Thursday, February 07, 2013

In Defense of Nerds

It's easy to kick nerds because they've done quite a lot to deserve the disapprobation. They move in herds, respond to any criticism or conflict with clannish fury, are completely blind to how deep their ideological prejudices run, maintain an attitude of general cluelessness with response to issues of gender, race, and sexuality (except for those poor souls who happen to not be straight white males possessed with all the cultural entitlement that entails), have the grating habit of equating personal slights with historical bigotry and oppression, and just generally act as if being obsessed with pop culture ephemera enables them to assume an attitude of pro forma superiority in regards to the world around them. They equate The Big Bang Theory and Birth of a Nation with a straight face and come down like a wrecking ball on anyone who assumes they know anything about Dr. Who if they can't recite chapter-and-verse of BBC lore.

Except . . . well. That's not the whole truth.

A funny thing happened at the dawn of the internet era. Nerds colonized the internet first. Nerds created the internet. (Edited to add: nerds believe they created the internet. That's an integral part of the contemporary nerd creation myth. And, I maintain, if you were working for DARPA or an earlier adopter of BBS software, whatever your pop culture poison, you'd have an uphill battle to prove you weren't, QED, a nerd.) It's still possible to remember a time not that long ago when the internet was something specifically for nerds, and the suggestion that everyone would one day have or need an "electronic mail" account would have seemed as incongruous as suggesting that grown adults would one day spend more money on video games than children (or, more precisely, children's parents).

One of the things the internet did almost immediately was bring together once geographically disparate communities of like-minded enthusiasts. This might seem really basic, but think for a minute about what it was like to be a nerd before the invention of the internet: you might have known people who shared your interests, you might even have had a small local community who gathered at a local comic book or game store, you might have had a regular crew of RPGers who gathered in basements and garages on Friday nights, you might even have gone to monthly sci-fi swap meets in the church basement or - if you were lucky to live in a major media market - gone to sporadic conventions, where you would be brought face-to-face with the heartening truth that there were hundreds (if not thousands!) of people who cared about the same weird little things you cared about. People used to organize their fandom through letter-writing - it was a big deal that comic book letters pages ran full addresses. Conventions were awesome but unless you lived in a big city (and even then maybe only rarely), your chances of running into a quorum of other nerds was pretty slim.

Then people got the internet. And suddenly getting together with other like-minded nerds wasn't a weekly, monthly, or even yearly event - it was every day. It was a rolling, moveable feast of nerd-dom, a place where all the worst excesses of nerdish hyper-specialization were finally given free and unfettered reign after decades of having to be content with "close enough." Suddenly everything became a lot more common - and if this sounds uncomfortably close to Patton Oswald's argument from a couple years back, it's because there was a grain of truth in what he said. This doesn't mean that nerds back in antediluvian times were more "pure" because they had to work harder to achieve their mastery. They did work harder, however, and they fought against a pretty powerful tide of disapproval in order to stake their respective claims to their objects of devotion.

And the fact that they had to fight against a society that was pretty much antipathetic to their interests and diversions made them all stubborn. Stubborn as mules. There weren't many positive portrayals of "nerds" in the media. Being a nerd - loving Star Trek or Dungeons & Dragons or Lord of the Rings to distraction - was a hard road to hoe, because back in the day there was no shortage of people who were more than happy to judge you, and judge you harshly, based on how you chose to spend your surplus time. Being a nerd meant being, by definition, in opposition to the dominant cultural paradigm, however you chose to define it. These are cultural stereotypes partly because they're true - if you don't care about watching the game, if you can't get a date to the prom and prefer staying at home playing games with your friends to being humiliated, well - chances are good that you're going to be judged harshly by your peers for doing so. And pity the poor soul who holds on to these things after high school.

The problem is that at some point the subculture that sprang up in explicit opposition to the dominant paradigm became a part of that very same cultural paradigm. And this was due at least in part to the fact that nerds had managed to organize themselves online into a frighteningly powerful demographic. Perhaps not as powerful as they believe(d) themselves to be, but still: for an entertainment industry that had built its entire business model on interacting with a primarily passive audience, the advent of such a vocal and organized demographic - a segment with a strong willingness to spend whatever disposable income it had on movie tickets, tchotchkes, and VHS tapes - must have seemed miraculous. Despite the relatively small size of the nerd population, their organization and enthusiasm enabled them to remake large swathes of pop culture in their distorted image. But this created its own problems: once Hollywood figured out that all that "nerd stuff" could be extremely popular with non-nerd audiences, stuff that had never before been popular with anyone but cultish devotees was suddenly popular with your mom's friends at work. So even though this was exactly what nerds had said they wanted all along, it was slightly disorienting to wake up and realize that you were sharing Tolkien and Spider-Man and Battlestar: Galactica with the same dudes who used to kick sand in your face at the beach.

