Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Observations of Elitism in the Pen Community


For the most part the pen community is an inviting, happy place where likeminded people show up to geek out about handwriting, inks, paper, and writing instrument ephemera. You get the same taboo topics (politics, religion, etc.) that you can find in any niche community. At the end of the day there seems to be less animosity among pen users and enthusiasts than other niche communities I’ve observed or been a part.

That’s what I thought, but things change, and apparently I’ve either been blind or stuff is changing at a rather fast clip. What follows is my observations specific to a rising level of elitism that borders on classism I’ve seen crop up among the fountain pen community and spill over into the pen community in general. Mostly this encapsulates my thoughts on the entire situation as an observer more than as someone working in the “industry”.

I’ll be up front and honest about this post. It’s been written before in completely different terms and contexts. But I’ve always scrapped those posts as being far too personal, bordering on unprofessional. I’ll do my best to limit this post and pare the personal opinions down or remove them altogether. I’m really hoping to foster dialogue and debate in the community as a whole. Enough prefacing, let’s start this madness.

For those that don’t know my background I’ll give as brief an example of my “pen journey” as possible. I’ve been “into” pens now for five or six years. I started my personal journey learning to repair fountain pens, then branched out into modern fountain pen collecting, and landed a job at Karas Pen Co. Now I’m active in the community as the Karas Pen Co brand representative to the point it can seem like I’ve lost some of my objectivity, but I assure you that’s really not the case. If anything my job at Karas has allowed me to peel back the layers on a lot of the areas of the pen community I always had problems with and given me a desire to see a healthy community from all aspects, including any potential problems associated directly or indirectly with Karas.

From Day One of my journey there was a very real anti-newcomer/anti-user, pro-collector minority in the pen community. They were small, but they were LOUD. And they were tied with one of the largest, if not the LARGEST brand in the world. They railed against all other brands. Had enough power to get anti-“their brand” posts removed. Would flood those posts that didn’t get removed with comments making it impossible to have any discourse. And really looked down on all pens/brands that didn’t uphold the “luxury” mindset of fountain pens.

In general I dismissed this group immediately and steered clear of them since I never considered myself to be a person that would own one of “their” pens. Financially and stylistically they didn’t suit me. So I didn’t pay them much mind.

But as time has gone on, the same mindset held by “those” people can be seen across the community. Not just with fountain pens, but with ballpoint and rollerball fans and even in the pencil community. The sickness of “me versus you” based on some adopted brand identity is spreading through the writing instrument online communities and even to the groups of users that meet in person. And it’s both surprising and worrisome.

To illustrate my point, I’ll sketch out some situations I’ve seen repeated time-and-again in online writing instrument forums and communities.

A new fountain pen user will post up their surprise and joy at winning an online auction for a Chinese pen at less than a dollar, comment how quickly it arrived, and how pleased they are at how well such an inexpensive pen writes. While there will be a few congratulatory posts, the vast majority will be castigating the purchase. These rants will range from “how could you buy some crap from China”, to “For a few bucks more you could have got a Pilot”, to “it’s gonna break in a couple weeks” or any number of negative posts that only serve to alienate a relatively enthusiastic newcomer.

Now I understand some cheap pens can be problematic, and there needs to be the ability to send out a “buyer beware”. But most of these posts are commenting on inexpensive pens from brands that have a reputation for sending out functional pens. Most won’t be broken immediately or even after months of heavy use. So the comments should be constrained to warnings about actual problems that crop up from those brands.

Another one I see frequently is the denigration of all writing instruments that aren’t fountain pens. There are entire communities numbering in the thousands that loudly call out the terror of ballpoint and rollerball pens. As much as they are badmouthed in those communities you’d think they carried the plague or were seeking to bring back slavery. And god forbid you voice your approval of a ballpoint or rollerball, you’ll be called a Neanderthal, Philistine, fake, and likely a few four letter words as well.

This type of reaction does nothing to promote the benefit that writing provides society. The large majority of people that currently DON’T write with a fountain pen will NEVER write with a fountain pen. But if you get them a cool ballpoint or rollerball you might entice them to put pen to paper more often. The goal of writing instruments is to inspire and assist in the creation of memories, ideas, art, etc. catalogued by placing them on paper. We should never discourage this process of creation. Simply put this is the worst flavor of elitism, a group that has set their own “fill-in-the-blank” above all else and is unswerving in their devotion to that “thing”. This type of thinking is never healthy, and only serves to drive a wedge between two groups that at their core value the same process, if not the same implement in that process.

