If you self-identify as a nerd, a geek, or any other variety of niche-interest genre person and have attended any of the major gatherings (San Diego Comic Con, New York Comic Con, or my personal annual pilgrimage, Fan Expo Toronto), you’ve probably heard the complaint – and maybe even made it yourself: these people aren’t real nerds! As what used to be called “geek culture,” and before that was just nerd stuff goes more and more mainstream – with genre franchises like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones regularly being critically hailed and popularly obsessed-over – what used to feel like a ghetto has turned into more of a theme park.
“Who the hell are all these people? I was reading X-Men before they were born! I freaked out over the Red Wedding fifteen years ago!”
Many of us are quick to criticize the Comic Cons for catering to the broadest possible audiences at the expense of those of us who have been there since the beginning, the dyed-in-the-wool Trekkies/Trekkers and Dungeon Masters who actually suffered social ostracism for being too into the wrong kind of stuff, and lots of us are eager to cast stones at the corporations that are falling over themselves to squeeze every dollar out of the jocks who play Call of Duty and now call themselves videogame nerds. We feel exploited. We feel insufficiently revered. I get it. I’ve felt that way too.
But then I realized something. What’s happening now is nothing more or less than the gentrification of geek culture, and like many of those people who are vocally opposed to the gentrification of communities, what’s really upsetting us is not what we think. What we’re experiencing is a threat to our claim of authenticity; the degradation of the value of our social capital. We’re used to feeling better than other people because of the stuff that we like – but if everyone now likes the same stuff that we always did, we aren’t special anymore; thus we invent categories like “real nerd” to defend ourselves. But this is one of the oldest logical fallacies in the book.
The “fake geek” is the contemporary “No True Scotsman,” a logical fallacy wherein a term is arbitrarily redefined in order to exclude an example that for whatever reason the speaker doesn’t want to be part of that category. I’m not here to define what “geek” means, but the actual definition is beside the point. What’s important is the motivation for people who strongly identify with labels like “geek” or “nerd” to draw its boundaries so specifically that, for instance, “Tolkien Nerd” can only refer to people who read the Lord of the Rings books before seeing the movies, or that players of Farm Heroes Saga don’t count as “gamers.” Why is it so important for some of us to keep so many of “them” outside the linguistic boundaries of our subculture?
Because Geek Culture, like most societies, has an economy. More than the buying and selling of physical objects, the real marketplace of geek culture trades in that species of social status composed from a mixture of arcane knowledge and seniority (and sometimes accomplishment, though not always) – that curious currency known as cred.
Cred, of course, is neither original nor exclusive to Geek Culture. But because Geek Culture likes to think of itself as inclusive – due in no small part to its bonds being forged through the bullying and ostracism, usually in high school, that seems inevitably to come at the hands of “the jocks” toward people who like things that are not widely popular – Geek Culture is notoriously reluctant to admit to cred’s true nature: cred is the power to exclude. Geek Culture emerged from the clustering together of those cast off from the mainstream interest groups, so it has understandably identified itself precisely in opposition to mainstream and popular interests (sports is a good example of the kind of thing that’s often considered a shibboleth for one’s acceptance in the Republic of Nerd). But when what had once been a constellation of niche interests itself begins to become popular and mainstream – as Star Wars, superheroes, zombies, cartoons, and so on have now become – those nice Venn Diagrams on which we relied get all wonky. If scifi/fantasy/horror/comics knowledge is a major chunk of Geek Culture’s currency, then the current explosion of popular interest in genre is nothing short of permission for people to print their own money. And our own precious reserves of cred that we’d hoarded for all these years are experiencing a sudden and stark decrease in value.
Cred, or coolness, or social capital, of course exists in every culture and subculture, and the Barbarians at the Gates phenomenon similarly occurs anytime a bunch of people with a higher perceived degree of mainstream social status start invading spaces previously claimed by those with some subcultural cred. When this “invasion of space” is actually literal, i.e. when rich people move into a “cool” neighbourhood en masse, we sometimes call it gentrification, and that’s why I’m calling the current phenomenon the gentrification of geek, because it shares a lot of the same causes and effects.
