The Evolution of the Nerd in the Mainstream Eye

We have all had some sort of feeling of isolation in our lives.  This isolation may stem from internal emotions of feeling that we “don’t fit in”.  We may need time to be alone, to think things over, especially after a life changing experience, such as a death in the family, divorce, or even a best friend moving away.  Isolation may also be imposed upon us by external factors.  This is especially true in grade school with cliques everywhere you looked.  You may like something that “nobody else” likes, and you are deemed weird because of it.  You then become an outcast, and labeled by the “in-crowd” as a dweeb, dork, geek, or nerd.  While children in grade school can be especially vicious, the older that people get, the less of a damn they appear to give about what you like.  However, this does not mean that they are silently judging you for who present yourself as.  You still may receive a few odd looks if you are caught walking around the streets in a black trench coat and a fedora on your head during a hot summer day.  With that being said, being a nerd has become so popular in the mainstream, that people almost seem proud to call themselves one.  The introduction of technology, especially the internet, has changed our view of most categories of nerds.  Affordable technology that unites us via the internet, including smartphones and computers, have surged in popularity as they have become more accessible and user-friendly in the last decade.

What is a nerd?

Before I begin to discuss how the term nerd may have gone from representing social outcasts, to representing the rulers of pop culture media and the tech industry, we must clarify what the term “nerd” means.  If you really think about it, you may notice that there is a plethora of categories used to describe people who all share the identity as a nerd.  Not every nerd has to like Star Wars, and at the same time, not every nerd needs to be some sort of computer wiz.  Even more importantly, not every “nerd”, is necessarily an introverted shut-in who’s only friends exist in World of Warcraft, however, that last type does exist, and are not necessarily applauded by pop culture as much as the other descriptions for nerds.  These are all observations that I had not initially thought about when thinking of what a nerd is.  Originally, I simply associated nerd with the imagery provided by Weird Al’s White and Nerdy music video, or possibly from the 1984 film, Revenge of the Nerds.  My first instinct would have been to think of a nerd as more of the introverted, social outcast, type.  But this conflicts with the fact that I would consider myself a nerd by being a huge fan of many blockbuster franchises and having a fairly sizeable sense tech savviness.  I am also, more importantly, very social, and lik

nerd-venn-diagram-20110626-192132e to meet new people all the time.  Upon becoming aware of this conflict, I knew that there was a lot more to being a nerd than what I had originally thought.  Here is an excellent Venn Diagram, provided by Scott Beale from which illustrates the subcategories of “nerd”.  Notice that the three outer circles st
ate “intelligence, obsession, and social ineptitude, as characteristics that may define a nerd.  Someone could be all three, or simply one, and still be considered a nerd.  I would consider “obsession” as someone who may be a fanboy or fangirl over something, possibly spending a great deal of money to feed their fandom.  This could be someone who collects numerous action figures, to a person who spends hundreds or thousands to go to San Diego Comic Con every year.  Intelligence may describe the person whose math quiz your gaze may “accidentally” take a glance at as you scratch your head in calculus.  It may also describe the billionaires that run the tech industry.  Geek is arguably one of the most popular terms to describe an intelligent nerd, and from my experience, seems to be one of the most popular words used to describe someone with nerdy qualities.  The only quality that people would not necessarily find desirable in a nerd is social ineptitude.  These are the types of people who keep to themselves either because they are not perceived as being enjoyable to be around, or because they intentionally hide themselves from society.  As a reminder, these types of people do not represent all nerds, of whom many are very outgoing, but simply a subcategory of “nerd-dom” as a whole.  I think of the film Napoleon Dynamite when imagining this type of nerd, which would be commonly described as a dork.  These nerds do not need to poses intelligence or obsession to be called nerds.  They may simply lack a strong sense of community and the ability to be sociable.  They may have traits of the other categories too however.  You may find someone who enjoys typing computer code all day long with little to know human interaction.  You may also find somebody who enjoys wearing Spock ears and sitting at home all day, watching their complete Star Trek: The Next Generation series collection on VHS.