As I mentioned above there are those loudly promoting one brand or another and all of those things NOT that brand get verbally defecated on. You’ll find this in every community, but for some reason it looms its head large in the luxury items communities. You’ll find divisions even in this community that only like certain elements of a certain brand, or certain timeframes where that company released items.

Similarly there are people that will shout you down if you aren’t supporting small, American made companies. As if the support of small British made, Italian made, etc. companies were “lesser”. While the backstory behind purchasing “Made in USA” is rooted in good intentions and a desire for quality goods, that entire movement has been shot through with rot in the recent days by companies that have a façade of “American Made” but are pretty much American “assembled” or even just “American” shipped. They skirt the rules and regulations but their fans are rabid and often attack anyone that tries to show off alternatives that are of equal or greater quality. The “Made in USA” phenomenon has become as watered down as an Instagram hashtag, it’s an overused term that doesn’t mean what it should and is often attached to a very vocal and verbally violent portion of elitist “gear” users.

Lastly there are those that attach value, both literal and figurative, to the price of the item. This group is probably the most frustrating and many times the most abusive. You can find them flexing their proverbial muscles almost everywhere. They come out when someone posts any pen under a certain price point. They’ll be quick to point out the flaws of the pen and connect those directly to the cost of the pen. They’ll then show off a photo of pricier pens in their personal collection, annotating how they are superior in all aspects.

This is where the classism comes in specifically. Most of these pens are out of the range of 70-90% of pen enthusiasts. They have price tags usually attached to jewelry or mortgage payments. Like fine wines they are rarely exponentially, or even noticeably, “better” than a pen 1/10th their cost. And while many dream of them, those that own them seem to take great pleasure in simply showing photos of them. A similar phenomenon occurs in the knife collecting community, and it’s equally disconcerting. I’ve seen a pen case full of 40 pens or an end table lined with 12 knives, the value of either would easily purchase a $30,000 dollar car. And when asked about how often those pens or knives get used, the owners scoff at the idea of sullying their mint condition items.

I’m not ranting against someone using their hard-earned money to purchase items they assign value to. The problem lies in how the mindset of these collectors becomes vocalized and crafted into condemning new users that can’t or never will be able to afford those luxury goods. They alienate a vibrant, often enthusiastic, group of users that are more equipped at spreading the word of fountain pens than the elitist group is. This larger, less funded, group is far more likely to keep the fountain pen hobby going than the “1%”. There is a place for both groups to coexist but before that can happen there needs to be a “summit” between these groups in the hopes of smoothing things out.

None of this is to say that the sky is falling in the pen community, not the least. But as the community grows, there needs to be people in place that can ensure it grows in a healthy manner and that the unhealthy aspects are fixed before they can spread. I’d hate to see the pen community devolve into a bunch of cliques that are railing against one another incessantly. And I think there is a need for evaluation and when necessary, correction given to those that would do harm in whatever form it may take.

So I hope you read this more as my intent to inform those of you that frequent the pen community so you can be on the lookout for similar instances of elitism. The desire is for the continued growth and diversity of this wonderful community. We can spread our love of writing instruments and the written word, but we are better when we work together than when we focus on our divisions and differences.

29 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. This is a great post. I'm fairly active on several social media pen groups and at the same time have left the snobbish ones. Let them eat their cake....we have pie and punch. There is an incredible amount of people that just want to share in the joy of their pens and their writing and their hobby. If you are looking to enjoy your hobby with others there are groups that will fit well.

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  3. Fantastic post that sums up a lot of the "gear communities" for lack of a better description. What you talked about covered a wide range of groups. Personally, where pens are concerned, I'm a big fan of Retro 51 products, especially the Tornado. Not tremendously expensive, but a good solid pen.
    My big interest is knives, and believe me, until you've dealt with a blade steel snob you've only scratched the surface of arrogant elitism. LOL!!
    Anyway, suffice to say that your blog post is thoroughly spot-on, nice write-up.

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  4. Awesome post. I completely agree. Was just at the Chicago Pen Show, and was expecting a lot of this. Very pleasantly surprised that everyone I met was NOT like this at all. They had some vague interest across the writing hobby like pencils and even pencil sharpeners. Almost everyone I spoke to saw the place of ballpoint, and when I asked them about writing with the hotel's pen, they said the goal is to get ideas on paper. That's the spirit that I love so much!