Let’s take a page from Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter’s The Rebel Sell, where they incisively lay out exactly how the miserly banking of social capital frequently turns the cred-ful into utter hypocrites by referring to the case of writer and “social activist” Naomi Klein in her bestselling anti-consumerist (figure that out) book, No Logo:
Consider Naomi Klein. She starts out No Logo by decrying the recent conversion of factory buildings in her Toronto neighbourhood into “loft living” condominiums. She makes it absolutely clear to the reader that her place is the real deal, a genuine factory loft, steeped in working-class authenticity, yet throbbing with urban street culture and a “rock-video aesthetic.”
Now of course anyone who has a feel for how social class in this country works knows that, at the time Klein was writing, a genuine factory loft in the King-Spadina area was possibly the single most exclusive and desirable piece of real estate in Canada. Unlike merely expensive neighbourhoods in Toronto, like Rosedale and Forest Hill, where it is possible to buy your way in, genuine lofts could only be acquired by people with superior social connections. This is because they contravened zoning regulations and could not be bought on the open market. Only the most exclusive segment of the cultural elite could get access to them.
Unfortunately for Klein, zoning changes in Toronto (changes that were part of a very enlightened and successful strategy to slow urban sprawl) allowed yuppies to buy their way into her neighbourhood. This led to an erosion of her social status. Her complaints about commercialization are nothing but an expression of this loss of distinction. What she fails to observe is that this distinction is precisely what drives the real estate market, what creates the value in these dwellings. People buy these lofts because they want a piece of Klein’s social status. Naturally, she is not amused. They are, after all, her inferiors—an inferiority that they demonstrate through their willingness to accept mass-produced, commercialized facsimiles of the “genuine” article.
Klein claims these newcomers bring “a painful new self-consciousness” to the neighbourhood. But as the rest of her introduction demonstrates, she is also conscious—painfully so—of her surroundings. Her neighbourhood is one where “in the twenties and thirties Russian and Polish immigrants darted back and forth on these streets, ducking into delis to argue about Trotsky and the leadership of the international ladies’ garment workers’ union.” Emma Goldman, we are told, “the famed anarchist and labour organizer,” lived on her street! How exciting for Klein! What a tremendous source of distinction that must be.
Klein suggests that she may be forced to move out of her loft when the landlord decides to convert the building to condominiums. But wait a minute. If that happens, why doesn’t she just buy her loft? The problem, of course, is that a loft-living condominium doesn’t have quite the cachet of a “genuine” loft. It becomes, as Klein puts it, merely an apartment with “exceptionally high ceilings.” It is not her landlord, but her fear of losing social status that threatens to drive Klein from her neighbourhood.
This same sort of thing is actively at work in the “I liked it back in the day, then it got popular and now it sucks” that happens as the geek culture sphere expands wider and wider. As modes of production become cheaper, distribution models get more targeted and efficient, and both creators and audiences cross-pollinate and diversify (don’t just think about the Lord of the Rings movies and the Game of Thrones television show, but also of Black Swan and True Detective, both of which used horror tropes and broke them out of what would certainly have been called genre not too long ago),
We like to think that we, nerds, are individuals because have we minority interests that are in opposition, not just commercially but philosophically, to those of the mainstream. It’s in the interest of the modern western consumerist model to appeal to our inherent yet conflicting desires for individualism on the one hand and membership in a group on the other: your favourite TV show, videogame, or comic book is, whatever else it may be, a product. I don’t mean that in a bad way. Some of my best friends are products. But from the perspective of the people whose job it is to sell you the stuff that other people produce (and remember, if nobody bought that stuff it wouldn’t be able to exist at all), “If you liked X, you’ll love Y” is a really excellent marketing strategy; it’s a strategy that, when it succeeds (in many cases because if you liked X you really will love Y and will be willing to pay for it) serves to enlarge the space of products that inhabit it and the population of people who want to be associated with those things. That means more money and better opportunities for cross-promotional marketing (which, again, remember is good for the people who actually create the stuff that we love), but it also knocks at our precious feelings of individuality, of authenticity – it dilutes that sense of the subaltern that we’ve nurtured for so long. Unless you’re Bashar Al-Assad, it’s not super easy to oppress a majority of the people for very long (because there are more than them than there are of you), and the feeling of oppression is an essential part of the geek identity, and you might as well admit it.
