Tuesday 24 June 2014

What is a ‘nerd?'

That is the question I have been going over in my head during the last few weeks while trying to put this post together. You may initially think that there is a straightforward answer to this, but if you’re anything like me, any definitives you can find are immediately contradicted by an exception. It’s a sprawling umbrella term used to describe whole groups of people and who those people are changes dependant on who you speak to. I quickly found that what makes an individual a ‘nerd’ is really very difficult, if not impossible, to define. For this reason, I hereby add a disclaimer: the various lists I’ve made below in reference to all things geekery are not exhaustive and will inevitably not cover the whole beautiful range of fandom in all its guises. This is mainly because I am limited by own breadth of knowledge and it’s just boring to read super long lists. So please bear that in mind before drafting your hater letter, you terrific nerd, you.

Many people I know would definitely class themselves as a ‘nerd’ or a ‘geek’, whichever term you prefer, but others would still be offended at being given that label. Which is interesting, given the swing towards ‘nerd chic’ in recent years, one might expect more people to be embracing geek culture. But what I’ve noticed is not so much that people who aren’t naturally inclined to be a ‘nerd’ changing their thought patterns or behaviour, but nerds themselves embracing the label and being proud of their difference. And *that* is the bit that’s really interesting.

Once upon a time, the term ‘nerd’ was used to be a pigeon hole people who are academically smart or have difficulty ingratiating themselves into social norms because of their esoteric interests. I think it began with the academic stereotype, particularly purported by American high school culture. This stereotype, for me, conjures up the image of an acne scared young man with milk bottle glasses and a weedy physical build, who snorts when he laughs and is the sort to make obscure physics jokes* or start talking about the differences between African and European swallows. Now, these academic nerds, quite frankly, run the world. They know the maths and they do the science, without which everything would come to a grinding halt and we'd be left running around sobbing, frantically trying to hashtag with a bit of rock and a stick. But the definition of what constitutes a nerd has evolved over the years to seemingly include anyone with an excessive interest in certain hobbies or works of fiction. Which pastimes and interests fall into this unspoken culture of nerdom varies, and the world at large sort of decides as a hive mind which ones will become assimilated into popular culture and which will always sit just outside it.

A recent example of the nerdly becoming the popular is Game of Thrones. I remember a time when George R. R. Martin’s books had a cult following and, while they were popular enough to bring home the bucks, overall he was just a steady away, fairly successful, author. Now, thanks to the HBO infusion of tits and todgers, he’s a rock star. Suddenly everyone I meet is talking about Jon Snow and the White Walkers and I get horrified looks if I dare to say something as blasphemes as ‘Yeah it’s alright, but I find it a bit plodding.’ Game of Thrones has been assimilated and will never again belong only to the loyal geeks that read each instalment and tested their patience waiting for each new book to eke out a little more story before another six year wait.**

I did a brain storm (mind map? Whatever you want to call it) of all the signifiers of nerdom, but each one, from gaming (old fashioned and computery), film fandom, a love sci-fi or fantasy, model building, re-enacting, bird watching, hell , even comic collecting, all of these things are still pastimes that do not define an individual as a nerd. If you do a venn diagram comparing the interests of the nerd against the interests of the (for want of a better word) layman***, you will find that there are very few interests a nerd could have that an average person on the street would not have. The few that do appear to be almost solely belonging to the world of the nerd generally boil down to fantasy role playing games. I think you would find it near impossible to locate an individual who plays WOW, Warhammer or Dungeons and Dragons and does *not* consider themselves a nerd on some level. Even if they are a self-loathing nerd in deep denial, I truly believe that to have a sustained long term interest in one of those pastimes indicates that beneath the exterior facsimile beats the heart of a geek. Which is, of course, why I chose to write about the one hobby I have that seems to have the deciding vote regarding character definition. That, and the fact that my friends always amuse me with their banter, so I hoped it would make for some entertaining reading!

