September 12, 2000

The geek extrovert

Author: JT Smith

By: Julie Bresnick
NewsForge Columnist
Open Source people

It wasn't until introduced to Art Spiegelman's, Maus, that I truly
understood the power of the comic strip medium. I read it for a class on
WWII with a concentration on the Holocaust. I went to purchase my books for
the semester, normally a pile of thick texts with small print and an arduous
table of content, but when I located Maus my curiosity was piqued and I read
through the first pages before even making my way to the register. It
wasn't on the syllabus but I bought Maus II anyway.

Below one of the User Friendly
strips posted at the Daily
Static
, a reader responds, "I don't think A.J.'s taken his hands out of
his pockets for days!"

The calling of the cartoonist is to artfully combine sketch and text to
reveal more about his or her society than any other medium. In this time of
revolution it is J.D. Frazer, also known as Illiad, the author of User
Friendly, who captures the subtleties of the geek rise.

Perhaps, just the way comic strip authors use humor and illustration to
create enough distance to perceive serious issues, it is Frazer's self-proclaimed status as geek, but not techie, that enables him to so clearly
capture the nuances of the techie experience.

Three years ago, Frazer responded to the strange cross-section of
personalities inherent in any company that offers a high-tech service to the
general public, by doodling. It was clear that the work was based on
himself and the employees that surrounded him at Paralynx, an ISP he
started with friend and business partner Bob Carlson, but nobody seemed to
care and his co-workers insisted it be posted to share with a wider audience.

Roughly three years later, UserFriendly.org is negotiating its first round
of funding and Frazer finds himself in the center of unsolicited attention.

He is adamant about attributing the success of User Friendly to the
company that surrounds him, but it is Frazer himself that fans want to know
about. For him, it's a reality that has taken some getting used to.

"What I've done is given people a glimpse into the way I think. I didn't
even realize that until about a year into this. I sat down with a bunch of
fans and I was meekly sitting in the corner sipping my pop and people
started trying to get information out of me. They realized I was having a
little bit of difficulty so they explained to me what it is that they were
doing and I thought, 'oh, OK, that makes sense.' "

The evolution of his experience with U.F. is marked with this kind of
holistic relationship. Technically, spiritually, contentually, U.F. is
collaboration, a community effort, an Open Source project. Each new strip
is followed by the Slashdot-type feedback function and Frazer often sits
down with fans for brainstorming sessions. But he relies on them for more
than just ideas.

"I get humbled every day and I'm thankful for it. The geek community is
very outspoken. They have no problem giving their opinion on just about
anything."

It is important to him that he stay grounded. User Friendly gives him a
good vantage point from which to view the geek awakening and, like any drug,
power has fostered both good and evil.

"For so long [geeks] have been told how awful they are, and now some big
and powerful companies are telling them they're wonderful, they can't live
without them and handing them bags of money. Egos grow disproportionately.
I'm seeing a lot of vanity. It's not running rampant through geek society
but I'm seeing it in larger numbers than I have before."

But in what seems to be characteristic Frazer, he's not angry or
vindictive, he's worried that "when the bubble bursts these people are going
to fall hard," he's afraid they'll get hurt.

Though an only child, it's this brotherly concern that has always guided
him.

"I was a pretty good chemistry student and one thing I learned was to
make paint bombs. There was a bully a few neighborhoods over that was
picking on one of my friends. I went to the store and selected the most
garish paint I could find, made a bomb, and set it next to his car. He had
no idea who did it but boy was he pissed. I felt really good after that."

I asked him if he might use User Friendly to try to put down some of
those inflating egos.

"Not having a syndicate and a team of editors filtering each strip is a
real departure from regular cartooning. Quite frankly, if I'm going to put
something up that is a part of me and I'm going to do something wrong I'd
rather do that and learn from it.

"But I am constantly asking myself, 'if I do this am I going to hurt
anyone?' Offending people and hurting people are two different things. I
think it was Matt Groening who said if you don't offend at least a few
people then you're doing something wrong."

You'd think all this responsibility would weigh down on him. but he's
having a great time. When it all gets in the way of his creativity and he
finds himself blocked, he just grabs a backpack and hops in his truck, then
returns a few days later and dives back into work.

It's not that he has a travel bug, which is surprising considering that
before his family settled in Vancouver when he was age 10, his father's job as a senior
captain for shipping lines led the Frazers to spend extended periods in
China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Australia. It's just that he has an
insatiable curiosity. Every now and then he's got to go explore.

It's the same reason he can only work at home and at the User Friendly
office which is in Vancouver, right across the hall from Paralynx. By
submerging himself in utter familiarity, he can focus that energy on creating
the imaginary world of Columbia Internet.

Cartooning is a perfect synergy of his intellectual and social leanings.
He reads, writes poetry, has two hard science fiction books in the works but
he also loves to engage in role-playing games and insists that the games
being developed for User Friendly be multi-user Web-based games.

When role playing, he is not content to strut his mental prowess as a
player but often volunteers as the game master or referee, the one who, just
like in cartooning, creates a world for other people to explore.

Long after the struggles between operating systems is worked out, long
after people stop referring to BSD and Linux separately, people will pull Evil Geniuses, and User Friendly off the
shelf in the history section to read the inside story of the techie
revolution.

Expect the next compilation of strips to include essays from Frazer
himself.

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