The People vs. "Nerd Culture"

Is "nerd" an actual identity, or just another crude marketing term? Bob examines Simon Pegg's comments on the rise of all things geeky.

You don't need to do a lot of research to see how much the concept of "nerd" has transformed in recent history.

Take the all-powerful podcast network Nerdist, for example. Its co-founder and spokesman, Chris Hardwick, is a fit, well-dressed, handsome, and affable guy who regularly dates models. When compared to those Revenge of the Nerds-style stereotypes of the '80s and earlier, the differences are pretty stark: Hardwick wears no Coke-bottle glasses, pocket protectors, or orthodontia, nor does he exhibit any strange mannerisms or fixations that peg him as a social outcast--at least, not in public. Is he just using "nerd" to pander to an audience who may connect with this identity?

Nerds, 1984 (L) versus 2015 (R).

Well, it's a little more complicated than that. The truth is, we're all nerds--and not just the people reading these words on a video game website. What once made up the exclusive domain of nerdery has gradually filtered its way into the fabric of everyday life. We all grew up with and regularly use computers. Most of us carry a device in our pockets that can access an entire Internet's worth of information at any given time. We obsess and fixate over television shows, movies, and superheroes with an intensity once reserved for comic book store regulars. The fanatical Star Wars fan of the past is now just one of untold millions who enjoys what might be the most popular media franchise in the world.

That's not to say the word "nerd" has lost all meaning, though. Ad copy for Loot Crate, a subscription service that sends a box of popular-IP-branded goodies to your door every month, begins with "Are you a nerd, geek, or gamer?" What they should really be asking is "Are you a male, ages 18-40, with disposable income?" Since "nerd" has lost so much of its stigma and specificity over the passing decades, it's now become a marketing term, engineered to target and appeal to young (and young-ish) men. Take a look at Loot Crate's offerings, and you'll notice it's often hard to understand just how "nerd" figures into the equation. Sure, Guardians of the Galaxy-themed merch makes sense, but The Princess Bride? I prefer a little more consistency in my pop culture tchotchkes, thank you very much.

"Nerd's" transition from insult to all-encompassing buzzword might seem like a positive thing, but as we've seen with the tug-of-war over the equally meaningless title of "gamer," this change has resulted in some harmful effects. Just as gendered toys place arbitrary restrictions on enjoyment, "nerd culture" throws up similarly frustrating boundaries--as in "These are the things you're supposed to like, and if you don't, you'd better start."

Take a look at websites that used to focus primarily on video games, and you'll now see articles about pizza, rollercoasters, wrestling, James Bond movies, and SNL sketches. Why a review of Skyfall and not Selma? Hell, I go to a yearly film noir festival in San Francisco, and the screenings rarely seat more than 20 people at a time--that's gotta be magnitudes nerdier than Age of Ultron, right? So why aren't you seeing a write-up of Death of a Scoundrel on USgamer? Of course, you probably realize "nerd culture" was never about nerds to begin with. There's oodles of money in being the website equivalent of Spike TV--even IGN's corporate site emphasizes how much their product appeals to (presumably young) men.

Why let your children develop their own tastes and interests when you can instill love for your favorite brands from birth?

Simon Pegg (of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz fame) recently came under fire for commenting that our modern fixation with superheroes, sci-fi, and genre films is a result of people being infantilized by their own tastes. While his choice of words might have been a bit caustic, his response to the backlash really gets to the point Pegg was driving at.

"In the 18 years since we wrote Spaced, this extended adolescence has been cannily co-opted by market forces, who have identified this relatively new demographic as an incredibly lucrative wellspring of consumerist potential. Suddenly, here was an entire generation crying out for an evolved version of the things they were consuming as children. This demographic is now well and truly serviced in all facets of entertainment and the first and second childhoods have merged into a mainstream phenomenon," said Pegg.

By shifting the blame from the people themselves to the market forces that drive them, Pegg--whose autobiography is titled Nerd Do Well--really highlights the insidious nature of "nerd." There's nothing wrong with escapism, of course, but anything branded with this descriptor is typically designed to placate and pacify, rather than challenge. This wouldn't be an issue if the whole "nerd" identity--as with "gamer"--wasn't constantly reinforced by marketing. In a Capitalist society, few things are as unprofitable as nuance, so the "nerd" moniker has been used to cynically craft a large consumer base with roughly the same tastes. Within nerd circles, people may bicker about Captain Picard vs. Captain Kirk, but ultimately, they feel united by their identity based solely on consumption.

As someone who doesn't buy into nerd culture as much as my peers, I admittedly feel a bit left out at times. I don't keep up with or get excited about Star Wars, superheroes, or The Walking Dead, yet I get the nagging feeling that I should. And while I've always felt out of touch with modern tastes, I totally get Pegg's frustration. Ultimately, I want people to enjoy what they enjoy without shame, but at the same time, I wish the purview of "nerd culture" wasn't so limiting. Now that this identity is driven by commerce alone, it seems the only entertainment that falls within its boundaries are properties relevant enough to be profitable. In a sense, these limitations are putting us out of touch with a wealth of entertainment from the past (and present) that might have an abundance of artistic merit, but not enough universal appeal to make a Midroll ad on Nerdist.

Comic-Con might as well be called Popular-Media-Con these days. Can you even find the comics? (Hint: They're somewhere in the back.)

Again, you should enjoy your geeky stuff without shame--let your freak flag fly, so to speak. But beware false identities like "nerd." They're not just broad to the point of meaninglessness; their main function is to insidiously define your spending habits, an altogether icky proposition if you ask me. Writing as someone whose job might seem like the domain of nerd royalty, nothing is more refreshing to me than surfacing from this ocean of "nerd culture" to pick up a book, movie, or podcast that has absolutely nothing to do with my particular tastes--at the very worst, this habit has given me too many damn interests. And if you've felt trapped in the "nerd culture" bubble, I recommend you try the same. As countless hippies have said in the past, "Labels are for food, maaan."

Tagged with Bob Mackey, geek culture, nerd, nerd culture, USgamer.

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