, newspapers and televisions used to be run by individual people who had some pride in it and that's just not true anymore. I mean, you know, look at cable news. It's just a nightmare.
And I think it's true of these new companies. They don't do anything they don't have to do that's gonna cost them money. I think it's gonna change in the gaming world because I think a lot of women wanna play games.
Yeah. Well, I mean, they have been since the beginning.
They have been. And when they start organizing and saying, "We're not coming here anymore," then that's gonna change and they'll do what they have to do.
Is it silly or weird that we as adults can carry on a conversation about nerds and geeks? Why do these labels still matter past high school? Do we just culturally peak as tribes at that age? Why does it matter?
I have to tell you, they matter less than they used to. I mean, it matters less -- the term "geek" does not have nearly the charge it had 20 years ago.
Right, which you did in the beginning of Geeks. You run through the different iterations of its definition.
When I wrote Geeks, I went on a book tour, and there were people who wouldn't come to the book readings because they were afraid they'd be called "geek." I mean, even the term was so frightening to them that they wouldn't even come. And people would email me and say, "Well, I wanted to come to your reading but I didn't dare because I'm a geek and I don't anyone to see me there."
And that doesn't happen anymore. But I think, you know, human beings are very status conscious and are flawed and I think always looking for ways to feel superior to people. And the geek culture is still very young and very sensitive, I think. But I think the term has a very good connotation now. I think people want to be geeks.
And I think in Jesse's time -- Jesse was a dark, angry young man. [Laughs.] He was out there. He lived in the shadows. He was like an outlaw, and was seen that way by people. I don't really think that's true anymore.
You're not really a nerd anymore if you like sci-fi and comics. You're just "normal." I'm not really sure what being a nerd is anymore or why it matters. I know you mentioned you got rid of your TV, but I was curious: Have you seen Mr. Robot.
I have seen Mr. Robot. [Laughs.] I saw that once, yes I did. [Laughs.]
Just was curious to hear you talk about it. I've read some things about this being a much more accurate and nuanced portrayal of hackers, especially compared to something like Hackers.
The hacker culture, I think it's neat and fun and I haven't watched Mr. Robot all that much, but the hacker culture was intensely political. The hacker culture was all about wanting to keep information free. And there was this enormous political ethic that I don't think exists anymore. I don't see the nerd culture as being political. I think like all ascending cultures, it's kind of corrupted by money and opportunity. People, given the chance -- these guys lived in phone booths torturing phone companies and making long-distance calls for free.
And you know, when I was at Rolling Stone, I remember following them around in phone booths throughout New York. That's how you would meet them. You'd go to Citicorp and there'd be hackers on the public phones. They'd all have access codes to Verizon and AT&T and they were all breaking the law and making phone calls and then running to another phone before they get found out. And, you know, there was this great excitement of inventing a whole new world. And they were inventing stuff everyday. They were creating new ways of doing things, new codes, new programs, new ways of breaking into things, new ways of getting around things. They're very creative, very exciting, and very very political. They saw themselves as the Thomas Paines of the new world.
So, I don't see that now. I think that has really changed. And I think a lot of has been corrupted by big money. I mean, the hackers are out living in mansions in California. And, you know, they're not running around -- there aren't even any phone booths anymore. But they're not breaking into telephone companies. They've got nannies living on the grounds or in mansions outside of San Francisco. You know, money does that.
Most people, most revolutionaries who wouldn't have a chance of being rich are out there in the cold. So they choose to be rich. And there's so much money in that culture. I mean, you know, look at Facebook. I mean, my God, it's worth, like, $100 billion.
I just saw The Social Network finally, recently, for the first time.
Yeah. He would've been a geek and a hacker in a different world. But I don't think the term -- certainly a nerd.
But I think the whole hacker idea doesn't exist anymore.
Something I did want to ask you about with regard to or to contrast against Gamergate, where there have been death threats, bomb threats, and rape threats -- what I couldn't remember just by virtue of my age was in the '90s, were any of those movements or groups intended to "protect families" threatened for speaking out against the state of popular culture or popular media?
Yes. They were threatened in that sense, in the sort of online hostility, which is rarely if ever been real.
Was it as intense or specific?
I don't think it was as ugly as Gamergate. Gamergate was especially ugly. I think Gamergate was a real social collision between when the women and the games began speaking up for themselves, they threatened these people very directly. They were really saying, "Nobody's gonna change our world. Nobody's gonna come into our world and change it. We're gonna do what we want.”
And so they used these extreme threats. And, of course, everyone tends to overreact to them. When they started threatening people, people started canceling events and of course once you do that, you're really feeding them.