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  5. Great post, where I live we don't really have a pen community, and all the pens I use (and abuse) are Karas or Rotring pencils, the reason I love your pens are that they stand up to my daily use. Both at work and at home. Keep up the awsome work!

    Regards from Sweden!
    /Robert

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  6. It depends on the group. I think the older, more established groups tend to be archivists and view many of their pens as items to collect. I feel the younger groups tend to be more open. I am older myself, and do have some pens I've collected. But I choose to be an FP user, rather than a collector. I want to use my pens, to correspond and use day to day. I have a Sheaffer Nononsense, that was the first fountain pen I used, many many years ago. And I hope to keep it forever. I love some expensive pens, but this hobby really doesn't need to be expensive at all. A Karas pen could be the only pen you'll ever want or need!

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  8. Great post! I (now) stay away from a lot of online pen and pen-adjacent communities for the same reasons (as well as getting tired of all the mansplaining). I am fortunate enough to have a local pen group that is very inclusive - we all have our own "thing" but still appreciate each others "thing".

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  9. I think this is exactly how humans behave in ANY interest area. Entire industries are based on convincing people that they should buy expensive, or luxury, or rare, or limited, or high-status items. Pens are the least of it.
    The fact that pens are a HOBBY, instead of just an item of utility (of which you need exactly one) guarantees this thinking.
    Just associate with people who match your interests or outlook and don't worry about the others. They will do likewise.

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  10. Thanks for this well written, seriously “on-point” article.

    I think some of us need these reminders periodically and appreciate your doing so. While I despise cliques and elitism, those are not always planned or intentional outcomes. I admit that I sometimes get caught up in the enthusiasm and guarding my tongue (or typing fingers) isn’t my strongest suit. (Nor is brevity, for that matter!). I suppose I’m what some have called an “accumulator” of pens; I’m definitely not a true “collector.” Pens, paper and inks are extremely fun to have, to share, and most importantly, as you pointed out: to use.

    My experience with most pen communities has been quite positive, but I do understand your point and take it to heart. I have come to prefer fountain pens especially in my aging years, but I still own and occasionally use a ballpoint or rollerball. On the other hand, with humility, I admit I’m guilty of occasionally “bashing” them. I’m not overly fond of them, but some folks are AND ballpoints and rollerballs really are necessary in some instances and even outperform fountain pens sometimes.

    I have, and very much enjoy, a number of fountain pens in the $3 to $25 range (the upper end of which I used to think of as far too pricey). I have also been graced to buy and enjoy some much higher priced pens. Some are better, some worse than those in the first price range; putting pencil or ink marks on paper does not _require_ a more expensive tool! It might be pleasant to use a unique or expensive pen, but it certainly is not necessary. You are absolutely correct: price does not always translate into value and implying that it does, either directly … or indirectly through condescension … is hurtful, damaging, stifles creativity and even discourages joining what ought to be a fun hobby/community. I do appreciate your heartfelt article! Thanks

    Please forgive my lack of brevity -- you touched a nerve and I wanted to respond with my thanks!

    Oh, and thanks for the wonderful Karas Kustoms pens that I already cherish (a Fountain K -- AND, YES -- a Render K ballpoint/rollerball pen neither of which stray far from my side!). 

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  11. A very well written essay. I guess I have been lucky enough to miss out on the elitist pen users. I have joined a fountain pen group that is nice enough to educate me on good pens at prices that a poor county worker can afford. And those pens write just a well as the super fancy, expensive, well known name brand pens. If I ever get to the point where I can easily afford one I may try it, but right now I have pens that work well.

    My favorite pen will always be the pen my grandfather gave me as it was what his father gave him on his college graduation. It no longer can be used as the 1940's resin is cracked but it taught me the proper use of a fountain pen.

    Someday, I may find a so called Grail pen which is the be all and end all of pens for me. Until then, I'll use what I can afford. Encourage others to use fountain pens and point them to affordable ones online. And I'll add Karas to the list on ones to try when I have a few extra twenties to spend on a single pen.
    RRWise

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  12. I’m a member of the team of moderators at Fountain Pen Network, and focus specifically on sub-forums on Chinese and Indian pens. Our daily goal is an inclusive and welcoming community. If you encounter any of the issues you describe, on any part of FPN, please let me know.

