Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Geeks Versus Nerds

About a hundred years ago (well, more like a month), I started writing a series about 'girlie' math and then responding to one of my friend's thoughts on the matter. This piece is sort of an off-shoot of the last entry I wrote about nerds, though not the final entry on the matter (I still have one percolating). One of the questions that constantly comes up is what differentiates a geek from a nerd; there are a lot of ways in which geeks and nerds are similar, and generally there is a lot of crossover between the two groups. In a Venn Diagram, the middle section of the circles overlapping would take up much of the other two circles. And although nerds and geeks are becoming more socially acceptable, there is still a social stigma attached to being one. As one of my friends writes (again, quoting without asking! But at this point, it should be expected):
Granted, people like to say "I'm such a geek/nerd/etc, tee hee!" when admitting they do something other than think about cars and sports (or clothes and makeup), but the genuine geek/nerd/dork is still a social outcast.
First, I love the "tee hee" thrown in there, because it is true. Secondly, I agree with the sentiment. I find Willow Rosenberg's remarks about knowledge gathering to be fairly on the mark:
It's just in high school, knowledge was pretty much frowned upon. You really had to work to learn anything.
 And yet, I myself think of nerds as being slightly higher on the social food chain than geeks. Why? Well, because the key difference between a nerd and a geek, for me, is their center of knowledge. Nerds are ones who are history buffs; who write code for computer programs, who make the AV system in the high school better. They are the ones who generally get all of their homework done, and while they're at it correct the school books or the handouts the teacher distributed. Nerds use their intellect in areas that may be scoffed at in high school but may one day be a venue for accumulating money, or getting the job, or becoming a premiere scholar of some kind. Geeks, however, are more... ...extracurricular in their knowledge base. Geeks can turn their passion into some form of capitalist success, but more often than not they are the ones spending their hard earned money on tee shirts and memorabilia; they are the ones, out of the two groups, to have dialogue from long forgotten and never incredibly popular television shows rattling around in their heads. These are the people who would write to JRR Tolkien to inform him that, if what Tolkien wrote was the true topography of Middle Earth, then the accompanying maps were wrong. These are people who immerse themselves in worlds of science fiction and fantasy, who learn Klingon and who know the history behind every race in Star Trek and every battle in Star Wars.

The truth is, the only thing that really separates nerds from geeks in life is the amount of respectability each can receive. Both generally exhibit the same type of obsessiveness and fanaticism; the same passion that accounts for needing to learn every facet of Shay's Rebellion is present in the need to learn the hierarchies present in the United Federation of Planets. That shared type explains the amount of overlap the two groups tend to sustain. We just happen to (eventually) praise and respect the man who can build the personal computer or deliver the iPod in a way we do not praise and respect the man who has created a multitude of complex fictional universes. Some geeks get praise; Joss Whedon is a critical darling. But most often, geeks are the ones who are depicted and seen as living within a fantasy realm because they cannot (or will not) connect to life in this realm. And that comes down to the amount of money they can make versus the amount of money society can make off of them.

1 comment:

John said...

Awww. That was from the first comment I ever left on AatA!

As much as I hate to admit it, the nerds really do have a pretty big practical advantage over the geeks. It's tough (though not impossible) to make a living as a professional geek, but the massively successful computing industry was founded almost entirely by professional nerds. It could be argued that when fanaticism is shown to a lesser extent, geeks have a social advantage that nerds do not. It's a little easier to find common conversational ground with someone new if your areas of fandom include things like superheroes or video games than history or computer science. Well, that's my excuse at any rate.