Comments on “Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths in subculture evolution”


Cultural evolution

Josh's picture

Hi David,

Really enjoying this recent series.

Do you think it is inevitable that globalised culture will move towards the complete stance? Is this due to cultural continuity allowing gradual assimilation of nebulosity? Could anything halt or reverse this process?

Perhaps I've read your thoughts on these questions previously and have forgotten, or perhaps you plan to address them later, so happy to be directed.



Is it inevitable?

Hi Josh, thanks for the comment!

I wouldn't ever want to say that anything was inevitable. But in a sense, I think we're already there; where "we" means the cultural cutting edge in rich countries. Understanding that neither eternalism nor nihilism is workable is the postmodern condition, pretty much. There is growing tacit understanding of nebulosity. We've lived with that for a quarter century, and are gradually figuring out how to make it workable. What's missing is (1) a clear articulation of the issues and (2) reliable practices for making it workable, i.e. stabilizing the complete stance. I hope to provide (1). The second is harder; there are methods I've observed and/or figured out, but what I can say will be vague and incomplete. It's a job for a whole culture, not one person.

In terms of "global," though, it's much harder to know. I do plan to write about this. Much of the Islamic world is struggling to transition from the choiceless to the systematic mode. That's mostly not looking good; but apparently Iran is moving pretty smoothly from the systematic into the countercultural mode, so there's hope. China transitioned successfully into the systematic mode; aborted a nascent counterculture in 1989; and shows some signs of increasing tolerance of certain subcultures (notably Buddhism).

Not just sub-cultures

404 Not Found's picture

Interestingly, I can see parallels with other areas too. I've interacted with dozens of small cliques, & what you say is true. But what you say also relates well to traditional tradespeople. Key cutters were for years independently minded - the geeks, if you were. Same with plumbers and blacksmiths. Now, in the UK at least, these small groups are being 'rolled up' by the sociopaths that are big business, exploiting the decades of knowledge made freely available online.

It is a sort of merger of the Gervais Principle & what you are saying here about subcultures.

Thanks for the article.

Thanks, I enjoyed this

Greg's picture

Thanks, I enjoyed this analysis! A quibble, but perhaps a few illustrative examples would have been helpful.

Not quite dead

I question whether subcultures are dead. Certainly the dynamics are different. Personally I feel too old and out of touch to pass judgement on whether the kids today are doing subcultures right or not.

Or maybe you are positing a rather narrow definition of what subcultures are, if they are limited to a small period of time. As you say later, subcultures still exist but without the same cultural force. Maybe...maybe Facebook has lowered the barriers that grouplets form all the time without much effort or meaning.

I did stick a foot into Burning Man culture recently -- which is sort of a conglomerate of hundreds of little subcultures. It used to have a pretty high barrier to entry but that doesn't stop the mops from showing up (I suppose I am one of them). There's an active controversy about how to deal with the wealthy moving in :

On the same note, I notice that Rave/EDM doesn't show up in your chart under music -- whatever you think of it, it definitely is a subculture (or possibly many).

Not dead yet

Yes, "dead" is partly hyperbolic. Hyperbole is a bad tendency of mine. Clearly there are still subcultures, and new ones are invented still.

However, I'll spell out what I mean by "dead" when I write the main section on subcultures ("Real Soon Now"). Also what I mean by "the subcultural mode," which is somewhat non-standard (as you suggest).

Subcultures are no longer the primary drivers of cultural development, I think. And, it's not possible for intelligent people to relate to them in the same way we did in the 80s and 90s. It will take 15,000 words or so to explain this... I'm trying to write a book about practically everything, breadth-first, and it is going slowly.

Subcultures are the "native mode" for Generation X, and many in that generation remain committed to them—the same way many Baby Boomers remain committed to the countercultures of the 60s-80s. (There are even vestiges remaining of the "mainstream systematic mode" of the 1950s.) For Generation Y, my claim is, subcultures are not the native mode—atomization is, instead. When Gen X gets old and feeble, subcultures will mostly vanish.

Personally, I am a fanatic in a defiantly subcultural brand of Buddhism. I am also a mop in the ancestral health ("paleo") subculture, for instance.

"Subcultures are dead" implies that my involvement in those subcultures has to be somewhat ironic. It's not possible for me to take them as defining who I am and how I live, in the way that I might have 30 years ago.

I also have some, ambiguous, relationship with "Unaffiliated Smartypants Twitter." I think it's fair to call that a scene. It's a scene that cannot develop into a subculture (as it might have in the 80s). It's a scene that is overwhelmingly aware of its own atomization by twitter dynamics. So, there is literally no one (so far as I know) who will admit to being a member of UST; and it explicitly, officially, does not exist. This is an ironic stance.

