Authentically Geeky

February 18th, 2009

Once again I emerge briefly from the internet-silence brought on by teaching duties and heavy dissertation writing. I’ve got a bunch of posts on deck that I mean to get to sometime, but one link came in today that just couldn’t wait. Church emailed to call attention to an article titled “Is it time for a nerd army resurgence?” in Arizona State University’s student newspaper. Despite the title, it’s not quite a call to arms so much as a reflection on how our social norms have broadened a bit to make some kinds of nerdy, geeky folk feel more socially accepted, while still leaving some out in the cold. The author writes:

I’m a nerd. Not the “I was pretty popular in high school, but I loved those ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies” faux-geek, but the real-deal-Holyfield “I’ve seen every episode of ‘Stargate SG-1,’ and I openly dislike the taste of beer” Duke of Nerds.

I’m nearsighted, have terrible hair and get creepily good grades for comparatively little effort. Attractive girls still (kind of) make me nervous. I’m pretty sure my inner monologue is unabridged insanity.

I am, as my former kindergarten teacher put it, an “independent thinker.”

I’m fascinated by this concept of the “faux-geek.” The same concept comes up quite a bit in the material I come across in my research (such as in the analysis of the “fake nerd” in Ben Nugent’s American Nerd: The Story of My People). And, for obvious reasons, it’s something I have to address in my own writing.

The “nerd army” article quoted above doesn’t explicitly define what divides a real geek from a faux-geek, but it does offer some characteristics that the author considers self-evidently authentic: The real geek can’t achieve or actively dislikes that which is considered popular, mainstream, or adult (beer, ability to talk to the opposite sex); s/he embraces that which is denigrated (Stargate SG-1, good grades which are apparently “creepy”); and s/he sees some (undefined) connection between these characteristics and being “an independent thinker.” It’s clear that this author believes that the difference between the real geek and the fake has something to do with rejecting and/or being rejected by others according to certain cultural norms, but I’m not sure how some of these conditions (like “terrible hair” and nervousness around attractive women) might be connected to intellectualism and free thinking.

I’m curious, then, how people reading this blog might (or might not) draw the line between real geeks and faux-geeks. Certainly there are people who affect a trendy, nerdy image but wouldn’t call themselves nerds—but are people who actually call themselves geeks who you’d have to disagree with? If so, how can you tell that difference between the real and the fake? Even if you don’t make such clear judgment calls, do you find yourself acting differently around some geeks than you would around others? Personally, I’m more interested in keeping track of other people’s definitions than in declaring any one definition to be “right,” so I welcome any and all to chime in here—even if you’ve already put in your two cents on the subject of defining geeks vs. nerds.


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21 Responses to “Authentically Geeky”

  1. Church Says:

    I’ll just throw out another category, the crypto-nerd. The GF is one of those people. You’d never know it on first meeting, unless you start talking TOS Trek. Then, prepare to be regalled with Malachai Throne’s latest doings.

  2. Z. Says:

    The bottom line, Jason, is that everyone (or should I say *practically* everyone) is nerdy in his or her own way. I think the “faux nerd” phenomenon is really more an issue of cultural ownership. I would go so far as to propose that most of those concerned over others feigning geekiness or playing up their nerdy tendencies because of increased societal acceptance and the advent of geek chic – let’s call then “fashionable nerds” – are simply attempting to safeguard their own cultural identities. Ironically enough, this is exactly the brand of elitism that chiseled the nerd archetype in the first place.

  3. Matt S Says:

    I don’t see much difference between the “faux nerd” phenomenon and the typical holier then thou game that permeates any social circle that is larger then a couple of friends. At the end of the day, how does the faux nerd differ from Touch of Grey deadheads or Hot Topic punks?

    Nor do I see this as new even with in geek circles.

