Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Nerd vs. Geek Debate (and Why We Don't Need to Have It)

As a native southerner, I am well aware of my biological propensity to sermonize. Such is an urge I generally attempt to resist, but it is a ceaseless, underlying yearning. It is, like alcohol or hepatitis, in the blood. But just as I don't appreciate being preached at, I try not to lecture others. Such is a small courtesy, but it's one I endeavor to extend to you as my wholly voluntary audience.

That being said, I am about to mount the podium. You're all welcome to gather up front on the amen pew, to slink slyly to the rear of the sanctuary or to simply walk back out the double doors before I unleash my fire and brimstone. And I certainly won't think less of you for choosing the latter.

I have spent my three decades plus upon this Earth as an outsider, a nonconformist, a nerd. At times, I attempted to curb this inclination and find acceptance by those who would reject me. Likewise, at times I ramped up this inherent differentness as nothing more than a symbolic middle finger to the same. Now in my thirties, I have settled into a natural equilibrium, or, to steal from nerdcore rapper Doctor Awkward, geekquilibrium. I have at long last rectified my most studious tendencies with my more acceptable passions. In short, I am – this time misquoting the 2 Live Crew – as nerdy as I wanna be. No more. No less.

Part of this process, this becoming, is due to a maturing on my part, albeit an admittedly small one. At this stage in my life I am self-aware enough to realize who I am, and I have made my peace with that.

Another aspect, which I also attribute to age, is the fact that I am now too goddamn tired to care what other people think of me. Now this certainly doesn't mean I don't want others to like me, to respect and accept me. (This is ingrained well within human nature itself, and even we proud nerdlingers fall under its sway.) It just means that I am no longer an adolescent bundle of neuroses, your textbook diminutive, underweight, self conscious geekboy. I proudly announce that I have, in fact, grown into a diminutive, underweight, fulfilled adult who simply doesn't have the time or the inclination to wonder if that lady standing behind me in line at the DMV is actually laughing at me.

(And what if she is? Why the hell should I care? That bitch couldn't even complete the written test!)

But be it due to the mellowness of adulthood or my own emotional sloth, the important point here is that I am okay with the person that I am. More than anything, projects like Hipster, please! and Radio Free Hipster are about both a celebration of that and a conduit through which the rest of us war-worn survivors can toast our victories. It's my hope that the positivity we spread and the brotherhood we foster can then somehow radiate to the next generation. Our modern analog, the latter day misfit who is still, as my pal Matt puts it, "get[ting] shoved into a locker."

Thankfully, this is a shared mission; it's something that everyone from fellow bloggers to entertainers like YTCracker has spoken about at one time or another. Simply put, we're trying to lessen the type of bullshit with which we had to cope for poindexters yet-to-come by hammering our shared experiences and passions into a cultural shield. We're telling others and reminded ourselves that being different does not immediately equate with being alone.

With this established, I have recently picked up on a trend that threatens our task at hand. And like the most diabolical of nemeses –Carpenter's Thing, Procter & Gamble's Cavity Creeps, et al – this threat comes from within.

Throughout this missive I have used the terms "nerd" and "geek" (and a handful of other more esoteric words) interchangeably to describe myself, but each day it seems that more and more of our kind are drawing dividing lines between such terminologies. Many are compartmentalizing, not for the simple geeky joy of categorizing, but with a distinctly divisive intent. Geeks, we are told, are cool techies with eccentric passions, while nerds are awkward basement dwellers defined by their social failings.

This argument most recently came to a head within our broader community when dork luminary Wil Wheaton posted a video by the Society for Geek Advancement, a vid, I might add, that he took part in.

In the earliest moments of this piece, G4 talking head and fauxhawk aficionado Kevin Pereira declares that he is neither a nerd nor a spaz. From that point, contributors from Leo Laporte to MC Hammer proceed to "celebrate" geek culture. By scornfully deconstructing it. The underlying theme seems to be that geeks are a tech-savvy breed of snarky supermen. A group so socially enlightened as to place them head-and-shoulders above your common basement dwellers, your spotty comic shop frequenters or even your average man on the street.

And I call bullshit.

What we see hear is a clear example of – to turn our eyes back to my buddy Matt's concise description – cultural appropriation. In this sense "geek" is no longer a relevant label of self-identification, but a brand. Geek is Twitter. Geek is Tumblr. Geek is exclusivity. Geek is pomposity.

Except it's not.

In a follow-up to his original post, Wil, who was incredibly excited about the project at its inception, describes it as something that "was supposed to be about refuting stereotypes and celebrating the things we love, but it ends up feeling like we're trying to convince the Cool Kids that we're really just like them."

