Oh, I see you over there. You’ve got your Han Shot First shirt on and your fake glasses without the lenses. You’re about to watch the new Walking Dead, write a little Game of Thrones fanfic, play Call of Duty. You got all these bases covered. Guess what? Still not a nerd.
It’s funny to see how far us and our kind have come. 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds seemed at first like just an awful, awful attempt at comedy, but in hindsight its awfulness concealed the first movie to consider Nerds as a subculture, and a valuable one at that, or at least as valuable as the preps and the jocks and the burnouts. You know how this used to go: the preps made the rules, the jocks only thrived because of them, and the burnouts separated themselves from them. Yet the best and brightest kids, the ones who supposedly represented what we claim to want in a society, were exiled, merely by virtue of being socially awkward.
Times have changed.
Superhero movies — good ones, finally — rule the box office. Astrophysicists are the new rock stars. Porn stars actually cultivate the nerd look. And when you go to parties and tell people about the books you’re reading, you’re not expected to talk about trashy romance novels. We know nerds are an acceptable subculture to be a part of, because they have their own sitcom. Awful, fakey sitcom. On a network. All of this was unthinkable even a generation ago.
So how did it happen? Did society suddenly get smarter? Not likely. Nerds just got more useful, and finally in a very personal way. They took the game to everyone else: Now that technology is the engine that drives our imagination and our everyday interactions, knowing how to work it becomes an important commodity. The digital world doesn’t talk at you, like the analog world did; it gets people to listen to you. Simply put, nerds have invented a community where everyone’s important, everything’s epic, and knowledge is currency. It’s a perfect mix of ego, fantasy, utility, and obsession, and, although the deets are still being worked out, money. Jocks and preps can come to this party, but they can’t throw it, or keep it going. The commoditization of knowledge and the economy of fantasy means that nerdness has finally, finally intersected with popularity. And you know what being popular means. Nerds are now sexy.
Note that this does not and never will apply to dorks or geeks, those traditional subsets of nerddom. Being obsessed to the point of being socially awkward or, in the case of full on dorkhood, offensively and obnoxiously shut out from reality, still won’t win you any cool points. You can fake that stuff, though. Traditionally popular groups have done that for centuries — “fake it till you make it” has been their motto. It can be yours too. (For a while.)
So, why am I calling you out on the nerd thing? Who am I to judge? What the fuck is my deal? How can you not be a nerd anymore because you like nerd things? Well, popularity has always been a double-edged sword, that’s why, and your econ nerd friend could tell you that capitalism only sharpens it. If you like something, love it, even obsess over it, it’s time to up your game. When The Avengers is the most popular movie of the year, knowing who Thor is just isn’t going to cut it. Even camping out in line at the box office won’t make you appreciably different then the rabble who assemble outside Walmart on Black Friday. We have met the enemy, and they are us. Gamers even have a name for nerd posers: casuals. Be casual if you like, but don’t call yourself a nerd. You have to earn that shit.
This is where the nerd meets two other people he rarely gets to hang with: the hipster and the poser. One rejects mainstream things by default, meaning he’s probably not into what you like anymore. He looks at you like a character from Big Bang Theory, and he’s not entirely wrong. The poser, meanwhile, gets a Batman tattoo with you in order to grab some of your shine, but he’s not gonna actually read your copy of A Lonely Place of Dying that he borrowed — he just left it on the bed because he’s got a nerd girl coming over, and you know. Delving too deep into any subculture, even a popular one, just isn’t him.
So what can you, the longstanding. hardcore, yet newly popular nerd, do to reclaim your righteous love of imagination and theory? Well, delving deeper yourself is one answer — if you love the Harry Potter universe, go grab a dogeared copy of A Wizard of Earthsea. And if Warcraft is your jam, drag yourself away long enough to get immersed in Rift or EVE. Even if you don’t like it, you can always go back; you should never let anyone, not a blogger or a corporation or even other nerds, dictate your obsessions. Remember, the name of the nerd game is knowledge, and knowledge, like all currency, gets depreciated. The more you know about your favorite area of the larger nerd universe, the stronger you’ll become. As a nerd. As you. Here. In meatspace, where it ultimately counts.
Which brings us to the other, better option in a nerd-friendly world, besides becoming more hardcore. Move past the nerd label entirely. This is where the hipster has a point, sort of: it’s not that popular things are inherently bad, but they all contain the seeds of decay — also like currency or precious metals, they get worth less as they flood the market, a market which is, by the way, run by the very same people who used to give you wedgies. Instead, take a tip from gamer nerds and roleplay yourself — determine the character you are, your obsessions, your strong and weak points, and set about defining that. (I myself am a political, music, and comedy nerd, not in that order. I’m working on being some sort of combination of Patton Oswalt, Mike Patton, and Ezra Klein. Which probably won’t happen. But whatever does result will be all me.)
One if the great things about nerds is their ability to imagine things that have never existed — it’s why they were once mocked, and ironically why they’re now loved. And as science nerds know, you yourself have never existed, and will never again. Become your own epic hero in the real world, and delve into everything you are with the kind of focus only a nerd can bring. Because if we all do this, the labels go away — rock stars and football stars and porn stars, after all, are just people who became so fixated on something they couldn’t help but become amazing at it. Go and do likewise. The playing field is finally level.