Which is why gentrification is a particularly apt metaphor for what’s happening here, and why we should not only accept it as inevitable, but as an essential part of the maturing of niche genres into the mosaic of “acceptable” mainstream entertainments and interests.
People who rail against gentrification do so on the basis that it degrades the value of the social currency for members of the gentrifying neighbourhoods, destroys their “authenticity,” and by increasing demand for space in these neighbourhoods, raises the cost of living there out of the range of the neighbourhood’s previous, usually not wealthy, inhabitants. It does do those things.
But it also signals, according to many social theorists, a shift in beliefs and values of the gentrifiers. These people move in for a variety of reasons, but one of them is that they want to join a community because of what that community represents, what the people are like, what they do, how they interact with each other. We don’t like the stuff that we like just because it’s unpopular. We like that stuff because we think it’s good. So why are we so intent on alienating people who agree with us, who want to join us?
Let’s stop doing that. If for no other reason, for the sake of the next generations of nerds, who will not feel so alienated and unpopular, who won’t have to sit alone reading at lunchtime unless they want to, who won’t be left out when the birthday invitations are distributed, because nerd stuff is cool.
Well, the reason most people oppose gentrification is not because it makes them feel less cool but because it forcibly dilocates poor people and destroys local culture. There’s not much of a comparison to be made with nerds having to share space with jocks, although I can understand the fear of being relegated to a loser within the one place you thought you were cool.
Really, the absorption of nerd culture by the mainstream just demonstrates how non-oppositional geekdom was in the first place. After all, what’s more mainstream than consumerism and violent genre narratives? Was that ever a genuine alternative, or just a weird corner of society that nevertheless reflected the values of the mainstream?
I think you make an excellent point about how the values expressed by the majority of nerd media is reflective of the same values of the larger culture. I assume that a big part of this has to do with very, very few of these works having been made specifically to exist within a niche and were only adopted and into that narrative later.
One of the things that we don’t usually talk about in these conversations, and which the article only lightly touches on, is the distinction between nerd “culture” and the so-called nerds themselves. Because, for example, as popular as Marvel Comics becomes that doesn’t mean that there aren’t still properties which are thought of as being unfit for adults or teenagers to enjoy. It doesn’t mean that a lot of the people who were outcasts for entirely different reasons and gravitated towards nerddom as a response have suddenly been accepted along with their interests.
Yes, the high school homecoming king probably has an Iron Man poster somewhere in his room. But he probably isn’t on the autism spectrum.
This article is a good kick-off for the conversation but I think that there are more subtle factors at play here when we start to talk about social ostracization and how that overlaps with consumerism.
The “fake geek problem” is simply a natural effect of the generational shift: from Spielberg, Cameron and Whedon onwards the geeks now reached the buttons room and are shaping the pop culture.
If you choose geekdom because you were an outcast now you have to face a very hard decision: enjoy the spotlight and the company or finally realize that you are an outcast not because you were a geek but because you are an horrible person?
Pshychology 101 can easily answer the question.
Can I still at least claim overthinking cred? It’s all I’ve got left! Oh, woe is me if the popular culture starts probably deserving the level of scrutiny to which we subject it.
“We like that stuff because we think it’s good. So why are we so intent on alienating people who agree with us, who want to join us?”
