Nerd and Anti-Nerd

Illustration for article titled Nerd and Anti-Nerd

Is it time to retire the term "nerd"? It's had a good run, sure, but does anyone else feel it's not what it used to be?


It's lost some of its specificity and force, and maybe it needs to retire with honor. What honor it has left.

When I learned what a nerd was, it was through Steven Levy's Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, along with Godel Escher Bach (aka the contents of a small town library) and (why be proud?) the movie Real Genius. Here's what it meant to me: intellectual play, lack of pretension, gaming, science fiction, being smart and not caring what other people thought. Nerds were people who questioned everything, who didn't accept anything until it was proven, who picked locks and repurposed lab equipment, who pursued their own passions for their own sake.

The category "nerd" overturned conventional ideas of cool, of attractiveness in both men and women, and of what it made sense to do on a Friday night. By valuing people who like cool stuff and don't care if gets them called a loser, it redefined what being a winner is. It gave me a way to value who I was and what I was doing.

So yes, I'm saying the category means something to me, which makes it all the more irritating that it's been re-branded out from under us. It's not just the mainstreaming of video games and superhero comics, it's that the whole identity is being reduced to a set of keywords, generational nostalgia and Internet trends that people can reflexively cheer for (monkeys are the next pirates are the next ninjas, pass it on).

People we once designated nerds are morphing into dot-com frat boys who play Halo and cheer for slave-Leia cosplayers at Comic-Con. In fact Comic-Con itself may once have been a refuge for an outsider nerd aesthetic, but in the year of Watchmen and something calling itself The Dark Knight it's starting to look like a smug victory lap.

Is it time to walk away? Most of what made the term meaningful was the will to be smart and quirky, and the corresponding moral courage to stand up and say so even when it wasn't cool. Without that, nerds are just another target market, a flag of convenience for random hipsters, and at worst, a marker of privilege, dot-com wealth and entitlement. Face it, nerd nostalgia has become an enormous cash-in, and I'd rather not subscribe to the banner under which the cultural identity I sweated for is now being monetized.


The good news is that there's always a place for lack of pretension, universal curiosity, skepticism and core techiness no matter where the rest of culture has gone. The qualities that made "nerd" a valuable term survive in all kinds of vital subcultures - open sourcers, makers, technologically driven activists, authors who are breaking down genre barriers. Nerdcore artists are fusing it with rap, punk, and whatever else they can get their hands on. Why do we need an identity marker that's lost its force and urgency, when we can coin new words, try new things, take risks, and leave the worn-down nostalgia behind?

io9ers, give me a cultural sounding. Am I out of touch here?

EDITOR'S NOTE: There were only supposed to be 3 choices in this poll, but a glitch in our polling software created the spurious "answer 4" and "answer 5." I was going to fix it, but now that the great 4 vs. 5 debate has begun I feel that I must allow the glitch to remain. - Annalee



Jill Pantozzi

I, for one, appreciate the word nerd. Then again, I'm biased.