Napoleon Dynamite


The Fan Culture

As I have stated before, obsessed nerds may be people who find a huge interest in something, such as a video game, movie franchise, book series, or TV show.  Their obsession defines a huge part of their lives, influencing their purchases and the friends they make.  They may stand by their preferred brand of video game consoles, waiting hours or days in line to make sure they are the first to purchase one, or try to make it to the midnight showing of the next big blockbuster film.  There are numerous conventions in which these people may unite.  Portland Oregon has a retro gaming expo, San Diego hosts the internationally known San Diego Comic Con, Star Wars fans around the world make their pilgrimage to Star Wars Celebration.


A Large Group of Star Wars Cosplayers

At many of these conventions, people pay a lot for tickets to attend, traveling expenses, merchandise, and costumes for cosplaying, all in the name of fandom.  The fan community has exploded with the introduction of blockbuster franchises and their subsequent merchandising throughout the 70’s and 80’s, including Star Wars, Star Trek, and many comic books and their films.  These conventions are able to give fans a great sense of community.  They all have something in common.  People are clearly enjoying spending a great deal of money on exceptional costumes so that they may feel that they are a part of something.  Of course, going to a comic book or movie convention was not always a cool thing to do, unlike how it is today.  In his book How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, Chris Taylor states “There was a time between trilogies [1983-1999] when Star Wars lived on the geeky fringes of society.  No longer.  Now, it seems, society is telling us that Star Wars gets you laid and mated” (xvii).  He is essentially saying that it is now cool to proclaim you love something, even if it was considered uncool at one point, and that, hell, it may just get you a girlfriend.  The internet has aided this new freedom of expression, especially for those who may not be able to afford to go to big events.  There are online forums where people may discuss their thoughts on the latest episode of Game of Thrones to their heart’s content.  And for the nerd who is a little less social in the “physical realm”, the internet is a great tool to conceal their identity under the avatar DarkSkull1337, or something like that.


A couple show their love for Zelda


A great documentary film that is able to look at a fan culture as a whole and then focus on the specific lives of a few obsessed arcade gamers is The King of Kong.  The documented story centers around the conflict between Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell; a man looking at being the record score holder of Donkey Kong, and the man who, at the time, had held that highest score title.  The documentary takes the culture very seriously, and does not appear to make the men look overly obsessed with the arcade game.  Their daily lives are each shown, with Steve being a science teacher at a high school in Redmond, WA, and Billy owning a chain of restaurants in Florida.  Steve is looked at as a newcomer to the classic arcade game, and is thus treated as an outsider by those who almost seem to be disciples of Billy Mitchell. Eventually Steve earns their respect, and becomes a star in the arcade gaming community after beating Billy’s high score.  It is an underdog story of an outsider who wants to become a respected part of a community.


The Geek-Nerd

Being a geek was not necessarily always a cool thing to be.  Negative stereotypes for geeks have been that they dress funny, sit in front of computers all day, and are know-it-alls.  The film Revenge of the Nerds did not paint a pretty picture for the “geek” variant of nerds.  The film portrays its nerds in ways that I had just described, and more.  Because these guys are not physically capable like the jocks in the film, they are not able to impress the attractive girls in the sorority.  However, by the end, they are able to use their brains and come up with ways to overcome the fact that they are physically inferior to the other frat and thus “win over the girl”.  The film may redeem itself as in being in support of nerds by the end when they chant Queen’s We are the Champions, but the nerds are not portrayed to be very attractive, and are looked at as the minority that has to band together as the misfits in order to become accepted by the mainstream.  As a film, and a successful film at that, it has had a huge influence on pop culture, and was able to give a pretty identifiable portrait for the smarty-pants nerd culture.


Protagonist from “Revenge of the Nerds”

This film came out before the internet was widely used, Apple had just launched its Macintosh home-computer, and people were far from walking around with computers in their pockets and strapped to their wrists.  It would be a while before the geek culture would be able to truly prove itself to the mainstream.

