模倣子 Coöption of Nerd Culture

There are a lot of people running around the US who call themselves "nerds" these days. Back in the day, this was a very unpopular thing to be, or to be called -- it was even considered an insult.

The term "nerd" may be a anglicization (goyfication) of the Yiddish word nebbish, or at least related. Actually they may not be so similar. A "nebbish" is a pitiful and ineffectual person, which overlaps somewhat with the original idea of a nerd.

Nowadays nerds are cool, they make money, they can do stuff, they know stuff. And everybody wants to be one.

As someone who grew up as a nerd (and I'll fill you in on what that means) back when nerds were an oppressed minority -- rather than the chic caricatures they are now -- this stings more than a bit...maybe even more than a byte.

So What's the Problem?
First off, it sucked to be a nerd back when being a nerd really meant something. You were ostracized and you were bullied and beaten up.

Secondly, now there are a lot of fake nerds (1), which there never were before. This is discouraging, since back in the day you had to do a lot of actual work to be a nerd. The ill-fated Bill Cosby delivered the commencement address at Carnegie-Mellon University (2), and he made a very good description of what it means to be a nerd.

D'après Cosby, a nerd is someone who "continued on where non-nerds..stopped." That is perhaps the best definition of a nerd I have heard. Again, it took work to be a nerd, so it rankles to have the undeserving of the title take it up so lightly.

Trappings of Nerdom
When Windows NT (4) came out we suddenly had the ability to do things like administer a network through a graphical user interface (GUI) (11). The problem is that somebody who doesn't really know what he is doing can do it, just by pointing and clicking. I was lamenting this to my buddy Allan (also a nerd), and he immediately saw what I was talking about, even though we both thought the new interface was pretty cool.

With a GUI, you don't have to use the command line interface (CLI).

It's worth mentioning that GUI and CLI are a big watershed between Real Nerds and snerds (1). First off, let's look at the word "cursor" (3). Non-nerds think of that arrow that runs around the screen when you move your mouse as a "cursor" -- it is not.  It is a "pointer." A "cursor" is a little flashing box or an underbar or such that hangs at the end of the line you are typing, yes, typing, on the CLI.

The CLI means you actually have to know the commands, how to use them, which parameters they take. You do things like write scripts to save commands or groups of commands that you use a lot and/or which are hard to remember. In the GUI, you can click, you can open and close, you see all the blanks and boxes and radio buttons (5) so you know what's expected of you. You never have to face the terror (or the exhilaration) of the blank, black screen in front of you, and only a keyboard to attack it with.

Now people have smartphones, they send e-mails (6), they surf the web. It's not that Real Nerds don't do these things, it's just that it's much, much harder to tell who the Real Nerds are, especially if you aren't a Real Nerd yourself.

Now there are all kinds of people calling themselves nerds who can't program a computer or build one, play an instrument, sing and perform a musical or opera, read and speak a foreign language (Japanese preferred), can't draw, or have any of the other several "trivial superpowers" which are hallmarks of Real Nerdom.

As with all coöpted oppressed minority cultures, the real members, those who have actually suffered under the merciless whips and chains of the majority oppressors, lived through an openly hostile alienation, have ambiguous feelings when the majority population begins to adopt, even embrace, the superficial elements of their culture. It's nice to be recognized instead of ignored and swept under the rug, but there is seldom an apology. Also, as we see in the case of Fake Nerds, the coöption of a minority culture, in this case, Real Nerd culture, results in an appropriation of control of what that culture means. In other words, the majority are now saying who is a nerd and who isn't, and Real Nerds are robbed of their identity. In fact, they are just as ostracized as before (8), are able to recognize one another, but are no longer recognized by society as an actual group.

We see a large number of people who now self-identify as nerds. Back in the day, "nerd" was an insult applied by other people, and one which one tried to weasel out of with justifications along the lines of "I went to a football game once," or "I have a girlfriend (sort of)." Nowadays we hear the opposite, e.g., "Yeah, I watch Dr. Who -- I'm a total nerd (7)."

Kind of liking a TV show, or owning a couple of T-shirts or comic books, does not make one a nerd. At best, one might be called a "nerd groupie," (9) -- liking The Rolling Stones does not make you Mick Jagger or any other sort of rock star -- you're a "fan" or a "groupie," not a member of the band by virtue of your mild interest. Being a member of the band takes work (and luck) as does being a nerd.

In other words, dressing up in the superficial trappings (10) of a subculture does not mean that you become a member of that subculture, and to pretend that you do is cultural appropriation or coöption.


(1) a.k.a, "snerds," short for "poser nerds" or "imposter nerds" (also "imposnerds")

(2) Yes, the hypen is on purpose. If you're a hard-core CMUer, you remember the hyphen, and you cherish the hope that it will someday return.

(3) from the Latin for "to run"

(4) another fact that might be lost on non-nerds is that CTRL-C is actually the interrupt command, and when Windows decided to make it the "cut" in the "cut-and-paste" command, there was a brouhaha. Of course, CTRL-Z was the "throw it into the background" command (in Unix), but that might be a bit obscure...  vi uses "u" for "undo" -- correct me if I'm wrong...

(5) yes, that's what they're called.

(6) with attachments, yes, which are seamlessly attached and detached. All of these snerds will never know the agony and the ecstasy of a broken MIME header (or fixing it).

(7) may be wearing a Dr. Who T-shirt, one of two such in wardrobe -- further example of "nerd cred"...not!

(8) it is said that "conservatives are people who admire radicals...centuries after their deaths." by the same token, society may (vaguely) admire nerds, but still nobody really wants to be at a party with them.

(9) and we probably need a term like this

(10) the superficial outward impressions of a culture are what I call contact memes. I have an example of the corporation. I probably still need to write on contact memes, probably in the context of cultural appropriation

(11) pronounced "gooey"


  1. I've thought about this theme quite a bit before, but never have really seen it delineated as clearly as in this particular post. These days, people are indeed doing things with their smartphones that one had to actually *be a nerd* to do back in the days of Windows NT, before it more-or-less into XP, and on into the Age of Devices that we now entertain today. I myself started a WordPress blog when I was still regarded as a "computer freak" and blogging was only vaguely coming into vogue. Now I have trouble keeping up with the trends of multiple WordPress users posting and commenting on their smartphones, in a day and age when I'll be *damned* if I'm going to suffer through all the commands of yet another device, and a flip phone does me just fine. The movie "Revenge of the Nerds" comes to mind, of course, wherein the nerds were the ostracized students on campus, and yet rose to stunning victory in the end, getting the best girls, and so forth. It almost capsulizes the past thirty years of the rise of Nerdom, in a single flick.

  2. By the way, it seems I left out the word "morphed" in between 'more-or-less' and 'into XP.'- Feel free to edit my comment and insert the missing word of choice, or any other word for that matter, so long as it supplies the needed verb. Thank you for this thought-provoking post.