Written by Dotty Winters

Voices

Geek pique

Nerds are on trend. So when are set squares going to be in, asks Dotty Winters.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

Illustration by Louise Boulter.

When I was at school I was distinctly uncool. I was in the geography club and the Girl Guides, I rarely drank and I didn’t quite understand the Take That fuss. I didn’t know I was a geek, because back then we didn’t really use that word but I knew I wasn’t cool. Like many people, as I’ve grown older I’ve become grateful for that part of my life and integrated it into my personality. I remain uncool but I’m cool with that.

But as an outsider looking at high school kids today it’s very hard to work out who the cool kids actually are. The rise of geek culture, along with other subcultures, has created a situation where a wider range of interests, lifestyles and fashions are celebrated than before.

Trends and fashion used to separate the cool kids from the not-so-cool kids but the lines have become blurred. Social media, and in particular community-based sites such as Reddit, have allowed people from across the world to connect with each other, making ever-smaller interest groups viable and vibrant.

On one level this is definitely a form of progress; it’s no longer a case of being forced to choose a team because, in theory, you can be whoever you want and find a team that works for you. Gone are the days of simple choices: mod or rocker, Blur or Oasis, hippy or beatnik. There are more teams than ever and many have more credibility and a louder, more accessible, membership than in the past.

However, despite this apparent flinging open of the doors, we’ve created a society where somehow it is possible to be the wrong sort of geek.

People’s interests have always been diverse but to create a viable subculture community used to require that you find enough other people who shared your passion. Smaller communities with limited communication methods meant that only some interests made it into the mainstream. The remaining interests held less sway, received less attention and never reached acceptability. The people who continued to openly support these interests were geeks, or nerds, or whichever disparaging term your community and generation favoured.

More recently, cultural and media influences (including the hipster movement, The Big Bang Theory and social media) have co-opted parts of this geek culture and yanked them to the fore. Suddenly it feels like everyone who is anyone is professing their lifelong adoration of comic books, superheroes, anime and vintage video games. Short of conducting all future exchanges in advanced Klingon, there is little the existing community can do to protect themselves from the onslaught.

As I watch some people being ‘rehabilitated’ by their admission that they were ‘really into Marvel comics’ as a child, I also see that loudly proclaiming my membership of the Geography club is unlikely to have quite the same effect.

The appropriation of geek culture has created an unofficial hierarchy of geek: being knowledgeable about physics is cool; in-depth nerdery about geology, much less so. Collecting comic books is awesome; trainspotting remains open to ridicule. Playing chess and World of Warcraft is almost mainstream; loving darts and Connect 4, much less so.

The words geek and nerd have far less sting than they used to, and many self-declare with pride but where does this leave the people whose hobbies and interests haven’t grabbed the public attention – the wrong type of geeks?

“If your identity has been partly defined by your exclusion by others, can you justify excluding others from your gang, even while you suspect that their inclusion may change that part of your identity forever?”

Many people who genuinely have loved comic books, superheroes or anime for years also feel uncomfortable about their unexpected time in the spotlight of cool. Those of us who have spent a lifetime being uncool are wary of (and sometimes intimidated by) the cool people. To find your safe space suddenly invaded by the very people you had retreated there to escape can feel uncomfortable and unfair. If you have found your voice and credibility in a group through years of being an active and positive member of a community, how do you react when others arrive with the privileged confidence of the always-cool? The urge to scream, “I liked this before it was popular,” might feel uncontrollable, were it not for the sneaking suspicion that they’d all claim the same.

Hobbies and membership of communities of interest are as much as part of identity for some people as heritage, race or age. Watching others adopt part of your identity in a way that feels disingenuous or temporary can make anyone feel uncomfortable but at the same time, most people who identify as part of the uncool set are resistant to the idea of excluding others, even when you doubt their motives. This creates an uncomfortable geek paradox: if your identity has been partly defined by your exclusion by others, can you justify excluding others from your gang, even while you suspect that their inclusion may change that part of your identity forever?

Adopting this identity as the latest fashion ignores the social exclusion that defined the movement in the first place. If this were a true move towards not valuing people based on their hobbies then all forms of geeks would be included. Instead an unofficial hierarchy of geek has been created – a system which is potentially just as excluding for those who are left out as it is for those who are usurped.

But fret not; chances are the trendsetters and brand consultants have already identified the next big thing: beards will be shaved, designer vintage cartoon T-shirts will be consigned to charity shops, anime-inspired tattoos will become passé and in no time at all, the early adopters will be someone else’s problem. Who knows, perhaps the geography geeks will be next? Maybe now is a good time to start an oxbow lake-inspired clothing brand.

@DottyWinters

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Written by Dotty Winters

Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.