I, Neckbeard

At some point in my childhood, I remember suddenly realizing that it
was weird not to look people in the eye while speaking to them. From
that point on, I studied how other people made eye contact, and
attempted to mimic it. I tried to learn how to do it just enough,
without doing it so much that it becomes creepy.

I still can’t make eye contact when I’m thinking hard, though.

Without going into too much personal detail, I’m fairly certain I have
autism spectrum disorders in my family. And I believe I inherited them
to a small degree. There were times in the past I probably could have
gotten myself diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. But I was only ever
affected to a small degreee, and through a series of conscious
choices, like that choice to learn to make eye contact, I’ve arrived
at a point which at least appears relatively “normal”.

It’s a strange thing, though… I can feel it in my blood. It’s like
having a kooky uncle living in the attic of my own head. Being
socially appropriate is still an act of conscious intention for me
sometimes, and I don’t always succeed.

The connection between the autism spectrum and the field of computer
science & engineering is pretty well established by now. I think we’ve
all either known, or been, That Guy: the guy that just doesn’t get
social interactions the way most people do.

Hell, a decade or two ago we were all That Guy, as far as the rest of
the world was concerned. Then something remarkable happened: the world
learned to respect us geeks, and we got better haircuts and better
t-shirt and got laid.

Well, at least some of us did. We’re all rock stars now. Except the
ones who aren’t. And I worry that in the rush to hipness and
relevance, some of us nerds have tried to distance ourselves from That
Whole Scene; that scene being the one where people with acne and very
bad hair obsess over technical minutiae to the exclusion of all other

I don’t think everyone has the opportunity to make the same choices I
did; nor do I think the choices I made were objectively “right”. It’s
not wrong to be socially inept. But it can make life a lot harder.

The thing is, the true neckbeards are often also the true innovators.
By all accounts Steve Wozniak was/is in that category; fortunately for
him he had a good friend and business partner who was more than able
to do the talking and glad-handing and occasional ass-kicking.

For every hundred lifelong dorks obsessing over something that no one
else will ever care about, there’s an RMS writing the next GNU system.

I guess the point of all this is that sometimes I see someone
technically brilliant say something incredibly socially
and I think “that could easily have been me”. And I worry that some of
my other fellow geeks are so eager to distance themselves from the
“bad old days” that they’ll (rhetorically) throw him under the bus
just as readily as a jock laughs at an awkward kid with a pocket

We can’t all be cool kids. Some of us can’t even manage acceptability.
I hope when I’m old and my brain has crusted over and say loud and
insensitive things without realizing, or talk over and over about that
one technical breakthrough I had that no-one ever appreciated, or
otherwise make a nuisance of myself, that there will be a few people
willing to shake their heads and smile and hang around me anyway.

View All


  1. Food for though, for sure, Avdi.I’ve often said to people “It’s not your mistakes that define you, it’s your reaction to them.” What Stallman posted is callous, no matter what your perspective. I could get passed it if he did the right thing, which is admit is was awful and apologize. (and maybe he has and I just don’t know it)It’s not a matter of being a cool kid, it’s a matter of being human, warts and all.

  2. Great post, Avdi.I know I’ve definitely been That Guy. I’ve had to work hard to puzzle out society and its norms. It’s important to me to try and give other people of our sort enough space in society to be able to do what they do well without being hectored for not having rolled a 10 in CHA.RMS is a visionary leader as was Steve Jobs. It’s a shame he doesn’t have Steve’s talent for promotion. The GNU project and the ideals it represents have changed the world (in my opinion) at a more fundamental level than anything Apple has done. I sympathize with RMS’s intent if not with his words. I also wish more people were willing to give him a little social slack.

