A Cultural History of Noobs

Communities often look down on their newest members—their squids, hosers, kooks, and bambis. But they depend on them, too.

A beginner's ski class (Reuters / Denis Balibouse)

Inside an enormous circular room in a Los Angeles performing arts center, the 2016 National Yo-Yo contest is underway. To my left is the reigning U.S. champion, Gentry Stein, surrounded by several of yo-yoing’s most elite innovators. A butterfly-shaped piece of machined aluminum darts through an elaborate web of neon string between his hands. He is a god among the nerds here today.

To my right is Paul. A similar yo-yo sits dead at the end of his limp string. Today is his first time ever using a modern yo-yo, and I am ashamed to be his friend. He doesn’t know any tricks. He can’t keep up with the lingo. He doesn’t have any clue who Gentry Stein is.

He is, by any a metric, a noob.

Noobs seem to be everywhere these days, and labeling them sometimes becomes its own art within subcultures. Surfers have their “kooks” who cut veterans off on waves. Skiers have their “jerries”—or “gapers” or “gorbs”—who snowplow down the trail in obnoxiously wide turns. A new mountain biker can be a “joey,” like a baby kangaroo, or a “squid,” a moniker condensed from “squid lid,” which describes the cephalopod-ish appearance of a full-face helmet without a visor, a common piece of rental gear at bike parks.

Sometimes these insults straddle a line between describing someone new and someone who is simply unskilled; to be mistaken for a noob is probably worse than actually being one. In hockey, “benders” are players whose ankles bend inwards in skates that are tied too loosely, or who hunch too far over and lean on their stick for balance. “Hoser,” my personal favorite, comes from the pre-Zamboni era, when the losing team had to hose down the ice after the game.

Online gaming is replete with derogatory jargon to describe noobs. Newcomers to DayZ, a video game in which players struggle to survive a zombie apocalypse, are “bambis” because of the way they tend to wander around clueless and doe-eyed. In the popular role-playing game Destiny, players are known as guardians, and thus new players are dubbed “kinderguardians.” Noobs in fighting games are known as “button-mashers” for the way they furiously hammer their fingers into controllers without any understanding of the underlying game mechanics.

Unsurprisingly, 4chan, the self-proclaimed “internet hate machine,” has vulgar slurs for its noobs: “newfag” or “summerfag.” The latter denotes young users who only show up to the boards during the summer months, when school is out of session.

Despite its association with internet and gaming culture, people have been calling each other noobs, or some variant of the word, since well before the internet became mainstream. The New Hacker’s Dictionary, published in 1996, says the term “newbie” originates “from British public-school and military slang variant of ‘new boy,’” perhaps explaining the origin of the “b.”  An analysis of the same term in Google books shows it being used sparingly during late 1800s, then dying off almost entirely until the mid-1980s, when it skyrocketed alongside the rise of Usenet and online communities.

It’s hard to pin down whether these early adopters intentionally meant to recycle the term or unknowingly reinvented it. Google Trends, which began recording data in 2004, shows that “newbie” remained the dominant identifier for novices online until around September 2005, when it was surpassed by the modern form. Interestingly, Google Trends bears no evidence for concurrent increases in transitional forms such as “newb” or “noobie,” both of which remained relatively rare but constant from 2004 to present. It seems “noob” lost its suffix and changed its spelling in two, nearly simultaneous linguistic mutations.

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To be a noob is to occupy an odd transitional zone within a community. You are part of neither the ingroup nor the outgroup. Noobs are in a tryout phase; if they can learn the ropes, develop some skill, master the lingo, they may cross the threshold and attain the rank of acolyte or journeyman.

Identifying noobs, or “noob capture,” can be vital for maintaining the cohesion of a community, especially online. “It’s a way of preserving the integrity of the practices you’ve developed in a landscape where, on the face of it, your group looks no different that anyone else’s,” says Nancy Baym, an internet researcher who has been studying online interactions for decades. “You’re on the same platform, you’ve got the same template a lot of the time. The only thing really differentiating you is the ways that you communicate with one another.”

Some online communities even have tests to separate noobs from experienced users. The most classic of these is probably 4chan’s ASCII Triforce test, in which users attempt to post three triangles to create a larger triangle reminiscent of the Triforce symbol from the Legend of Zelda video game series, like this:

▲ ▲

While the task seems as simple as copying and pasting previous users’ successful attempts, 4chan’s comment box automatically deletes blank spaces before text, creating a post that looks like this:

▲ ▲

The workaround is use a symbol that looks like a blank space with the command alt-255.  Typing [alt-255] [alt-255] [alt-30] [enter] [alt 30] [alt 255] [alt 30] (space, space, triangle, enter, triangle, space, triangle) will create the proper shape.

Once identified, how noobs are treated by established experts depends on the community. Often times they are indeed reviled, commonly greeted with either “stfu noob” or “gtfo noob”—shut-the-fuck-up or get-the-fuck-out. This sort of derision is especially common in communities where members are in competition for limited resources, like waves, trails, or courts. More surfers in the water means fewer waves for everybody—a dilemma that has been inspiring rich middle-age dudes in Lunada Bay, CA, to assault surfing tourists for decades.

(Sören Kuklau / Flickr)

With Donald Trump poised to become the next U.S. president, this discussion about treating and labeling newcomers has taken on a darker tone. In a campaign that drew stark lines between ingroups and outgroups in America—Mexican immigrants are rapists; Muslims should be banned—Trump brought a gtfo-noob sentiment to the national stage, and incidents of racist and xenophobic harassment have spiked in the wake of his election.

For all the examples of tribalism fostering hatred and fear of the outsider, there are also plenty of communities where noobs are welcomed with open arms. In the mid ’90s, Nancy Baym was studying how soap-opera fans communicated and formed communities on Usenet, a precursor to internet forums, and got to witness a massive influx of noobs when AOL and other services began to connect to the platform. Instead of mocking the new members or trying to keep them out, the soap opera fan community did something that would be highly unusual on today’s internet: “Their response was to create a mentoring program where new people could pair up with an older person who would show them the ropes,” Baym says.

Niche areas like yo-yoing can be especially welcoming. As fun as it was to mock my friend Paul, the yo-yoing community actively seeks new members, trying to grow the hobby and show others why they’re so obsessed with an activity that many people write off as a child’s toy. More noobs means more yo-yo sales, more yo-yo sales mean more contests, more new yo-yos, and more sick videos.

There are plenty of reasons identifying a noob is easy: They have their equipment on wrong. They post the same stupid questions in the wrong part of the forum. They are in the way. But the most obvious reason is that every expert started off as one. Noobs make us cringe because they’re reminders of who we used to be.

As long as noobs are polite and teachable, though, their presence really is more flattering than annoying. Communities need them to survive, after all. And how they’re treated shapes the groups they’ll eventually lead.

The future is in the hands of noobs.