On “Geeks, MOPs, and Sociopaths”

Gordon Seidoh Worley

Hey, alkjash! I’m excited to talk about some of David Chapman’s work with you. Full disclosure, I’m a big fan of Chapman’s in general and also a creator within the meta/​post-rationality scene with him (to use some jargon to be introduced very shortly).

You mentioned being superficially convinced of a post he wrote a while ago about how subcultures collapse called “Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths in subculture evolution”. In it he makes a few key claims that, together, give a model of how subcultures grow and decline:

  1. Subcultures come into existence when a small group of creators start a scene (people making things for each other) and then draw a group of fanatics who support the scene. Creators and fanatics are the “geeks”.

  2. A subculture comes into existence around the scene when it gets big and popular enough to attract MOPs (members of the public). These people are fans but not fanatics. They don’t contribute much other than showing up and having a good time.

  3. If a subculture persists long enough, it attracts sociopaths who prey on the MOPs to exploit them for money, sex, etc.

  4. Although MOPs sometimes accidentally destroy subcultures by diluting the scene too much, sociopaths reliably kill subcultures by converting what was cool about the scene into something that can be packaged to sold to MOPs as a commodity that is devoid of everything that made it unique and meaningful.

  5. The main way to fight this pattern is to defend against too many MOPs overwhelming the geeks (Chapman suggests a 6:1 MOP to geek ratio) and to aggressively keep out the sociopaths.

There’s also a 6th claim that we can skip for now, which is about what Chapman calls the fluid mode and the complete stance, as talking about it would require importing a lot of concepts from his hypertext book Meaningness.

To get us started, I’d be interested to know what you find convincing about his claims, and what, if anything, makes you think other models may better explain how subcultures evolve.


In my head I’m running this model against these examples: academic subfields, gaming subreddits and discords, fandoms, internet communities, and startups. Do tell me which of these count as “subcultures” in Chapman’s framing. Let me start with the parts of the model I find convincing.

  1. When subcultures grow (too) rapidly, there is an influx of casual members that dilutes the culture and some tension between the old guard and the new fans. This agrees with what I know about startups, gaming subcultures, and fandoms. It does explain the longevity of academic cultures known for our extreme gatekeeping.

  2. In Chinese there is a saying/​meme 有人的地方就是江湖, which I would loosely translate as “where there are people there is politics.” It seems obvious to me that in the initial stage a subculture will be focused on object reality (e.g. a fandom focused on an anime, a subreddit focused on a video game, etc.), but as people join, politics and social reality will play a larger and larger role (competition over leadership positions, over power and influence, over abstractions like community values not directly tied to the original thing).

  3. As the low-hanging fruits of innovation in object reality (e.g. geeks coming up with new build orders in starcraft, bloggers coming up with new rationality techniques) dry up, there is a tendency for those good at playing social reality games to gain progressively more influence.


Here are some parts that I’m not sure about, or find suspicious, or disagree with:

  1. At least on a superficial reading there seems to be an essentialist pigeonholing of people into the Geek/​Mop/​Sociopath trichotomy. It seems to me more persuasive that all members of a scene have the capacity for all 3 roles, and on average the “meta” shifts as the evolution of the scene dictates. The most savvy/​charismatic Geeks find it prudent to turn to Sociopathy when it is their competitive advantage. The Mops are always a recruiting ground for both Geeks and Sociopaths. Etc.

  2. I recall reading a comment very negative on Chapman’s model, I can’t find it exactly but the gist is that the whole choice of names Geeks/​Mops/​Sociopaths is enormously (and intentionally) biased and colors the rest of the discussion in an unhelpful way. I think names are quite important and would at very least relabel Sociopaths as “Savvy people” or something like this.