There's steel in those words, my friends.

A great number of us have begun espousing the belief that what we do, that what we are, is a culture rightfully unto itself, and we've done so by embracing the names that were used as weapons against us. We took back geek and nerd and dweeb, and we bent them to our own needs. We wore them like badges of honor. But at some point we experienced a schism. We began to add our own precise context to these nonsensical words with no legitimate definition or etymology, and use them to cloister what some saw as our own less desirable elements.

We split up the nerds – a Seussian word used adjacent to "Nerkle" and "Seersucker" – and the geeks – a carnie term for a performer who eats live animals – based on unqualifiable differences instead of uniting them under their obvious similarities. We, in short, became our own tormentors. We decided who would sit at our table and who would be relegated to the far side of the lunch room. We became that guy who shook you down and called you fucking faggot or that girl who defaced your gym locker and made you a laughingstock. We became our own worst enemy. And we did it gladly.'s Bridget McGovern, in a recent piece on the I AM A GEEK! debacle, pinpointed what I found so distasteful about that particular example saying:
To be so dismissive of traditionally maligned geek interests and so incredibly smug about our apparent technological superiority at the same time doesn’t celebrate geek culture—it’s just a cheap way of buying up some nice property in the mainstream, at the expense of the quirks, the playfulness, and the ability to be comfortable being different that is the essence of geekdom.
This enduring "geek chic" that the mainstream media has become so fixated upon is key to spreading our message of hope, but it can also prove a destructive element if we lose site of the fact that we are all but defined by some of our most unsavory experiences and inclinations. Whether geek or nerd, we each spent a lengthy season being abused, neglected, isolated. We know what it's like to be bullied and to be made to feel insignificant. We know what it's like to be outsiders. But while this pain is certainly not ours alone, it is also a defining force that we must not lose sight of.

The fact that we came through the fire and yet retained those things that made us targets -- that is our strength. That awkwardness, that social pariah status, may be something that we, as adults, have more or less tamed, but that doesn't mean it was never there. Saying that within out own community person A is B because of strength/weakness C and that person X is Y because of strength/weakness Z not only devalues our shared heritage, it sends an actively destructive message to our younger counterparts. It tells them that not only are they refused entrance into hallowed halls of high school popularity, but that we won't even let them in our own Honeycomb Hideout.

Many of my friends and colleagues prefer to identify as geeks rather than nerds, and that is fine. Our culture is all about personal choice, and if prefer to be called a frog as opposed to a cheese eating surrender monkey due to my Franco-American heritage, there's surely no harm in me picking my own poison. But these same geeks looking down their noses at those insalubrious nerds is another matter entirely.

If we are to accept and celebrate our culture, we must accept it wholly. We can not cherry-pick our accomplishments from a relevant pile of failures and then attempt to pass this abridged history off as the sum of our kind. This is, in fact, the one brand of artificiality that we should rail against.

If you are reading this missive, chances are you were once a discomfited, tongue-tied social misfit who clung to passions and beliefs that set you apart from the rest of the crowd. Because, on some level, everyone is a nerd. Such is the power of our kind; such is the delightful flavor of our culture. And if we are, in this new millennium so rooted in the technologies we helped to foster, to redefine this culture, then let us do it with a fine eye toward making it even more inclusive.

There is no entrance exam for being a nerd. You simply need to be yourself. And if Kevin Pollack or Tay Zonday or Shaq want to be in the club, then they are welcome to join us. Anyone is welcome to join us, whether or not they play D&D or can recite Coulton lyrics from memory or understand Python semantics. All you have to do is be yourself and afford us the opportunity to do the same. Whether you call yourself a nerd or a geek or a freak or a hacker or a gamer or a Trekker or a fanboy or a furry or a LARPer or an otaku is irrelevant. But don’t you goddamn dare try and paint yourself as better than someone who identifies by a different arbitrary (yet intrinsically linked) label!

We are nerds and we are geeks and we are wonderful and quirky and awkward, but we are no better or worse than anyone else. We are, while fully aware of our unique differences, the same.

And we all say Amen.


paradise dan said...

AMEN! Brother, amen.

Jimi said...

That video is ridiculous.
This post should be made into some sort of sleeve notes for the next Frontalot album or something

Z. said...

Thanks for the support fellows. I genuinely try to avoid talking about things in this manner, but this particular subject has been eating at me for months!

Church said...

Preach it, Brother!

(Although, and don't take this the wrong way, the most enlightening part of this post was that there is a WikiP entry for "Honeycomb Hideout.")

John Madden said...