Still, there's nothing new here: this is the standard genealogy of the contemporary nerd. Nerds come to the cultural table with a monstrous sense of entitlement borne out of the lingering racial memory of having spent decades in the pop culture wilderness, and now that all of the major Hollywood cash-cow franchises are firmly in the grips of nerds, they are denied entrance to the promised land because they'd rather sit outside than have to share it with jocks.

But there again, I'm having a hard time passing on from all this hard-earned cultural baggage, all these Manichean divisions between the sheep and the goats that dictate the way nerds view the world. How much of these myths is simply inherited prejudice?

Some of it is bullshit, of course. But some of it is also true, and what is consistently overlooked in the discourse over nerds is that the die-hard clannishness and insular behavior - a behavior that goes hand in hand with all the sexism, racism, homophobia, and general tin-eared unwillingness to observe the dignity of any demographic other than their own - that follows nerds like a cloud of Mephistophelian flies is a symptom of some very real pain. That's why the video clip above, from Portlandia subverts the usual disgusting rhetoric over the "Fake Nerd Girl" trope. Sure, it's got a "Fake Nerd Girl" in it, but she's not necessarily fake because she's pretending she likes Star Trek because she thinks Han Solo is hot or whatever nerd stereotype to which she's supposedly conforming. The point is that her claiming to be a nerd is absurd, not because she doesn't "deserve" to be a nerd, but because being a nerd isn't a good thing. Being a nerd is an insult. It's not a badge of honor that you wear because the culture bestows upon you for conduct above and beyond the call of duty in the preservation of Firefly lore. If you are an attractive person who can pass for "normal," why would you want to pretend to be anything but?

If you were called a nerd when you were a kid, it's very likely that there was something going wrong in your life that made a refuge in the foggy depths of pop culture preferably to whatever crappy reality you were actually living. Because, here's the thing, it's not like "nerd culture" was ever really "underground." D&D had a run as a faddish party game in the early 80s. I can't remember a time when Star Trek wasn't readily available in syndication during my childhood. Dr. Who and Monty Python were PBS staples. And tons of normal people watched and did these things. My parents loved - still love - sci-fi and fantasy, but were never "nerds." They loved outdoorsy sports - skiing, hiking, golf, surfing, etc. My dad was even a bit of a jock in high school, played football and everything. That didn't stop him from reading Tolkien. (Well, I don't know, I should qualify that by saying they liked Babylon 5 and I could never get into it, so maybe they are bigger nerds than me.) But the people who held on to these artifacts like they were life rafts on a sinking ship were people who, by the large, needed these artifacts to keep afloat.

Were you short? Fat? Gangly? Pimple-faced? Ugly? Disabled? Mentally ill? Developmentally disabled? Abused? A "late bloomer" who still looked like a kid well into high school? Did you wear Coke-bottle glasses long before glasses were hip? Did you come from a broken home? Were you poor? Did you spend your time shuttling between mom and her boyfriend and flop-sweat weekend dad? Were you a minority? Did you dress in hand-me-downs? Were you gay? Bi? Trans? Were you just a little bit different enough to be called a "fag" regardless of whether or not you were? Did you, in other words, have some kind of shitty situation in your life that made fixating on some piece of pop culture ephemera and being able to call it yours - to take possession of something in a world in which you had no control and even less agency - preferable to "reality"? If you didn't, consider yourself lucky.

But that's what being a nerd means. And that doesn't excuse any bad behavior - it doesn't excuse demonizing girls and women who just want to play video games or read The Hunger Games or watch Dr. Who - it doesn't excuse turning a blind eye towards or actively participating in the kind of blatant homophobia that many nerds were themselves on the receiving end of - it doesn't excuse acting like all of pop culture is their personal sandbox - it doesn't excuse pretending that "nerd prejudice" is anything resembling actual bigotry, or that the word "nerd" is in any way comparable to "nigger" or "fag" or "chink" or "homo" or "spic" or whatever. But it also doesn't pay to forget that what we call nerd culture was itself something born out of a great deal of pain. You may want to protest and say, "well, that doesn't apply to me, I came by my nerdiness the honest way, I'm not traumatized or anything!" Well, lucky you. But the next time you're hanging out in the game store, ask yourself why it is that the weird kid in the dirty T-shirt who you would swear suffers from some form of Asperger's is so damned defensive about the minutiae of Magic: The Gathering rules that he has Gatherer set as his homepage. Ask yourself why the unfashionable girl with braces and greasy hair wears a different anime T-shirt to school every day. Ask yourself why all these people felt the need to band together in the first place, and why that sense of community - real or imagined - remains so strong in the minds of so many.