(You likewise appear to have some ambiguous relationship with UST. Perhaps 30 years ago, you would be a "member" of it. You are, to some degree, a co-creator of it—but I would guess that you would not want to admit that, any more than I do!)

I've followed your posts from Burning Man with great interest (and the tweets of @sfslim, who is a creator there). I wish I had been to it, but have no desire to go to it!

A major regret in life is that I didn't participate in the rave subculture at its height. My impression is that it is over—and has been for 10-15 years. There are still EDM concerts and festivals, but it no longer functions as a subculture (in the sense I'm using the term).

I did spend three months, pretty much full-time, educating myself about EDM, about five years ago. I'm very glad to have done that; I hope to write about it someday.

Doors close too

Judi's picture

My experience is that also once the sociopaths get involved, new creators are shut out from the subculture, that also stilts growth. It becomes too Pro for new Creators to involve themselves and only Creators chosen by the Sociopaths are "allowed" in. In effect, it becomes a closed club where only the worthy are allowed in.

The only time I haven't found that to be the case, is if the original Creators and Fanatics work their butts off to make sure that new Creators are let in in spite of the Sociopaths.



I'd like to strongly, but respectfully disagree with a broad swath of premise of your analysis. The role of creator, fan, and casual consumer are not sharply defined or fixed. To treat them as if they are some kind of ridged cast structure is a disservice to the people who occupy it.

For example, I have worked in a professional (paid) capacity for a few fairly large geek conventions, I've created tons of content consumed by fans, but there are a number of geek curtural artifacts I only consume casually.

Dose having done a couple of variant covers make me a creator? Dose having a relatively short attention span for superhero franchises on television make me a mop?

I think you are discounting a progressive evelioution of involment. People might be introduced casually to subculture, but become more involved over time. They might also become less involved or drift away because of changing circumstances in their life. Or simply because they got bored with the cultural object they were consuming.

I think the idea that there should be any kind of attempt at gate keeping, or even the idea of a true fan offensive. As a creator, fan and consumer I'd like to see the thing I made, enjoy, purchased enjoyed by as many people as possible regardless of their level of involvement. I love that one of costidans at my building has a metal gear solid text alert sound- even if he dosent know who Kojima is. We both like this thing, and it's a touchstone for us to relate to each other across other social, economic, linguistic and cultural divides. I think that's rad, even if he never goes back and plays Snatcher.

The notion of the "true" fan leads to some pretty ugly places (gamergate, sad puppies, etc). Let's be super good to each other instead of having a nerd dick measuring contest.

Scenes and ironism

I suppose it՚s not that scenes and subcultures have inherently changed that much; it՚s that the mainstream culture has fragmented, so it՚s no longer possible to define a subculture by its relationship to the mainstream. Alternative scenes have less to work against, which weakens them.

Interesting observation about UST, which I am indeed connected to. I feel like I would like it to be more of a scene, or more something, than it is, even though it wouldn՚t work as anything but what it is. Deeply ironical, as you say.

Ribbonfarm too is a scene and not quite a subculture; there, it deliberately cultivates what Venkat calls “illegibility” as an organizing principle. This is another form of ironism, a way of escaping labels and achieving a kind of fluidity of meaning.

Rationalism and Burning Man are two bigger subcultural worlds I am kind of hovering around the edges of thanks to my current job, which whatever else I can say about it has hooked me up with some interesting younger people.

Both groups demand participation – you can՚t be a passive consumer. Well, you can, but it is discouraged and in some deep sense means you are missing the point. They both provide a template for identity, a set of values, a social milieu, a range of possible projects and ways to earn credit. The people who are into the are way into them.

For me, I find I have strong (if inchoate) desires to be more a part of the scene (or whatever it is) than I actually am, and various competing repulsions, not least of which is my incompatible default world identity as aging family man. So I՚m not exactly a mop vis-a-vis these groups. A mop, I assume, hangs out without contributing and is satisfied with that. My position is that I would really love to contribute, and try in a sort of half-assed fashion, but not sure if I have much to offer. I feel nonetheless that they are scenes, even if they aren՚t quite my scenes.

The value of permeable barriers

Anna Fischer, thank you for the comments! I went and looked at your site, btw, and loved the photos.

I agree completely with your first four paragraphs.
Everyone's degree of involvement is nebulous—always somewhat ambiguous, and necessarily changing over time. And my four-way categorization is necessarily somewhat arbitrary, and like every categorization does violence to nebulous phenomena. (On the other hand, a categorization is useful to the extent that it does point at real phenomena—which I think this one does.)