  3. I am curious to what extent this model aims to explain the rise and fall of subcultures versus explanations grounded in the object reality of the interest itself. For example an old technology might fall out of fashion and the interest groups around it dry up, or a competitive video game becomes too well-studied and the game space essentially solved, or the low-hanging fruit in a scientific subfield is all picked and the area stagnates. It’s not obvious to me that the “social reality” explanations of Chapman outcompete such considerations.

Gordon Seidoh Worley

I’m not sure what Champman would say counts as a subculture. The definition seems fuzzy. I think the archetypical examples would be the subcultures that grew up around music styles, like the punk or metal or grunge or house subcultures. Gaming discords and internet communities seem a lot like these to me, academic fields and startups less so, and fandoms a lot less so because fandoms start out with a huge gulf between the creators and the consumer fans. Goths are maybe a good example of a subculture, as are rationalists, in the sense of the community that grew up around Less Wrong and related sites, and similar Effective Altruism is a subculture.

I think it’s worth making a distinction between two kinds of subcultures. Some subcultures are inherently time limited. Think about the subculture around a music genre or an academic niche. Over time all the new interesting stuff that can be done will be done. Eventually there will be diminishing returns where new things just sound like old things or rehash already well explored ideas. This will cause the subculture to naturally die out due to diminishing returns.

And then there’s subcultures with more longevity, like goths, who have been a thing for 40 years or so, even though there’s no major innovations in goth music or dance music or fashion to explore. What seems to help is that goths are united around a central idea of being part of a community of people who have the same vibe, and then each person who joins the goth subculture gets to go through their own journey of discovering new things for themselves that others have already discovered. This acts of as a sort of initiation into the subculture, after which they are a member in good standing.

Chapman’s theory can apply to both types of subcultures, but it seems most interesting to consider it for subcultures with longevity, since all MOPs and sociopaths can do to time limited subcultures is hasten their inevitable demise. I’m probably most interested in what it can tell us about rationality and EA.

So let’s assume for now that we’re talking about a subculture with longevity that could probably survive indefinitely if it doesn’t succumb to a failure mode, like say letting in so many MOPs it gets too diluted or letting sociopaths/​savvy people exploit the subculture until it no longer resembles itself.

As a start, it’d be nice to backtest the model to see if it can adequately explain the fall of any past subculture that could not be explained well by another theory. My guess is that Chapman had hippies in mind when he wrote this post, so let’s talk about them.

Wikipedia tells a rough story of what happened to the hippies. After a rise through the 1960s, bad stuff started happening in 1969. There was the Altamont Music Festival, where 5 people died and 4 babies were born, which apparently was too shocking for the time. Charles Manson was a to all appearances a hippie, but then it turned out he and his followers killed a bunch of people. And then through the 70s as America stopped drafting teenagers to fight in Vietnam, people stopped having a motivation to live outside the system. Wikipedia also says that hippie culture went mainstream, so it was no longer really a subculture.

Charles Manson and Altamont sound like “sociopaths” exploiting hippie MOPs. That last line could be interpreted as MOPs taking over and diluting hippie culture into oblivion, though that feels like a bit of a stretch. So feels like half marks here: Chapman’s model basically explains what happened to the hippies, but it also seems like more explanation than was needed, and I could imagine other explanation that account for the same events.


I didn’t realize goth had such a long history, huh.

I’m relatively convinced that Chapman’s model is a good fit for musical subcultures, and most interested in to what extent it generalizes to other spaces. I’d hoped that it would provide a glimpse into some “grand unified theory of social dynamics” and extend all the way out to the rise and fall of nations, but perhaps that’s too ambitious.

As you pointed out, some subcultures are naturally time-limited and there it’s not necessary to have Chapman’s model explain anything. Are there other necessary conditions? It seems like these dynamics have a hard time taking hold in “normie-land” where the rigid constraints of credentialism, professionalism, legible competence, etc. etc. drive both Geeks and Sociopaths away. Would it be fair to say that Chapman’s “subcultures” are exactly those social groups most susceptible to becoming cults?

