Recently, a friend and I discussed what we saw as a palpable shift in “Nerd Culture.” We agreed that a tectonic shift happened once the things “nerds” loved came to dominate popular culture.
I offered what I thought was a neat insight, that “nerds used to be punk rock.”
Nerds Used to Be Punk Rock
The gentle implication of that is that the “nerds” from “our day” were once proud iconoclasts comfortable with being on the outside of social circles, and finding their own tribe.
The more damning read is that the “nerds,” now in the dominant position, are the bullies. They’ve become what was always perceived as the antithesis of the nerds, the “popular kids.”
I’m not going to go through the “litany” of nerdy things that are now “mainstream.” You know them, and I’m not trying for word count this time. The Big Bang Theory leveraged nominal pop culture references to a lengthy television run while cloaked in a patina of “nerdiness.”
It’s the classic conundrum. Have “nerds” become the very thing they hate? Are we all Charles Foster Kane?
A Passionate Note
While thinking through this all, it seems that the metric for determining if someone is a “nerd” about something is, simply, passion.
Am I passionate about things some people consider “nerdy”? Sure! I’m passionate about a lot of things, from grammar to the the fact that you should eat with your mouth closed. Some have told me through the years that I’m too passionate about some things. I concede
People are passionate about a lot of things, though. There are people who are passionate about watching The Bachelor. There are other people passionate about well-maintained yards.
For that reason, I’d disqualify simple passion as the identifier of a “nerd.” Since people can be passionate about anything, that’s a real broad metric and would mean just about everyone would be a nerd. As attractive a thought as it might be to champion while walking home from the The Breakfast Club, it’s more than a little reductive.
A Question of Fixation
You could postulate, then, that what you’re passionate about would “make you a nerd.” This would follow as a way highlight personality distinctions between someone passionate about Dungeons & Dragons as different sort of person than someone passionate about horticulture.
That sentiment seems primed for a charge of “gatekeeping.” While it’s a very popular thing to do when someone doesn’t comprehend a larger point and so someone wants to undercut your point, it would be a stretch to say that I’m setting criteria to determine membership in a group, or acting as a virtual bouncer at the metaphorical door.
It should be clear I’m not judging anyone’s likes or dislikes, or setting a bar for entry. As an aside, I find such charges curious since no one can determine what you like but you, and can sod off otherwise.
I’m talking about my attempt to figure out what, specifically, causes someone to be called a “nerd” in the first place.
Wikipedia seems to fixate, itself, on the idea of the “nerd stereotype” and have difficulty on its own nailing down the definition. There is a fascinating portion there of it about the possible etymology of the word, which I guess makes me nerdy because I read it?
Closer to the Root
As I kept digging, the question isn’t whether “those things are nerdy anymore,” but rather, “Were they ever nerdy in the first place?”
The faint hint of this insight was caused by the thought that things considered “nerdy” when I was younger are “pop culture” now. It made sense that a source of discomfort for older “nerds” was that the things which were niche – comic book characters especially – are now commonplace.
That could make it a function of age, of a giant midlife crisis in slow motion. I’ve seen plenty of people wander that path, insisting what they loved when younger was a better version of what people love now. I’m talking about a different attitude. I’ve seen a discomfiting habit, among “nerds” in my own age range, to phase out of current culture and fixate on things they know from the past the same way our parents’ generation did.
The things we called “nerdy” were always pop culture items for kids. Everything from Transformers to G.I. Joe, to comic books and more, has always been pop culture, and heavily marketed. They were toys given long-running television shows which were 30-minute commercials at their core. The one exception might be the aforementioned Dungeons & Dragons, except even that got a cartoon and a movie I never bothered watching.
In other words, the things that I, and almost all the people I’ve personally known who called themselves nerds, have always been the focus of box office success, televisions shows, and overpriced trinkets for the crapper. Things haven’t changed, it’s that people have refused to let go of the things they loved as kids.
As I kept mulling these ideas, I began to doubt if I’ve ever truly been a “nerd.” It seems now that it might simply be a mantle I claimed, but don’t deserve. I’ve loved things with a childish love, but as established above, passion isn’t a solid criterion.
Passion would certainly explain the behaviors of some nerds who are now the bullies. Even the ones who claim they’re against bullying are all about proving their…whatever. I don’t pay attention, honestly, and don’t know why other people do.
What’s different is priority, I guess. My own father nurtured a love of model trains for his entire life, but never got excited enough about model trains to seek out arguments with total strangers about them. Perhaps he would have, if social media had existed.
I doubt it. I knew the guy pretty well, he was fairly grounded. At the end of the day, then it seems that the qualifying characteristic of a nerd is…childishness? That can’t be right.