Because they DON’T want to join “us”. What they like is a condensed, freeze-dried Hollywood version of what “we” like. Sure, Guardians of the Galaxy did well at the box office, but if you took away the title, the history of the property, etc. what makes it different from any other sci-fi B-movie about aliens trying to destroy the galaxy and some misfits banding together to save it? Give ’em Volume 2 and see how many of them will read it from cover to cover.
The same goes for video games. Sure, it might be funny for them to wear a Sexy Pikachu costume for Halloween, but would they ever actually play Omega Ruby or Alpha Sapphire? No, because they think it’s kids’ stuff, and if they were to ever see a Pokemon tournament, they’d walk away, shaking their heads at seeing everyone who was over the age of 12. God forbid someone ask them what they think of EV training. Sure, they might buy “the x-box” for Madden, but you them violent video games? They’d never let their kids play them. And anyway, we all know that Medal of Duty is for stoner slackers.
Don’t kid yourself; it’s not about them wanting to join us. It’s about companies finally hitting upon the formula for the proper candy coating. If you’re a “certain kind of nerd”, you should be familiar with the “Embrace, extend, extinguish”. This is really not all that different.
How recently must I have played Pokemon? Am I only a nerd if I play every Pokemon game? Red/Blue came out in the 90s. Plenty of us were kids at the time, and we played the games obsessively. Am I not a nerd because I have only played two Pokemon games? What if I love Pikachu because I played him/her in Smash 64? What if I played Pikachu and Kirby because they were the cutest characters?
Do I have to play competitively to be a nerd? What if I play for fun?
I’m especially disturbed by the suggestion that these fake nerds should give their kids violent video games. Are nerd children someone immune to excessive violence in the media? Why in the world would you give a child a violent video game?
It’s a waste of my time to reply, but I have an compulsion to do so anyway…
You’re clearly missing the point. Both examples were intended to illustrate the viewpoint of people who are superficially aware of what have become pop culture icons but who are either ignorant of the background and/or nuances or choose to have nothing to do with them based on ignorance and preconceived notions.
That you’re already aware of Red/Blue and Smash 64 already places you firmly outside this group.
How do we know the person in the Sexy Pikachu costume didn’t play Omega Ruby or Alpha Sapphire? Are Ruby and Sapphire the definitive Pikachu games? What about the other pokemon games? If this person played the other games is that sufficient or are they still posers? Which games must a person play before it is acceptable to put on a Sexy Pikachu outfit? Who gets to decide which games are superior?
Geeks are not born, they are created. I suspect most people begin down the path by sampling a “candy coated” version of geek property. I believe there is a problem with Geek Culture has issue with welcoming new geeks forgetting that once upon a time they had no knowledge on a subject.
Few people my age became Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle fans from reading the Black & White comic book series, they became fans from the 1987 cartoon series. The hardcore fans dug deeper and found the original comic series. In the process they might have stumbled across other geek properties and became fans of that as well. Others just stayed with the 1987 series and became expert geeks on that.
It is important to remember we all started as novice geeks and we should not judge least we be judged.
I find it interesting that so many of the comments seem to be getting tripped up on a “chicken and the egg” problem re: geek culture and acceptance. Are geeks unpopular because they like unpopular things, or are they unpopular for other reasons, and turn to the geek culture because they believe they will find acceptance, and explore the media once there so as to have common ground with other geeks?
I can only speak for me when I say that the predominant source of the angst is NOT devaluing of the cred, but rather disdain for Sunshine Patriots. Many of the people who didn’t give a rat’s ass about nerd culture now bask in its glory as if they cared about it the whole time, or never looked askance at those who quietly enjoyed it in the first place. That’s the first insult.
The second insult is the injection of cliquishness by those who view themselves as a kind of vanguard party for geekdom as they try to make it more respectable, or (like in the case of gaming) closer to Art. Part of this cliquishness is the adoption of terms like “Neckbeard” or “basement dweller”. Neckbeard now carries the same connotation that “nerd” and “geek” used to.
