Geeks in Philadelphia make their mark.
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 Two years ago Philly geekdom was out-of-date and atomized.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."
Our friend and colleague Steven Wells died two years ago today of the cancer he had documented so well in two cover stories for Philadelphia Weekly. On June 14, he submitted this column.