    Church, how many TOS fans slagged TNG fans for not being “real” trek fans. Hell, according to what Jenkins said when I saw him at Portus, the term “trekie” itself is actually a slag. According to Jenkins, Trekie was a term used for female fans of the show (trekies being trek groupies). “REAL” fans were known as trekers.

    In each case the group that is doing the slagging picks a couple of things which separates themselves (either in reality or in their mind) from the group that they want to slag, and they build a definition of “real” whatever around those points. In this author’s case he sees the difference in his grades, glasses, and social interactions. And so, he builds a definition around those things. For others it is whether you play video games or not, or may be which games you play. Or if you read comics, or code open source, or what have you. The definitions change from person to person. That doesn’t mean that they’re playing different games though.

  4. Church Says:

    “According to Jenkins, Trekie was a term used for female fans of the show (trekies being trek groupies). “REAL” fans were known as trekers.”

    Jenkins might be reading a bit much into that. Roddenberry called the superfans ‘trekkies’ and many of the early movers were women. But the rejection of the label was because it was passive, not because it was feminine (Oh christ, there’s a doctorate right there.)

  5. zandperl Says:

    To me a faux geek is someone who wants to be perceived as a geek but really holds little in common with geekdom. On the other hand, what I feel ASU writer Petrusek is describing in the quoted paragraph is a closet geek – someone who is outwardly perceived as cool and popular, but in reality has a few hidden traits in common with geekdom.

  6. Matt S Says:

    zandperl: and how does one define “geekdom”? Your comment implies that there is some kind of definition of what it means to be a geek.

  7. PaleAngelLex Says:

    You asked about geek and nerd. The way my friends and I define it seems to be different than the way most people do. I have to say I haven’t read all of your blog, so forgive me. Most likely I’m going to say something silly now.

    First I guess I should cover geeks and nerds. When I think nerds, I think of the Revenge of the Nerds movies. They are smart, and professional. I’d also say that Nerd is more specific than geek. Nerds can be rejected by the most popular, but if you put them in the business world, they are an asset. Nerds wouldn’t mind being part of the main stream and they fit in more so than geeks because…

    Geeks willfully set themselves apart. It’s almost a point a pride to be rejected. This is also a broader term though so it doesn’t fit in all cases. I also want to bring up tech here, because I think geeks are more closely tied to computers. Not to say that nerds don’t know computers, but where as a geek would be more likely to run Linux, a nerd would be more likely to have Unix, or Linux with a duel boot.

    As far as authenticity goes, it’s easier to identify fake nerds than fake geeks. Since geek is a broader term you have more room to play in. If you meet a completely mainstream guy and go over to his place, and find his wall covered in Anime wall scrolls, you would probably tag him as a geek not a nerd. Geeks tend to have actions more like that example. Geeks obsess, and I almost want to say that hardcore geeks tend to obsess over things that aren’t mainstream. But if I say that, what do you do with someone who obsesses over film or music? The “geek out” over it, but it’s not as clear of a line as a table top geek. So you go over to a guys house and instead of Anime his walls are covered with film paraphernalia spanning different times and genres. What does that make him? Is he a geek, or a poser geek who’s just obsessed with movies?

  8. Jordan Says:

    There’s an opportunity here to separate geek “identity” from geek “behavior”. Someone’s identity may or may not agree with their behavior. If you think you’re a geek, then you can identify as a geek. If others people claim you don’t have the cred to give yourself that label just because your behavior doesn’t fit their preconceived notions of “geek”, then they aren’t really acknowledging the complex personal decisions behind being a geek.

  9. Jason Tocci Says:

    Whew, looong response. Thanks to everyone for commenting!

    Church:
    Is a crypto-nerd somebody who seems not-nerdy but turns out to to be when you least expect it? (Not to be confused with cryptography-oriented crypto-nerds.) Incidentally, I’ve often heard the term (mentioned here by zandperl) ‘closet nerd’ or ‘closet geek’ used to refer to someone who actively hides their nerdiness, and less frequently (but more than once) I’ve also heard this referred to as being a ‘stealth nerd’ (see Ken Levine at PAX, who also refers to his former self as a ‘closet dork’).