Not all nerds are broken people. That would be an easily-disproved exaggeration. But enough of them have been, historically, that the pain lingers in cultural memory. If you're reading these words right now, you've probably been a nerd at some point. What's your poison - comic books? Star Wars? Punk rock? If you have something like that in your life - even if it doesn't fulfill the same need that it once did - chances are good that at some point you did need it to fill a hole. I know I did. And then I spent years digging myself out of that hole, growing up so I could become a functioning adult who didn't need to cling to nerdishness like a totem against the darkness. I think that's how it is for a lot of nerds, actually, even though I can't prove it any more than anecdotally - at some point you realize you don't need that stuff like you used to. But even if you don't need it, you still like it, so you keep it around because you enjoy it. It can be a powerful crutch and a shield, but it can also just be fun. If you can't "outgrow" it, if you still need it and cling to it and live it, well - there but for the grace of God go I, you know?

So does this mean that everyone should just try to "grow up" and not be a nerd anymore? No, I don't know. All I know is that I spent years running from the label because it's an insult. To see other people turning around and turning a name I regarded as a curse into a fashion accessory - well, it doesn't make me mad so much as sad. I don't understand it. I don't hate "Fake Geek Girls" - more power to anyone who enjoys anything, ever. And shame on anyone who makes anyone feel bad for liking what they like. That's the point, really: nerds who turn on other nerds in judgement are simply reenacting the scene of their own primal trauma. It's stupid and offensive, but again, it's mostly just sad.

But look at the dude in that video up above. He seems like a perfectly nice guy who for whatever reason just doesn't fit in with the world around him. He's a little overweight, he's got some weird Steampunk goggle things on his hat, just the fact that he wears a hat at all, he cultivates questionable facial hair, he swallows his words and seems painfully shy on camera - he's pretty much your stereotypical nerd. I don't know him, I don't know what his life is like or what he does for a living - for all I know he could be working for Microsoft and pulling down six figures a year. But he's a nerd, so my sympathy goes to him, because even if you couldn't tell it from seeing me on the street, I've been there. I've lived that. And if you haven't? Well, good on you. But, if we're talking about "real" nerds vs. "fake" nerds, it boils down to this: real nerds know that being a nerd isn't so awesome. Sometimes it's what you do because you can't do anything else. And there's nothing at all funny about that.


metanerdrage said...

"A funny thing happened at the dawn of the internet era. Nerds colonized the internet first. Nerds created the internet."

The first person to ever show my a mosiac browser was an ecstasy popping raver girl who was also a journalist. The first person to show me Progidy and explain why it was better than AOL was a closeted lipstick lesbian who specialized in contract law and dated strippers. Because that's who went online early. Then there's my mom, a school librarian who used some sort of telephony
web networking for most of her career, and helped establish early
computer card catalogs for her district.

The internet was created and colonized by DARPA, CERN and FERMILAB, military types, actual scientists, college students and, thanks to Steward Brand and The WELL, techno-hippies. Some may partially identify as nerdy but outside the iconic and fictional scene in War Games a vast number of online users were not like Eddie Deezen. And thanks to The WELL, many of them were women.

The web's identity was established by early adopters of all sorts including Suck.dom and the Internet Movie Database and Wired and Dr. Fun and Mondo 2000 and Art Crimes and so on.

Though the /b/tards may not admit it, a major influence on modern nerd discourse (including image jokes) was the recaps and discussion boards of Television Without Pity which began as two women writing about Dawson's Creek.

It is typical of nerd arrogance, in particular male nerd arrogance, to rewrite history and claim the entire online world as theirs.

Prior to the net, many subcultures were less exclusive than those who used them to confirm their special identity thought. It's the problem from punks to Those that were truly underground were so for more substantial or political reasons than that they hadn't matured as quickly as other people. The nerd delusion thinks appreciation of Monty Python or other pop artifact is special knowledge which validates other personal aspects as a subculture rather than an awkward phase people go through. Leading them to see a film about an iconic pop artifact as hollywood stealing or others intruding in nerd culture which wasn't theirs anyway.

Alas, the nerd concept of specialness does confuse people who are developing at a slower rate than their peers to let this point define them into adulthood, far more than necessary. They also expand the trauma of teen social conflict - into persecution status rather than an issue to process.

