Geek ‘Icons’ and Parasitic Celebrity

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There is a class of per­son in the mod­ern world who is mere­ly fa­mous for be­ing fa­mous. As a cul­ture it’s be­come al­most a cliché to crit­i­cize these peo­ple for soak­ing up the spot­light whilst not ac­tu­al­ly con­tribut­ing any­thing. These celebri­ties are also in­ex­plic­a­bly in­flu­en­tial; with peo­ple tak­ing their ad­vice and views on sub­jects they are gen­er­al­ly less qual­i­fied to speak on than your av­er­age Joe. The same is true for the con­vo­lut­ed mess of pop-culture that is the new com­mer­cial con­cept of Geek.

There are peo­ple mere­ly fa­mous for be­ing Geeks and Nerds, and trade sole­ly on that fact. There isn’t much tan­gi­ble val­ue in be­ing sim­ply an ar­che­type or stereo­type, but these traits are now seen as saleable. So the “Geek Icon” who doesn’t ac­tu­al­ly do much of any­thing was born. Worse still, these “fa­mous pure­ly for be­ing a geek” per­son­al­i­ties are at­tempt­ing to lever­age that B‑list in­ter­net fame to take swings at com­mu­ni­ties or ideas they per­son­al­ly dis­ap­prove of.

Two lead­ing ex­am­ples I want to men­tion first are Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day; two peo­ple whose opin­ions are con­stant­ly ref­er­enced, and who are pa­rad­ed out as the pin­na­cle of Geek Culture. I spoke in apre­vi­ous ar­ti­cle about how the con­cept of “Geek Culture” is be­ing used to strong-arm ideas and opin­ions not in agree­ment with the pre­vail­ing group­think out of the pub­lic dis­course. There is also the fact that both Wil and Felica haven’t ex­act­ly had par­tic­u­lar­ly stel­lar ca­reers. This is why they ex­em­pli­fy the new wave of in­ter­net celebri­ties at­tempt­ing to make a liv­ing out of noth­ing but their “geek cred.”

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Presenting the kind of web con­tent that has be­come the re­mit of geek celebri­ties could be done just as well by the hun­dreds in­ter­change­able YouTube per­son­al­i­ties that are spat out by part­ner chan­nels at an alarm­ing rate. Most of what they do is coast on name recog­ni­tion; they are more well known as “The Geek Chick and that guy who used to be in Star Trek.” That is the sum to­tal of what el­e­vates them to no­to­ri­ety. For years I was told I was sup­posed to love these peo­ple as a “geek,” de­spite them hav­ing no dis­cernible spe­cial tal­ents. I used to think there was some­thing wrong with me for not lik­ing them but now I re­al­ize I sim­ply rec­og­nize there isn’t much there of mer­it to like. I am sim­ply told these peo­ple are geek icons in­stead of be­ing shown the work that got them to that sta­tus. If you are an icon it should be self evident.

Of course many gen­uine celebri­ties like to chime in on as­pects of “Geek Culture” they don’t have any knowl­edge of: Joss Whedon was a prime ex­am­ple with his “Gamers=KKK” com­ments. This again demon­strates the un­wel­come ef­fect of bundling of is­sues into one big “Geek” cat­e­go­ry. A man who makes TV shows and com­ic book films is seen as an ex­pert on the video games in­dus­try and the com­mu­ni­ty around it due to his “Geek cred” alone — de­spite know­ing pre­cise­ly dick all about it be­yond his own male sav­iour fem­i­nist com­plex. A lot of celebri­ties have chimed into de­bates about po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness in oth­er ar­eas sim­ply be­cause they have a plat­form and an agen­da to push.

The rea­son the me­dia trots out celebri­ty names, whether they have any spe­cial knowl­edge or even pass­ing fa­mil­iar­i­ty with the sub­ject at hand or not, is to avoid en­gag­ing with ideas. Fame is an in­stant trump card that gets cer­tain fans to agree with­out ex­am­in­ing the ar­gu­ments. The press loves us­ing celebri­ty to push agen­das; jour­nal­ists and celebri­ties have one big thing in com­mon: they can pre­tend to speak with au­thor­i­ty on a sub­ject whilst be­ing com­plete­ly ig­no­rant of it, and peo­ple will lis­ten be­cause they have a plat­form and a pro­file. Their vi­sion of the on­line com­mu­ni­ty is top down, like a lord dic­tat­ing to their peas­ants. They live in the manor house, and we are the serfs ex­pect­ed to ac­cept what is told to us.

