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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But most Philly geeks have no time for such paranoid snobbery.

"The scene is really inclusive," says Geoff DiMasi, "photographers, writers, engineers, people who just like to make stuff--and the software ties things together. There's a real mash-up going on."

"A geek," says Hannah Sassaman, "is someone who is totally stoked. Someone who is fearless in his or her love. What is more exciting than someone who, without pretence and without shame, is really excited about something?"

Philly is totally a geek town, she adds. "The Roots used to be called the Square Roots. Did you know that? They came out of the Philly school system. Talk about Philly pride? Then you've got to talk about Philly geek pride."

But as for the widely held perception that Michael Nutter is the ultimate geek mayor, Sassaman has her doubts.

"Right now a lot of people think City Hall is more interested in fixing breaks for big corporations than in helping the real dens of creativity in this city. They're destroying the libraries that made Michael Nutter a super-geek in the first place."

If there's a philosophical fault line in Philly geekdom, it might be personified by the activist Sassaman and the entrepreneur DiMasi.

But it's not ideological.

"More power to them, what the fuck ever," says Sassaman, when asked about the bootstrap capitalist geeks.

And DiMasi is a political progressive (most Philly geeks seem to be) who was active in his South Philly community association until he decided that encouraging startups was a more effective way to change the world.

Despite his experiences with punk rock, DiMasi hopes the new wave of geek somehow avoids being co-opted, diluted and effectively trashed by the big bad corporations and that the successful fruits of this wave of bootstrap capitalist enterprises will remember their roots and nourish the culture that gave them life.

"I think Philly geek has two meanings," says Sassaman. "We as Philly geeks really love Philly too, and the communities here and the work that has to be done here. And I think there's a huge community of people in Philadelphia who'll hold a meeting at their house about saving the farm at 48th and Brown and then, like, crochet a dot matrix Super Mario character. I mean that's the sort of person I want to talk to."

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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: ”

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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 ( 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:”

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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:”

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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 centric, music nerds, etc. What can I say? I'm a LARPer, and I love it here.”


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