Gordon Seidoh Worley

Oh, hmm, I don’t know, but it seems plausible. I think it certainly would be fair to say that subcultures are the kind of things people worry will become cults or accuse of being cults. Would be interesting to have more data here, but I’m not sure where we can get it. I’m sure there’s places people keep track of cults, but there’s also lots of minicults that pop up and fizzle out without anything bad enough happening to get the attention of someone who would track cults (we’ve had our share of these within the rationalist community! and a couple that went sideways enough that folks got arrested!).

One of the challenges is that normies sometimes call anything where people are too earnest about a thing a cult. I don’t think they would say that all geeks are in cults, but certainly I could imagine a normie offhandedly calling any conglomeration of geeks a cult.

I guess a really interesting question might be how well the model applies in academia, where there are certainly a lot of geeks, but also a lot of structures like credentialism and professionalism that might prevent subculture formation in a way that would meet the conditions for Chapman’s model to apply.

So if I were to start putting together a list of criteria for applying Chapman’s model, it might include:

  • not naturally time-limited

  • not subject to strong credentialism, professionalism, etc. forces

I’m not sure what else, but we probably have enough examples that we could figure out if there are other necessary conditions for subculture creation that, if any one of them is missing, the model fails to apply because the ground in which a subculture can arise isn’t existent.


I suppose the big question is: what is one to do about this? Suppose we’re geek creators on a new scene and would like things not to turn sour/​exploitative through this dynamic. Chapman has some prescriptions that (afaict) round to “titrate the growth of your subculture” and “if you can’t beat the sociopaths, join them.”

Are there examples where such precautions were taken successfully? Are these prescriptions you would recommend/​would have recommended to the rationalist community?

Gordon Seidoh Worley

Let’s start with rationalists successes. Some time ago Eliezer wrote “Well-Kept Gardens Die By Pacifism”, and I think it’s done a lot to instill rationalist culture with a strong streak of, not exactly gatekeeping, but setting a high bar and expecting people in rationalists spaces to meet it. When there have been bad actors (e.g. Brent Dill, Ziz, etc.) they’ve been ostracized, so rationalist have a demonstrated willingness to kick “sociopaths” out of the subculture.

There’ve been some other, marginal cases where there’s not consensus if action should now be or should have previously been taken (e.g. MAPLE, Nonlinear, maybe just all of EA, etc.). A good metaphor is probably that a heathy immune systems sometimes overreacts, and it’s more dangerous to trade off for more false negatives (miss a deadly pathogen) to reduce false positives (sneeze at some dust motes). It’s probably right that some folks have pushed back in cases where there’s no consensus and we end up with an ambiguous state where we have orgs/​members who are still part of the subculture but are also clearly not 100% in good standing.

Setting a high bar also keeps out normies. People regularly join Less Wrong and leave because they get downvoted for failing to post things that meet the standards of the subculture. There’s also lots of jargon and other things to keep them out. Now you will find plenty of rationalist-adjacent folks, who basically are maybe the closest thing to rationalist MOPs, but in my experience most of them would be rationalists except they’re wary of identifying as a “geek” within the rationalist scene.

This all seems good for keeping rationality functioning as a subculture.

I think Chapman would ask, okay, but can we do more? This is where I’m not sure. Will rationalists fade into the general intellectual milieu like our nearest predecessor movement, general semantics? Will we become ossified around the writings of one or two key authors, like Objectivists and Communists? Perhaps some third fate? I don’t have a clear read on where rationalists are going or should go. I’m doubtful that rationality can go mainstream, but I’m also not sure if there’s a desirable option beyond maintaining the subculture.


This is illuminating but I’m not sure where to go from here. Suggestions?

Gordon Seidoh Worley

I don’t have a clear next direction to take us, either. Perhaps we can invite readers to comment with their thoughts on Chapman’s post to continue the discussion.


Sure, I don’t mind stopping the official dialogue short and opening up for comments.