Once upon a time, nerds were outcasts. Marginalized and sidelined, nerds were rarely taken seriously - and when they were considered, they were generally seen as harmless. But a slow, quiet nerd revolution happened, led by the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and Bill Gates. The image of the nerd - pocket protector, high waters, tape on the bridge of the glasses - changed radically after the 1980s, as tech became a prime mover of the economy and as genre slowly started to become the center of American pop culture.
The time when you could make a movie like Revenge of the Nerds* is over - the nerds have had their revenge. They’ve won. They got laser surgery and discovered Steve Jobs’ fashion sense. Most important of all, they’ve totally taken over the culture. The Avengers is the biggest movie event since Avatar, another nerdy-ass movie. Game of Thrones is the most culturally important TV show. Comic book characters, science fiction and fantasy rule all today.
I’ve always been a nerd, glued to Star Trek on TV as a toddler and playing Dungeons & Dragons in the high school cafeteria. Nerd culture has always been my culture, and I’ve long been fascinated by it. While outsiders have portrayed nerd culture along very specific lines, my experience is that nerd culture is rich and diverse. It’s a big tent; one side of the tent has people who quote Monty Python endlessly, the other side has folks who build functioning robots in their garages, and in between is this great mass of enthusiasm, intelligence and fun.
But in recent years I’ve noticed some dark changes in the world of nerddom. Some of it goes back to the early Kevin Smith movies, where he redefined the image of the nerd into a sarcastic, angry slacker - certainly a legitimate existing subset of nerds, and one that I personally knew very well. Some of it has been happening in recent years, as the popularity of nerd culture has brought new people into the tent, some of whom didn’t get the ‘How to be a Good Nerd’ memo.
It’s gotten really bad in the last few years. Knee-jerk reactionary anger fills the nerdosphere (see the vicious, sexist comments left on Amy Nicholson’s negative review of The Avengers) while ugly behavior and objectification gets more and more common (see the rise of “brogrammers” and the weird, exploitative world of ‘Sexy Geek Girls’). When nerds were the underdogs the culture was much more positive; there’s something about winning that has darkened and soured this culture I love so much.
Rather than whine about what’s wrong with nerds today, I want to focus on what makes a good nerd. Like I said, the nerd tent is big, so this isn’t about having specific nerd knowledge or liking specific things. It’s more about the attitude and perspective. Hopefully you agree that these are rules all nerds can live by.
Love art and ideas, not properties and products.
This isn’t sports. Too many people treat their favorite nerd things like a competition, as if they have to root for their own property no matter what - and as if any who disagree are the enemy.
Look, we all have favorite properties. I will always love Star Trek and Planet of the Apes, but I’m not a partisan for these things. I accept that a new Star Trek book/movie/show might be (and frankly, probably is) bad. I accept that you don’t share my unbridled enthusiasm for the Apes films. That doesn’t make you my enemy.
It’s fun to argue about properties and fandoms; the Star Trek vs Star Wars debate has been a nerd perennial since 1977. I like tweaking Dr. Who fans, something I’ve been doing since I first met Whovians in college way back in 1991. But when nerds begin attacking people - angrily, honestly attacking people - for not liking what they like, things are going wrong.
Love what you love. But accept loving this thing - this one movie, these episodes of a TV show, these comic books - doesn’t mean you have to love all the other things with the same name. Love the art that made the movie, the comic, the show, and appreciate it on its own. That will actually make your appreciation stronger, because you’ll be so much more specific about what it is that moves you, more than just being enslaved to a franchise.
For the record, this extends to tech nerds as well. Step away from the Apple worship...
Be open minded and adventurous... but discerning.
It’s easy to get fenced in. You like a certain thing and you get heavily into that thing, and you become an expert in it. The real next step in fandom, though, is to go beyond that thing. To find out what influenced it, and seek that out. Then to go beyond even that and explore the larger aspects of the genre... and then maybe even begin looking into genres and properties that are slightly adjacent.
