They Call Us Nerds ‘Cause We’re So Uncool

What is a nerd? A miserable little pile of secrets!

That’s a lie. Sometimes.

A few days ago, I had an exchange with my friend Anne on Twitter. She linked to a set of game-themed cupcakes. For this, I told her “A NERD IS YOU.” Her response was that she is a geek, and that it is a subtle hierarchy.

That got me thinking. Because really, if not a miserable little pile of secrets, then what, in fact, is a nerd?

I use the word in a couple of different ways. Of course, I use it to deride my friends or myself any time we do something that lives up to the classic stereotype of a “nerd”; I’d hardly be a self-consciously ironic self-hating semi-hipster if I didn’t, after all. But I also use it in a more global sense.

For several years now, I’ve been arguing that everyone of my generation is a nerd. The reason is technology: we have so much information available for our consumption that we have to actively decide what to take in. (I personally am partial to video games, some comics, design, and typography.) Like needing to grow up, this simply wasn’t an issue to our forebears. As recently as my parents’ generation, the simplest way to get information about the world was through newspapers, television, and magazines. While some amount of specificity towards what was consumed was possible then, the fact that they had either physically manipulate the paper or passively accept what was shown to them on the television ensured a fairly large degree of informational omnivorousness.

Compare that to now, when we all choose what we want to read/watch/play. For example, I’m entirely dialed out of “popular” music, to the point where I have literally never heard most hit songs. I choose music based on recommendations from friends or that I run across in the normal course of my life. It’s a limited but fulfilling world of music for me.

It’s like that across every section of the spectrum. Want to follow a specific sport to the exclusion of all others? Well, you’ve got countless avenues to do that. The evening news sports segment and the morning paper are no longer all you get. Want to drill down and focus strictly on Korean cinema? Go to town! Want to learn only about nose-to-tail cooking? Have I got a story for you!

The problem with this, of course, is that it creates a little echo chamber. It’s very easy to build yourself a world where your tastes and opinions are the right ones. If you only read blogs about things you like and listen to your friends who share your opinions and never hear any opposition or dissent, why would you think you’re wrong? But then you get that on a macro level, where America’s relative wealth has made it easier for people to relocate, and their choice for new location is near others who are like-minded, which soon leads to entire communities built with people who agree socially and politically, which leads to being entirely unable to understand what the other side could possibly be thinking, which leads to batshit insane partisan politics, which ultimately leads to 79-word compound sentences. We don’t have to integrate ideas in our neighborhoods, so we can’t see the big picture. (By the way, I’m not innocent of this in any way.)

The same idea can work within any tiny subculture. The internet has the capability to make even the tiniest fringe group feel as though they’re the standard and everyone else is strange. Frankly, I don’t think that’s healthy, and neither will you the first time you hear someone stating that the reason normal people are not attracted to animated characters is because they don’t admit their true natures.

So, that being my argument, I did some checking on Anne’s “subtle hierarchy”. Unsurprisingly, there is a great deal of material on the internet attempting to define “nerd” and “geek”, and… it turns out Anne was right. I frequently use the word “nerd”, which apparently applies specifically to intellectual pursuits. By all evidence, what I mean is in fact “geek”. It’s not an error I intend to correct; as far as linguistic concerns go, this isn’t anywhere near the worst of my issues, and people still generally understand me. But hey, don’t let that spare me the pain of admitting that I was wrong about something.

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One comment

  1. anne

    I love you for (among other things): admitting i may know whereof i speak (sometimes), using a 79 word runon sentence with glee and wild abandon, and defining the internet and so many of its denizens with cutting precision. Also, for being your awesome nerdy, geeky self.