Scene But Not Nerd

Geeks in Philadelphia make their mark.

By Steven Wells
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 16 | Posted Jan. 7, 2009

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Writing about Philadelphia's ongoing geek revolution is like trying to take a snapshot of an avalanche. Two years ago Philly geekdom was out-of-date and atomized. And then something out of the ordinary happened: The geeks got social. Today the city has so many geek firms, websites, talking shops, clubhouses, organizations, glee clubs, workspaces, campaigns and projects, even the keenest Phillygeek scenesters have trouble keeping track.

Geeks in other supposedly more glamorous cities fantasize about living here. Other towns--Boston, San Francisco, New York--have bigger, slicker, more famous geek hives, but Philly's scene is unique and, apparently, the envy of the geekosphere.

"Geeks in Philly are more rockstar than rockstars," says self-described information addict and data geek Alex Hillman, 25, citing an SRO event at Johnny Brenda's where the Philly hipsterati redefined cool by thronging Ignite Philly, a hyperactive series of five-minute geek lectures/slideshows.

Hillman is co-founder of the "for profit but without the emphasis on profit" working space Independents Hall, a geek clubhouse where formerly isolated and stir-crazy freelancers pay between $25 per day to $275 a month to work in an environment where they're likely to strike sparks with other Philly braniacs.

In the lobby of IndyHall's Old City headquarters, wizards, orcs and demons slaughter one another on the screen of an old-school computer arcade console. There's a crazy painting of pissed aliens ripping a Victorian city apart, created by the only woman present--22-year-old Dana Vachon, co-founder of the geek cake company Open Source Cupcakes. Various thin, intense, shorthaired and neatly bearded young men sit at computers, including some of the co-creators of iSepta, an online schedule for iPhone users.

"This is a very DIY city," says Hillman. "The attitude is that we'd love to wait for you to come on board and help us, but fuck it, we're gonna do it anyway."

Hillman, who dropped out of a business degree at Drexel because he felt "frustrated and stifled," says that two years ago the Philly geek scene was "extremely fragmented and totally underground."

So he started going to every meetup and startup group he could find, making the rounds to two or three a night, five or six nights a week for four months. And all the time the geeks he met kept telling him--there is no geek scene in Philadelphia.

Hillman decided to challenge that notion. "I wondered, 'What happens if you pop all these bubbles? If you break down the neighborhoods? If you start getting all these groups to meet at the same place?'"

In March 2007 Hillman's fevered networking attracted the attention of 37-year-old Geoff DiMasi, punk rocker, community activist, accordion player, professor at the University of the Arts and founder of P'unk Avenue, a website and software design company based on Passyunk Avenue.

In Hillman's version of the story, DiMasi wrote him demanding: "Who are you and what the hell are your trying to do?" The end result was a collaboration and the founding of Independents Hall.

Before DiMasi met Hillman he held himself aloof from Philly geekdom, regarding it as mired in out-of-date technologies and practices. But now when he goes to geek conferences in other cities, DiMasi says, "I'm constantly being told, 'Oh, I wish I lived in Philly. It's amazing what you're doing. There's so much cool stuff going on there. It's such an awesome place,'" he says. "I mean, the first time I heard that--I was like floored. That's when I knew things had really changed."

Avenue of the parts: Geoff DiMasi, founder of a website and software design company, has witnessed two prior eruptions of DIY culture. (photo by jeff fusco)

DiMasi is the elder statesman of Philly geekdom. He's witnessed and taken part in two previous eruptions of empowering DIY culture--the rise of hardcore punk in the '80s and Philadelphia's ongoing home art gallery explosion. He says the passion and the energy are very similar. When asked if today's geek wave is the emergence of the first non-music-related mass subculture (though Philly has a vibrant geek music scene), DiMasi says it might be. He even agrees Philly '09 bears comparison with the legendary punk music scenes of yore: Manchester '77, Leeds '78, Akron '78, Seattle '84.

Being one of the older, wiser heads on the Philly geek scene (a serene Yoda to Hillman's impulsive Luke Skywalker), DiMasi knows how such scenes have imploded in the past. So he builds bridges and soothes egos. And he stresses again and again that the real strength of the Philly geek scene isn't the vainglorious heroics of one or two self-appointed leaders, but its ethos. "It's nurturing and fostering and amazingly inclusive. There really is something of the DIY punk-rock approach."