Well said. I for one have never been picky. I went to school at the tail end of the 'geek=bad' thing, but in the same way as there was no consistency in taunting me as such, I exercise no consistency in referring to myself as a geek, nerd or dork. Or nerdlinger. or Poindexter. Or 'dorkus malorkus' (as they say in Latin.)

freya said...

So, it sounds like hipsters are appropriating the term "geek"? I doth protest.

Kelly said...


Anthony said...

THANK YOU Z. This subject comes up in the nerdcore community every so often and it has been bugging me too. When people say "geek" actually means this and "nerd" actually means that it is very trying on me both culturally and semantically.

I have always used the words interchangeably, and I think the world at large does the same, so I never really understood why we are trying to create our own versions of the term just to draw a line in the sand that "I am a nerd, and you are not, stay over there geek we clearly have nothing in common."

I agree with everything you said Z, I would have written something like this eventually but I am glad you did since you have a much better grasp of the english language than I. So now when people argue about this pointlessness I can just tell them to shut up and send them here.

Shael Riley and I were talking about how we are lucky to have you in our neck of the musical woods writing about us, and I think this shows exactly why.

Matt said...

Since Church didn't say it, I will. So Say We All!

I will nit pick one point though. Riffing on my own post, I think we need to remain conscious in these discussions of the difference between how "we" are using these terms and how other cultures are reinterpreting these terms. I agree with you as far as "we" are using the terms to exclude, but we have less control over how other cultures are going to end up using those same terms.

Now, how to do we separate out "us" from "them?" Oh that's a razor thin line that is best avoided. Especially, as you so rightfully say, we are all geeks/nerds to a certain extent. I just think its something that needs to be kept in mind.

MPFM said...

You're a humble man, and I'm sure you wouldn't ask for such, but you deserve fame. Or at least good stuff.

I made the music I make because I'm sure like a lot of you, you were either watching TV, listening to the radio, or were at a concert, and half of you was saying "I want to do that", but the other half was saying "I want to do it my way though". And while it would be nice if people liked it, hell it would be an added bonus, you just didn't care either way. But now,

But now people use these geeky catagories like Nerdcore for hiphop, chiptunes, wizard rock, and while they are good to label to find something in a giant collection, some people are taking advantage of the segregation. I won't name names, but some people in these sub-genres believe that this isn't a class war, and while I wish to God it wasn't, people were so picked on growing up that they are taking all of the candy out of the nerd shaped pinata and not giving it to the kids.

Share and share alike, but if you really like something (or you really don't), the world doesn't have to know. Twitter doesn't have to know. You're mom DOES though, give HER a call, you never do anyway.

Anonymous said...

Really annoyed that Jason Calacanis identified himself as "@Jason" in that video. I've heard him on Twit more than once trying to pimp his twitter and get more followers. Identifying by his twitter handle to an audience of people who most likely do not know who he is just makes the video reek even more of marketing, self-promotion, and trying to be in the "in" crowd.

Church said...

"Since Church didn't say it, I will. So Say We All!"

These days, I save that stuff for Lev :)

Glenn Case said...

Something touched a nerve!

Beautifully written, Z. Couldn't agree more.


Glenn Case

Glenn Case said...

To re-iterate, it touched a nerve alright. Listening to my own nerdcore hip hop tracks for the first time in SOME time as a result of this post.

Check your e-mail, yo.


Glenn Case

Shael Riley said...

That was an insightful and moving piece.

Thought you touched on it here, I'd love to see you expound further on the on the implications and repercussions of geek chic one of these days. It's a subject that's been occupying my mental real estate lately. It's worked its way into my songwriting for my new solo album.

K said...

Well written.

A+, good sir.. A +.

Marc With a C said...

Couldn't agree more. Thank you for your wonderful article, Z.

antisoc said...

Honestly, most people who are nerds are also geeks. They are not exclusive terms.

Plus, those who argue about whether or not they are a nerd or a geek are definitely both. Rather than go out and socialize, they decide to argue about this obscure piece of knowledge, making them a nerd. Yet, by passionately arguing about it, they have become an enthusiast about the subject and are thus a geek. Lawyered!

Also I warmly accept falling into both categories. I am probably also a Dork or a Dweeb, but since nobody is arguing about those words, I will not open said can of worms.

funky49 said...

Z: Hero or Greatest American Hero?

Trier Music said...

Well said, my man. Labeling who is a geek and who's not is a game with no winner, but I do strongly feel that an essential component of geekiness (conspicously absent from that video) is that ***a geek is someone one who has suffered -- or at least risked -- ostracization because of their passion.***

I mean, our namesakes are people who bit the heads off live chickens--as a career choice.