These were points I certainly had in mind while writing the blog post; I omitted them because it was already much longer than I wanted. I've added a footnote now.

Your last two paragraphs point at a central problem for all subcultures. (I plan to write much more about this.) If barriers to entry are too high, it becomes a sterile, snobbish in-group, which eventually becomes toxic and irrelevant and collapses. But if the barriers are too low, the subculture may be overwhelmed by an influx of people with different values, who wind up diluting, dumbing-down, and eventually erasing what made the subculture so valuable for earlier participants.

Ideally, the subculture provides a gradual on-ramp, allowing for progressively greater involvement, and for enculturation; and that on-ramp does require progressively more costly demonstrations of commitment to the subculture's values, in order to maintain a reasonably cohesive system.

I think understanding this dynamic is helpful for keeping a subculture vital as long as possible. However, it is difficult to construct barriers that let people in at the right rate, and that are selective enough to prevent total values dilution, but permeable enough to allow in the diversity needed for creative ferment.

So far, in fact, it seems that this always fails, and that we all understand that it always will fail, which is why the "subcultural mode" no longer has the power it did 25 years ago.

One last thing. I'm not sure, but it sounds like you think of geek culture (sci-fi, fantasy, gaming, etc.) as a single subculture? Whereas I would consider it a general orientation, within which many specific subcultures have risen and fallen.

Strong (if inchoate) desires

Mike, what you said in that comment poignantly summarizes my own feelings too.

Probably that's a major motivation for my writing the "history of meaningness." At a personal level, it's an attempt to understand why I can't believe in subcultures any longer; how I relate to (e.g.) UST (atomization); and what I would like to see happen next, and want to contribute to if I can (fluidity).

It might be more useful to help start a new scene, or strengthen an existing one; but thinking abstractly is a compulsion for me!

Subdividing the monolith

Hey, thanks for responding. I do think all geek subculture is connected. When you asked if I thought that, I immediately though of a moment on trip to Cali last month where I was eating ice cream late night with a successful vinyl toy designer, a professional cosplayer, and a Capcom executive (visiting from Japan). We were chatting about the merits of marvel subscriptions as scaled to periods of comic nostalgia.

Kotaku (a video game blog) writes about my anime Cosplay photographs, but it's table top gaming that (barely) pays my rent. I love to read so I hang out with a lot of genre fiction authors. We're all appearing at the same big tent shows. Sure, there are out croppings and fragments. Toy collectors are kind of on their own little island of pop culture. But the larger activities, the main stays, they're consumed by the same audience.

Like if you drew a vendigram of people who had seen at least one avengers movie and people who had played at least one assassins creed game the overlap would be pretty deep.

Not that there are no divisions with in geek culture, but I think these are more generational then topic specific.

If you look at the history of fan conventions this is born out on a really trackable way. How worldcon was originally the Mecca of geek culture, but then younger fans (who wanted to stay up late and talk loud) split off into media conventions. These scifi cons started running anime tracks, which eventually reached critical mass of younger (and more female) fans and left to establish their own homes. Video gaming and anime are still linked at many conventions because it's the same generation consuming them.

The 4th generation is still living with the 3rd (anime) but I think in the next few years we will see internet based fandoms strike out on their own. They've already made a few shaky steps. And although they've yet to be really successful, I think that's because the participants are to young/ inexperienced.

So it might be changing forms of media as a content platform that makes it look like different animal. But video games are books you can walk through. Webcomics are TV shows with a very slow broadcast rate.

Two senses of “geek”

Your comment made me realize my post was unclear in another way, due to the ambiguity of “geek.” I was using “geek” there to mean “someone fascinated by the details of a subject most people don’t care about.” There’s another sense of “geek,” the one we're discussing here, meaning the sort of person you’d expect to find at a science fiction convention. There’s significant overlap, but in the first sense there are gardening geeks and golfing geeks, and most probably aren’t geeks in the second sense. They might create gardening subcultures, though. I have added another footnote, which probably isn't helpful, but makes me feel better.

I've been a mop in the general geek world—in the second sense—for 40 years, and your observations about that ring absolutely true. (I've never actually been to a science fiction convention, but most of the people I've slept with have!)

I'm gradually thinking through a theory that there is a mismatch between the optimal size for a culture and the optimal size for a society (or community). A healthy culture needs at least a few million people, in order to provide the breadth and depth of meaning its participants need. The geek agglomeration of subcultures and subsocieties has persisted, and functions reasonably well, because it does have that critical mass.

A "subculture," in the somewhat non-standard way I plan to use the word, doesn't the necessary heft. I love steampunk, for example, but it's not functional as a way of life, which a "subculture" (in this sense) tries to be.