    Matt:
    There’s a post recently up at Boing Boing by a guest blogger named Paul Spinrad, titled “We Are All Fractal Sheep,” in which the author similarly suggests that it’s our nature to make status hierarchies within each community or level of status. His example: There was still a popularity hierarchy at Bronx Science, even when everyone at school was still kind of a nerd. (I find that particular claim interesting, as it disagrees with some research I’ve read that suggested that nerd disdain disappeared in high schools that found ways to turn academic performance into a shared community value – e.g., prizes or penalties for entire classes based on overall performance.)

    Anyway, I’d agree that this is by no means unique to geek cultures; I’m just wondering about what characteristics (some) geeks themselves base these distinctions on. Are they wholly arbitrary, or are there some shared qualities or experiences that some believe to be more central to geek identity than others? Which brings us to…

    PaleAngelLex:
    First of all, nobody needs to apologize around here for silliness. Can’t have a conversation unless people are willing to speak up, right?

    I’m fascinated by the distinctions you and your friends use between ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’; they are, like you mention, not necessarily the same as the ones that others use elsewhere, but different concepts probably spring from different social settings. I think some of these points of distinction might seem a little more sharply defined than even plenty of self-identified geeks and/or nerds might make, such as using Linux versus a Linux/Unix dual boot as the test of who’s more computer-oriented; why not talk about interests in hardware versus software, or computing versus computing and robotics, or any of a number of other combinations/distinctions of interest, right? One distinction which does seem familiar to me, though, is the idea of welcoming the mainstream versus prizing outsider status.

    I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this as a point of distinction between ‘geek’ and ‘nerd,’ but I get the sense it’s part of how Alex (the author of the above article) may be defining the difference between \real\ and \fake\ nerds. As someone mentioned in the comments to another post on why Sex and the City fans are/aren’t geeks, “I thought geeks were nonfonformists (although not all nonconformists are geeks).” Again, I’m not in the business of negating anybody else’s definition of self, but I think it’s interesting to note how people are defining these things to get a sense of which ideals feel most central to different people’s sense of nerd/geekdom.

    Jordan:
    Even if we’re going to discuss a distinction between geek ‘identity’ and ‘behavior,’ that leaves open the question of who gets to define behavior as geeky (or not). One way of thinking of this that you might find interesting, though, is the distinction between ‘sincerity’ and ‘authenticity’ that John Jackson makes in Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity. The implication there is that ‘authenticity’ implies some objectivity, whereas ‘sincerity’ is a subjective definition of which identities and behaviors fit with a given ethnic/cultural background. Normally I wouldn’t start busting out identity theory in the comments, but since I know you personally, I thought you might forgive me. :)

  10. Jordan Says:

    Jason — awesome response. Regarding identity vs. behavior… I thought behavior was just about what people *do* without regard to the labels that different people would apply to it.

    Then, the question of who gets to define behavior as geeky or not is left up to the individual (with the possible influence of their peers and society and such). When it comes to geek groups “accepting” someone who identifies as a geek, there may be some implicit negotiation if the definitions are not the same.

  11. Jordan Says:

    And the identity theory stuff was tres interesant.

  12. zandperl Says:

    I would agree with there being hierarchy at nerd schools – I attended Hunter College High School and there definitely were more popular and less popular students. Just this past summer I was talking with my friend since high school Jen, about how I always perceived her as one of the popular kids and I as part of the unpopular crowd, so I was glad she was willing to be friends with me anyway. On the other hand she viewed herself as being on the outskirts of the popular group and admired my group for not bowing to the pressures to become popular.

    When I taught a couple summers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (CTY) academic summer camp for nerds, I also perceived hieararchy of popularity there. Being an observer I wasn’t always aware of how the structure went, but I definitely knew it existed.