Geeks are hard to spot at first glance though. Not least because for the same reason that most of the population have interests that cross over into the realm of the nerd, so too do most socialised nerds have interests that the world at large find acceptable. In fact, survival as a nerd quite often depends on the ability to locate and develop these more socially acceptable interests. Sport is a big one, particularly for men, for women it tends to be more things like fashion, but these are massive generalisations, and it all comes down to society’s perception of what an ‘acceptable’ obsession is. And let’s not kid ourselves that it’s not all obsessive behaviour, it’s just that certain forms of obsessive behaviour, such as being into football or celebrity, soap opera or self- image, are considered more ‘normal’ than others.

Many nerds find the most successful form of social connection comes through a skill or interest that society at large considers valuable. Again, excluding the academic nerds and those who have a trade (for example, mechanics are obsessed with engines, but have you met many mechanics who consider themselves a nerd?) these broadly boil down to skill sets involving sport, art, music, writing, acting, or cooking. People consider having abilities in these areas meaningful because they create things that can be appreciated by society at large, but they often don’t consider the fact that in order to be successful in their chosen field, an individual has to be obsessive about their passion. It’s the 10,000 hours theory, that it takes 10,000 hours practice at anything to become a genius at it. You’re not going to invest that amount of time into anything unless you are *really* into it. This should make me an expert level TV watcher, as it goes.

Writing is my social connecter, it is the one thing I do that is considered accessible and worthy and that I retain an obsessive level interest in. My love of literature is something I used to be mocked for. If you decide, at 11 years old, that you love Shakespeare, you really had better prepare for your peers thinking something is severely wrong with you. I have since been accused of being pretentious, but I wasn't pretending anything, I connected with those plays, I was excited to tell my friends about it and I was gutted to find that not only did they not get, they thought I was pretty fucking weird for doing so. So I just shut up until I got older and I found some people I could speak to about it, but trust me, despite this, not a lot has changed. Kids, especially, but adults too, mock or even bully people for having interests and hobbies that don’t fit the norm. The more people are mocked, the more separate their interests can become because they feel rejected by the people around them. This can lead to those who have been cast as a nerd retreating further into themselves and their behaviour will become even more off-beat. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in that sense. Thank Zeus for the internet, for allowing us to find connections with others, to feel part of a community of like-minded people, if we fail to find one closer to home.

I've been re-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer recently, because *news flash* I’m something of a fan. It’s the first time in ten years that I’ve sat and watched it through in its entirety, not that it was ever that far from my mind. That show is important to me because it helped me to develop emotionally and face the issues in my life. I think often people are more likely to connect with a fantasy world than a realistic one, because it is an exaggerated story of what we are going through emotionally. I turned from the reality of the experiences in my life because they were too difficult and painful to process head on, but BTVS helped to me to engage with them. Because no matter what you go through in real life, it's never going to be worse than the things that happen to the people of Sunnydale, and if they can cope, with good humour and good choices, then surely so could I? I watched The Zeppo episode the other night, which is the story of Xander, tired of being the loser, the nerd, trying to find his cool. Of course, through the events of the story, he learns to embrace the real stuff that makes him special and awesome. In quieting his worry about what everyone else thinks, he stops trying so hard, in essence, he finds his cool.

As we get older we all find our cool. I am no longer ashamed of the interests I have, but proud of them. I think all of my obsessive interests are rooted in emotional connection. To quote the Buffster herself, ‘There’s this thing that happens here...where the way a thing feels, it kind of starts being that way, for real.’ She’s talking about the Hellmouth, but isn’t that just like life and our perception of it? If something feels like the end of the world to us personally, it is that way, isn’t it? Our reality is almost entirely subjective, and I think that is, at least in part, why we appreciate epic storylines where the events in the characters’ lives *are* the end of the world, they are important to the world at large, as well as to the individual character, because it mirrors the enormity of how the events in our lives feel to us. 

Nerds do tend to have more complex obsessions, what they get from their interests can be multifaceted and the interests that become dominant are the ones that have many layers of connection and satisfaction related to achievement, acquisition, goal completion, reward, emotional release, understanding or problem solving. All of these aspects are linked to identity. Exploring and expressing these interests express our identities. That is why, to me, they are always the most fascinating personality traits.

