Nerding out: The identity crisis of nerds becomes mainstream
Troy Campbell wears a lot of hats: Duke University consumer researcher, scholar, basketball enthusiast and nerd.
That last one, Campbell admits, doesn’t mean what it did when he was a 14-year-old in California poring over books chronicling the Star Wars extended universe.
"Actually, I consider myself a mainstream nerd," Campbell clarified. "I know my place."
Campbell's "place" is a spot on a sort of nerd spectrum that has emerged as entertainment once strictly considered nerd territory and which has become more widely embraced in pop culture. Campbell's status puts him somewhere in the middle — he's definitely more knowledgeable about Star Wars than a lot of fans, but he doesn't devote as much attention to it as he once did. And with the advent of the Internet, he doesn't have to.
"Nerd identity is a lot about knowledge: Knowing insider information, knowing what’s in and what’s not. Feeling mastery over something is amazing," Campbell said. "The Internet literally institutionalized nerds. The Internet makes knowing incredibly easy."
So it's understandable that current nerd culture can be a rude awakening for more old-school nerds, whose deep knowledge of sci-fi or comic mythologies came from years of meticulous attention — often in the face of scorn — rather than a few hours on Google before attending "The Avengers" with friends. These days, people entering their 30s, once ridiculed and labeled as nerds by bullies, now stand in line for the latest Marvel movie next to teens who proudly wear "nerd" T-shirts.
The dichotomy makes one thing clear: The rules of nerd-dom have changed and the boundaries have blurred.
"For nerds, it's the best of times and the worst of times because we're valued and accepted, but our world has been infringed on," Campbell said. "Not only our world, but our identity."
More fans, more nerds
No one knows better than Dan Farr that nerd culture has moved into the mainstream. Farr caught the Comic Con bug while selling 3D animation software at various conventions.
"I got pulled into the creative energy. You walk around these places and you can cut it with a knife," Farr said.
Farr is the founder of Salt Lake City Comic Con, now entering its second year after a meteoric 70,000 attendance last year — a record-breaking number for first-year regional Comic Cons. Attendance at the April Salt Lake Comic Con broke 100,000 attendees, making it the third-largest convention in the country.
"The first year, we estimated maybe 15,000-20,000 people would come," Farr said. "We had 30,000 registered the weekend before the event. Luckily, we were able to change our venue without a problem."
Farr attributes his convention's success to fan enthusiasm, which he believes is stronger than ever thanks to a robust lineup the past few years of movies and TV shows based on comics or fantasy novels.
"All the Marvel and Batman movies really helped build up the culture. 'The Walking Dead,' I think, has also driven a lot of popularity back to the comic culture," Farr said. "They may not read the comics, but they enjoy the comic stories."
It's a logical theory that the success of movies and TV shows with roots in comic books could coincide with wider cultural acceptance of nerd culture. It could also have led to higher attendance at regional and San Diego's International Comic-Con, the original and largest convention in the U.S. A history of San Diego Comic-Con attendance published on tech blog io9.com saw a 20,000-person jump from 2005 and 2006 — a few years after the first two Spider-Man films, Christopher Nolan's re-imagining of the Batman franchise and the end of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
It's not just that more people are consuming entertainment once confined to "nerd culture" — it's also that nerds themselves are in charge of some of the biggest cultural milestones of the last 20 years. From Steve Jobs to "Avengers" director Joss Whedon to "Fault in Our Stars" author John Green, nerds are more high-profile and in demand than ever.
“The hottest film franchise in the world (The Avengers) is one giant, sprawling work of fan fiction run by King Fan Joss Whedon," Daily Beast columnist Arthur Chu wrote in May. "The line between author and audience has been smeared beyond all recognition.”
But Campbell said the image of the nerd has also shifted, which in turn fragments the original identity further. As nerd-culture website Nerdist.com founder and comedian Chris Hardwick put it, "Nerds make the shiny things that distract mouth-breathers and that's why we'll crush you."
"Nerds used to look like George R.R. Martin (creator of 'Game of Thrones'). Now the rock stars of the world are nerdy," Campbell said. "We have nerds like John Green, who's good-looking, an amazingly social and likable personality. Those people are liked by the culture, but they really present an image of nerdiness that's not representative of people who consume nerdy content in the decade prior to this."
The lifespan of content has also changed, Chu said, as any show or star with a fan base gets a second life on the Internet.
"As comic-book movies become more mainstream, more people get interested. There wouldn't be a Marvel cinematic universe without fans," Chu said. "Part of this is the role instant communication on the Internet has played in it. There's a whole conversation going on around this culture that is instantaneous. In the old days, you had to write a letter and wait."
With more people enjoying comic-based or fantasy entertainment and digesting a cornucopia of information about it via the Internet, more people are identifying with what was once considered "nerdy," which has changed the definition of the word.
Campbell and Chu agree that depth of knowledge is what determines one's "nerd status" these days.
"The Comic Con elites aren’t just different in their knowledge, they’re different in who they are. They are obsessive people," Campbell said. "But for lots of other people, they know one catch phrase, they’ve seen half the episodes, and that differentiates them. You have a lot of people who have different amounts of knowledge, but all feeling something similar."
Campbell said one example of nerds differentiating themselves from the pack is with "Dr. Who," a show that's been on since the early 1960s in Britain, but came to the U.S. widely in 2006. The broadcast boosted Sci Fi Channel's ratings by 40 percent. As the "new kid" on the American scene, "Dr. Who" and its decades-long history is one of the best examples of the mainstreaming of nerd culture, Campbell says.
"It's the way it's been marketed. The powers that be have been able to make not-nerdy people feel nerdy very easily. 'Dr. Who' has been incredibly popular with T-shirts with inside references that only fans of the show would know," Campbell said. "It makes people feel mastery when they see a reference that's not immediately obvious."
With the success of this summer's "Guardians of the Galaxy" and another Avengers movie set for release next year, the trend of mainstreaming nerd culture isn't going to stop anytime soon. Neither, Campbell said, will the evolution of nerds.
"The word 'nerd' is sexier now. So I think we’re going through an identity crisis, but as nerds, we’ve always had an identity crisis. We’ve always been outcasts," Campbell said. "Lots of us are not the most socially competent people and we don’t like other people, but now they’re here. It's reality."
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