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  13. Spot on. Grail pens are just that. Those that buy them as everyday items are not the norm. My favorite pen was initially around $100, now it's a $700 pen due to collectibility. But I use the Waterman Phileas all the time and love it. An inexpensive mass-produced QUALITY pen. And I love me some Jinhao. I give them as gifts and people think I spent a fortune. There's room for EVERYONE. Thank you for this wonderful post.

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  14. We must remember that money and power and intertwined in such a way that a person, institution, company - whatever - cannot have one without the other. Power presupposes money and vice versa; they are amalgamated in such a way to form the nexus of force within a Capitalistic "society." Today, as we witness our "civilization" collapse before our very eyes, many people can only lean of their many commodity fetishes to validate their existence. (I'm speaking as an outsider but I am guilty of this too.) This is a consequence of the narcissistic, hedonistic, and materialistic-gone-wild "society" that we all live in. Think about this for a minute and anyone with the ability to think rationally - even for a moment - cannot call the behavior you are describing in the post as anything but insanity. Persons today derive their identity from the type or brand of pen they use or collect? It's lunacy! This lunacy stems not from the pens themselves: they are totally indifferent to whether you write with them or not; a rollerball from Germany can be used to stir a bowl of soup just as well as a fountain pen from Italy. The lunacy and hence the derision it is causing amongst pen enthusiasts stems from the value we attach to these things: they are simply things and can be reduced to flaming waste in a moments notice. Berserk Capitalism has convinced us that the acquisition of things - and more things! - is man's chief end and the sole source of meaning. When this mindset reaches crisis levels, as it has presently, we see things being used as veritable partitions within even small sections of society. The truth of this miserable state of affairs is that people are no longer capable of deriving pleasure from the things they own because they have subconsciously realized that desire is nothing more than a portal to pain and must be fed constantly. Rather, the only pleasure that is felt is derived from the knowledge not that they own whatever pen, watch, knife - fill in the blank - but that the other person doesn't. This kind of commodity fetish is a Sisyphean task at best: there will always be another limited edition, another ink, another "stunning" pen. Where does it end? Precisely.

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    Replies
    1. Tammy Wilson-Lozada -- well said. I think I'd like to emphasize that I very much like the enthusiasm I see in myself and in others about this hobby (and other hobbies). Enthusiasm is a good thing, but, like everything else, it can be carried too far and misinterpreted. I can come across overly proud and pleased with some of my pens but it is never (NEVER) my intention to put someone else down (some other folks do intend that though). Even unintended, it can still have that effect.

      In the meantime, this is a very good article and reminder that we need to think before we speak (or type), we need to be cognizant of how others might hear us, but we also need to recognize that the listeners also have an obligation to hear correctly and forgive minor, unintended goofs. It's a Yanney/Laurel thing. Is it a black dress or a blue dress thing.

      With everyone's permission, I will now commence stirring, not my soup, but rather my hot chocolate with my Karas Fountain K! :D

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  15. Well said. Thanks for taking the time to express what many of us (IMHO) have been thinking.

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  16. I agree that what you describe does happen sometimes - although the vast majority of pen forums I visit are very welcoming. However, I'm a little shocked that anyone could think this issue is unique to the on-line fountain pen community. My gosh, this is the hallmark (and scourge) of every online community - and the nature of the anonymity of the Internet. There is ALWAYS someone who wants to prove they know more than others, or that their likes and dislikes are superior. Eventually everyone who spends any time online realizes this is the nature of the beast - everyone has an opinion but not everyone knows how to express it in a friendly, inclusive way. BTW, this reply is better than any of the others - I'm just saying. (wink)

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  17. Very good observations. I am fortunate to be using fountain pens for over 50 years & collecting for 40. I have never equated value with cost. I enjoy great writing instruments. As a whole, I see the online pen community to be mostly fair & honest. It is the internet, where at times the loudest voice gets attention. Also many of the "active" voices have other motives, brand or business promotion.

    It is very positive to have a resurgence of American pen makers. I love my vintage (pre 1940) which represents the golden age of fountain pens, dominated by American pen makers. American companies are again producing great unique writing instruments. Thanks for being a part of it.

