So what means ‘geek’ anyway?
Since the Internet became mainstream—and certainly since it became ubiquitous—the word ‘geek’ has gotten a lot of air time. This same swell of Internet influence has helped bring a lot of formerly geeky interests into widespread acceptance (or at least widespread awareness) to the point that the term is attached to a huge swathe of interests, industries, and people. When I sat down to figure out what the scope of this site might entail I thought I needed to be open to any and all things geek, and that meant figuring out exactly what ‘geek’ could include and where its boundaries are.
Geek has cast its net wide, though, being appended to everything from fashion to sports enthusiasts to LARPing, and I couldn’t have a site about every possible subject that someone once described with the term. So I needed a clear definition. Should be easy, right?
The answer to that question seems to lie alongside an apparently vigorous debate between ‘geek’ and its cousin word of ‘nerd,’ and who or what the terms should describe. I won’t delve into the complete etymology of the two terms, though you can. The short version is that both terms are fairly young (63 and 97 years), both started out as pejoratives, and both have changed in their meaning (as most words do). The debate comes in that their modern usage makes them not quite synonyms and yet they have a lot of overlap, leading to clannish fighting over who or what is or isn’t one or both or neither. Apparently much nerd-blood has been spilled over the dispute. Or perhaps it was geek-blood? As put succinctly by Randall Munroe over at xkcd:
To make it more interesting, someone decided to use real math to weigh in on the debate. A bit over 2 months ago, a man named Burr Settles created a little fanfare by parsing a data set from Twitter and compared the proximity of various words to either ‘nerd’ or ‘geek,’ and plotted the results to show which words occurred more frequently alongside one compared to the other, or if they had equal shares, and how often those words appeared at all next to other subjects or terms.
Since the connotation of words is tied to how we actually use them, this seemed like a pretty good way to quantify which subjects the terms more strongly correlate to. Taking them together starts to build a picture of how the words are used, and you can read the whole thing here: http://slackprop.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/on-geek-versus-nerd/
The infographic this produces looks like this:
Although there may be a bit of a sampling bias in only looking at Twitter users (who are possibly more likely to be a geek/nerd/both than the average person), it’s still something more valuable than just another random opinion on the matter. The math is beyond me, but I do think his opening opinion on the distinctions is useful:
In my mind, “geek” and “nerd” are related, but capture different dimensions of an intense dedication to a subject:
geek – An enthusiast of a particular topic or field. Geeks are “collection” oriented, gathering facts and mementos related to their subject of interest. They are obsessed with the newest, coolest, trendiest things that their subject has to offer.
nerd – A studious intellectual, although again of a particular topic or field. Nerds are “achievement” oriented, and focus their efforts on acquiring knowledge and skill over trivia and memorabilia.
To me the salient point is that both terms are about obsession over a subject. Which is to say that either term is about enthusiasm and enthusiasts, and perhaps only the subjects matter. Certainly his diagram is comparing the frequency of the words’ proximity to other words which describe subjects and interests.
Except, that still might not quite be right, since enthusiasm within a particular subject can differ.
Take two baseball fans, for example. One is all about the statistical aspects of the sport—the ERAs, batting averages, hits/walks/runs of various players versus various pitchers, and so on. The other is all about the game itself, goes to all the home games of his favorite team (and maybe a minor league team as well), owns a ton of jerseys and hats and pennants with his team’s logos and colors, and loves to watch and talk about the sport. The first one would seem to be more of a ‘baseball nerd’, while the latter is a ‘baseball geek’. This despite them being obsessive fans of the same subject. And here’s the rub—they could be the same person! What a twist!
Well, that was 800 words that brought us no closer to an answer. I feel there are some general trends though, both to the scope of ‘geek’ and where it might differ from ‘nerd’ and can stay off its lawn (And I intend to stay off its lawn; it’s called ‘pledging geek’ after all, and ‘pledging nerd’ doesn’t work with the awful pun that the site is built on, and we couldn’t have that). So ultimately I will have to come up with my own working definition, and set out the limits of what I consider to be ‘geek’ as far as this site and its scope.
As I’ve pointed out, fan conventions are perhaps the hyperbole of interest in a subject; might glancing through a convention’s line-up help narrow our search? Going through Dragon*Con’s lists of tracks (basically subjects) bears out some patterns; it even narrows the field a bit on borderline subjects which are also considered ‘nerdy’ because of being more academic. In fact, which subjects and interests are absent is as telling as anything, and it helps me draw up a loose definition for things which are ‘geeky’ and those who are ‘geeks.’
