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Dungeons and Bandwagons

March 11, 2012

Though much digital ink has probably already been spilled on this subject (or many keyboards have been pounded, at least), the conceptual integrity and authenticity of what it is to be a Nerd is in crisis. Whereas previously, the main debate about Nerddom (or is it nerdery?) focused on whether the proper term was “nerd” or “geek,” that debate was just semantics. Now, there’s an existential question about what it is to be a nerd at all.

English: An illustration of a stereo-typical &...Chris Hardwick, aka the Nerdist, has said that the hallmark criterion for what it means to be a nerd is the obsessive need to explore, learn, and master a subject. For example, one could be a computer nerd, a Dungeons & Dragons nerd, a math nerd, etc. But I also think that any classical, commonsense definition of what it is to be a nerd would probably have to incorporate some degree of social marginalization resulting from that obsession. For example, the fact that one is a Star Wars nerd would have to be viewed with at least a little condescension by mainstream society. Otherwise, one is simply a “fanatic,” “expert,” or  “buff,” as in the case of sports or film. The fact that the topic is only marginal as opposed to mainstream pushes the proto-nerd into seeking his or her own kind and those limited communities that appreciate each other and create a sense of community that is otherwise lacking in everyday life. For example, I don’t think people would consider the search for the perfect bourbon to be something that is “nerdy,” but the obsessiveness with which one can pursue that quest and the relatively limited social circle with which one can share those experiences are the hallmarks of Nerddom even if they would probably be labeled an “aficionado.”

However, whereas the nerd of days past had to do some serious work to collect marginally more information about their chosen obsession (i.e., going to libraries, subscribing to hobby magazines, recording television series on their own VHS tapes, attending conventions, etc.), the Internet has made information and communities infinitely more accessible. The Internet cuts out all of the scarcity and mystery that used to be inherent in Nerddom. With the ability to connect narrow ranges of tastes into a critical mass, more and more subcultures can support their own groups of obsessives. The barriers to entry to being a nerd are lower such that anybody can have instantaneous access to the entire canon of Doctor Who via Netflix. And by the same token, everyone can find something they’d enjoy obsessing over. In the Internet age, everyone is a nerd.


But more than just actually having obsessions, I think the lines between nerds and mainstream, non-marginalized society are blurring. For example, whereas computer literacy (and sometimes even computer use) was a defining quality of Nerddom any time before the year 2000, now everyone uses a computer. Spending massive amounts of time on the internet used to be something that only a nerd would do (often in the pursuit of their other objects of obsession), but now everybody is connected in some way. And of course, there’s the common trope about how successful computer nerds make startups that make them billionaires, which is not nerdy at all. So, at this point, the only real distinction that can be made is that there were nerds before the internet and there are post-internet nerds.

Moreover, it seems as though nerdiness has become just plain trendy. Hipsters may feign intellect with non-prescription glasses and discovering things that nerds have known about forever (e.g., Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, video games, etc.), but so is the rest of the general population. The idiot nerd girl meme does a fairly good job of encapsulating the beef that old nerds have with new nerds. Specifically, it seems as though nerds are frustrated that the general population often makes what was once niche into a watered-down palatable version for mainstream consumption. And moreover, if everyone likes something like Game of Thrones all of a sudden, nerds are deprived of their justification of being socially inept (as well as the identity that once came from being a “Game of Thrones nerd”).

So, if being a nerd is indeed what is now popular, the hipster authenticity loop has reared its ugly head: old nerds have to disavow the new nerds that have come to the table simply because they were into being a nerd “before it was cool.” And that is no way for a nerd to behave at all.


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