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This makes the laugh­able “Queen of the Geeks” la­bel ap­plied to Felicia “I Cross the Street When I see a Gamer” Day have a deep and fit­ting lev­el of irony. Yes she is a Queen, placed there by her au­to­crat­ic peers. Unelected, priv­i­leged, and en­tire­ly out of touch with her sup­posed sub­jects. Monarchs placed on the throne with­out the sup­port or con­sent of the peo­ple rarely last very long, and per­haps this ex­plains why so many in the com­mu­ni­ty are re­act­ing with such dis­taste to their edicts. We are shit­lords by roy­al de­cree it seems, but did they re­al­ly think by sim­ply say­ing some­thing they could make it so? Have some people’s egos re­al­ly be­come so out of control?

Their vi­sion is top down, my vi­sion is bot­tom up. I re­fer to them as par­a­sites be­cause they are feed­ing off the com­mu­ni­ty be­low them, the com­mu­ni­ty that they wouldn’t ex­ist with­out. What does hav­ing act­ed in a TV se­ries mean you know about what’s best for game de­sign­ers? There is a faulty idea that mere­ly be­ing a low tier on­line celebri­ty is some­how a con­tri­bu­tion. They take, and they take, but when it comes time to give back they say you should have been grate­ful to pay for their au­to­graph at a con­ven­tion and lis­ten to them prat­tle on about their per­son­al biases.

Having bare­ly fa­mous peo­ple dic­tate to you what your own thoughts should be is a large part of why I don’t buy into the idea of Geek Culture in the first place. Celebrities have a long his­to­ry of turn­ing into ob­nox­ious ves­sels for fur­ther­ing their pol­i­tics along with their prod­ucts, and a lot of “Geek Culture” ego­ma­ni­ac celebri­ties have be­gun to buy into their own hype and think their fleet­ing rel­e­vance makes them able to change the world on a whim.

celeb side 1Some of these celebri­ties think they are owed some­thing, and in re­cent years we keep see­ing these un­pleas­ant, con­ceit­ed celebri­ties come out of the wood-work to de­mand the en­tire in­ter­net change to bet­ter fit their cur­rent mood. This is naked au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism when the in­ter­net is based on free­dom of ex­pres­sion. What ex­act­ly does grand-standing on so­cial me­dia cre­ate? If you have a high-profile you are sup­posed to earn it.

There are many celebri­ties that loud­ly and vis­i­bly do work that ben­e­fit hunger char­i­ties, com­bat cli­mate change, and help chil­dren. This is well and good, but these ef­forts are oft times turned into a ve­hi­cle to show off just how amaz­ing they are, whist do­ing min­i­mal ac­tu­al work. Now that lazy, fop­pish faux-altruism has been tak­en up by e‑celebrities com­bat­ing e‑problems with their e‑protests in a des­per­ate at­tempt to pump-up their flac­cid, wrin­kling e‑careers.

Combating on­line ha­rass­ment has be­come the new famine ap­peal, the new cause of the month, the new thing to make a lot of noise about whilst not know­ing what the core is­sues ac­tu­al­ly are. This new breed isn’t even much of celebri­ties any­more — not out­side their in­ner cir­cle and ra­bid fandom.

I sup­pose we can put that down to youth­ful hubris, but de­spite be­ing up­wards of forty some­one like Wil Wheton has yet to re­gain any TV or Film trac­tion that isn’t ei­ther play­ing him­self or a riff on his Star Trek work. He went from film and TV to web con­tent, and re­cent­ly had a show he host­ed on SyFy can­celled af­ter a sin­gle sea­son. His ca­reer tra­jec­to­ry has been cir­cling the drain in slow mo­tion for twen­ty years. Felicia Day has done sim­i­lar work, most­ly on­line con­tent and “per­son­al­i­ty” gigs, but hasn’t re­al­ly gained a foothold in main­stream act­ing. Mostly be­cause, frankly, she can’t act be­yond look­ing con­fused and doe-eyed. If I asked 50 peo­ple when they walked by whom Felicia Day was most would strug­gle to give a cor­rect answer.

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That’s the prob­lem with the on­line echo-chamber; peo­ple think they are more im­por­tant and fa­mous than they re­al­ly are. That goes ten­fold for B‑list e‑celebrities like Anita Sarkeesian or any­one still cling­ing onto the wreck­age of Channel Awesome/TGWTG. Their sense of self-importance back­fires, and when some­one you’ve nev­er heard of crowns them­selves the Queen of the world and starts bark­ing or­ders your first in­stinct is to laugh at how delu­sion­al they are. I don’t care what web-series you were on, the vast ma­jor­i­ty of the on­line world has no idea you ex­ist. The only pow­er these peo­ple have is with­in their own circle-jerk. They wall them­selves off from any crit­i­cism and bathe in adu­la­tion from their rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of fans. Those at­tempt­ing to steer the “geek” ship into a par­tic­u­lar ide­o­log­i­cal or po­lit­i­cal di­rec­tion are coast­ing on their past achieve­ments and us­ing up what recog­ni­tion they have left.