1. People who never cared for nerd culture and probably made fun of it, partake in it now that we are in the Golden Age of the Geek
2. Not content with simply basking in the glow of the newly cleansed moniker of “nerd”, some of these people try to push their ideas of what needs changing in order for the culture to grow and mature. Sadly, these arses poison the well of any discussion about inclusivity that should be had by genuine folk.
3. Facing resistance from those within that community, they cannot use the term “nerd” as a slur the opposition, so they resort to words like “Neckbeard”, “basement dweller”, “obtuse shit slinger”, or “wailing hyper consumer”.
tl;dr Make fun of nerds. Identify as nerds once all negative connotations evaporate. Find a new word to make fun of those nerds who disagree with you.
Nobody likes preachy Johnny-come-latelies who appropriate culture.
I’m fairly sure the narrative you’re claiming here isn’t actually true. There’s definitely a cultural split in geekdom, but it’s entirely irrelevant to so-called Johnny-come-latelies. Most of the people who push for change in nerd media are people who have been there all along, and think it can be better, and most of the people who recoil from change are the people who have been there all along and are comfortable being catered to.
The idea of a colonization project by outsiders is pretty nonsensical. It implies conspiratorial thinking where no conspiracy exists. Just people who want new needs to be met (and try to meet those needs) and people who only want their own needs to be met (and try to ensure that’s the case).
I can see the correlation being made between gentrification of “cool” neighborhoods and mainstream acceptance of nerd/geek properties. But I think this article really sells the problems of gentrification really short by saying its all about keeping “cred”. Yes, wealthy people move into a niche neighborhood, transforming it into a watered down version of its previous self. The place loses its cool, and its inhabitants lose their cred. But there’s much more going on, which Rob touched on. “Cool” neighborhoods are generally populated by poor, often non-white people. These people are forced out of their homes, and then the culture they created and nurtured in these spaces is appropriated. That is gentrification, and it is not pretty.
I’m not saying that everyone shouldn’t be able to experience and appreciate all forms of culture, but that history shows us that once a culture (and its output; music, media, ideas) is taken from its originators and dominated by the wealthy hegemony, it stops being very innovative and starts being mass-appeal. This has pros and cons, a pro is that more people are exposed to the basic idea through the new, popular version. Some of those people will follow back to the original versions and people who created it. Many others will be content with the mainstream version. And this brings us back to geek chic. As others have pointed out, geeks are not born with encyclopic knowledge of star wars or whatever. They found something they liked, and it was probably a mainstream version, and then decided to trace it back, to follow it around, and experience as much as they could about this thing they now love. To become a geek about it. But we all started somewhere, with the watered down copy we were first exposed to. I can not believe how so many of the comments to this article basically exist to prove its point. Nerd culture has become so insular against the scary “fake geek”, the person who think Pikachu would be a cute costume even though they haven’t played a pokemon game before. It does have a lot to do with losing cred, and losing one’s self perception as “cool”. The definition of cool is that not everyone is. But if everyone starts to like what you like, what made you cool, then it is not, any more. I understand that fear, and it is genuine. But it is also irrational. The product you liked is still there, it still, hopefully, gives you value and happiness regardless of how many others like it too. If it didn’t, if you only liked it because it was nichey and made you feel cool, then guess what, YOU are the fake geek.
“That is gentrification, and it is not pretty.”. That’s one way to think to of it. But don’t ignore that pre-gentrification neighborhoods are generally slums, often dangerous ones. For all the people complaining that Times Square is sterile now, does anyone *really* miss the 1970s “Taxi Driver” version of it, full of muggers, drug addled hookers, and sleazy porno theaters? Even in the 1980s NYC was still viewed as a hellhole only worth converting into a huge prison as “Escape from New York” suggested.
You youngsters didn’t see Star Trek on broadcast TV in its first run so you are all POSERS!
Or we try not to be tribal and not give a damn when someone started watching Dr Who (Pertwee, the only real Doctor) and get on with enjoying life without pettiness.