January 9th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Subculture Engineering (part 3 of 3): Fun Mavens

For the last two days, I've been talking about three subgroups that I insist make up the membership of every even semi-successful movement, club, lifestyle, subculture, or other organization that depends heavily on unpaid volunteers to provide the membership and the money. I've spent a lot of time drifting between subcultures, straddling the gaps between many of them, and researching the ones I wasn't interested in joining. What can I say? Subcultures interest me, they always have. Then a couple of years ago I read Robert Putnam's 2001 best-seller Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community and I felt less like I was wasting my time studying these things.

Any way, I got the names of the three subgroups from a nationwide medieval re-enactment club educational charity called the Society for Creative Anachronism -- but in my experience, if a group or movement or subculture has what it takes to make an impression on the world or even just on the city it lives in, then it's because it has these same three groups, which people in the SCA informally call the Dream Nazis, the Authenticity Police, and the Fun Mavens.

What is a Fun Maven? Of the three groups, the fun mavens are the easiest to incorrectly think that you understand. You can quickly sum up what a fun maven is by saying that they're the people who are "only there to have a good time." But to paraphrase Andre Gide, it is dangerous to understand things too quickly. Or to make it personal, I'm never in any greater danger than the first time that I think I know what I'm doing. There's a reason that your parent(s) warned you over and over again not to jump to conclusions. It's not an accident that a movie with that is its whole theme was one of the best-selling movies of 2001.

Dream nazis and authenticity police look down on the fun mavens, and the raging monster dream nazis and authenticity police hate them, for the "same" reason, for all that they mean different things when they say it. "They're not serious." The dream nazi means that they don't disdain the pleasures of the present for the hypothetical pleasures of a future after the organization has won its struggle. The authenticity cop means that they aren't studious enough. Still, the effect is the same: fun mavens are the thinly tolerated pariahs in any organization. But the fastest cure to misunderstanding the fun mavens is to ask yourself what will be, in hindsight, an obvious question, but for most of you only in hindsight: "If they're just looking to have a good time, why did they pick this group to do it in?" If they just want to get drunk, they can buy or bum liquor almost anywhere. If they just want to get the attention of the opposite sex, there are singles bars in every town, and almost as many strip clubs and prostitutes for the desperate. You think it's because the liquor and sex may be cheaper in your movement? Dismiss the thought. I've never seen a subculture where the people who were "just" looking for a good time could find one without putting in more investment of money and effort than it would have taken them to procure those things on the open market.

The fact of the matter is that if a fun maven didn't buy into the organization's dream, and if they weren't at least passingly interested in the organization's unique or specialized knowledge, they'd do their carousing elsewhere. It's just that, in general, your average fun maven just isn't cut out to be a dream nazi or an authenticity cop. They lack the dream nazi's conviction, and they lack the authenticity cop's ability to work hard alone. You see, that word "alone," that's a very negative concept for your typical fun maven, and the key to understanding them. What your average fun maven is really looking for, what is to them the only "fun" thing to do, is to do things together with like-minded people.

The Apprenticeship of a Fun Maven: It almost always starts with beer. Sometimes there's mead, and sometimes there's weed, but nearly always there's beer. A young man or woman finds a group that they somehow identify with, where they feel like the people there are "people like me," and sits down with a bunch of people who're splitting a case or a half-keg of beer. They have some drinks, they flirt with members of the preferred sex, they laugh at the group's jokes, and they try to drunkenly join in on the chorus of the group's silly songs, all of which the other fun mavens know by heart. They have a great time. They come back and do it again, and after they've done it a couple of times, then they're a familiar face to the other fun mavens. Phone numbers and/or email addresses are swapped, and now the silly beer drinking flirt is on the phone list of the group's more influential fun maven(s).

So pretty soon, the young man or woman receives a phone call, and it goes like this: hey, the group needs some physical chore done. A bunch of us are getting together to do it. It'll only take a couple of hours, you don't have to get all dressed up, and afterwards we're going to all have a bunch of beers. Come on, it'll be fun! Maybe they'll try to cheat and show up late, but if they do, they find themselves invited to fewer and fewer of the bashes. No, the even halfway promising ones let themselves be bribed or chivvied into showing up with the rest of their drinking buddies. They spend a couple of hours, maybe a dozen hours, sweating in the hot sun (or more seldom, shivering in the snow) with hand tools, like the "shovels and rakes and implements of destruction" of famous lore. Maybe all they do is carry things back and forth from somebody's pickup truck, or up and down ladders for their older drinking buddies who might be handier with tools. Heck, sometimes it's just a matter of getting a whole bunch of people to collate papers and stuff envelopes. Maybe some of 'em have a beer or two while they're working, maybe they don't, but either way people are laughing and joking and making enthusiastic light-hearted (but occasionally mean-sounding) fun of each other.