Being a nerd is exciting because there is always so much to discover. Lately I’ve been trying to fill in my gaps in science fiction lit, reading some of the great scifi books of all time that I somehow missed. I’ve read The Forever War and Riverworld in the last few weeks and the experience has been terrific. My horizons have suddenly opened - I was never a big fan of hard science fiction literature, but I've truly come to appreciate the genre.
The other side, though, is to be a little choosy. Just because a new TV show has space ships in it (or references movies with space ships in them) doesn’t mean you have to watch it every week. Try new things within the larger world of nerddom, but don’t accept every item aimed at you. As nerds continue to dominate the culture we’re going to see more and more bad stuff being aimed at the nerd market because we’re often seen as easy.
All of nerddom is based on being progressive. Tech and science nerdery is totally about expanding knowledge and moving forward into the future with better understanding and equipment. But even those of us whose main nerddom happens in fiction owe it all to progressive ideas.
Modern genre fiction has many roots, but almost all of it owes a debt to the world of science fiction magazines that bloomed in the 1930s, on the heels of Amazing Stories**. The explosion of fantastical storytelling that came from these magazines remains unmatched today, and the diversity of storytellers is breathtaking. And many of those stories are wonderfully forward-thinking, looking into tomorrow and trying to find meaning in our human existence.
We love things that are about imagination and thinking big. They’re fantastical stories, but the best ones say something about humanity - either what we hope for it, or what we fear for it. Even the most dystopian fiction contains a forward-thinking hope, because without hope you can’t be frightened by the bad.
Genre fiction is all about possibilities. How can you be into the future, into exciting possibilities, into big ideas and big imagination while still holding on to hate for others? While still having bigoted beliefs? While still treating women like less than people? While still owing allegiance to small-minded myths that try to hold us back?
More than that, being a nerd is about finding other people with similar interests, not similar skin colors or sexualties. Being a nerd is often about being sort of alone, a person with a very unique viewpoint and experience. Nobody should be better equipped for tolerance than a true nerd.
Respect the creators.
Superman didn’t pop up on the page unaided. The Mass Effect universe began as an idea in someone’s head. Every voyage of the Starship Enterprise started on a page.
In early DC Comics it was jokingly inferred that the world of superheroes really existed, and that writers such as Gardner Fox simply tapped into that reality and chronicled what he saw. Sometimes it seems that way - the worlds and characters we love can feel so fully formed, so complete and real, that it’s easy to forget regular men and women thought them up.
It’s these creators to whom we owe our allegiance, not the nebulous concept of the property we enjoy (or the corporate conglomerate who currently holds the trademarks). And while we might come to feel a sense of ownership over these characters or universes, it’s always important to remember that we aren’t the ones who made them, we’re just lucky enough to be visiting them. We don’t get to dictate what the storylines or events are, we only get to decide whether or not we like them.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have a valuable place in the process of creating and maintaining these fictions we love. We’re the caretakers, the ones who infuse the art with our fan passion and - this is really important, pirates - our funding. Looking after the Mona Lisa isn’t as sexy as painting the Mona Lisa, but without those caretakers nobody would be able to enjoy the work anymore. It’s the passion and support of fans that have allowed some of the great genre works of the last fifty years to be seen and to be preserved.
Synthesize your influences into something new.
The final rule for being a good nerd is to go out and create, whether it be new nerd art or new nerd enthusiasm. Being a nerd isn’t a passive thing, and it’s very much our duty to give back what we got.
That said, we shouldn’t be giving back exactly what we got. Remakes, reboots and on-the-nose homages dilute what it is that we originally loved. We should be taking the elements of our nerdy passions and passing them through the filters of our own selves, our own vision and our own creative concepts. Instead of endlessly riffing on Star Wars in fan films and mash-ups, work to create a new thing that takes your inspiration and uses it in exciting ways. There’s already a Star Wars in the world. What’s missing from the world are your unique ideas and perspective. Give us the next Star Wars.
* Weirdly, Revenge of the Nerds is the movie that still has the most realistically diverse range of nerd types, from Booger to Lewis Skolnick to Lamar Latrell.
** There are some who argue that all of fandom can be traced to Amazing Stories’ decision to run a letter column.