Two perspectives on the new nerds

Twenty years ago, you weren't a nerd unless you'd lost your Paladin to an Orc critical strike in Dungeons and Dragons. Nowadays, you can label yourself a nerd after watching a single superhero movie. While nerds find themselves more socially acceptable in today's society, they may also find that their newfound social status comes at cost: what they value most.

The heroes of our grandparents' days were one-sided portrayals of the ideal citizen, meant to spread pro-American propaganda and encourage morale during World War II. But with the advent of the "Dark Age" of comics (1980-1987) and the "Golden Age of PC gaming" (1995-2001), the stories of spandex-clad heroes began to borrow techniques from science fiction.

In the '80s, Superman grew self-aware and realized that he may not be so, well, super. Comics writers started taking risks with character development and the concept of a hero in society. Games as well began to take multifaceted paths of choice and consequences.

Unfortunately, there is a prevailing belief in the movie business that a film has to dumb down to sell well. The same holds true for the gaming and television industries, and to a lesser extent, comic books. Publishers want to make money, but they can't take risks because of the high level of investment in producing the star-studded and CGI-laden summer blockbuster. What keeps entertainment fresh and interesting? Risks. It's a Catch-22 that causes nerds across the Internet to type long-winded rants every day.

The difference between a real nerd and "modern" nerd is that real nerds are more fiercely loyal to their area of interest. They will support a movie, book or game even if it isn't what they expected. The casual "modern" nerd is not as tied down and will skip an installment if it doesn't meet their expectations or heads in a direction they don't want.

As a result, creators of nerd content are constrained by the demands of the casual viewer, who will abandon them as quickly as they joined the fandom. The rise of a faux-nerd culture means that content is only going to become more and more generic, until the point of the original story is lost.

If you aren't a self-declared geek but still want to wear that Mario shirt, nerds will welcome you with open arms. If you want to undo years of character development, demand that Clark Kent always get Lois Lane and complain when Spider-Man is of a different race, you'll have to check your nerd card at the door.

Look, guys, nerd isn't a four-letter word anymore. And I think that's amazing.

I'm quite fond of two particular definitions of the term. Zac Levi, who played the computer-geek-turned-super-spy on NBC's Chuck and later founded the Nerd Machine, thinks a nerd is one whose unbridled passion for something, or things, defines who he or she is, without fear of other people's judgment. Chris Hardwick, of Nerdist Industries, calls a nerd someone who homes in on a topic in almost quantum detail.

The group that seemingly once included only pimple-faced mouth-breathers and virgins far more fluent in binary than actual conversation has transformed into one of the most vibrant and dedicated cultures in the world. Thanks to the past few decades' proliferation of technology and a paradigm shift within mass media, nerdiness is finally in vogue. We're not just people who sit in dank basements and play D&D while habitually hiding from the sun — although that's still quite fun — we're an international community connected by shared passions.

When I defend the "new nerds" I'm not talking about that guy in Starbucks who has never seen Star Wars but calls himself a nerd because he threw on a Hans Solo tee and fake glasses; the new nerds I love and would like to see more of have the same passion as the old generation, if not more, but they embrace social interaction. People who might have been isolated in the dark ages of geekdom are now able to connect with thousands of other fervent fans and form beautiful, meaningful friendships based on their common, fanatical interests. To be a nerd back in the day meant to retract into your shell and shirk interaction, but now to be a nerd is to belong.

I hope I won't offend sportsters with this comparison, but I think the new-age nerds are incredibly similar to typical sports fans. We both have a compulsion to know every detail about the things we like, whether that be precise pitching stats or the specs of each Iron Man suit; we scream (and sometimes throw things) when what happens on the TV screen isn't to our liking. We are passionate about something that in reality, honestly, is quite irrelevant. Unless the zombie apocalypse does actually occur in the next few decades, memorizing dialogue from The Walking Dead isn't going to do much good, and knowing the difference between a beautiful play and a garbage one in football really won't either — but it gives us a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

At the risk of sounding like a hippie, my favorite thing about the new nerddom is that it's all about love. It's about getting excited about things, and getting excited about things with other actual human beings. The nerds have evolved past isolation to collaboration; a simple X-Men sweatshirt can spark a conversation between two strangers, or quoting a line from Dr. Who in unison with a group of fans can make someone feel so much less alone.

I say, viva la nerdolution!

Two perspectives on the new nerds 04/09/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 9, 2014 1:25pm]

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