Alas this also manifests a deeply ingrained hostility towards women - i.e. the fake geek girl - arising from immature sexual concepts plus resenting women for seeming more socially adjusted although that is gender norms more than confidence.

Not even the nerd physical cues are exclusive to nerds. If you've ever hung out with sports fanatics, you know there are basement dwelling, awkward, weird facial hair types who lack an appreciation for certain social cues yet have never played D&D. Wherever people use specialized interests to mitigate social skills there are those misfit types.

And I question if the current, angry at fake geek girl nerd, actually merits the term. Fanboys aren't necessarily nerds. To quote Milhouse "I'm not a nerd, nerds are smart."

Timothy O'Neil said...

To explain is not the same as to excuse.

DanielT said...

Y'know, while there's always going to be some opprobrium cast on those who like to think too much about Dr. Who and Skyrim and whatnot, I truly, truly believe nerds would have much more social success if they didn't LOOK LIKE NERDS. Can that dude in the PSA look in a mirror at that hat and his facial hair and honestly think "I am WORKIN' IT, BABY!"?
I don't know...I've just grown really tired of the "uniforms" subgroups wear, be they nerds, punk rockers, gangstas, middle-aged middle class white dudes (if I never see a balding guy with his hair buzzed cut wearing a t-shirt and shorts...) or whatever.

Drakyn said...

I'll add "to explain is not the same as to accuse." I entirely buy what you're saying as unadulterated and pure of motive, but that paragraph's construction just does it no favours. Listing a bunch of negatives that heavy, then following it up with "but" is inevitably going to 'look' like an excuse.

Mario McKellop said...

This is really great piece, Tim.

Timothy O'Neil said...

Pay attention to any comment thread discussing THE BIG BANG THEORY and you are likely to see nerds compare themselves to African-Americans living under Jim Crow (perhaps a slight exaggeration, but only slight, considering they coined the term "nerdface"). Being called a nerd is nowhere near as terrible as terrible as being called an actual, honest-to-God racial slur, but the way some nerds talk about themselves you would think they need to be protected by the Southern Law Poverty Center.

Geekademia said...

This sort of article seems to be popping up more and more lately, and while your is far and away the softest, the general tone of them all seems to be that if you like nerdy things into adulthood, or self-identify as any of the nerd adjectives in question, there is something wrong with you. It ranges, of course, but the argument is generally that if someone likes nerdy things more or in a different way than the author and their friends, then they are complicit with bigotry on par with the Westboro Baptist Church. Every nerd is now a misogynist because Tony Harris drunkenly said some bad things about cosplayers. It baffles me.

Are there bad nerds? Good lord yes. It saddens me, but the subculture is not a magical, special place where everyone is nice and happy all the time, and it never was. Some people do indeed lack both social skills and conscience, and have all sorts of unchallenged, half-formed, wrong-headed beliefs. Sadly, these people are particularly loud on the internet, where their behavior has no consequences. I don't defend or justify that. But in my life, many of the kindest, most interesting and intelligent people I've known to some degree or other identify as nerds. And you are right, in the past it was a lot more of an insult than it is now. I would say that's simply language changing, and while it's hardly on par with real oppression, reclaiming the words from bullies so future kids can't have their self-esteem as easily crushed isn't a bad thing.

Normally, when people like me rush in to make arguments like this, they're met with pithy dismissals like, "You poor, defensive troll. It's not about YOU." But I have to say, yes, it is. The implication is that because I and people like me are the way we are, something is wrong with us. Why else would anyone like Star Trek? Obviously because they suck at sports and can't get laid. I mean, maybe I'm reading it wrong, but that seems to be the logic there, right? Being introverted, valuing imagination and creativity, that couldn't possibly be right, could it? And really, don't shy, awkward kids have enough to feel bad about without the sort of intelligent people they could grow up into telling them how terrible they are? I know you're not full-on saying nerds suck, but you do conflate the very idea with being pitiable, and of the crowd who makes these arguments, you are the nicest by far.

I don't know. I don't have a strongly clannish attachment to nerddom, and while it would be hard to deny I meet a lot of the prerequisites, I see myself as an individual first and wish others would too. I just know what it's like to be that kid, and to be pincered on both sides, by the world at large who just doesn't get you, and then by the academics coming out of the same place as you did, and it seems especially awful to me. Can we just say that it's okay to be different as long as you're not a dick, and no one should be forcibly excluded because we're all in the same boat? That strikes me as better than condemnation.