Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Geeks vs Nerds vs Losers

I was listening to N.E.R.D.'s "In Search of" today on the way to a meeting, and it got me thinking about the whole geek vs. nerd nomenclature, and the geek renaissance in pop culture. For some people, geeks and nerds are interchangeable terms. For other folks, the labels have a nuanced difference that is hard to pin down. Generally it is more acceptable to be a geek versus a nerd. Without looking online so who has already articulated this better than me, I'm going to venture my own take on the difference.

Essentially the difference stems from nature versus nurture. Nerds are essentially antisocial people, who are not typically interested in team sports or other activities that require them to interact with others in a collaborative or face to face way. I'd actually be interested in seeing if a study has been done comparing people who were labeled as "nerd" and asperger's/autism spectrum diagnoses. Nerds are sometimes, but not exclusively, drawn to math and studies, and typically not artistic directions. This again could be related to an actual disorder, or indirectly as these pursuits can provide non-social fulfillment.

Geeks on the other hand, have an interest in technology and arcane popular culture interest. In the past decade, the interests of the geek have become accepted and embraced. Largely due to the advances in technology, interests that were considered irrelevant are now seen as useful bordering on the clairvoyant. Who owned the first ipods? A geek. Who kept the first blogs? geeks. Who can recite off the episode names of every season of Sailor Moon? A geek. It's a symbiotic relationship with technology - geeks have more relevant things to "geek-out" over. In 1992, it wasn't really cool to tout the wonders of your graphing calculator (I wish I still had mine from college - that thing was so awesome, even though I didn't really understand trigonometry, so it was just a wave-randomizing machine). Now a geek can tout the latest MP3 player, or plasma tv, and people are actually interested. Geeks typically place a lot of self-identification in their geekiness, or rather their interests. I suppose this is because it was originally used to marginalize them, and it has become a firewall to judge others by. You certainly have to have solid geek credentials. But barring that, geeks can be very gregarious. Social issues arise from any stigma associated with geek interests and geek identification.

Of course, this doesn't include the "loser", who is typically somebody ostracized for environmental conditions beyond their control. Growing up with less money relative to your peers, growing up in a broken home, and other social stigmas shape the loser, who only displays stereotypical personality traits to the extent that they self-identify with their stigmas. Strong-self identification with being a loser can result in nerd-like qualities. Typically, losers find other loser peers for company and validation, so its rare that a loser will transform into a full-blown nerd. Unfortunately, their counterculture often manifests its resentment at being marginalized through negative and destructive behavior. I think this is because for every loser who actually is a talented, interesting person, there are 3 other losers who have no redeeming qualities. A diaspora of gift-less, frustrated pariahs together, and bad things are likely to happen.

Geeks, nerds, and losers. Current geek reverence not included, all 3 are connected only inasmuch as they represent the broadest group of socially marginalized people, a social definition that begins in childhood. You can be more than one, or any combination. There is definitely a spectrum as well.

Where do I place myself in this? I was not a nerd, was and still am somewhat of a geek, and definitely a loser. I grew up with several social stigmas as a result of my environment. I did display nerd tendencies for several years when I strongly self identified with my loser stigmas. Eventually I outgrew those stigmas (and actually worked a little too hard at fitting in during college). Throughout, I would consider myself a moderate geek. I possessed the interest of a geek, but not the true depth of knowledge. Pure geeks not only have an interest in geek topics, but they also possess a depth of knowledge and skill in those areas. I like computers and technology, but I can't sling code (scripting doesn't count - see I am kind of a geek). In this age of google and wikis, its very easy for people to have peripheral knowledge of anything. This results in half-assed geeks like me, and worse, wannabe geeks. Possibly the lowest form of social stereotype, they feign interest in geek topics to curry favor from the geek embracing society at large. It would be like me becoming a Giants fan just because they won the super bowl. I also exhibit behavior of seeking traditional non-geek approval from my base peer group, which would definitely take away from the independent, socially rebellious geek who conforms to non-conformity.

So there it is - my treatise on geeks nerds and losers. Clearly when you create theories that put the population into boxes, its not a perfect fit, and there are countless exceptions. But I think there is some truth to the differences and mistaken confusion around these three types of people. In the end, people who exhibit some of these traits want to be considered geeks, whether they are or not. Partially because the definition of geek (if my definition is accurate) is the most attractive, and partly because the identity of geek now possesses the least social stigma. People might want to flaunt their individualism, but very few people honestly want to be socially stigmatized, regardless of what they might say. Those few who do want that stigma probably are exhibiting a reaction to the initial stigma.

Conversely, people who do not fall into this spectrum tend to lump all three together due to lack of knowledge and interest, regarding the entire community of marginalized as a homogeneous swath, and therefore the terms geek, nerd and loser are synonymous and interchangeable.


Brant said...

Post-script. Upon reflection, I'll confess to one area of geek-levels of awareness - typography.

Seamus Woods said...

I read (admittedly, by typing "fortune" in a unix command prompt) that there are two types of people: Those that put people in two groups, and those that don't. I guess you're in the latter.

Brave work in the self-identification section. I tried to do it myself, but got too scared. I think there are definitely growth factors too. A person could start out as a loser, find nerdiness, and transcend to geekdom. ...or they could just stagnate at one of the stages.

What is fun about watching groups of people is how similar we are to animal groups in our social structures, but also how a person will be in a different position depending on which group they are in. In one group a person might be a nerd, but in another the same person might be a jock, and the transition happens fairly seamlessly.

Amy Woods said...

Seamus is a geek. And I am pretty sure he extolled on the great things his graphing calculator could do in 1992. I will identify him even if he doesn't want to. It's my job.