It’s a simple question: how did my label, Geek, which denoted me as a social pariah in my early life, progress into the realm of mainstream acceptability?
I started thinking about this idea a couple of years ago, but it was a couple of weeks ago, when
#whatsyourgeekconfession trended worldwide on Twitter, that it really began to crystallize. Across the globe, millions of users were volunteering details of their geeky preferences and behaviour, for anyone who clicked the hashtag to see. Rather than hiding their little obsessions, they were celebrating them.
I couldn’t resist joining in:
Fifteen years ago, an admission of this type would have brought nothing but derision and systematic bullying. Where did it all go right?
The answer, as in so many cases, is that the internet changed everything.
A colleague of mine has recently introduced me to the concept of ‘tribes’ in modern culture. This is something rather different than the tribalism we typically hear about in Scotland, ie. the mouth-frothing rivalry between Celtic and Rangers, Hibs and Hearts, or Stirling Albion and East Stirling; it refers instead to the way we organise ourselves according to our interests or values.
That’s a somewhat dry description, so let’s bring it to life somewhat:
- “David” is a teenager in the mid-1990s. He’s interested in role-playing and wargames – hardly mainstream pastimes. The reaction of his peers to these hobbies tends to range from puzzlement to outright ridicule, so he keeps his passion for them relatively quiet, sharing them only with a close circle of similarly minded friends.
- David and his friends see themselves as outsiders from the ‘norm’ and their confidence suffers as a result.
- “Dave” is a modern teenager.He’s also interested in role-playing and wargames – and so are hundreds of people he knows. At first, he thought he was the only person who liked the idea of playing Warhammer 40k, but a quick Google search turned up numerous internet forums full of people who felt the same. Some of those people were in his local area and they invited him to join a Facebook group, which he now uses to arrange games at the weekend.
- Dave doesn’t see himself as an outsider: he’s a member of a vibrant community with lots of different and interesting people, who’ve become his friends. If all those people think 40k is cool, what does it matter if someone in his school disagrees?
Of course, the readiness of the wider public to embrace their geeky side doesn’t hinge solely on this interaction. The explosion of the internet has caused another fundamental paradigm shift: computers are no longer ‘just for nerds’.
In popular culture and media, there used to be a set of rules about depicting characters who were proficient with computers:
- Character is unkempt, poorly dressed, possibly overweight
- Character is socially inept
- Character lives in parents’ basement
These depictions still occur (Die Hard 4.0 and Transformers are but two recent cinematic offenders) but they’re far more infrequent. Why? Well, i can’t speak for the entire Cinema/Televisual complex, but here’s my theory: computers, once the exclusive province of nerds, have permeated all our lives in the West.
If you’re reading this, the overwhelming likelihood is that you use a computer or smartphone in your leisure time. Perhaps you’ll share this column via the buttons at the foot of the page, on one of the electronic social networks you’re a member of. Perhaps, after you’ve done that, you’ll head to the website of your favourite supermarket and do your weekly shopping, rather than brave the crowds in the actual store. None of this is particularly unusual, but if you’d spent this proportion of your leisure time at a computer 15 years ago, you’d probably have been perceived as some kind of clever goblin, or a member of the team from Sneakers.
The most incredible example of how digital interactions have been de-stigmatised, for me, is the rise and rise of internet dating.
When I was growing up, personal ad columns in the newspapers carried a toxic reputation. They were, according to popular opinion, desperate vehicles for desperate people to thrash blindly at the broad readership of a publication, in the vain hope that someone would respond to fill the void of their loneliness… and if that was how conventional wisdom viewed good ol’ newsprint, you can imagine how internet dating was first received when it popped onto the scene.
Today, internet dating has revolutionised the way people connect with each other. It allows an individual to search elegantly and precisely for the sort of person they are likely to get on with, then to initiate contact with that person in a reasonable time frame. If they click after meeting, great; if they don’t, well, it’s easier than it has ever been to meet more people until the right one does come along.
This is a much better way to identify potential long-term partners than I ever used as a single man: whether or not a young lady is tipsy enough to give out her phone number is rarely a good indicator of a profound future connection. As a collective light-bulb has brightened in our social consciousness, all stigma has evaporated.
The common theme running through these different strands is selectivity. As individuals, we don’t have to accept the social norms of our immediate locale; instead, we can cast the virtual net wide, to pull in those who share our niche interests. We don’t have to randomly work our way around a dating scene defined by geography rather than compatibility; instead, we can select very precisely the kind of person we’d like to find, then reap the benefits of only meeting the right kind of people.
Geek has become chic, put simply, because the digital world can cater to our idiosyncrasies… and because the internet has proved that there really is somewhere and someone for everyone.