  13. Geeks and Nerds « Around Teh Table Says:

    […] the same question as what makes a geek authentic. One of the blogs I’ve just started reading deals with this question as well, and I sugest checking out Geek Studies, for an educated read on the points I’m […]

  14. Phill Says:

    Haha, I love the term crypto-nerd, tho I don’t think I’ve met any yet.

    I’ve felt the need to apply ‘faux geek’ to some people.

    With the advent of twitter and facebook, some people feel that they are now ‘geeky’ somehow, because they just use the internet a lot.

    I remember actually being annoyed because I felt like my term was being co-opted. I suppose personally the key distinction is, you can’t be hyper-social like some of those people, it’s almost a contradiction in terms, but more importantly you have to be obsessed about something, anything.

    It’s hard to make this clear distinction, because most of my friends are nerdy/geeky, and so I don’t have a clear basis for comparison. I have no idea what “regular” people do. I think they might use Facebook a lot?

  15. Jemimah Says:

    I don’t think one can successfully understand what makes a person geeky without taking personality types into account. Geekyness (or nerdiness) is not merely defined by a particular set of interests or a specific fashion sense, but primarily by the possession of a “rational” temperament (http://www.keirsey.com/handler.aspx?s=keirsey&f=fourtemps&tab=5&c=overview).

    Geek culture itself is an expression of the rational personality types (especially the introverted INTJ/INTP types), which are meritocratic and pragmatic, and value abstract problem solving skills. A faux-geek attempts to appropriate or deconstruct geek stereotypes, but lacks the technical competence and logical mindset required to be taken seriously by the rationals that make up the majority of geekdom.

  16. Matt S Says:

    If being a geek/nerd equates to being rational, then please explain the plethora of examples to the contrary? An obvious example would be the confusion between subjective value judgments and objective facts. The “Star Wars is better then Star Trek” type discussions. While many of these discussions are just done for fun, there are plenty of examples where one or more of those involved is dead serious.

    I’m pointing this out because I think it’s time for us to stop dislocating our shoulders by trying so hard to pat ourselves on the back. This whole mindset that “geeks are smart” or “geeks are rational” or “geeks are better with tech” is utter crap. Worst of all, it is exclusionary.

    If we seriously want to approach the idea of what is, or isn’t, a geek/nerd then we must look with suspicion on any definition that makes us better, in any way, then non geeks/nerds. It is the only rational thing to do.

  17. Church Says:

    I think what Jemimah is getting at is the distinction b/t geeks and ‘hipster geeks’ (or whatever.) Matt’s example isn’t out of line. Yeah, there’s endless “X is better than Y and I can prove it to you,” but the fact that one is willing to engage on that level of discourse is the mark of a true geek.

    (The GF and I spent a good part of last night discussing the physics of Space:1999’s premise. Just so you know where I’m coming from.)

  18. Matt S Says:

    And I say that the whole debate about what seperates a real geek from a “hipster geek” is crap.

    For one, there is no way to answer the question. And worst of all, there is no way to respond to the question with out making gross over generalizations that perpetuate exclusionary mind sets and play into the whole “cooler then you” crap.

    The questions may have had some validity at one point, but it has now turned into a case of us eating our young. Face it, the only way to win this game is to refuse to play.

  19. Church Says:

    Hrmm. I’m actually agreeing with both of you. I think Jemimiah’s distinction is valid, but I think Matt is right in that it’s not worth pursuing.

    One of us, is, after all, one of us.

  20. Jason Tocci Says:

    Thanks for weighing in, all. You may know from my posts here that I’m more inclined to go by people’s own definitions of themselves than to impose one top-down definition—partly because of my theoretical inclinations as an ethnographer, and party because of my personal inclination to avoid exclusivity. I do understand that there are plenty who understand certain things as distinguishing geekiness, though, and I appreciate honest responses to my request to understand those perspectives better.

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