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Nerd is the word, geek is the speak

“In a perfect world, all the geeks get the girls” — at least, according to American HiFi. For those unversed in punk rock from the mid-2000s, this song outlines a boy’s unexpectedly successful romantic/sexual encounter with a girl at a bar. More than the incident itself, the lyrics speak to times when we feel socially awkward and yet somehow “get lucky,” encouraging audience empathy with the “loser” protagonist.

The song, aptly titled “The Geeks Get the Girls,” is just one early example of an ongoing trend: the inclusion of geeks and nerds in popular culture. In many ways, this movement is heartening progress towards recognizing a group of society’s historically unpopular outcasts. While geeks and nerds of yore were almost unilaterally considered to be off-putting, socially inept brainiacs, today the terms are less insulting and more inclusive — a result of the changing attitudes toward technology in the digital age. Along with these new definitions comes the prospect of greater acceptance for nerds and geeks themselves.

By today’s popular usage, what is a geek or nerd? The question is a loaded one, and I won’t encapsulate the whole debate here. A popular distinction is that geeks are enthusiasts and fans while nerds are intellectuals and practitioners — so a Star Trek geek will tell you what class of starship Kirk commands in the original series, and a Star Trek nerd will build it for you (or try). The terms are not mutually exclusive; many nerds are geeks and vice versa, and theoretically one can be a nerd in one area and a geek in another. A number of traditional dictionary adjectives, such as “peculiar,” “unfashionable” and “awkward,” need no longer apply, although in popular consciousness, nerds are often associated with computers more than with other scholarly pursuits.

Nonetheless, the old stereotypes are far from disappearing, though they may be invoked more affectionately than maliciously. For example, the wildly popular TV show “The Big Bang Theory,” now in its eighth season, follows a group of three socially awkward male scientists plus one engineer as they navigate work, friendship and romance. The overall tone of the show is playful, paying clever tribute to “real” nerds while obviously exaggerating certain stereotypes on-screen.

Yet as with any media pursuit, there are some uncomfortable tendencies in the show. Most of the characters are preoccupied with sex or sexual attractiveness, all but one of the leads is white and of the four main women on the show, the only one that is not supposed to be socially awkward is also the least brainy. We don’t expect the media to be an accurate portrayal of life, but these kinds of issues of representation continue to shape cultural perceptions in sometimes harmful ways.

So does popular culture’s mantra that “smart is the new sexy” really imply greater social acceptance for the awkward, the peculiar and the unfashionable? Or do people feel kindly toward nerds and geeks on the screen but not on the street?

There is reason to think that the attitude toward geeks and nerds — not just their celebrity counterparts — is changing. In this regard, the technology boom of the modern era has been a real boon. Society’s increasing reliance on digital devices and apps has opened the doors for nerdy engineers and programmers to exercise their talents for ends nearly everyone appreciates. One educational psychologist suggests that “geek” and “nerd” have lost many of their negative connotations in our generation because the shift from the manufacturing to the information age has made more traditionally geeky or nerdy inclinations economically and socially valuable.

Regardless, is it possible that more inclusive definitions of the words just obscure the subset that is still singled out? This is a difficult and complicated issue to tackle. An indirect but hopeful sign of progress is the individual’s choice to identify as a geek or nerd, often as a symbol of pride (think “geek chic” or “nerd nation”). Those who voluntarily adopt an identity are less likely to feel like outcasts.

Furthermore, the Internet gives geeks and nerds a refuge and a community. Instant access to themed discussion forums, chat rooms and posting/blogging environments like Tumblr give people an easy way to meet others that share their interests. For geeks, this is a rich opportunity to share one’s enthusiasm with similarly enthusiastic peers and to discuss news, advice and personal experiences with others who understand one’s obsessions and struggles. Fandoms are a prime example of online geek havens, which form what analyst Henry Jenkins calls “knowledge communities” dedicated to the “dynamic and participatory” acquisition of information related to a common interest. One needs look no further than ThinkGeek to see that fan communities have even penetrated the market.

Whether we embrace our obsessions with “Lord of the Rings” or particle physics, or whether we really believe that the geeks get the girls, there’s no better time than now for putting aside concerns of social awkwardness and focusing instead on the interests and inclinations that mark our contributions to our jobs and our communities.

Contact Mindy Perkins at mindylp ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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