I watched this guy’s video kind of agreeing with him; but afterwards, the more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that while his facts were basically right, his values are so screwed up that he comes to the wrong conclusion. Give it a quick watch if you think you might have an opinion about the appropriation of nerd culture by the mainstream:
If you don’t have time to watch, here is his basic premise. The labels “nerd” and “geek” are unambiguously negative putdowns. He cites their definitions. They’re words that, until recently, were used to insult socially awkward, obsessive individuals with obscure interests. So far, this is pretty unassailable. But then it goes a little off the rails.
Next, the video encourages you to imagine the suffering of nerds during their adolescences and beyond, and then alleges that this suffering, somehow, means that they have “earned” the derisive labels used to ostracize them. That’s a little… yeah. I’ll come back to that.
Finally, the video rails against the commodification of nerd culture in the form of television shows like The Big Bang Theory, which he hilariously refers to as “nerd blackface,” my favorite phrase of at least the last month. Racially charged allegations aside, it’s hard to dismiss his point that nerd culture is currently being sold like every lifestyle since the hippies. I also hate The Big Bang Theory, but that’s just because it isn’t funny, not because it’s appropriating “my” cultural subgroup.
I was mostly in agreement with him as I watched the video, because the process he’s talking about is unarguably occurring: nerd culture is being colonized and sold. And at first, I felt pissed off by this — not only because I think this process is always insulting to those with prior knowledge of the sub culture being bastardized by its mainstreaming, but because, while I didn’t have it nearly as bad during adolescence as a lot of people, I understand what it is to suffer socially for caring more about computers than socializing (and ultimately, being way better at computers than at socializing).
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the video’s author’s attitude is completely backwards regarding what the commodification of nerd culture means to nerds.
The right conclusion to draw is this: the word “nerd” doesn’t mean what it used to, and that’s a good thing. So get over yourself.
Poseurs on twitter might tweet “I’m such a nerd,” because they watch an HBO show, but they would never tweet “I’m such a nerd,” because they had just gotten humiliated in the cafeteria. The trait that the mainstream is happy to leave behind is the one that made “nerd” and “geek” such a potent insult decades ago: social awkwardness. The socially awkward are still being systematically ostracized at all ages from gradeschool up — it’s just that, these days, they’re more likely to be called “fag” or “slut” than “geek” or “nerd.” The part of “nerd” that means “loser” didn’t carry forward when the mainstream picked it up.
Social awkwardness got left out of the mainstream definition, because society hates or pities the socially awkward. Almost by definition, they are the bottom of the social structure. On the other hand, what the mainstream has carried forward with these labels is intelligence and obsessive behavior, both of which (especially intelligence) are aspirational traits to apply to oneself. That it’s suddenly cool — when it wasn’t 30 years ago — to be seen as smart and driven, in the same obsessive way that nerds are, especially about nerdy things like computers (which are of course now ubiquitous consumer gadgets about as nerdy as a toaster oven) — that it’s now cool and dessirable to apply these labels to oneself shows how much our values have shifted as a culture, how much we now at least claim to value intelligence and earnestness.
The appropriation of nerd culture might hurt a bit, but it’s also an endorsement by the mainstream of the culture’s underlying value system. It represent a shift in mainstream values toward things like curiosity and intelligence, even when that comes at the cost of social prowess. At the end of the day, that’s a very good thing.
It’s time to let go of the thinking that one’s scornful label in adolescence is “earned” like a badge of honor. Your suffering wasn’t a good thing, and no label you could apply to it would change that. So let it go. I suffered less and less as I finished high school and went to college, as I learned how to interact with people and discovered that my intelligence was neither unsurpassed nor the most important aspect of my being. In short, I grew out of my label, as do most people who suffer from it. I’m happy to leave behind the old definition of “nerd,” the one that meant I was at the bottom of the social hierarchy. This new definition, the one that dictionaries don’t include yet but will in a decade or so? The one that means I have a lot of fun hobbies and know a lot about things I really enjoy, but I have a steady job in a growth industry and I still probably get laid? Fuck yeah, sign me up for that one!
If you want to get together with the “real” nerds, the ones who were into learning Klingon before it was cool, and talk shit about the johnny-come-latelys of the scene, then go ahead. You’ll be in very good company with countless indie music fans of the last couple decades. For that matter, how do you think the first emo kids feel now that you can buy their lifestyle in a kit at the mall? They were sad to begin with! It sucks when you get colonized, but it happens to everybody, and life goes on.
In any case, you’re not a “nerd” anymore — by that I mean “social loser” — right? You’re now a “nerd” — by that I mean intelligent, driven person. Right? One of these things is always going to be more desirable than the other. For the first time in history, people agree that “nerd” means the latter. Be glad of that, and hope that the nerds who come after you have it better than you did.