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.