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  18. This post is really interesting .. Also just reinforce my opinion about people who find problems with everything.... Just IGNORE them as they not the happy people ... I am :) as I always seek the good aspect of everything ... That is makes me happy :)

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  19. I appreciate all of the comments here. I hope the fact that I have made these observations, and in my attempt to point them out and educate others, is useful to people. The goal was always to shine a light on this type of mindset in the pen community. I know it is not solely an affliction of the pen community hence my referencing the EDC, gear, and knife communities. While those communities are communities that are for "stuff", pen, pencil, and writing communities, to me, have always felt like there was a greater vision. A desire to see people write and create more through the use of analog instruments of creation. So my hope is that when we see stuff like this happening, either in ourselves or others, we can stop it so that it does not become a problem.

    Unfortunately as a member of most online writing and pen communities, I see this happen frequently. While I'm a member, I'm not usually active unless I am addressing something directly tied to Karas. So I have the benefit of lurking and observing rather than actively interacting. In my opinion, this is why I can see this more than others. Many people simply scroll through such posts, or they simply miss them. But I observe and take note.

    Regardless, the vast majority of interactions are well intentioned and congenial. And over time hopefully we see these types of cliques dissolve and a more equitable and positive group of individuals take their place.

    Again, thank you for your words and for the time. Happy writing.

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  20. You hit the pen on the nib! (Sorry. Poor attempt at a pun.)

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  21. I have observed the same. Though its the same with expensive cars and TV monitors, furniture of brand, silly people assign value depending on price to many things. Going to an extreme, some people think that the more money they have, the more important they are beyond any personal characteristic as humans they may have. I find your article very true, honest and well written. That is why I sometimes place writing with an inexpensive pen side by side with one of the more expensive, both having the same type of nib. Many times, with few exceptions, the inexpensive pens do not require tune ups or sending them to a nib specialist to improve it. That is adding value to it, but they cost a lot to begin with, so what is the point? I understand buying a pen for its design and beauty, if you are going to use it and enjoy it. Collectors whose intention is to sell when they improve in value, have also an acceptable reason, in case they need a reason. I always say, everyone does with their hard or easy earned money what they wish, their right, right? But there is no need to belittle and humiliate those that find great or greater value on inexpensive pens. Their function is to write, and if they write well, and they please the owner... I suppose behind this hyping of certain brands are the manufacturers and sellers, so most people following those tendencies are used for their benefit. I find myself using my inexpensive pens more than those that cost me a little more because I don’t have to be bothered by their nuances and the tricks one has to use to use them . There are exceptions, and we all know it... The expensive pen that always writes on startup... Delicious. The nib that is a work of art and runs smoothly on the paper, outstanding. But why should I have to prime some of these expensive pens, send them to a nib specialist? If one of my inexpensive pens breaks down, I just take another one out - has never happened , though— and continue writing. The goals there is to write, document, create a poem, communicate, journal ...

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  22. I guess I'm fortunate I've missed out on any elitism, but then I haven't been on FPN much since 2013 or so. Has it gotten worse in the past 5 years in general? Maybe after alternatives like FPG came around it changed the character of what used to be the main/only place to chat. I bailed mostly because there's no greater temptation to spend more money than reading people being enthusiastic about their new purchases. I listened to podcasts instead - no elitism to be heard, and I'm not tempted by completist collecting of Safaris or little notebooks.

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  23. I have been a user of fountain pens for almost 60 years, a collector for more than 40 years, and an active member of on-line pen forums and communities since the internet became user friendly. Over the years, I have also witnessed examples of elitism and snobbish behavior, but not on a level higher than other on-line communities. I have never been interested in the business aspect of fountain pens, preferring to just pursue a lifelong hobby. I am a pen user and not just a collector. These days, I am more interested in talking about the experience of writing with a particular pens, inks, and papers. It is easy to get caught up in the "keep up with the Jones" mentality that many collectors pursue. Hey, it is a hobby and that entails many aspects. My focus may not be everyone's and that is okay. I tend to participate with the groups are like minded and steer away from those who are not. I use the block, hide, and delete buttons often to avoid the negative personalities. It is more fun to spend time cleaning, restoring, and using my pens than to be concerned with someone's scathing remark or baiting post on-line. Life is too short and there are so many pens, inks, and papers to enjoy.

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  24. Very informative article..thank you for taking the time out to write it, and thanks for making great quality writing tools!

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  25. Thanks! Makes me even more comfortable with my choice to do business with Karas Pen Co.

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