A New Century, A Sense of Community

 With the fact that we have been discussing the topic of community very heavily this term, I noticed a theme that all of the films had in common.  Whether it be The King of Kong, Napoleon Dynamite, or even Revenge of the Nerds, the three films I had picked at random had a plot the involved the protagonists having the desire to be respected by a community.  The internet has helped many people today unite with others from different states, or even different countries, share their interests.  Even people who are deemed “dorks” or “socially inept”, may find comfort behind a screen, mouse, and keyboard.  People are able to have social interactions in a way that wasn’t mainstream even 15 years ago.  People are now able to successfully find possible future spouses on online dating sites.  Nerds today have far less to fear than they have in the past.  They may now express themselves any way they want, whether it is behind a mask or a computer screen.  Now, one of the most popular TV shows airing today is capitalizing on the currently proud nerd culture.  It shows that they can make numerous references to The Empire Strikes Back and still get a girlfriend or boyfriend. Without me having had to have stated the show’s title, you probably know it is The Big Bang Theory.  You know it because it is a symbol of the media in our pop culture.  The show is able to poke fun at the nerd culture, while embracing it dearly.  This is yet another example of how the term “nerd” may had an ill-intended use by the mainstream, but those days are dead and buried.


This course has taught me to look at community in a way that I had not really realized even though it was right there in front of me, and this has helped me with looking into the nerd culture.  The fact that I have been able to communicate ideas with people for 10 weeks as we share ideas and give feedback to make our learning experience the best in can be in this course has opened my eyes.  It is an angle that I was able to use when doing research of how people are better able to connect and express themselves because of the internet.  As I have mentioned in my essay, there are people who are not as comfortable with expressing themselves as others, and are deemed anti-social.  These people may be able to use the internet to better their self expression in an environment that is more suitable to their needs.

I have not taken an online course outside of this one.  I was always sort of scared to.  I did not know if I would become lazy because I did not have to physically go anywhere and be in the presence of professors or peers.  I have learned that I am great at managing my time with the course, and that I can in fact interact and share ideas with peers that are actually meaningful to my projects and overall education.  After biting the bullet and taking this online course, I will certainly be more open to taking online courses in the future.



Napoleon Dynamite, Directed by Jared Hess, Produced by Jeremy Coon, Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures and Paramount Pictures


Revenge of the Nerds, Directed by Jeff Kanew, Produced by Ted Field, Distributed by 20th Century Fox


Taylor, Chris. “A Navajo Hope.” Introduction. How Star Wars Conquered the Universe. New York: Basic, 2015. Xvii. Print.


The Big Bang Theory, Directed by Mark Cendrowski, Produced by Faye Oshima Belyeu, Distributed by Warner Bros. Television Distribution


The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Director: Seth Gordon, Producer: Ed Cunningham, Distributor: Picturehouse and Dendy Cinemas





3 thoughts on “The Evolution of the Nerd in the Mainstream Eye

  1. Hi Dganspdx,
    Since English is not my first language, I did not know what is “nerd” mean until I came to PSU to start my education. I never think that “nerd” is a bad word. My first impression to this word is “Sheldon” – one the main characters in “Big Bang Theory”. I love this “nerd”!!!! As you mentioned, I believe nerds are intelligent. They might just do not like social networking.

  2. Hi Dgans! I really loved reading your blog post. It was very similar to one of the ideas a person in my group had for her blog, but you brought up several different aspects that were also important to consider when evaluating the modern “nerd”. While reading your definition for a nerd, I really liked the line you wrote, “Intelligence may describe the person whose math quiz your gaze may “accidentally” take a glance at as you scratch your head in calculus.” It paints the picture in my head so easily, since I’ve been that person sitting next to the “smart guy” in calculus. It was interesting to see how you described the different parts of being a nerd, and how there are subcategories involved. That makes it easy for readers to get sucked into your post, because they want to know where in the “nerd spectrum” they fall. However, when you mentioned that social ineptitude is probably the only negative side of being a nerd, I had to disagree slightly. Being obsessed with anything doesn’t make you incapable of doing anything in particular, but obsession (past a certain degree) definitely makes some people “weird”. Which many people would consider to be a negative side of being a nerd. It does depend on the level of obsession, though. I also loved your primary sources and how you analyzed them. Good job!

  3. Dganspdx,
    I was your partner when we did that online meet up, so I just had the opportunity to finally finish reading your entire paper. I really like the tweaks you made to it. I also like the way you incorporated the learning moments in class. Your examples are good and I like what you had to say about online dating and how some people feel comfort behind a screen. Overall, I really like your essay and found it very thorough.

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