The Trouble With Nerds

Time for a completely unscientific look at the nerd culture.

I’m a huge fan of JJ Abrams‘s work. His Spielberg-esque, modern sensibilities allow him to rejuvenate franchises well as he create new ones. I think that he is a fundamentally important filmmaker that will influence the next generation of writers and directors. What JJ Abrams has done is take the nerdy and he has made it cool. Because of that he has drawn a fair share of anger and hate. Why? I’ll attempt to examine the the vocal and angry nerd in the following paragraphs. Hang on tight.

I was reading Drew McWeeny’s review of Star Trek Into Darkness (You definitely should check out his review, he hits the nail on the head about well done archetypes) and caught myself on a particular phrase he used, “Nerd World Order.” The idea of the Nerd having a World Order seems opposite to the very essence of what a nerd is. Nerds are quiet folk playing games and reading books in their basement where they tinker with old computers. At least that’s how it once was.

The word nerd as we recognize it today originated in the 1950s (so Wikipedia tells me, I said this would be unscientific). I don’t need to quote sources to prove that it has almost always been used as derogatory term. Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you’ve been called a nerd at some point. For largely 40-50 years, no one wanted to be called a nerd (even if you were one). Then came the revolution. And the hipsters.

Historians will debate the beginnings of the Nerd Revolution for centuries, but it is certainly tied to the Rise of the Internet, The Dot Com BubbleChristopher Nolan, and Sam Raimi. By the early 2000s the term nerd was losing its sting. Nerds found that their hobbies, preoccupations, and obsessions were widely becoming more and more accepted. Movies based on their beloved comic books were being made by the dozen, with some of them being just plain good movies (see: Spider-Man and Batman Begins). Video games entered the mainstream with Call of Duty and its ilk. Suddenly nerdy things were…cool. What an identity crisis.

What this revolution created was a dichotomy of nerd-dom. Being a nerd, on a shallow level, is no longer a point of derision. But then within in the community of nerds it was decided that there are true nerds and fake nerds. Don’t get me started on hipsters, that opens it up to a trichotomy.

Real Nerds love Star Trek: The Original Series, table top RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, comic books, The Lord of the Rings (the books), Star Wars (and the Expanded Universe), coding in C++, and what have you.

Fake Nerds love Star Trek (2009), video game RPGs like Mass Effect, comic book movies, The Lord of the Rings (the movies), Star Wars (just the movies, and maybe even the prequels, for shame), coding in Python, and what have you.

What did the nerds do here? They decided they were a gated community and that there’s a right way to be a nerd. If you come to once-nerdy things via the mainstream, you are branded a poseur, a fake nerd. Those things aren’t true to the nerd mantra, manifesto, manual, whatever. They’re not acceptable.

What happened? Shouldn’t the nerds be cheering? After years of bullying and teasing, the things they love are now the things everyone loves. But that’s it. Being a nerd isn’t special anymore. Along with the Revolution, nerds developed a sense of pride, a way to set themselves apart from the mainstream culture they so long stood apart from. A shibboleth to know a fellow true nerd. It may go beyond that. More than just popculture, nerdy things have become ways to succeed in life. Start a website, write software, build electronic gadgets. Perhaps the most notable example of a “true nerd” vs a “fake nerd” would be Bill Gates vs Steve Jobs. Both worked in areas deemed nerdy, and both became fabulously wealthy. But Jobs was cool and hip. Gates wore a pocket protector. This perception is evident in a true nerd’s hatred of Apple’s products and loyalty to Windows machines (truly true nerds would be into Linux).

Now the nerds have a power and more: they have a voice. A really, really loud voice (read: the internet). So what do they do with it?

Complain.

It’s taken nearly 600 words to get to my complaint, and it is that nerds complain, a lot. I’m tipping my hand here, but I think you get the point.

Their voice is too loud to be ignored, people listen to what the nerd collective has to say. The internet has given the nerd the power to influence and bully. Nerds now bully each other as much as they do people outside their community. A nerd’s complaint is intended to accomplish two things. One, to prove that they are indeed a true nerd. And two, to influence the way the mainstream interprets nerd culture.

I point to last year’s debacle of Mass Effect 3. The ending to that series left the nerds so unsatisfied that they collectively banded together and bullied developer Bioware into releasing a whole new ending. I cannot articulate how wrong that felt, so I’ll point you to Film Crit Hulk’s piece over at Badass Digest.

Nerd Pride and The Nerd Revolution have transformed the more vocal nerds into new age bullies. Their complaints go beyond grievances, they grow into angry, bile filled vitriol. You only need to go into the comment sections of a nerd oriented website in order to get a glimpse of the cruelty these nerds are capable of. In an ever escalating war to prove who is the truest of the true nerds the language plummets into vulgarities and obscenities that even a Judd Apatow film would shun. What we’re left with is misguided and blind hate towards movies, books, and worst of all: each other.

Which brings me to the question of “why?”

Which brings me to the answer of “I don’t know.”

That sucks, doesn’t it? Rather than rejoicing in acceptance, nerds have found a new way to exclude, shun, and harm others.

At this point I feel it is necessary to say that all of what I’ve said above is speculative in nature and I am completely aware that what I’m saying does not apply to every nerd. Take a look at Zachary Levi and his work with Nerd Machine. He celebrates all kinds of nerds. His mantra is that we’re all a little bit nerdy about something and that’s something worth celebrating. That’s a beautiful thing.

I attempted an unreliable (and probably misguided) sense of objectivity in the preceding 1000 words, but in all honesty, I am most definitely a nerd. I love comic book movies, I’m still working my way through The Silmarillion, growing up I believed that I would become Batman, I’ve coded in C, C++, and Java, and I have a degree in physics. Nerdy, no?

Am I a true nerd or am I a fake nerd? I don’t know. I’ve played Dungeons & Dragons, but I love JJ Abrams’ take on Star Trek. I don’t really care what camp I’d be throw into. I love what I love.

I would hope that most nerds are people that love what they love unabashedly. I want nerds to be proud of their nerdiness, but to never wield it as a way to shame or hurt others.

Just, for the love of God, don’t call us geeks.

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