But Everyone's a Geek Now, Right? / by b.woo

I was sitting in a presentation last week on the history of the internet, focusing on pre-web technologies like teletext, videotex, and BBSes. The talk was fantastic, but of course it had to be followed by a Q&A. This rather quickly turned into trading IT war stories from the good ole days. But I was snapped back into attention when someone casually commented that such-and-such a moment was "the beginning of the cultural legitimation of the geek," and everyone nodded their heads at this sage insight.

This kind of comment has become common sense, thanks to thirty years of "Revenge of the Nerds" and "geek chic" headlines. We all "know" that computers, the Internet, and successful sci-fi, fantasy, and comic-book movies have made geeks chic. We all "know" that we should be nice to nerds because someday we'll be working for one.<1> Indeed, we all "know" that nerd and geek are just meaningless labels because everyone's a geek now, right?

But it's the kind of comment I've become really sensitive to from paying close attention to how people actually use these labels.<2> Increasingly, I'm convinced that this whole idea is a myth. That's not to deny all of the individual facts, but only the grand conclusions drawn from them. That's because there's no stable referent behind words like nerd and geek. They're more like tokens in a game, and what they mean depends on what's at stake at any given moment.

The idea that the "triumph of the nerds" discourse is a media construction doesn't quite hold water, either. There certainly does seem to be more media interest in geeky subjects today, but mainstream media outlets are no more consistent in their coverage of them than ordinary people are. Two stories in the past couple of days reminded me that it's not all thick glasses frames and POW! BAM! comic-book headlines in MSMland.

First, Toronto's Globe and Mail broke the story that Naval intelligence officer and accused spy SLt. Jeffrey Delisle--wait for it--played video games online and bought cheezy replica mediaeval weapons. And he let his kids play video games, too. Lock him up and throw away the key! I'll admit that I hadn't been following this story closely, but I can't find any indication in the Globe's reporting that anyone alleges that Delisle was funnelling state secrets to Chinese goldfarmers in order to soup up his WoW character. It's more like they tracked down his ex-wife, and this was the most shocking thing they got from the interview. Granted, it sounds like maybe he had a bit of a problem, but then again you don't necessarily want to take an ex's side of things at face value, do you? In any case, this story--and its framing--serves no purpose but to make Delisle seems like a deviant and a weirdo for being a gamer.

Second, the Mary Sue reports that The New York Times's reviewed Game of Thrones on the assumption that no one could ever like it. Indeed, the review tells us precious little about how the new season is, focusing instead on why ordinary TV viewers can't be expected to devote their limited supply of neurons to a show with too many characters. Critic Neil Gerzlinger, who mostly seems still broken up over Ned Stark dying, not only has trouble imagining what audiences might like about the (book and TV) series but refuses to acknowledge that lots of people do like it. The show's audience, according to Gerzling, will never expand beyond people "addicted" to the novels and "Dungeons and Dragons types." Lurking behind this phrasing is yet another sneer at the Cheetoh-fingered basement dwellers.<3>

In some ways, this kind of coverage returns us to the original meaning of the word geek--that is, a carnival freak. But everyone's a geek now, right?

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  1. This quote is, interestingly enough, misattributed to Bill Gates. Its true author is conservative pundit Charles J. Sykes.
  2. See, e.g., Will the "Real" Nerds Please Stand Up? and A Fan by Any Other Name. \r
  3. With that in mind, I am really interested in Wil Wheaton's new show on YouTube / Felicia Day's Geek and Sundry, Tabletop. As Wheaton explained in a blog post the show is intended to showcase gaming (in this case Euro-ish boardgames) as a totally normal pastime for totally normal people. Of course, putting this message on a YouTube channel that is explicitly marketed to "geeks," however people hear and understand that, would seem to suggest a preaching-to-the-choir situation. \r