If you haven’t been checking your teacups for storms lately, you may have missed the recent kerfuffle over this Gizmodo article (that has since been modified). For those looking for a summary: girl named Alyssa meets guy online, goes on two dates, she finds that he used to be the Magic: the Gathering World Champion, is immensely turned off from that point forward, writes catty article about it.
As you can imagine, this article didn’t sit well with the internet.
Within hours, Alyssa’s Twitter account had been flooded with scathing messages, and the front pages of many well-trafficked websites (most notably Reddit) were awash with posts insulting her and championing him. The guy, to his credit, has handled the entire thing in a remarkably adult fashion, first remarking on his Twitter that “I just thought she was a nice girl, which I still mostly think. God knows we’ve all made poor decisions in our lives.”
This event struck the “nerd rage” nerve, hard. It’s understandable – while specific nerd communities might be organized around love of a specific piece of media, the nerd community at large is organized around shared experiences. Experiences that this article brings up expertly: feelings of inferiority, rejection, impotence, and rage from marginalization by the world at large. It’s practically a rite of passage.
Not to downplay things: childhood as an outsider is hard. Your emotional defenses are weaker, your peers are crueller, and you have no sense of perspective. You may have a support network outside of school, but internet friends are no help on the playground. The hurt inflicted can last well into one’s later years – as evidenced by the skewering of Alyssa Bereznak.
And some nerds cling to that. Build personalities around that. Scream to anyone who will listen that they are a marginalized minority. Victims.
Well, they’re not. Not anymore. The fact is that nerds have been a driving force in popular culture for awhile now. Look at Hollywood. You’ll see even C-list comic book superheroes like Doctor Strange are getting movies. Look at Apple, the most successful company in the world right now. You’ll see a next-to-death revitalization built on the backs of early adopter nerds. Look at OkCupid – the site on which the two in the Gizmodo article met. You’ll see no shortage of girls saying they’re “total nerds” for liking Harry Potter, or knowing esoteric words, or being diehard football fans.
Nerdy. Football. Fan.
Seriously, what the hell.
It was around the time I saw that, that I realized “nerd” is the new “hipster.” In that it doesn’t mean much of anything anymore.
My initial reaction to the co-opting of nerd culture was to retrench. To reclaim “nerd” – a hard-fought insult-turned-credential. To launch into a series of nerdier-than-thou proclamations. To establish myself as the Alpha Geek. To explain why I deserve that title. To exclaim that I, unlike those others, am a “true nerd.”
It’s not the healthiest reaction to have. It is, however, the common one.
This reaction is understandable: this is a community is defined by being rejected and abused by the mainstream. So when the mainstream co-opts instead of rejects it, many feel anger that their formerly-marginalized interests, the things they’d built their identities around, are no longer truly theirs. Iron Man fans don’t necessarily have that same instant kinship with other fans – one may be into it for the Demon in a Bottle storyline, or Warren Ellis’s Extremis revamp, and another may simply like Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man fans can come from different backgrounds now. That’s new.
The ledge that “true nerds” have stood on has gotten smaller.
Some “true nerds” – I dare say most – take this opportunity to take a step back from the edge. Instead of hating the world, they engage with it. If they don’t feel like the world is out to get them, they may find that they like jogging, or drinking, or, god forbid, pop music. In so doing, they lose some of their “nerd cred.” They lose their attachment to their largely self-appointed outsider label. I know, because that’s what happened to me. It’s healthy.
And yet, other “true nerds” take this opportunity to walk further out onto the ledge. These are the Forever Alone types. The ones whose entire existence is so tied up in their childhood hurt that they can’t stand to let their wounds heal, because they would cease to be themselves.
So instead, they retrench. And get angry, real angry, because their backs are up against the wall and they have no choice. That rage starts co-opting their identity, to where all they are is angry at forces so large and so vague they can’t name or understand them. So you start getting groups like 4chan. Like Anonymous. Like Lulzsec. People who don’t engage with the world. People who don’t care about the world. People who would “meh” as Rome burns.
As to where it goes from here? I don’t know. Although a lot of the hallmarks of the nerd community can be easily identified at any point in history, this does seem notably different than in years past. Over the course of my life, I’ve seen the life of the average outsider transform from a truly difficult and isolated existence to a largely proud, boisterous, and hugely-networked one. And yet, many people hold fast to their picture of life as a lonely, blighted reality. These people cannot or will not give that up. And as their turf is encroached upon, they feel more threatened, and they lash out more. Their own Little Bighorns. Their own Battles of Thermopylae. Their own guerrilla war, for reasons they can’t articulate, against an enemy they cannot even rightly name.
Today her name was Alyssa.