It wasn’t until a little over a year ago – while discussing the possibility of the term “nerdcore” being applied to music in styles other than just hip-hop – that I realized many of my brothers and sisters still reject the term nerd. “The Wrockers will never go for it,” a friend and fellow music blogger said, “I can’t imagine they’d want to be saddled with the nerd label.” When I inquired as to what word these seemingly nerdy individuals would instead use to describe their studious predilections, his answer was simple: geek.
This seemed to me a counter-intuitive choice, as I have always viewed the terms as practically synonymous. But since that time our community has seen a veritable explosion of what could be termed anti-nerd sentiment, or, perhaps more accurately, the rise of geek apologists. As recently as this summer, fellow GeekDad Matt Blum touted the virtues of the geek, while summarily cataloging the various ineptitudes of the nerd. While I find this strange at best and an outright false dichotomy at worst, many of our fellows tend to agree with Matt. From Wil Wheaton’s (brief) turn as a poster boy for The Society for Geek Advancement to the rise of “geek chic,” geeks seem to have it, while nerds, inexplicably, don’t.
Last month, this simmering geek/nerd animosity took a strange new turn when John Dalton, the Australian sysadmin for social cataloging community LibraryThing shared an oddly incongruous set of clouds harvested from that site’s tagmash feature. When, through the magic of Twitter, his experiment found its way to me, I was both fascinated and perplexed. I followed up, and, thankfully, was able to discuss the subject further outside the constraints of 140 scant characters.
While tagmashing, John explained to me in the email correspondence that followed, is generally used to show the intersection of two or more different tags, he instead elected to demonstrate that it can also be used to show the complement. As the terms nerd and geek were fresh in his mind from a related talk he’d recently led for a group of librarians, those were chosen as example tags, and the results surprised even him. With tongue firmly in cheek, John touted a screen capture of the tag clouds as “hard data,” at long last explaining the genuine difference between the two tribes.
But does this data stand out as less anecdotal than any personal definition or individual belief? Is relating nerdery (or geekery) to a set of roughly defined literary constructs an ideal means of discerning difference? More to the point, what makes programming geeky yet relegates fantasy fiction to the realm of the nerd?
As with most Web 2.0 applications, LibraryThing tags are generated by the users themselves, but rather than hone in on the overlapping set of related geek/nerd tags, John instead sought to isolate tags related to either one or the other:
If you look at the tag page for “geek,” what you’re seeing is a list of books which people have tagged “geek,” ordered by the number of times they’ve been tagged.
The “related tags” box (which is what I was showing in my image) is a tag cloud showing the frequency of the *other* tags that have been applied to the books in that list.
A tagmash shows the same thing, but filtered by multiple tags. So the tagmash for “geek, –nerds” has a tagcloud showing the *other* tags that were applied to all the books which were tagged “geek” (or “geeks”) but *not* tagged “nerd” (or “nerds”).
When pressed for further insight into his findings, John was admittedly as perplexed as me. While the prominence of “New Orleans” in the nerd cloud was chalked up to the noise inherent in dealing with such a small amount of tags, there simply is no established rubric for proper tagging. It is a distinctly individualized process. John elucidated as such:
All it means is that there aren’t many people tagging books as both “perl” and “nerd”, for example, while there are probably a bunch of people with copies of LOTR who are tagging them “tolkien” and “nerd.” Who are these people? I dunno, and haven’t really explored their libraries yet. You could lose hours exploring the listed books and trying to find out why people tagged them that way.
He further explained that the tags themselves referenced “very small numbers,” with many of the titles tagged either nerd or geek a single time. Then, almost as if on cue, he answered the question that I’d secretly been harboring all along; the related tag clouds for geek and nerd – compiled without excluding one term or the other – are much similar. Still, there are a number of interesting holdouts. “Cyberpunk,” for example, only appears in the geek cloud, while Tolkein’s “Middle Earth” still only shows up for nerd.
So we find ourselves witnessing data that – though on the surface appears empirical – still seems suspect. While some members of our sample group, the expansive LibraryThing community, obviously associate different elements with the terms nerd and geek, a far larger set include both or, at the very least, are not opposed to cross-pollination. But what does this say about the terms themselves, about their use and their weight?
For every person like me, who tends to use the words interchangeably, there is someone like Matt who sees nerd as an inferior, loaded label. I suppose the only logical explanation is that neither of us is right or wrong. Nerd and geek are just words, terms as similar or as different as we as geeks/nerds chose to define them. Though the etymology of each springs from equally colorful ground, they both now describe an individual who perhaps appears somewhat more intellectual and somewhat less normal than the baseline. Yet, despite which we choose to wear as our badge of honor, both terms have distinct weaknesses.
As is already evident, nerd, for many, conjures up images of social ineptitude and school yard taunts; in this regard, as John so eloquently put it, “one person’s synonym is another’s deadly insult.” While, geek, consequently, may be slipping through our fingers. As is the danger with any term deemed more inclusive and acceptable, it is rapidly becoming diminished via overuse. In that regard, “geek chic” poisons the latter just as Revenge of the Nerds stigmatized the former.
In the end, what we are left with is a series of arbitrary words that never quite fit our even more arbitrary definitions. As adults, we choose to wield them, however awkwardly, as verbal manifestations of the downtrodden, put-upon people that we were blossoming into the functional, successful people that we are. Yet, while the nerd/geek schism is a laughable distinction tantamount to the great trekkie/trekker debate, the important thing to remember is that in this modern era we can employ the words as we like. Perhaps more importantly, we can do so without the inherent isolation that once permeated both.
We are geeks. We are nerds. We are dorks and dweebs. We are different, but at least we are different together.