Hours later, a consensus informally emerges that enough has gotten done for today, or at least all that's going to get done. So everybody drifts over to the only spot of shade, or to an improvised camp fire or trash barrel fire, or onto a nearby porch. A case or two of beer gets dragged over, and an amazingly high percentage of the time some kind of hibachi or cooking grill miraculously shows up and somebody "just happens" to have a bunch of smoked sausages, bratwursts, or burger patties in a cooler in the back of their pickup truck. And once again, maybe there's weed and maybe there's mead, and what do you know, to the disgust (veiled or otherwise) of the non-fun-mavens it's just like any other time the fun mavens get together, a bunch of people sitting around drunk off their behinds laughing and flirting and grab-assing, and maybe a little bit of the terrifying fun you'd halfway fear to expect from drunks with blow torches and/or chainsaws.

But the new guy or gal in the middle of this is having a minor epiphany while looking for a place to pee. You know what? they think, this is a whole lot more fun when we're all sweaty and dirty from working our asses off together. So now when they get together and drink and flirt and sing loud silly songs, the new guy or gal is one of the ones who remembers to ask, "So when is the next work party?" After they've had a certain amount of this kind of fun, they can't get enough of it. Pretty soon they're the one who knows of some job the group needs done and is calling all their drinking buddies and telling them, "Hey, let's go to so-and-so and all do such-and-such this weekend. Come on, I'll bring some beer, and it'll be fun!" After they've done this a couple of times, then even the non-fun-mavens in the group know who they are. Depending on the health of the group, they're either respected for the work they've done or hated for their more notorious misbehavior, but the one thing they can count on is that everybody in the group knows that that young man or woman is one of "those" notorious big-time fun mavens.

What Happens to an Organization without Fun Mavens? The stuffiest group you've ever heard of has its fun mavens. Even your local Republican Party Township Club has a bunch of guys and a handful of gals, probably spunky retirees (and combat veterans and widows and widowers), who are way too fond of their beer and who use volunteer opportunities at the township club as an excuse to get together for a couple of short ones; you should see these people tear the place up at statewide and national political conventions. Even in your Baptist churches, the most anti-fun group you'd think to find, there are guys who show up to do all the hard work with hand tools, and Pastor J. Random Biblethumper of the Nth Baptist Church of Any-Old-Place knows to look the other way and not make a big deal of it if a bunch of them are splitting a case of beer or two after resurfacing the church parking lot. He'd better know. If he doesn't know, and makes a big deal out of it, then two years from now he's going to be paying people to resurface that parking lot, because the volunteers drifted off to join other churches that didn't give them a hard time for doing all the work.

One of the most common ways that clubs or organizations die is that some group of Raging Monster Fun Mavens creates such a horrible public scandal that the dream nazis and the authenticity police won't stand for it any more. As far as the dream nazis are concerned, if you have to be bribed with intoxicants and the possibility of sleazy sex to work for the cause, then who needs you? As far as the authenticity cops are concerned, if you can't be bothered to spend time alone researching the interesting parts of the group's areas of study because you'd rather be out drinking and screwing, then you're no good and who needs you? And after a couple of nasty scandals, rather than blame and shame the few bad apples, the dream nazis and the authenticity police all too often join forces to chase out all of the fun mavens. From now on, to be part of the group, you must be committed and serious. They think that it'll be a smaller group, but a better group, and so more will get done.