One of the draws of D&D, for me, is the character building aspect, literally. Playing has helped me to develop my confidence, decision making, communication skills, through experience, trial and error, wins and losses, and this gives me a sense of achievement. There is also the aspect of escapism, when you’re playing that role you're not a partner, an employee, a parent, nothing about your character is about your responsibility to or for someone else. Just for that little while, it's just about that fantasy world. It is also an opportunity and excuse for friends to catch up, have a laugh, have a drink, which is why we don’t take it seriously, whilst still taking it seriously in our own way. We just do our own thing. If we were ever to try to play in a proper D&D tournament, we’d be thrown out in a heartbeat. Those nerds would not tolerate our pathetic attempts at remembering the rules and the haphazard manner in which we approach all situations. We would be dead in one encounter, two if we were lucky, level 10 be damned.

I can say with certainty that these hobbies of mine have helped me to define who I am not in relation to my job, or through my relationships with other people. Although these things are an important part of who I am, I will be me with or without those influences. That's probably the main thing I've learnt in my nearly thirty years on this planet, I am my interests, I am my passions. This is why I embrace them, flaws and all. Because being a nerd, if that's what you want to call it, has left me free to be me. Plus, more than any of that, playing games, telling stories, creating and building things are the most amazing abilities of our species. To quote the most excellent Adam Savage, ‘I reject your reality and replace it with my own.’ That's why, even though I know it’s not real, ****I love the BTVS universe, because it’s dark but heroes are heroes no matter how dark it gets, and that hope is something I need in my life. The world at large teaches us to be cynical but if you can keep some of that innocence and hope alive, you will be a happier and more generous individual for it. In the end, would you rather be someone who lives how the world should be or who lives in the world as it is?

I rush to tell people I really like everything that I am and it's not because I think that my experiences, ideas and passions are better or more interesting than everyone else's, it's because I'm terrified that you will think that I'm not interesting at all. I am getting better, I think, I try to listen more and be less of the intenso-nerd but please understand that, when nerds do that, when they are telling you in exhaustive detail why what they love is so important, it's because they want you to understand how awesome it is, they want you to get it, they want you to get them. But at the same time, they don't want you to love it quite as much as they do, because it's special to them, it's theirs, even if there a thousand people that feel exactly the same way about it. Ah, the nerd paradox.

I have people in my life that I connect with in different ways, I love spending time with them, I respect them, value and admire them, but in a million, billion years, they will never quite get my nerdom. It doesn't matter with them though because they like me and accept those interests as part of me. It is those people that have made me more socialised and accepting of other points of view, and although, for the same reasons, I may not get their passions and interests, I don't need to, because they are just a part of who they are and I like them. There are, however, a small number of people in my life that not only like me, but get the nerd heart of me, and those connections are very special indeed. What I am trying to say is, whatever my label, I will always have a soft spot for the nerd personality, because even when it's off-puttingly intense, it's somehow genuine and innocent at the same time. The love of the nerd is a pure one, and there is something exceptionally charming about it. 

So that’s the long and short of it with my exploration of the concept of nerdom, I think. It’s not that nerds are doing anything out of ordinary by trying to find connections and express themselves, it's just the way in which they chose to express themselves that makes them different. I'm a part of the world in a thousand ways, it just happens that the things I connect with on a deeper level, my passions, on balance, tend to tip over into the newly developed concept of the ‘nerd’. I'm not trying to be one and I'm not trying not to be one either. If people want to define me as one I'm proud to take the name, but ultimately what I embrace, what I am proud of, is me.  

So here is my conclusion, care about what matters to you, and don't give a shit if everyone else does not get it, does not get you, just value it when they do. 

*Why are quantum physicists so poor at sex? Because when they find the position, they can't find the momentum, and when they have the momentum, they can't find the position.

** The Axis of Awesome explain this much better than I ever could! The Axis of Awesome - Rage of Thrones

*** and I did ;o)

**** No really, I do, honest :op


  1. My sister loved GoT but said it eventually went from fun to mildly depressing or, as she put it, "like the cat being ill". I've never seen it so cannot comment on the similarities!

    1. I love that analogy! I've never read the books but the show just became more boring than depressing for me...