Photo by  Jere Keys .

Photo by Jere Keys.

Geek Culture

Since at least the 1980s, there have been signs that something was afoot in the worlds of popular culture, as the interests and pastimes of people once dismissed as losers and weirdos gradually clawed their way to the centre of media culture. Today, between the annual spectacle of San Diego Comic-Con, the dominance of comic book, sci-fi and fantasy properties on bestseller lists, TV screens and theatre box offices, and the increasing visibility of fan practices, many media outlets have moved beyond arguing about whether the nerds have had their revenge to asking what it means that geek culture has taken over the mainstream.

But all of this hullabaloo about the triumph of geeks and their favourite pastimes has tended to focus on representations of nerds in the mass media or on the popularity of nerdy things with mainstream audiences. The impacts of these (perceived) changes on the ordinary people who have invested years or even decades in geek culture are rarely, if ever, questioned.

Between 2010 and 2012, I conducted an ethnographic study of one city's “nerd culture scene” for my dissertation research at Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication. That meant hanging out at comic book shops, game stores, conventions, and fan club meetings, and talking with people who used these spaces about the meaning of geek culture in their lives.

This research produced a rich record of people talking about and reflecting on their relationships with media texts and how they have enabled participation in various formal and informal communities – what we have, from the outside, come to call “geek culture” but which is actually a differentiated set of practices articulated together through shared resources, repertoires, and publics. These practices for the basis for creating friendships and communities, and they furnish interpretive repertoires and evaluative schemes – ways of thinking and talking about what is important in life.

My research suggests that being a geek is not a matter of who or what you are so much as what you do. Thus, it touches on discussions in subculture and fan studies and broader questions of the meaning of media-oriented practices in contemporary societies, in addition making more specific contributions to the study of particular nerdy practices, like gaming and comic-book collecting.

I gratefully acknowledge the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada’s Doctoral Fellowships program.

Relevant Publications

2015. “Nerds, Geeks, Gamers, and Fans: Doing Subculture on the Edge of the Mainstream.” In The Borders of Subculture: Resistance and the Mainstream, edited by Alexander Dhoest, Steven Malliet, Jacques Haers, and Barbara Segaert. Routledge Research in Cultural and Media Studies. London: Routledge.

2014. “Bigger on the Inside?: Fandom, Materiality, and the Limits of Participation.” Public lecture. Nerd Nite Calgary, June 12. YouTube.

2014. “What’s a ‘Real Geek,’ Anyway?” Public lecture. Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo, April 27.

2014. “A Pragmatics of Things: Materiality and Constraint in Fan Practices.” Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 16.

2012. “Understanding Understandings of Comics: Reading and Collecting as Media-Oriented Practices.” Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies 9, no. 2: 180–99.

2012. “Alpha Nerds: Cultural Intermediaries in a Subcultural Scene.” In “Cultural Intermediaries in Context,” edited by Jennifer Smith Maguire and Julian Matthews. Special issue, European Journal of Cultural Studies 15, no. 5: 659–76.

2012. “Can Pop Culture Save the Nerds? TV Portrayals of the Smart and Awkward Are Nicer, But What Is Their Impact?” Up for Discussion. Zócalo Public Square, July 4.

2011. “The Android’s Dungeon: Comic-Bookstores, Cultural Spaces, and the Social Practices of Audiences.” Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics 2, no. 2: 125–36.