Monday, February 11, 2013

The New Nerd

Nerds are cool now. This isn't really a statement of controversy. Once upon a time, movies like "Revenge of the Nerds" painted nerds as outcasts, and computers were so arcane that you needed to pursue a very specific - and alienating - skill set to be well-versed with them. Nerds had unpopular interests, were skilled in unpopular hobbies, and were represented in an unflattering way.

Pictured: The '80s.

This is not so anymore. Technology pervades every facet of our society, and computers are no longer the inaccessible tool that they once were. What was once considered a nerdy skill set is now essential knowledge if you want to be a functional worker and consumer. Overall, the things that nerds used to "do" have pushed society's capabilities so far forward that nerdy skills and hobbies have become self-evidently beneficial.

This is a good thing, but it poses a minor problem as to how the term "nerd" should be used. After all, if everybody's a nerd, then nobody's a nerd. The term has lost a lot of its original weight over the past twenty years, but it's still a word that frequently gets tossed around. So what does it even mean anymore?

In some sense, I think that this subject is pretty well-discussed already. Would you like an assessment on what 'nerd' actually means - the criteria behind qualifying for the label? Look at this blog post. You want a rant on how modern nerds aren't really nerds - that the term has not only mutated, but bastardized and misused? Look at this blog post, instead. There are enough people eager to call themselves nerdy - and enough people eager to tell that first category of people that they're not so nerdy - that this subject's been discussed many times over.

I'll spare you that discussion. It's old and it's boring. Let's talk about nerds and consumer culture, and how they've become nearly synonymous with one another.

Now, because the term nerd has become so broad, people tend to accompany the descriptor with further explanation. "Yes, I am a total nerd...I love to X". "I enjoy Y, I'm a little bit nerdy." In this context, referring to yourself as a nerd is little more than a show of self-awareness that you have a hobby which may be a little more exclusive than eating, and a little less mind-numbing than watching reality television.

What sorts of hobbies get plugged into phrases like "I'm really into Z, it makes me a bit of a nerd"? Well, it can be a particular TV show. If you really like the show Glee, you'll probably refer to yourself as nerdy, and you'll probably call yourself a Gleek - a term that basically refers to people nerdy about Glee. If you like Dr. Who, you'd probably enjoy calling yourself a Whovian. If you like Star Trek, then you have rights to call yourself a Trekkie.

But wait, we can work more broadly than this. If it's video games that you're into, you can call yourself a gamer, or even a "hardcore gamer". If you really like watching movies, you'd probably say that you're a "film buff". It it's sports that you're into, then congratulations, you're part of something mainstream enough where you don't need its own word - you can just call yourself a sports fan. But you can still qualify as a nerd.

There's a common trend to be observed. If you're a nerd, then you're an avid consumer of something. And, the nerdier you are, the more that you let your consumerism define you.

Nerdiness just becomes a way to categorize people by what they like. Contrast this to something like vocation, which categorizes people by what they do. Which brings up another quality of nerdy things - they're, generally, not terribly productive. If you're a film buff, then you spend your time watching a lot of films, sinking lots of time and money into your hobby while not producing or creating anything yourself. The same goes for gamers, for people who follow TV shows, and so on and so forth.

Granted, there are ways to turn your consumption of other people's work into something productive. Being a film buff might give you more insight into the film-making process, which would serve you well should you decide to create a film. Or, the opinions that you might have of film can better inform - and even inspire - other people's work. Prominent movie reviewers like Roger Ebert have created large quantities of written works that contribute back to their hobby, which could only have been done with their consumption of film. If you can find a way to make your consumerism a part of your vocation, then it certainly elevates you.

But, not everyone finds a way to do this. For some people, their nerdy hobby doesn't reach beyond consumption. Their devotion to their nerdy hobby stretches as far as the time and money that they're willing to spend on it. For some, this can be parasitic.

Liking anime is one thing. This is another.

It doesn't end there, of course. This blog's general theme is internet nonsense. Where does internet nonsense fit into nerdiness?

For one thing, the internet has brought a lot of new hobbies to the mainstream. The digital platform has allowed content producers of all kinds to post their creations for the world to see. At any given moment, there are many opportunities for someone browsing the internet to distract themselves with funny pictures, some YouTube videos, and so on. It's a similar problem to the over-consumption of television. Since the internet started out being predominantly populated by nerds, a lot of the content of the internet is now, as a result, an outlet for nerdier hobbies.

For another thing, the internet has made it possible for people with similar interests to connect with one another, and to affirm each other's opinions. Conventions for people with similar nerdy interests are now quite popular: it seems as though you could find an event for any subculture you could imagine nowadays. It's become easy to find solidarity and comradery within your nerdy hobby.

This brings an interesting element of factionalism into nerd circles. Most people presume that their own interests are inherently better than other people's interests, so sometimes one (or more) nerdy subculture will disparage other nerdy subcultures.

Process this, for a moment. Not only would you be defining yourself by the things that you consume (already a shallow existence), but you would also be defining people you like and people you don't like by what they consume.

This behavior is more prevalent around certain facets of nerd-dom. Ranging from the more casual instances of "What? How can you not like the show that I happen to like?", to the more insufferable gaming fanboys who insist on rushing to the defense of their favorite multi-million dollar international video game company, to the united insistence that your appreciation of My Little Pony totally doesn't deserve to be laughed at.

Congratulations to the nerds of yesteryear. You no longer have to be ashamed about being nerdy, and you've got the internet to thank for it. So long as you're cool with 'nerd' losing any real meaning or ability to describe any depth to your personality.

In a way, it's interesting that a once-pejorative term could become so trendy that it takes on a muted positive sentiment. It'd be nice if we could do the same for other, more malicious words in the English language. What the term 'nerd' has become isn't a bad thing, after all. Unless you're one of the old-world nerds looking for like-minded individuals, only to find yourself drowning in a sea of casual consumers who don't care about your interests nearly as much as you do.

But wait, there's some light at the end of the tunnel. Even though the new meaning of "nerd" is just a blanket term for describing what you like, there was once a strong association with the term and with specific skill sets. Being good with computers, being good with math, being good with science, et cetera.

Being proficient in these subjects requires a level of dedication that most modern nerdy people dedicate to their hobbies. The real difference is, proficiency in these subjects defines you by what you "do", rather than what you "like".

Since, again, it's gotten much easier to work with computers over the past 30 years, computer proficiency isn't strictly a "nerdy" venue, anymore. Math and science remain difficult subjects, but the popularity of nerdier webcomics and viral pictures vaguely relating to science has attracted a very casual following, all of whom are willing to also adopt the term "nerd".

This picture, found on a facebook page about loving science, has next to nothing to do with science.

The way that "nerd" is used today seems unsustainable. If it remains so vague, then eventually its redundancy will become clear, and the word will be superfluous. Again, if everybody's a nerd, then nobody's a nerd. It can go the way of trendy words, experiencing a boom of usage and then conceding the spotlight to the next fad word. After all, that's generally the fate of words that serve only to describe people by what they consume; since consumer trends happen in waves or phases, so will the words that accompany them.

That fate can be avoided for the word if we used it to describe what we do, instead of what we consume. Perhaps "nerd" will one day lose its popularity, and only be meaningful when describing those who actually spend their time working on an eclectic and technical skill set. Until then, the people using the term to define what they consume will continue to strip the word of its meaning, so that it can better fit with their meaningless lives.

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