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Geek Pride in Boston:
The Start of the Revolution

or, What the A-V Boys Did For Love

The Big To Do sent Special Correspondent and avowed technophobe Rosalie Rippey to the Geek Pride Festival in Boston, Mass. Can love bloom when geeks rule the earth? The answer may surprise you.

Call it a watershed moment in America: geeks have become sexy. Somehow, "Revenge of the Nerds" has morphed into Keanu Reeves' leather-clad hacker-superstud in "The Matrix"; David Duchovny (who has a graduate degree from Yale himself) is a hunky, ghost-busting bookworm who packs heat and carries a badge; Nicolas Cage's scientist in "The Rock" is brilliant, chiseled, and nervously charming.

I went to the Geek Pride Festival to learn about geek culture, to find where this image meets reality. The festival took place at the Castle, Boston's aptly named stone fortress and convention center. The exterior has a sort of medieval mystique, while the interior has all the charm of a high school gym. Behold, the perfect setting for Geek Pride.

Perhaps in homage to the origin of the word "geek," the room was set up like a circus, complete with three rings of activity, sideshows, and a carnival atmosphere. A stage dominated one end of the room. In the center, a ring of computer terminals for live chats with people who couldn't be there. And at the far end, a circle of old-school arcade games, spanning the Pac Man to Street Fighter years. Around the outside edge, software and Internet company reps stood ready to pounce with business cards. Sideshows included a Nerf-gun simulation of Keanu's "Matrix" shootout, a Quake tournament, and a big blue inflatable gymnasium, in which a solitary geek jumped around like a five-year-old.

There were two basic types attending Geek Pride: cool geeks, and just plain geeks. The cool geeks were younger, wore a lot of black, and displayed piercings, dyed hair, or some variation on Goth bondage chic; they even had a few women among their ranks. The just plain geeks -- most of the crowd -- had that shy manner and palpable lack of interest in their appearance that have marked geekdom since the invention of the slide rule.

No Sleep Til... Bedtime!

I wouldn't call Geek Pride the social event of the geek season; whatever that would be, it most likely took place online. The mood wasn't social so much as collegial. Geeks weren't reaching out to each other, they were reaching out to hand a resume to a recruiter from Slashdot, or to get a slice of pizza and scurry back to their chess game and inflatable plastic chairs. Even in a room full of other geeks, the only evidence I saw of new friendships being formed took place at the computers, via chats and instant messaging.

There was a minor Geek uprising, however, during the final round of "Stump-the-Geek," a trivia game featuring questions ranging from famous inventors to Magic cards to the Simpsons. When the host asked, "Who won the 1999 World Series?" the eventual winner responded, "Who cares?" The room broke into laughter, and people nodded their heads, faces bright with happy recognition.

The Castle was set to rock until midnight, but the crowd had already begun to thin at 8:30, when the final geek-icon speakers took the stage. By 9:30, there seemed to be little promise that the chess matches would blossom into anything worth staying for, and even the band looked a bit depressed. By ten, I was forced to concede that the party was pretty much over and followed a couple of just plain geeks out the door.

Stalking the Geek in his Natural Habitat

Unlike ethnic identity, there's no such thing as being "a little bit geek." Being a geek is something deeper, requiring genuine faith in the power of technology to light the path towards some brighter tomorrow. In this context, meeting people is almost beside the point. The point is the technology itself, and the ideas it can inspire. And yet, as you'll see, this gives rise to an unexpected evolutionary benefit for the rest of us.

I asked a representative of festival co-sponsor SwitcHouse, Katrina Ling, whether she thought of Geek Pride 2000 as a social event, and she said it really wasn't. People might introduce themselves to a recruiter, but that was about it. All the plastic couches and Nerf shoot-outs were enjoyed mostly by people who already knew each other.

She suggested that the best way to meet a geek is online. As a marketing professional, Katrina was happy to point out the social potential of switchouse.com -- a virtual swap meet where you can trade something you have, like a Wham! CD, for something you want - like "Clue: The Movie." In the process, you can meet people who share your taste in movies and music. This could even be the start of something deeper; I mean, if someone has five copies of my all-time favorite comedy based on a childhood board game, they must be cool, right?

Founding Fathers of the Digital Revolution

In other words, in the hour of the geek, you might as well stay home. Five years ago, I would have said that finding friends online is only for geeks. But now, the geeks have inherited the earth - or at least, the World Wide Web. And at some point, pioneering geeks realized that the Internet would be better -- and more profitable -- if they made room for the rest of us.

I know of at least four successful relationships that started on the Internet, and only one of them is at all creepy. Through my own online diary at Diaryland.com, I've shared e-mails with other diarylanders who I would gladly invite to lunch. I even have a friend who has received presents from total strangers because he includes a link to his CDNow.com wish list on his Web site. Because of geeks -- the socially awkward smart guys who avoid eye contact except at Star Trek conventions -- people like me have e-mail and the Internet. Why shouldn't they be proud?

Remember the end of John Hughes' archetypical teen movie, "The Breakfast Club," when the characters pair off, but the geek stands alone? That early image suggested that while geeks will succeed in life, being a geek will have to serve as its own lonely reward. Geek Pride challenged that idea, positing instead that being a geek is... well, not cool... but definitely something to feel good about.

And even if their parties end early, these geeks have made a contribution to the social lives of anyone with access to a computer. Even a technophobe like me can see why such an accomplishment would make a person proud.

Rosalie Rippey is a freelance writer in Boston. There was a little emotional scarring from this assignment, but she's fine, really.

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