By Brendan Whittaker
To make a necessary generalisation, I think it would be fair to call nerds and geeks a community of people who are fond of looking forward, or elsewhere. The interest in high technology, the investment in ideal realms, other times, other places – many people in these communities spend a lot of time attempting to conceptualise progress (either technological or social) and how it affects people. Thus, many ’nerds’ and ‘geeks’ will hold socially progressive views with pride, looking back at a history of ideas and literature that championed egalitarian values, looking forward to a world where people are only judged on their character (Star Trek would be the most obvious example, but a quick glance over most of the popular intellectual properties within geekdom would detail many works which have a similar ethos). And indeed, I’m sure if you were to ask most nerds and geeks how they feel about ideas such as equal rights, respect for women, etc, they’d probably at least generally agree that these are ideals worth adhering too. However, for a good portion of the existence of such communities, membership has been made up of middle-to-lower class white males. This is not a bad thing, of course, but as more and more people from varied and diverse backgrounds have started to take an interest in geeky and nerdy hobbies, numerous problematic ideas and myths within geek and nerd cultures have become more obvious.
Geeks and nerds are no longer just outsiders who’ve been clumped together because of their communal ostracism and interests. They’ve become a brand, a specific sphere of public interest. And like any formally niche or underground movement that is suddenly pushed outside into the blazing daylight of public scrutiny, there are people who will resent the attention, promoting nostalgic ideas about the good ol’ days when they were allowed to do as they wished in full confidence of the support of most of their peers. This, I think, has led to a kind of backlash – a communal identity crisis of sorts. After all, the nerd/geek community was (and still is) a haven to those victimised, ostracised and bullied because of their interests. To the bullied, video games, comic books and science fiction become more than a simple hobby; they become an identity – a show of communal strength, and a display of contempt for the social idioms that rejected them. Certainly, this was the landscape of the nerd world throughout the 90s. Prior to the social communication boom, communities were often cell-like entities; little clumps scattered through the suburbs who might convene weekly for a game of Dungeons & Dragons, swap comics and video games, view the latest bootleg anime (fan-subbed, of course), or visit annual sci-fiction conventions. Through these kinds of interactions a communal identity formed, and by and large, these were middle class white men. Naturally, there were always the odd exceptions to the rule, but this was where the community was born and these kinds of friendly, relaxed interactions were where identity was calcified.
But as it does time and time again, the internet shifted this paradigm.
Though geeks and nerds were certainly heavily invested in the internet before it really took off, it was only when everyone else got interested in the online phenomena that nerds and geeks stopped being communities of social pariahs. The internet brought with it a degree of social acceptance that had previously not been experienced – but with this acceptance came a new wave of interest, and this is where trouble started. In a community that had spent a couple of decades being largely white, male and middle class, certain tropes had become calcified. Though many works of fiction that were enjoyed by the community would extoll the virtues of egalitarianism and diversity, when the community started to shift beyond its original base, resentment began to form – resentment against feminism, against political correctness, against any form of language or ideology attempting to address the exclusionary practices that had become so codified in these communities.
And that’s where we’ve ended up. You can see it in the choruses of moans that erupt whenever gender issues are engaged in regards to geek and nerd attitudes, whenever someone tries to make a case for inclusion-ism and accessibility (both of interface and thematically), whenever someone tries to examine just what these kinds of media engagements are actually doing to people. There are sizable portions of the community who find these kinds of discussions intrusive. In a sense, many long-held social myths amongst nerds and geeks are not holding up in the light of day very well.
So what to take away from all this? I’d rather not present this as a condemnation of nerd and geek communities as being particularly conservative or exclusionary – despite being a community created by outsiders who were either removed from the common social order, or removed themselves from it, nerds and geeks have not disconnected themselves entirely from the forces that shaped their original exclusion. There is no such thing as ‘outside’ society as long as there are still other people to engage with. And if nerds and geeks wish to truly live up to many of the socially progressive ideals that they would like to extoll, they have to perform the same kind of critical engagement within their communities as people have been doing in mainstream society for decades.