Again we see the idea of “Geek Culture” used as a crutch for per­son­al gain, and these hang­ers on use it as a means of in­come suck­ing up every last pen­ny they can from the con­ven­tion cir­cuit and squeez­ing every last drop of good will out of work they’ve been coast­ing off for years. This is also why some of them have tried to ma­nip­u­late who can and can’t be at con­ven­tions and turn it into a closed shop. I have no doubt deny­ing po­lit­i­cal ri­vals also make their own chance of book­ing gigs rise.

They wave their fin­ger and scold their fans, in many cas­es lit­er­al­ly say­ing if you be­lieve some­thing I don’t you can’t be a fan of “geek” things as if they con­trol who can and can’t like some­thing. There is no ar­gu­ment, and no facts. Just an at­tempt to use name recog­ni­tion to shame peo­ple into sub­mis­sion and mo­bi­lize their fan­base for a self­ish po­lit­i­cal cause. It’s about us­ing num­bers to shout peo­ple down.

I think many who trade on their in­sid­er sta­tus, or cred­i­bil­i­ty as a geek, sup­port po­lices of ex­clu­sion and po­lit­i­cal uni­for­mi­ty be­cause it helps en­trench their po­si­tion. As we’re see­ing with the #PerformanceMatters hash­tag and SAG-AFRA strike, once peo­ple get some­where they want to do their best to burn the lad­der be­hind them. They are en­ti­tled to try all they like, but they are not en­ti­tled to pre­tend their self-serving pos­tur­ing is ben­e­fit­ing any­one but them­selves. For a good dose of per­spec­tive check out our in­ter­view with vet­er­an voice ac­tress Lani Minella; she takes quite a dis­mal view of those push­ing them­selves as rock-star videogame voice ac­tors. If you stop pro­duc­ing good con­tent, if you out stay your wel­come, then peo­ple don’t dis­like you be­cause you are a woman or be­cause you are “fight­ing for in­clu­sive­ly and so­cial jus­tice” or any of those thin covers.

People be­gin dis­like you be­cause they re­al­ize that you are mere­ly scram­bling to per­pet­u­ate your celebri­ty. People on the bot­tom rung of in­ter­net fame like the un­hinged Arthur Chu, or the ter­mi­nal­ly ir­rel­e­vant Brianna Wu, are push­ing the idea of a cri­sis with­in geek­dom sim­ply be­cause they have lit­tle else they are known for and few out­lets to get at­ten­tion from. You’re very good at phras­ing things as a ques­tion. Big whoop. Some peo­ple ac­tu­al­ly make these games, movies, and comics; we need to be lis­ten­ing to those who ac­tu­al­ly cre­ate things of ex­cep­tion­al qual­i­ty to­day and not tal­ent­less pre­tenders or those with fad­ed glory.

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There is noth­ing sad­der than the likes of some­one like Tim Schafer still soak­ing up adu­la­tion for games he made decades ago. He is the Adam Sandler of the video game world. People like him, but when you ask why they bring up the hand­ful of old high­lights and make mum­bled ex­cus­es for cur­rent fail­ures. He will for­ev­er be “Mr. Shitface” to me, hold­ing a sock-puppet on stage and mock­ing those who made him what he is to­day. Conventions and var­i­ous in­dus­try bod­ies are made up of dozens of fig­ures like him; peo­ple cling­ing to their fame by their fin­ger­tips and kiss­ing the right rings to do so.

The next time some­one claims to speak for “geeks,” or claims to be fa­mous for their con­tri­bu­tions to “Geek Culture,” look at their real achieve­ments and weigh them on those. Once again, we find our­selves pre­sent­ed with a class of peo­ple ter­ri­fied of mer­i­toc­ra­cy, and of hav­ing their opin­ions chal­lenged. At the end of the day, in­ter­net fame is like a fog; clear­ly vis­able but lack­ing sub­stance — and some­thing that oft times clouds the view of crit­i­cal things. Once the game is up, and their cred­i­bil­i­ty ques­tioned, peo­ple stop go­ing to them for their “ex­pert” opin­ion. You de­serve noth­ing in this world that you don’t earn, and your opin­ion is only as rel­e­vant as the facts that back it up, no mat­ter who you are.

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John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.