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Nerd doesn’t mean that anymore, so get over it

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.

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7 Responses

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  1. Nerd says

    “the word “nerd” doesn’t mean what it used to, and that’s a good thing. So get over yourself.”

    Wow. The next time you load up that Youtube video, you really need to try harder at getting the message. Whether you agree with it or not, you missed it.

  2. Zach Musgrave says

    Clearly we disagree, which is fine in my book. I wrote a rather lengthy screed about why I disagree, fundamentally, with the premise of the video, and whether you agree with my opinions I’ve at least taken the time to justify them. If you care to do the same (maybe a blog post?), I’m happy to let you attempt to convince me I’m wrong. But just saying that I “missed the point” isn’t going to change my mind, or accomplish anything other than venting your own frustration.

  3. Nerd B says

    I don’t really agree with you either Zach, but for a different reason that Nerd. You see, part of the word nerd has lost its meaning, but it is still a derogatory term… Sometimes. This is where is gets confusing. For the purposes of this explanation we’ll use Nerd A and Nerd B. Nerd A claims to be a nerd because she likes to play video games and wears fake glasses, even though she is the most popular girl in the school. Nerd B spent her whole summer reading books and is extremely socially awkward. She also thinks of herself as a nerd. Now, which one is a nerd? The answer is: both of them. You see, now there are more than one type of nerds. The defined one, and the undefined one. The difference is basically that one is popular and the other unpopular, and one can be smart and the other is always smart. Also, Nerd B is still ostracized even though Nerd A is not. I have a lot to say about this topic but I have to go, so bye!

  4. Nerd B says

    Also, I recognize myself as a nerd, but I don’t pride myself in being one. Here is my evidence:
    Lexile of 1506 (I’m in 6th grade)
    Would rather read than socialize
    “Granny clothes” (I like my style but it’s not good enough for Nerd A)
    Real glasses
    Panicking about grades and being late
    And many more. Again, this term is not a status. It is just what others call me.

    • Zach Musgrave says

      Nerd is still a derogatory term, but that’s changing. Language takes a long time to change, but it’s clear to see that it’s happening in this case. You don’t see socially adept people gleefully calling themselves losers or freaks, but you do see them calling themselves nerds. There’s a reason for that.

      Also, and please don’t take this as an insult, you don’t really know what you’re talking about yet. 6th grade is about where things *start* to become socially difficult for nerds. Things are going to get a lot worse for you before they get better. The good news is that they do get better, and also that in all likelihood, because of the shifting attitudes I have been talking about, things won’t be as bad for you as they were for generations of nerd past. You also have the benefit of the internet, which allows you to connect with like-minded people and to understand your situation. For instance, I would have killed to have known about Paul Graham’s nerd essay when I was suffering through middle school:

      When I was in 6th grade, popular people didn’t claim to be nerds. Now they do. That means something, and not just that “popular people are even bigger dicks than we thought they were.” The fact is, there’s wide acceptance that nerdhood is the surest path to adult success, even among people who torment nerds. That’s the sign of the tide shifting. It may not be quite “admirable” to be a nerd yet, but it’s headed in that direction.

  5. Nerd B says

    Yes, I do know that I don’t know what will happen in the future. I don’t take offense, because it is true. I have no idea what 7th or 8th grade will be like. But you’re keeping me in suspense! What is “a lot worse”? That is actually something that. I have been thinking about since the beginning of the school year, as even in 2 months I have witnessed my social situation escalate downwards. What’s next?
    Oh, and do you think that it will ever be admirable to be smart, or will the word “nerd” have dropped that too by the time that being a nerd is a completely good thing?

  6. Nerd B says

    I just read his essay, it was really good. And he has a point, sometimes I realize that I would rather be smart than popular. Sometimes. I made a chart of lunch tables last year, and my equally “nerdy” friend dared me to sit at the popular girls table. It didn’t end well.
    I liked that he didn’t just mention bullying, but boring work too. What’s the point of spending a month in a class learning things that you learned in 4th grade? Sure, it’s good to review things, but not the same topic for a month. Oh, and the test on that topic? 3/4 of the class failed it.
    The thing about how we had to create a hierarchy in schools made me think. Why is beauty and athletics valued the most in a place where the main goal is to learn? I guess it might be a sort of human instinct or something. I’ll have to think about that.
    If nerds are like adults, then everyone else in the 6th grade is more like 15 year olds. I know people who drink when they are depressed, and the most popular kids who are deep into puberty are trying to get laid. Already! It’s slightly scary.

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