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 16 of 16
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1. Eric said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 07:21PM

“Ah! You reached out and talked to so many great people in the scene. Great article Steven. And Alex looks soooooo dreamy.”

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2. Lauren Galanter said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 07:36PM

“Thank you, Steven, for writing this article! As a fellow Philly geek I'm glad to see the scene in general get such in-depth coverage and see so many familiar names get cred. Just thought I'd let you know, there's a typo in "...they’re likely to strike sparks with other Philly braniacs." Though I'm sure there are fiber geeks out there too. : )”

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3. K said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 07:59PM

“Great article, and, um, nice to see so many familiar names! ”

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4. DotEd said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 08:07PM

“I was having a bad day until i read this. seriously. wait, there's proof: http://twitter.com/doted ”

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5. sol said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 08:49PM

"Geeks in other supposedly more glamorous cities fantasize about living here...Philly’s scene is unique and, apparently, the envy of the geekosphere."
I agree with @DotEd, this makes my week. Philly is the geekdom, and this is an article that brings light to how much of a tech sector and talent core the city has. Philly is the real deal, not just a few corporate walls.”

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6. alexknowshtml said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 09:29PM

“Steven, Our interview together was a blast, and I really appreciate the angle you took on this piece. You touched so many of the wonderful corners of the Philly geek community, and made each one shine. The "pissed aliens ripping a Victorian city apart" are starfish (from the Starfish and the Spider metaphor) taking over the city of Philadelphia. I think that metaphor is a strong underpinning of how you described Philly in the article, a strong and growing network of networks. One leg cannot take out any of the others. It's one of the defining factors of what makes Philly special. ”

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7. mikemaney said... on Jan 6, 2009 at 10:02PM

“One of the best stories I've read in a year (and I'm counting '08). Great reporting and, man, just really well-written. I couldn't send the link around to enough people fast enough.”

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8. Soimya Dada said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 06:52AM

“Where's the typo??? Don't geeks eat a lot of bran? Fiber clears out the system - "bran for brains" I always say.”

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9. Tim Canny said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 08:38AM

“Great article! Living on the outskirts of Philly I wasn't familiar with a number of the people and groups mentioned. Just one correction. The Crayonator is 10 years old! I know because he's my son. We entered the Art Buggy Derby as a team. He used much of the money to buy an iPod and lots of LEGO. We can't wait for next years competition. As a dad one thing I'd like to see or hear more about is how geekiness is being nutured in the next generation in Philly. My son and I are doing what we can with our web show, WREXLabs (http://www.wrexlabs.com). And the people at Make Philly and the Hacktory have always been very welcoming to us.”

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10. yegg said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 08:47AM

“If you are interested in startups (especially Internet startups), check out: http://startups.philadelphia.groupomatic.com/ http://www.phillystartupleaders.org/ http://www.founderfactory.com/”

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11. iconjohn said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 08:58AM

“Things sure have changed since the Punk Philly scene days of Hot Club, East Side Club and Kennel Club. All we wanted to do was get high, drunk and see the hippest band before they sold out. ”

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12. CMD said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 09:18AM

“Good stuff. Thanks for bring the Geek, or do I mean Nerd? Anyway, fun article and great video. ;)”

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13. Timothy Mayer said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 10:05AM

“Nice article. Our own little start-up supplies the epoxy used by the Fab@Home machine. More here: http://www.kraftcreation.biz/2008/02/fabhome-does-philly.html”

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14. crosswiredmind said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 11:40AM

“Truly awesome article. The stars are right indeed. Bar Camp Philly, Geeks who Give, UX Book Club - those are just a few more bits of geekery that created real bright spots in 09 and hopefully will grow even brighter in 09.”

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15. PovertyJetSet said... on Jan 7, 2009 at 02:21PM

“Philly geeks, FTW! Fave quote: "a serene Yoda to Hillman’s impulsive Luke Skywalker" - Go Geoff! LOL”

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16. Tara said... on Jan 8, 2009 at 01:46PM

“Excellent article. I like how this also covers a lot of the crossover you find in Philly...community centric, music nerds, etc. What can I say? I'm a LARPer, and I love it here.”

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