Today’s episode of Roo-and-me internet show Shift Run Stop features an interview with 90s internet celeb and naughties civil rights campaigner Danny O’Brien. I’ve known about him for as long as I’ve known about the internet (when I was 13, I wanted so badly to see this) – and memorably, I finally met the man himself when he sold me a ticket to the 2004 NTK conference, Notcon. He’s been consistently supportive and good to me over the years. It was Danny, in fact, who cyber-introduced me to Dave when I told him I wanted to make some kind of funny zine about obsolete technology. “Do you know Dave Green?” said Danny, adding in capitals, “TALK TO DAVE.” Of course, Dave’s now a good friend and regular on our podcast. And as you will hear, Danny is very funny and charming, has loads of interesting anecdotes, and was really fun to interview.
The NTK newsletter ran for 10 years and was tremendously popular with a certain kind of programmer geek. Danny reflects on what they were going for, what the point of it was, and why it was so successful. In the early days, at least, they were doing something niche at a time when the internet was full of highly specialised people. No one understood what a web developer was, no one knew what these people actually did all day, and no one was trying to make them laugh. Then NTK came along and found the funny.
But then something happened. Suddenly there were a lot more people who understood the web. Suddenly it wasn’t just people with technical specialisms, it was a social thing. Anyone could do it. It didn’t have to be hard or alienating or something people needed cheering up about. By the same token, it stopped being something you could relish as exclusively yours. The tribes broke apart and all the flaming and forums and competitiveness started to look a bit silly. You’d suddenly find yourself in a meeting with your IRC enemies from five years ago. And everyone suddenly wanted to be thought of as a geek, because of the cache of haughty cleverness and the mystique of esoteric knowledge that came with the term. The exact things, in fact, that the writers of NTK were so hooked on, so long before.
There’s a bit in the interview where I ask Danny about the geek thing (cut because presumably rambly and unclear, or at least off-mic) – I’m trying say something about how meaningless the term has become. It’s not about technology anymore, we’re getting further away from understanding anything genuinely technical, and it seems like we don’t care. I think that’s a real shame. That’s why I’m interested in vintage technology – because I think we’re creating more and more excuses not to understand anything properly, and that seems to be distancing us from authentic enjoyment. It also stands in the way of creative production; if kids were encouraged to break their Nintendo DS open and look inside, imagine what one of them might do. Imagine who they might grow up to be. I’m not technically skilled, but technology has a reassuring works-or-doesn’t-work baseline, and has become a mascot of our progress. We’re afraid to break it. We’re dangerously reverent about our own progress.
In my opinion, a geek is someone who’s very very into something – someone who really understands something, or at the very least, loves it so much it doesn’t matter. But, without wishing to sound overly soppy, to love is to want to understand, I think. A geek isn’t necessarily someone who works in social media and goes to events with the word ‘geek’ in the title. It’s not necessarily someone who has lots of gadgets. It’s not necessarily Stephen Fry. But it isn’t someone cornered by the limitations of the time either, whether that’s the pressure to work in the ‘interactive’ sphere (like me) or the pressure to develop websites when Hotbot was still a going concern. When the internet was new, the people who worked on it hadn’t consciously opted into a life lived in a tiny corner of public consciousness in order to uphold themselves as an elite programming master race. Danny wasn’t a ‘geek’ in the 90s, I just don’t remember the stigma. As far as I was concerned, he was a cool comedian who knew about the internet and wanted to take the good news to the masses with TV programmes and Edinburgh shows. (But you know, bear in mind that I was 13. I didn’t have a lot of context.)
I say all this by means of introducing another idea. Danny explains that they researched programming languages and every area of niche interest to create a self-consciously niche newsletter that a few people would really like. The flip-side, of course, is that to the vast majority of internet-users, including most of their friends and peers, NTK was indecypherable. Even Danny says he looks back on some of those issues and wonders what on earth they were talking about.
But then he wonders aloud why we, a British geek culture show, have such a broad remit.
I think it goes like this. For Danny, a geek seems to be someone whose interests or specialisms are niche. It’s not the intensity of their interests that counts, its the number of other people who share them. Much as he enjoys our show, to create something as general as a geek culture show is, he thinks, pointless and destined to failure and he may yet be right. It may be that a world of interstructural networking tumbling towards an Interconnectedness Of Everything should be rejected in favour of championing weirdos and defending ghettos. But here’s my official response…
Personally, I’m interested in authenticity. I’m not a programmer, and not prepared to pretend to be one to earn the trust of real programmers. I want to talk to people who I think are brilliant, so our interviews range from authors to famous film-makers to fellow podcasters. It is hard for Danny (and Dave at times) to understand, but if there’s anything deliberate about our editorial, it’s that we really don’t want to leave people out, everyone has something.
It’s a friendly podcast. The end-product is pretty much as friendly as Roo is in real life, and much friendlier than I am. NTK was searing at times, and the sharp tongue of that monospaced Courier font made some enemies over the years – albeit many more fans. Roo and I just get people we like in for a chat. For me, at least, having to look someone in the eye as they sit opposite you, after coming in specially as a favour… well it makes it much harder to say what you really mean. See also, this blog post.
For us, this isn’t our job and never will be. That, quite honestly, has never been the point. We’re starting with the stuff we love talking about, and working from there to the stuff we realise we’re ‘geeky’ about. I think ‘geek’ should mean extreme, inclusive, enthusiasm, occasionally to the point of desperation, rather than, as it has come to mean, “someone who uses the internet”. But if the label is useful to some extent in 2010, it’s as a filter. If we say we make a geeky podcast, these days people will know to expect a bit of science, a bit of technology, some abstract ideas about the internet, and an element of people who have something a bit wrong with them. The truth is we’re not scientists. Roo plays down his technical form far too readily, but I’m not even remotely techy. I don’t play video games, I didn’t study science, I have nothing going for me at all in this world beyond a sort of outsider interestedness. If I did any of these things for a living, I think it’d be very unlikely I’d want to interview people about them; we really are learning at the same time as our listeners. So maybe it’s to do with the interview format. Turns out it’s perfectly possible to do an interview show without being part of the same gang as the interviewee or even the listeners, you just have to be enthusiastic. Not so with a newsletter or magazine.
Though Danny meant something fairly specific, didn’t he. He meant that there’s no point doing something everyone else is doing. I do agree. I’d say, though, that there’s a very good reason to do something that everyone else wished they’d thought of. In fact, I don’t know of anyone else positioned quite where we are in ‘geek culture’ in the podcastsphere… and perhaps that’s why we’re doing well.
The NTK editorial was superbly successful, and perfectly tailored to the time – but this is a different time. We’re not arch or especially sarcastic. We don’t want to alienate people. We’re positioned somewhere between just doing what we want and doing what people seem to like. It’s an editorial of feelings, and one of those feelings is certainly fear of getting into a scrap with anyone. On the one hand we’re encouraging our guests (and ourselves) to talk about what they really care about, because that’s how they’re unusual – actually, how everyone’s unusual. The thing they really want to understand is their geeky thing. Maybe it’s the information age – it’s so easy to know everything and understand nothing. On the other hand, we’re listening to and being listened to by a mainstream of heavy internet users; people who are interested in the way their new technologies work. Normal people who watch films and comedy and have special passions of their own. I suspect we’re being listened to by people who self-identify as geeks and people who’ve never needed to. I bet the latter tune in more often, but ultimately, it’s not up to us to decide who can listen to and enjoy us.