Communication Breakdown: Nerds, Geeks, and Dweebs

Last week the DCXL crew worked on finishing up the metadata schema that we will implement in the DCXL project.  WAIT! Keep reading!  I know the phrase “metadata schema” doesn’t necessarily excite folks – especially science folks.  I have a theory for why this might be, and it can be boiled down to a systemic problem I’ve encountered ever since becoming deeply entrenched in all things related to data stewardship: communication breakdown.

I began working with the DataONE group in 2010, and I was quickly overwhelmed by the rather steep learning curve I encountered related to data topics.  There was a whole vocabulary set I had to learn, an entire ecosphere of software and hardware, and a hugely complex web of computer science-y, database-y, programming-y concepts to unpack.  I persevered because the topics were interesting to me, but I often found myself spending time on websites that were indecipherable to the average intelligent person, or reading 50 page “quick start guides”, or getting entangled in a rabbit hole of wikipedia entries for new concepts related to data.

Fredo Corleone

Fredo Corelone was smart. Not stupid like everybody says. Nerds, Geeks, and Dweebs are all smart – just in different ways. from godfather.wikia.com

I love learning, so I am not one to complain about spending time exploring new concepts. However I would argue that my difficulties represent a much bigger issue plaguing advances in data stewardship: communication issues.  It’s actually quite obvious why these communication problems exist.  There are a lot of smart people involved in data, all of whom have very divergent backgrounds.  I suggest that the smart people can be broken down into three camps: the nerds, the geeks, and the dweebs.  These stereotypes should not be considered insults; rather they are an easy way to refer to scientists, librarians, and computer types. Check out the full venn diagram of nerds here.

The Nerds. This is the group to which I belong.  We are specially trained in a field and have in-depth knowledge of our pet projects, but general education about computers, digital data, and data preservation are not part of our education.  Certainly that might change in the near future, but in general we avoid the command line like the plague, prefer user-friendly GUIs, and resist any learning of new software, tools, etc. that might take away from learning about our pet projects.

The geeks. Also known as computer folksThese folks might be developers, computer scientists, information technology specialists, database managers, etc.  They are uber-smart, but from what I can tell their uber-smart brains do not work like mine.  From what I can tell, geeks can explain things to me in one of two ways:

  1. “To turn your computing machine on, you need to first plug it in. Then push the big button.”
  2. “First go to bluberdyblabla and enter c>*#&$) at the prompt. Make sure the juberdystuff is installed in the right directory, though. Otherwise you need to enter #($&%@> first and check the shumptybla before proceeding.”

In all fairness, (1) occurs far less than (2).  But often you get (1) after trying to get clarification on (2).  How to remedy this? First, geeks should realize that our brains don’t think in terms of directories and command line prompts. We are more comfortable with folders we can color code and GUIs that allow us to use the mouse for making things happen.  That said, we aren’t completely clueless. Just remember that our vocabularies are often quite different from yours.  Often I’ve found myself writing down terms in a meeting so I can go look them up later.  Things like “elements” and “terminal” are not unfamiliar words in and of themselves.  However the contexts in which they are used are completely new to me.  That doesn’t even count the unfamiliar words and acronyms, like APIs, github, Python, and  XML.

The dweebs.  Also known as librarians.  These folks are more often being called “information professionals”, but the gist is the same – they are all about understanding how to deal with information in all its forms.  There’s certainly a bit of crossover with the computer types, especially when it comes to data.  However librarian types are fundamentelly different in that they are often concerned with information generated by other people: put simply they want to help, or at least interact with, data producers.  There are certainly a host of terms that are used more often by librarian types: “indexing” and “curation” come to mind.  Check out the DCXL post on libraries from January.

Many of the projects in which I am currently involved require all three of these groups: nerds, geeks, and dweebs.  I watch each group struggle to communicate their points to the others, and too often decide that it’s not worth the effort.  How can we solve this communication impasse? I have a few ideas:

  • Nerds: open your minds to the possibility that computer types and librarian types might know about better ways of doing what you are doing.  Tap the resources that these groups have to offer. Stop being scared of the unknown. You love learning or you wouldn’t be a scientist; devote some of that love in the direction of improving your computer savvy.
  • Geeks: dumb it down, but not too much. Recognize that scientists and librarians are smart, but potentially in very different ways than you.  Also, please recognize that change will be incremental, and we will not universally adopt whatever you think is the best possible set of tools or strategies and how “totally stupid” or current workflow seems.
  • Dweebs: spend some time getting to know the disciplines you want to help. Toot your own horn– you know A LOT of stuff that nerds and geeks don’t, and you are all so darn shy! Make sure both geeks and nerds know of your capacity to help, and your ability to lend important information to the discussion.

And now a special message to nerds (please see the comment string below about this message and its potential misinterpretation).  I plead with you to stop reinventing the wheel.  As scientists have begun thinking about their digital data, I’ve seen a scary trend of them taking the initiative to invent standards, start databases, or create software.  It’s frustrating to see since there are a whole set of folks out there who have been working on databases, standards, vocabularies, and software: librarians and computer types.  Consult with them rather than starting from scratch.

In the case of dweebs, nerds, and geeks, working together as a whole is much much better than summing up our parts.

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4 thoughts on “Communication Breakdown: Nerds, Geeks, and Dweebs

  1. Ethan White says:

    Hi Carly, interesting post. I think the main theme of improving the dialog between these groups is important (and something I invest a lot of time in), but I respectfully disagree with your “special message to nerds”. Sure, we can all agree that minimizing duplication of effort is valuable, but it is valuable because it has the potential to yield faster overall progress. The problem is that by discouraging scientists from actually building things, we lose the potential to develop more geeks/dweebs (or, better yet, more nerd-geek-dweed hybrids). Just as it has been with statisticians, applied mathematicians, and physicists, there simply aren’t enough ecologically minded computational and library folks to facilitate the science that needs to be done. That means we need to train the scientists to build things themselves and, in my opinion, that means letting them build something, even if there is some overlap with existing efforts.

    So, to the nerds out there, I’d say go ahead and build. Yes, you should try to be informed about other efforts that are out there, and yes, if those efforts are open and inclusive maybe you can benefit by getting involved, but don’t be afraid to just build something. The tools that the field acquires by you doing so will be more valuable in the long run than the time that might in concept have been saved, and besides, the thing you build might very well turn out to be really useful.

    • Carly Strasser says:

      Ethan- very fair point! I should have qualified the statements I made with “anti-geek scientists”. The comment I made is based on attending a few talks where scientists (usually the older generation) discovered the magic of computers and decided to try developing new fabulous things. If they were willing to work with geeks, I’m guessing the results would have been great. But as you and I know, nerds tend to defer to figuring things out on their own.

      I heartily agree that nerds should DEFINITELY explore the geek world. Figure out how to code, spend some time with new fancy software, and go get a coffee with a local geek. I don’t want to be perceived as discouraging nerds from exploration and trial-and-error!

  2. Ethan White says:

    Excellent! Glad to hear that we’re on the same page.

    For any nerds looking to explore the geek world, I can’t recommend Software Carpentry highly enough.

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