  3. As a developer (and, hell, as a person) I’ve certainly been “That Guy,” but have often interacted with folks that seem to struggle more with interaction. In our characteristic “observe and diagnose” fashion, I’ve tried to put my finger on what the particular x-factor was that made some conversations intensely awkward, and some far less so. Personally, I believe it’s all about timing.There’s a difference between a nerd that can recite a ton of topical Simpsons quotes, and one who can apply them at the right moment. The difference is that warm rush of ethos and camaraderie, or the polite smile because, yes, we all just saw the snow plow, and we all remember the words to the “Mr. Plow” song, thanks.I think the RMS statement is a beautiful example of this phenomenon. Has he been railing against walled-gardens for decades? Yes. Has he earned the right to rail, as it were, by putting his money/time/passion where his mouth was and making free software viable and vibrant? Absolutely. Should he have made that statement before the body was cold? No.The passing of Steve Jobs sucks. It sucks when people die. It sucks when they die too young. It sucks when it’s cancer, which holds such a frustrating “we can fix so much but we can’t fix that yet!” place in our guts. But, mostly, when it first happens, it just sucks no matter what. We’re biologically/socially programmed to, as it were, rail against death. I would posit that RMS said something he believed in, and honestly makes a reasonable argument that Jobs’ career may not be a net win for free software. Though the RMS quote is being truncated/paraphrased, he even went out of his way to nod toward the fact that he wasn’t happy about the untimely death of a fellow human being. But he said it at the wrong time. My twitter feed, as I’m assuming all others, filled up with micro-eulogies from leaders at Microsoft, Google, Oracle, etc, all praising the humanity and work of the departed. They knew it was the right time for it. None of them said “hey, listen- this would be a great time to try a windows/android phone.” They knew this wasn’t the right time for it. The public’s reaction to the death of Steve Jobs was, in my estimation, awe inspiring. I saw multiple comments in the spirit of “I’ve never before mourned the death of someone I’d never met like this.” That means something. Even more than that, we saw statements of solidarity and unity as Steve had created an iconic set of products that unite and codify a huge group’s consumer identity. Those folks were, to put it mildly, sad. The RMS quote gave them a reprieve from that, coming, as it did, in the depths of that frustration and mourning. It gave them an opportunity to be angry. That’s more operant and active than sadness, and, as an added bonus, can be done simultaneously with mourning what the body feels is the requisite amount.So, yeah- I think we can look at the RMS comment and think, without a trace of irony, that there but for the grace of God go we. We can note how we might have said such a thing- I know I’ve certainly shouted at the wind myself regarding Apple’s walled-garden approach. But the fact of the matter remains: most of us _didn’t_ make those statements. Specifically, we didn’t make them _now_.As a side note, regarding your tweet about the NYTimes columnist: No, I don’t believe we’ll vilify them to the same degree. On one hand, yes, it would seem that a similar “crime” deserves a similar “punishment.” On the other, though, we’re already angered out. We took our sadness and let RMS’s comments make him “the bad guy.” We’re fine now. And that, honestly, is the part of the news cycle that RMS either doesn’t get, or, perhaps, chose to exploit in order to make his point that much more incendiary. In communicating with other humans, it’s all about timing.

  4. josiahritchie October 8, 2011 at 14:16

    I similarly worked to learn social skills. I never considered putting myself into some sort of disorder spectrum. I’ve found that I can’t be both social and technically “in the zone” at the same time. If I have my head deep into a problem I lose track of those around me. Also, when I’m working on non-technical tasks, I have a great deal of trouble bouncing back and forth into technical tasks and say writing patient email responses about the proper use of our logo.Do you have that same experience Avdi?

  5. But you can’t have it both ways.Whether autistic or not, we are all accountable for our actions. Aspies, in particular, seem to sonetimes adapt by learnig social skills as a set of rules to be followed. You live by the sword, you die by the sword. You can choose to live life more cautiously, carefully analyzing social norms in an attempt to conform. Or you can choose to deviate from said norms. It’s a choice like any other. But, except for the more extreme or un-/maladapted autistics, it is unrealistic to expect deviations from the heuristics of common courtesy to be awarded.If RMS is a “more extreme autistic” case, it begs the question of whether he is fit for a leadership position that implicitly requires more emotional intelligence to facilitate communicating with the outside world.

  6. My outlook would be far more forgiving were RMS not an adult who has had opportunities to adapt over time and not the founder and mouth-piece of an organization of significance to me.

  7. Regarding Asperger’s syndrome: I don’t think awkwardness or lack of eye contact is enough to self-diagnose a medical condition, but I am not a doctor. Although I do self-diagnose as an INTP: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/INTP, which seems to share a lot of the same behavioral properties. I can very comfortably hold a 45 min conversation without making eye contact once. My wife is similar, though I don’t know for sure because I can’t see her when we’re talking (lol).Regarding RMS, Steve Jobs, and open versus closed systems, I’ve come a long way since my Linux zealot days and this recent round of spouting off from all corners of the internet is enough to make me end my charitable giving to the FSF. “Disappointed” best describes my feelings. I’m sad that there are camps in this issue and the FSF side can’t see past the tall fence they’ve built around theirs.We’ve built our careers on the fact that there are not strict dichotomies in software between open and closed. I have seen a lot of give, and remarkably little take, even from the corporate fringes surrounding professional Ruby development. I’ve enjoyed immensely working in and with open source software and the community that surrounds it, and I don’t believe any form of “I don’t care, Steve Jobs was an evil man” represents that community.RMS dragged an interesting topic for private discussion over a cup of coffee or beer onto a pulpit, not cool.

  8. Adam: I deliberately chose not to go through a laundry list of criterion because I didn’t want the discussion to be about that. Suffice to say that while I am no doctor, I base my observations on my family on a lot more than failure to make eye contact. That was just an example.

  9. Christopher Sexton October 9, 2011 at 03:50

    I didn’t figure out the eye contact thing until I was an adult. But I did exactly what you said, studied other people — people I specifically thought were socially savvy — and mimicked them. Now that you point it out and I have time to reflect, I feel that was a big turning point. Particularly in my professional career.Thanks for making me feel more normal. *awkwardly long eye contact*

  10. Luke van der Hoeven October 13, 2011 at 13:23

Comments are closed.