But then they find out that getting dream nazis to do real work, and getting authenticity police to work together in groups (especially at hard physical labor) is nearly impossible. They also find out how few dream nazis and authenticity police they have. That last part becomes especially true if they practice a particularly nasty form of guilt by association, where if you've ever been seen drinking and having fun with the fun mavens then no matter how much more fiercely you identify with the dream and/or no matter how meticulous your research and study, you're a fun maven by association and so you have to go when the rest of them go. And if the harshest form of this occurs, if the authenticity police and dream nazis decide to slam down the shutters and not let anybody in who's suspected of maybe possibly having the potential to be a fun maven ... well, then they might as well close the bank account and sell the assets while they're at it. Why? Because the membership will only go down from there. People move. People die. People lose interest. If the group is to thrive, those people must be replaced. But who joins a group if it's widely known to be no fun?

"No fun" is just as big a turn-off for potential members as "boring and uninspiring" is, as much as "painfully stupid" is. And that's the number one reason why a thriving volunteer group, organization, movement, or subculture must have all three groups.

What Happens to an Organization of Only Fun Mavens? It barely exists. If you've got enough money to throw at the problem, you can create the illusion of such a group for a while by throwing out sufficiently large quantities of free booze, drugs, and potential for sex. But if the people there don't perceive that the others there are enough "people who are like me," then they won't really be comfortable enough to enjoy the booze, drugs, and/or potential cheap sex. They'll go somewhere more fun, even if it involves more commitment or their own money. And unsurprisingly, when they find some place that's more fun, they'll find that the more fun place has dream nazis and authenticity police.

Where Should You Keep Your Fun Mavens? Out of sight, for the most part. When they do come to non-fun-maven gatherings of the group, don't be surprised if they drift to the back of the room. Let them. There are probably enough humorless people in the organization who are offended by them that they don't want to be staring at the back of the fun mavens' heads, anyway. Trust me, even from the back of the room, even if looks to you like they're not paying any attention, the first time that a question of hard work comes up, some fun maven will speak up and offer to get a group together to cover it.

Raging Monster Fun Mavens: There are fun mavens that give the rest of the group a bad name. Raging monster fun mavens not only make the other fun mavens look bad by association, they have the potential to make the whole group look bad. This can create some awful dilemmas, because sometimes the very most obnoxious, dangerous, unhealthy, shameful, disgraceful, and disreputable people in the group are also the hardest workers. Worse luck, the other fun mavens often love them, because by being the Official Asshole, the biggest loudest most out of control jerk in the group, they do two things that other fun mavens need and adore. First of all, they give the rest of the fun mavens permission by example to cut loose and act up a little bit themselves. More subtly, they also establish an outer boundary for the fun: have all the fun you want, but don't make a jerk out of yourself and screw up your life the way So-and-so has.

Sometimes, though, there just has to come a time when any group has to ask themselves if certain alcoholics, drug addicts, drama queens, nymphomaniacs, sex fiends, or other people with sufficiently self-destructive habits are costing the group more than they're benefiting it. And unfortunately, there is almost never any way to handle this that doesn't at least half-wreck the group. The absolute best that they can hope for is that there are dream nazis and/or authenticity police, or even maybe more reasonable and responsible fun mavens, whose opinions the raging monster fun maven respects. If so, then those people might get the desired results by performing a quiet, off-screen, personal intervention: "Man, you have got to knock off this and this and this particular behavior, you're ruining things for everybody." And if the people doing the intervention are human saints, living bodhisattvas, wholly enlightened beings, then maybe that'll be all that it takes. Good luck. Hardly any group is that lucky, although I do think that it's a mark of almost any successful group or subculture or whatever that it has a certain number of enlightened beings in it.

But no, what's more likely is that nothing short of throwing the offending raging monster fun mavens out is gong to solve the problem. After all, if they had enough self control to stop doing whatever it is that's ruining everybody else's fun, they probably wouldn't be doing it in the first place. And if it's handled publicly, and may the gods forbid if it's made to be a public humiliation, don't be at all surprised if half to 90% of your fun mavens quit in protest. Even if they don't make a big public scene out of their displeasure, don't be surprised if an uncomfortably large number of them suddenly find that when they're called for work parties, it just doesn't seem as much fun to them any more, and they find it easier and easier to make excuses to be elsewhere. Then all you can hope to do is to recruit more fun mavens, and hope that enough of a corps of hard workers exists to teach the new people the old silly songs. Because if you decide not to recruit any more fun mavens after that, or if you fail to recruit and train more of them, you're screwed, and once again, just as in the last two failure modes, your club or organization or movement or whatever is doomed to crawl back into the coffee houses and basements it previously outgrew.