And you know, I don't know. I don't mean to be casual about it, but it's hard for me to believe that any of these people are gonna go shoot anybody. If you know the culture, they love to make threats and they rarely, if ever, carry them out. Because, you know, the whole culture is anonymous and cowardly. I mean, it just is. But when bikers make threats, they go and carry them out. [Laughs.] When geeks make threats, they're doing it online from their basements and they rarely, if ever, carry them out. They can do a lot of damage. They can certainly mess up your computer and grab your personal data, but I think that kind of ugliness was a turning point. And the way I see it, it's a turning point, because they forced these companies to pay attention, "You know, we can't really keep doing this. If they keep doing it, they're gonna draw in the police. Eventually, they're gonna draw in the government, they're gonna get regulated. We're gonna lose customers."
So they're gonna start responding to it.
It's just very self-defeating. In the '90s, it wasn't that level of a threat. There was a tremendous amount of hostility. This went all the way back -- you know, when I was a kid, it was rock 'n' roll. Everybody was screaming about rock 'n' roll. I remember my family raiding my room and seizing my records one night.
Did you ever get them back?
No! No. They seized all my Buddy Holly records. They were nice people, and they thought it was dangerous, that these were subversive messages that were unhealthy for me.
And what really triggered it in the '90s and the '80s were the child-snatching fears. There were these ideas sweeping the country that kids were gonna go online and then get raped and murdered and stolen.
I remember the "very special" Oprah about that.
Absolutely. Absolutely. And then there was -- you're gonna take your kid to a mall, they were gonna get snatched by a stranger in the restrooms.
Which, as I understand it, that style of parenting is a sharp reversal of what those parents' childhoods were like, to just go out and play and disappear for hours and hours and, "Oh, they'll be fine."
Well, it's also completely ungrounded. Those were very rare, those incidents. The internet has never been a dangerous place for children statistically. There are these occasional horrific incidents that get enormous attention. And there are issues when kids get to be teenagers, but, again, those are very rare.
You know, the FBI, which started keeping records on that -- you know, the vast majority of child-snatching were custody problems.
And they were very few -- there was a tiny handful of internet-related stranger cases ever.
Yeah, but this idea about the internet being a dangerous place -- then you step back and look at it, of course, this is a culture where the parents completely have to lose control. They don't know what their kids are doing, they can't keep up with it. And also, I think, there are social responsibility questions. When a computer comes into a house, it should be discussed a bit. People just buy computers and give their kids access to this whole universe and they have no idea what they're doing. So, that's very frightening.
Yeah. So, this is a bit out of left field but if I'm remembering correctly, you wrote a few columns about Tupac Shakur, right? After he died?
Something I'm working on is an article about parallels between hip-hop culture and videogame culture. Because I think the real parallel videogames should be paying to is not Hollywood, but rap. What parallels do you see between those two cultures?
That's an interesting question as well. I think the outsiderness is definitely a parallel. I think some of the anger is definitely a parallel. I think all of these cultures we're talking about are characterized by a sort of outsider anger, and almost this feeling that the more outside they are, the more popular they are. They're all very rebellious and they're all about putting their fingers in eyes of the old farts, of the larger community.
And the rap culture was incredibly rebellious against the music industry. It's basically a fuck-you culture. And the angrier they were, the more popular they were. So, you have all of this -- I don't think kids ever had an outlet for anger before, really, that was acceptable to them.
You have to remember that kids 40 years ago were very easy to control. You know, they didn't have transportation. They didn't have access to the internet. They didn't have 500 cable channels. They could listen to one radio station and they could maybe, if they were lucky, get home with a comic book.
So, it was really very simple to control them. You know, they had nowhere to go, they had nothing much to do. So, the kid now is empowered. Every kid is a media producer with access to a vast universe of information and culture.
And so that's moved the parents and the teachers and the politicians to a very different place. A politician could say, "Your kid shouldn't listen to rock 'n' roll," and that would happen. Or, you know, the call for, "Communists shouldn't be in Hollywood," and that happened. You couldn't do that now.
Because they can't control all the computer terminals anymore.
Yeah, when I heard about Gamergate the first time, my mind immediately flashed on McCarthyism.
Right. Right. Well, you know, it's incredibly political when you think of it with geeks right in the center of it.
They're out of control.
That's a profound revolutionary change in the social dynamic in the last 50 years. What father, what mother is in charge of their kids' choices anymore? I mean, forget it. They don't know what they're doing.
As we've seen people take the internet for granted and how much things have changed since what you've described, what do you think has changed about the way people treat each other online?
Well, I think people are finding communities and staying within them more. The software is making it easier to control and moderate. I mean, my blog, you know, I don't allow comments at all 'cause I wouldn't want to have a discussion --
Me neither. [Laughs.]