And here it is:
My Working Definition of ‘Geeky’ and ‘Geek’:
Things (subjects, hobbies, entertainment) are ‘geeky’ when they relate to speculative fiction, speculative science/technology, or any other departure from consensus reality.
‘Geeks’ are those who are enthusiastic about the above-defined ‘geeky’ things, as well as members of the sub-cultures that celebrate ‘geeky’ things.
Speculative fiction is, essentially, fiction which couldn’t actually happen—anything with supernatural elements, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, alternate history, etc. By speculative science/technology I basically mean science which concerns theories without wide acceptance, futurism, futuristic technology or its concepting, and all sorts of projections or predictions about events which haven’t taken place, yet or ever. And consensus reality is exactly what it sounds like—and genres which depart from it but might not otherwise be speculative includes things like alternate history, or stories about having trouble discerning reality, etc.
I’ve also included the ‘members of sub-cultures’ part to include people who might not celebrate speculative elements but still spend enough time with those who do to be influenced by their sub-culture. For example, a regular at Reddit might only ever spend their time on boards concerning real-world news, but they will pick up and adopt the idiosyncrasies of other Redditors and its particular sub-culture, bringing them into a larger ‘forum culture’ that has pervaded the Internet from the beginning. Or, someone who only likes realistic slice-of-life Anime shows will still be influenced by the larger Anime sub-culture and its particular brand of geekiness. In both cases the influence of the members of the community who are into the speculative elements trickles down to members who may not be, giving the entire group shared characteristics, terms, experiences, and in-jokes that have their origins in speculative things. Being members of these communities is important, too, because it’s the social influence of the other members that drags them—unwittingly!—into being at least a little geeky.
Another way of looking at it is this: geeky things have some element of fantastic story (note that ‘fantastic’ here does not mean ‘good;’ otherwise we’d have to exclude fanfiction. oh, burrrn). For fiction this is obvious enough; of course it’s about story and contains fantastic elements! Less obvious is futurism and other speculation about future events or technology, but they also contain elements of story. There is a gap between the way things are now and the way one imagines they may be one day, and in order to argue for the validity or likelihood of the thing one imagines then some sort of narrative must be constructed which leads, like breadcrumbs, from our present reality to the imagined one (This is the same reason that dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction is considered speculative fiction, even if nothing supernatural is involved).
This ‘story-based’ way of looking at it also helps some other distinctions. Take board games. A game like Descent is about contesting and eliminating other playing pieces as two sides move around on a square grid, employing some strategy and attempting to predict the other players’ moves. Described like that, I could be talking about chess. But Descent is basically a self-contained variation on D&D-style gaming, with goblins and dwarven warriors and magic. It’s geeky like whoooa; it would belong within the purview of this site. And it does have a strong story-base, both in the way objectives are laid out and an actual narrative one is supposed to read aloud (if that’s your thing). Chess, on the other hand, would not belong in my blog; there’s no particular narrative (unless you imagine reeeally hard), and it’s more math than storytelling (incidentally, Settles’ word-analysis above links chess strongly with ‘nerd’ subjects, not ‘geek’ ones).
Card games are another place where the distinction helps. Poker is storyless (poker players are another matter); it is not a subject I’ll delve into, and no track at a Sci-Fi convention will contain poker tips. However, a game like Magic: The Gathering is lodged deep in the wheelhouse of geekdom. It’s also an entirely card-based game like poker, but it has fantastic elements at every turn, with characters and settings and even story arcs mirrored in the cards themselves. It even has an ever-expanding family of novels based in its universe.
This also helps us exclude games like Call of Duty or Madden from our survey of geek (at least the games themselves; enthusiastic gamers can still find themselves under our ‘members of sub-cultures’ definition above). These franchise games are almost the opposite of speculation—each new iteration strives to be more and more like reality. And yes, this means that I don’t consider all video games to be a part of the greater geekdom, just as not all card- or board-based games should be.
One more note on story: One of the categories on this site that will expand over time is called Story Theory. I will occasionally write articles on storytelling, story analysis, and the components of such, as well as their usefulness in examining all of the myriad flavors of geek entertainment. This by itself should more rightly be associated with nerd things (being academic) if we believe the prevailing trend, but since the idea of story is essential to how I define geek itself, it will be a frequent guest.
So there it is. Not a simple definition, but I think it is neither too broad nor too narrow. I’m sure there is something right on the borders of my parameters that will vex me like a piece of chicken stuck in my molars, but nothing comes to mind at the moment.