The optimal size for a "subsociety" is dozens to a few thousand people. More than that, and few individuals can feel like they are fully contributing, valued members.

I think part of why "subcultures died" is that the 80s-90s model was that subsocieties and subcultures coincided. You got your social relationships from your cultural tastes. This didn't work because either the group was too small to provide enough meaning (steampunk for example) or too large to provide solid social relationships (the '60s counterculture for example).

He's the one

danbk99's picture

He's the one
Who likes all our pretty songs
and he likes to sing a long
and he likes to shoot his gun,
but he don't know what it means.

LOL mops.

Who are the sociopaths?

I think you've spot on with Geeks and Mops. Some of the commenters on File770 who linked to my blog post insisted that there's an important distinction between creators and curators, but I don't find that meaningful; they're different roles, but they're the same sorts of people (and there's often an overlap; many creators are also curators).

What you don't mention is that it's possible for Mops to morph into Geeks as they get drawn deeper into a subculture.

Sociopaths, though, I'm not convinced. I recognise that sociopaths are a destructive force in any community (See the damage wrought by Requires Hate in SF fandom), but people like her aren't necessarily predatory outsiders. In many cases they're geeks-gone-bad.

Have you got any examples of how outside sociopaths have destroyed subcultures?

Naming names

people like her aren't necessarily predatory outsiders. In many cases they're geeks-gone-bad.

Well... as I said, to gain power in the subculture, a sociopath has to act just like a geek (only better), and keep that up for probably several years at least. So it is difficult or impossible to know whether a particular person is a "genuine geek gone bad" or an "outsider pretending to be a geek." Also, there's no reason an outside sociopath wouldn't also genuinely enjoy the subculture (before destroying it).

After considering "examples of how outside sociopaths have destroyed subcultures" for a day, I'm reluctant to name names, for several obvious reasons.

What you don't mention is that it's possible for Mops to morph into Geeks as they get drawn deeper into a subculture.

I did, in a footnote, actually:

There is no “fact of the matter” about whether someone is an unusually enthusiastic mop, or a fanatic who is less committed than some other fanatics; nor whether someone who creates occasionally but mainly acts to support the subculture counts as a fanatic or creator. Anyone may shift roles, too.

It's a Devolving Cycle

LS's picture

"Culture Vultures have always been with us, but now we have Cultural Cannibalism -- hipsters who binge on the art and music of others yet don’t do the proverbial homework, resulting in massive amounts of content-less effluvia. There’s a reason why those Man-Purses are so big -- they’re colostomy bags."

Add a couple decade/cycles of this and the cultural output is the equivalent of Mad Cow.

On Geek Subculture

Eric Christian Berg's picture

I know I am really late to the discussion here, but I wanted to suggest that the sci-fi/fantasy geek community is more like a tribe as Scott Alexander discusses at It started as a series of sub-cultures build around New Things. Read the history of TSR for a fine example of your progression of the downfall of a sub-culture. However, the various sub-cultural products (anime, RPGs, video games, etc) have become rallying flags for a tribe whose interests, as Anna points out, have deep overlap. Involvement in the various rallying flags varies:; often, members of the tribe are fanatics for one or two, casuals on several others, and have some they don't care for. As Scott points out, though , it is the broader cultural and ideological overlap which cements the tribal identity.


Myles Davidson's picture

Fantastic description of what happened to the 'rave' scene (which IMO ended round about 2000AD). As a 90's 'rave' geek, I personally witnessed what is described here, play out. Right on the money (so to speak).

Rave scene

The rave scene is the subculture I most regret having missed. I was too busy running a tech company to get involved—but it sure looked like fun from a distance!

Could it be said that the

Armot's picture

Could it be said that the geeks who were Libertarians and Anarchocapitalists when those were New Things are now moving into the Alt-Right since it is the new cool New Thing?


I don't follow these movements closely, but, fwiw, my impression is that Neoreaction did grow out of libertarianism/ancap/Objectivism. It appealed to many of the same people, in part because they came to understand why extreme libertarianism can't work; and probably also, as you suggest, because it was the Cool New Thing.

My understanding is that Neoreaction has gone through a typical subcultural cycle (overwhelmed with mops, exploited by psychopaths, lost its cool) and is now dead.

The alt-right is much more an atomized phenomenon (where Neoreaction was subcultural). It doesn't make any attempt at conceptual coherence. It's structureless emoting and pose-striking. It mostly doesn't appeal to the same audience, and mostly doesn't have historical or conceptual roots in ancap/etc.

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You are reading a metablog post, dated May 29, 2015.

The next metablog post is YOU NEED MORE LUMENS.

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