Well, I think that's very important. I basically said, "I'm writing a monologue, not a dialog."
Whereas, I'm just posting conversations because I'm specifically interested in what you have to say.
It's not that I'm not interested in what they have to say, but I'm here to listen to you. And I want them to, too.
Well, you're controlling it. And I think more and more people are doing that.
I think this social media thing has become different because there's so many millions of people out there, and I get on my Facebook page all kinds of strange comments. I don't know who these people are.
[Laughs.] None of them are from me. I just email you.
[Laughs.] And you can't -- by and large, I think, where it's gonna go is a great question. I think it's caused a great fragmentation in that everybody's kinda doing their own thing. The American system is kinda built on everybody following the same thing and making decisions about it. But we're not following the same thing anymore, you know, because of the internet. The left is talking to the left and the right is talking to the right and kids are talking to kids and retirees are talking to retirees and nobody's really hearing different points of view. So, I think that fragmentation is going to be -- no political figure can find enough of an audience to be really influential. They're all talking to their audiences. Nobody dominates, so it just fragments into these warring factions. That's an internet problem.
The geeks are not involved in it. The geeks are basically off in lala land making money and doing their thing. That's one thing about gaming. You do it internally and you do it out of sight and nobody knows what you're doing.
I don't know where that's gonna go. Gamergate is really interesting because I think it's reflecting this evolution in women's politics and they're not really gonna put up with it anymore.
No. Do you personally, as a consumer of media, in a distinction between what's referred to as high art versus low art?
Yes, I guess I would put it a little bit differently. I think you're going through this churning period of incredible change, and I think it's just not entirely clear. I believe cream rises eventually. I think the better writing and the better art and the better ideas will rise up. And I think we're going through a period of just chaos where because all the gatekeepers have been pushed aside -- like, I see it in my publishing life. There's a million free books on Amazon. Nobody knows who's writing them or what they're about.
And nobody knows who they are. So, before, you know, you had to be reviewed by a small band of people to get to that point. And so there's a great democratic orgy of creativity. But I think it will sort itself out. I may not live long enough to see that, but I think it's gonna sort itself out. All creativity is not equal and not all content is equal.
And I think the more thoughtful, valuable, and useful ones will emerge and some of the others will fall behind. Not everything will go back to the way it was, for sure. But, you know, BuzzFeed is a new gatekeeper. Reddit is a new gatekeeper. People seem to always have gatekeepers.
And the big thing you have to factor into it, you have to really think about is the rise of the corporations. I mean, America is a corporate nation now.
And they really have control over the regulatory process and the political process. And, you know, they're the ones who're gonna call the shots and they're gonna want a more coherent environment.
You mentioned the "fuck you" cultures of hip-hop and videogames. I mean, are these just inherently subcultures that don't want to be happy and when all else fails, you can at least hate and blame a corporation?
I think there's some truth to that. But what you're really seeing is the geek culture being co-opted by money. I mean, Silicon Valley is a monument to that.
I just mentioned, too, I just watched The Social Network dramatizing and perhaps glorifying exactly that.
Yeah, absolutely. Well, you know, the kids who would've been in their basements gaming all night are programming for Facebook and they have five-year contracts. You know, out there, when somebody gets fired, they don't leave. They stay for several years because they wanna get vested for the stock.
So what other company could ever do that? But I think you have to understand the psychology of the corporation. I mean, the internet is essentially being dominated by corporations now. That's happened through all the media. It happened to movies. It's happened to newspapers. It happened to television.
And they are all about coherence and safety because they want an environment where people were safe to buy things. So, I think the irony of the geek subculture is I think it's going to be co-opted by the very people who used to be revolutionaries. [Laughs.]
Yeah. [Laughs.] That's well put.
They're building these companies, they're screwing people, and look at the life of an Amazon worker.
I read that article.
I mean, my God, it's unbelievable that this is the new model.
Or even the Facebook employees. You know, they're not revolutionaries anymore. They seem to go to the old tradition of wanting to have that house with the gardener.
What do you think videogames have accomplished?
I think they have created a whole new cultural universe. A whole new artform. A whole new creative generation. I think they've stimulated hundreds of thousands of minds and I think they've created a desperately needed outlet for intelligent people who are bored and frustrated. I think they are one of the most creative cultures in the history I know about. They're incredibly diverse and rich and complicated and challenging. They're just amazing.
I think it's also a very unappreciated culture.
I think there's as much creativity in videogames as there are in most museums in the country. And there's sort of the established money class that doesn't respect it and doesn't give it the attention. But it's an amazing accomplishment and I think down the road people will see that culture as one of the most creative and interesting cultures in the history of the planet.