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Techbros Never Change

July 28, 2018

Here are two excerpts from “My Tiny Life” [PDF link] by Julian Dibbell, a nonfiction book about one of the earliest experiments in online community-building, LambdaMOO. This should be extremely familiar to anyone who’s peeked into or tried to contribute to some open-source software projects today…

But early on in his new virtual life, Finn discovered there was one aspect of the MOO he couldn’t very easily change: its social structure. And that was a shame, in Finn’s opinion, because the people he perceived as sitting at the top of that structure—the technical sophisticates who’d been the first to colonize the MOO— were not his sort of people at all. They were a soulless bunch, from what he’d seen of them—more interested in algorithms than in artistry, or even fun. They had a typical hacker’s taste for cutting wit, ironic and dry, which dominated public expression on the MOO and left little room for the sort of “quirky, ribald humor” Finn went in for. And worst of all, at least from the perspective of a technological innocent like Finn (“I was just some kid with an Apple ][ whose only programming experience was in BASIC”), they seemed a lot less eager to share their ample expertise with unschooled newbies than to ridicule them for not already being experts themselves.

You may rest assured, of course, that the players Finn thus spoke of would dispute this portrait in nearly all its particulars—and not without reason, for Finn was nothing if not a hothead in his early days. But all the same, he wasn’t the only MOOer who found the existing social climate back then somewhat oppressive, exu, for instance, who arrived a little while after him, would later remember that era as “the Reign of Snide Programmers Terror, when all nontechies were subject to showers of verbal abuse.” exu and others mostly grinned and bore up under all the free-floating attitude, however, whereas in Finn it rankled, and became the basis for an abiding grudge against the MOO’s techno-literate establishment. “I did not get along with them, no,” he told me. “Moreso, I was disgusted by them. They were like high school geeks who now had their chance to be the in-crowd. Like they never learned a lesson being ridiculed in high school. They wanted to be hip. They wanted to gather in little circles and smirk at the others. Except these people didn’t have any sort of coolness on their side. No social skills. They had a proficiency in manipulating digits.”

God knows this little coup of Finn’s came as a breath of fresh air to some. “With his design of a fuckable player class,” exu would later recall, and fondly, “he brought the Specter of Pleasure to this ironic and cerebral place.” But for the ironic and cerebral types who more or less ran that place, it had the makings of a small disaster. Finn was right, I think, to feel that his hubris in aspiring to the heights of technical expertise had offended at least some of the reigning techies, but had that been his only offense, the techies could have easily laughed it off. No, it was Finn’s fusion of high MOO tech and low MOO culture that had taken things a step too far: he had crossed—and blurred—a line whose clarity the elite’s position in the MOOish world depended on. Followed to its ultimate conclusion, Finn’s transgression could lead to just one outcome, and it was a bad one. Not the typical worst-case scenario for embattled elites, to be sure: they would not be banished from the MOO, nor would they, strictly speaking, find themselves stripped of their powers. They would still be the wizards, and the well-connected friends of wizards, and they would still, in an administrative sense at least, be in charge. And yet, at some much deeper level—a cultural one, let’s say—LambdaMOO would no longer be their home. What they had made of it would slowly sink beneath the rising tide of sex machines and fart- bonkers, until at last the MUD that once had been a programmer’s paradise officially became, God help them all, a synonym for silliness.

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