Oddly, this video seems to be addressing the fact that some people may be self-conscious about the fact that they're ON THE COMPUTER.

It seems to be a misplaced concern in a time when every single person you went to high school with (including your teachers!) is on Facebook.

It certainly seems GeekAdvancement's heart is in the right place, though, I'll give them that.

Snake Eyes said...

Ugh. Yeah, that video raises more questions than it answers. I hesitate to generalize, but often those who distinguish themselves as geeks and not nerds are harbouring some lingering shame about their nerd-geekdom (nerk? neek?). They're not fully out of the closet.

Geeks fighting nerds. It's like lightsabers vs. bat'leths. I mean we're supposed to all band together, accept each other, and then make fun of the jocks, right?

The next question is what to do when nerddom becomes appropriated by non-nerds. It's tempting to perform some kind of nerd test like in Fanboys, but is that really the right approach?

Trier Music said...

Z's post got me wondering if "geek" in the 2010's will become what "alternative" was in the 90's. You know, something that once actually meant what it was, but then went on to be appropriated in the interest of selling something totally mainstream to people who preferred to think of themselves as not-totally mainstream...

Snake Eyes said...

You know, upon re-reading the end of your sermon, I realize that of course you've already answered that last question of mine, in much the way I would answer it if I could REALLY write.

It burns, sometimes - seeing that look at this fucking hipster blog reminded me of just how much appropriation of nerd culture is happening with the hipsters, and sometimes that pisses me off, and yeah, it's about some cool kid biting our style without the years of teasing we had to suffer through, I guess. But nerds are hardly the first group to go through the cultural appropriation treadmill, and it's not something you can really fight. Unless you have a trademark on pocket protectors I suppose.

Trevor said...

What we need is for someone like Hodgman to coin a new term and definition that we can all agree on.

sabregeek said...

Most of the people in that video were nerds. wow u have a blog and might be able to write some code. geeks ought to be able to do something usefull not worry about new media, nonconformity conformity,or unacceptance(n.b. may not be a word). why the f%#^ would anyone make a point of not being accepted because they happen to be smart.

Church said...

"Geeks fighting nerds. It's like lightsabers vs. bat'leths"


"Z's post got me wondering if "geek" in the 2010's will become what "alternative" was in the 90's. You know, something that once actually meant what it was, but then went on to be appropriated in the interest of selling something totally mainstream to people who preferred to think of themselves as not-totally mainstream..."

Stopped laughing, because that's probably exactly what's going on.

Z. said...

I quite like "dorkus malorkus," John. Let's use it more!

So do I, Freya.

Thanks, Kelly!

You and Shael are far too kind, Ant. :)

I think, Matt, that me more we use the term "geek" divisively, the more we give those outside our sphere to adopt the term as simply another buzzword.

You make a good point about labels, Steffo. It's very nerdy to categorize things, I guess we just have to be wary of over-segregating to appease our own internal sense of order.

A lot of folks have cried "marketing foul" on that vid, Halfawake, and I think you've picked up on a valid reason why.

I read you loud and clear, Glenn, and I'm glad you found some inspiration in my words. :)

I honestly can't wait to hear that, Shael. I'm sure you'll bring some great musical insight to the table.

Thank you very much, K!

Thanks, Marc. I appreciate the support.

"Those who argue about whether or not they are a nerd or a geek are definitely both." Well put. Lawyered indeed, Soc! :D

You're thinking of G.I. Joe, funk. ;)

You're right, Nate; I also think that the fact that the nerd/geek/what-have-you has sacrificed outside acceptance for inner fulfillment is an overlooked point.

I feel the same, Snake. Has "geek" just become a convenient hiding place?

A new term may be in order, Trevor, and I thin Hodgman is the man for the job.

I'm not sure I follow you, Sabregeek.

Agreed, Church; Nate draws an interesting parallel. I too could see the term "geek" lose its luster as a result of such corruption.

mammola said...

Oh man... reading blogs casually is really tough work.
Does 2 hours of reading blog while at work classify as casual?

Z. said...

Yes, Mammola. I think you have to average 4+ hours to reach "hardcore" status. ;)

Ham-STAR said...

Just reading this now, and it remains very true. Keep on speaking truth, sir, whether to power or otherwise.

Z. said...

Thanks, Hammy! I appreciate the support. :)

Anonymous said...

Geek: fervent hobbyist. (Adam)
Nerd: formal neurotic. (Jamie)
Dork: spaced out weirdo. (Napoleon Dynamite)

Z. said...

It's almost like you didn't even read the post, cybrr! ;)