I’m a nerd. And I’m excited, because by the end of this post, you’ll understand exactly what that means.*
Paul Graham, in his Essay “Why Nerds Are Unpopular,” defined nerds as such:
A nerd is someone who isn’t socially adept enough.
But this isn’t the whole story. We know this because we can easily imagine someone who is socially inept but not necessarily a nerd: Richard Sherman, a pro (American) football player who had a bit of a freakout after a game last night:
Another candidate for socially inept non-nerd would be Nelson, from The Simpsons:
Both are just assholes. They’re definitely socially inept, but our “Nerd Alert” isn’t going off.
So, let’s modify our definition a bit and see what we get. Let’s see what Wikipedia has to say:
“Nerd is a derogatory term for a person who is intellectually knowledgeable or bright, but socially inept.”
That definition is better, but is missing something still. We know this because of this guy:
This is intended to be a picture of a gross male gamer. Let’s just assume he’s smart, perhaps like Comic Book Guy:
Now, both are definitely nerdy. And they fit Wikipedia’s definition: smart, socially inept. But they don’t quite fit the bill—because the next two examples are even more nerdy:
These guys are bona-fide, stereotypical nerds. Their nerd cred is unimpeachable. What’s different about them from the gamers, before?
Is it that they’re not overweight? Probably not, because this guy is kind of chunky, and definitely sets off all nerd alarms:
No, the difference is that these new three are all working, or in a work setting. Professor Frink is in a lab coat, so he’s presumably doing science. The next photo has the guy wearing a pocket protector to hold pens, presumably for school work. And our third guy is sitting at a computer, doing some kind of work. In contrast, the gamers are just…degenerating, wasting their time.
Okay, so we have: socially inept, smart, and working.
We’re almost there, except for one thing: Shane Battier.
Shane Battier is my favorite NBA player, period. And he is almost a nerd.
Don’t believe me? From Wikipedia (emphasis mine):
Battier has often been called “the ultimate glue guy” for playing sound, fundamental, team-oriented basketball, making his teammates more effective without flash or padding his own stats, and for making the most of his skills with discipline and hustle rather than raw athleticism. He’s also known for his extensive preparation in studying the opposing team and the player he is assigned to guard: “I try to prepare for my opponent as thoroughly as possible. I want to know every angle on the man I am guarding to give me an edge. I read many, many pages and go over strengths and weaknesses many times before a game. ‘Proper preparation prevents poor performance.’ That is a motto I like.” The Rockets made him the team’s only player with access to its highly sophisticated statistical data that they compiled on all opposing players; he used this data to become familiar with the tendencies of the players he would guard in each game.
Now, there is no reason to think Shane is socially inept. But imagine he was. He’s certainly smart (almost straight A’s in college), he certainly works his tail off…were he socially inept, would he be a nerd?
The answer is no, because of the final piece of our puzzle: the work a nerd does must not be immediately, visibly useful. And an NBA player’s work is extremely visible: that’s the point! He gets paid to be watched, because people like watching pro basketball.
Even if you came across him sitting in his front room studying the statistics of his opponents, he wouldn’t come off that nerdy (although he’d be closer to it)—because he’s, uh, nice to look at. I’m a dude and I can tell he’s handsome.
So our final nerd definition: socially inept, smart, working, and produces no immediate, visible value.
Nerdiness as a Male Phenomenon
Now would be a good time to address this: why are most nerds dudes? As Cane says:
Nerdy girls are really:
Nerdy boys are:
Why is this? Let’s look at our definition of nerd:socially inept, smart, working, and produces no immediate, visible value.
Imagine this woman delivering an incomprehensible lecture on quantum nanophysics, perhaps with a lot of “ums,” and maybe some racist jokes thrown in for good measure. She would be: socially inept, smart, working, and…delivering a lot of immediate, very visible value. And “socially inept” just isn’t when everyone’s kissing your feet. Anything sounds good coming out of those lips.
The reason few women are nerds is because just what they are is valuable—anything they do is gravy. As I said in an earlier post:
Women are born with inherent middling social status, and their main task is to not screw it up. Men are born with zero inherent social status, and their main task is to claw their way to the top.
I also think girls are less likely to become nerds than boys of equal intelligence, possibly because they’re more sensitive to social pressures. In my school, at least, girls made more of an effort to conform than boys.
This would be a good time for me to link to this post, “What Masculinity and Femininity Are.” Yes, I just linked to it two paragraphs ago, and yes, it could be explained more clearly. But it’s the foundation behind a lot of the thinking in this essay.
Nerd Cred, Male and Female
Earlier, when talking about Pocket-Protector, Professor Frink, and Cigarette-and-Computer guy, I said:
Their nerd cred is unimpeachable.
What does that mean? Nerds are social outcasts. Why would one need cred to be a nerd?
When men get together in gangs, a phenomenon called honor will spontaneously arise. I have defined honor in the past as “one’s eligibility to join the tribe of badass men.” (And yes, nerds are badass, or at least can be. Knowledge is power, and nerds can know a lot of stuff. But they are not necessarily badass. We’ll get to that). Nerd cred is one’s eligibility to join the tribe of, well, nerds.
How is that eligibility attained? It’s bought, through sacrifice. The particular type of sacrifice differs from group to group; for nerds, it’s sacrifice of social value, for something that can provide value to the group. In other words: to nerds, it’s cool (to them) to be uncool (to everyone else). Nerd society, at its most extreme, does not offer dual citizenship: you’re in or you’re out.
For male nerds, (nerds are humans, and groups of humans form tribes, so when I say “male nerds,” I actually mean “male members of the Tribe of Nerd”), the value they provide to the group is usually aligned with the particular nerdy interests of the group. Some esoteric knowledge or expertise. It’s important to note that nerds approach this combatively, like warriors approach fighting skill. As Cane says:
The Nerd wants to win at reading comic-books.
For female nerds, what they bring to the table is…sex. Duh. Haven’t we gone over this? To quote myself a bit ago:
What [women] are is valuable—anything they do is gravy.
For women to be accepted in the tribe of Nerd, they must do what they do to be accepted into any tribe: come to some sort of sexual arrangement. For most groups that means sleeping with one member of the group consistently and otherwise keeping legs and mouth shut, but nerds are usually so sex-starved that they may be willing to entertain alternate arrangements. I have in mind two girls in particular that slept around with pretty much all my old high school friends during college. It’s important to note that just as male nerds sacrifice social status by learning weird stuff that no one wants to hear about as the price of entry into the nerd tribe, female nerds sacrifice social status by sleeping with a nerd.
Understanding the male and female conceptions of honor will help us resolve the conundrum of “fake geek girls.” We’ll look at a few pictures and dissect why/why not they’re nerds or not.
This is the original face of the meme. Nerds will instinctively react somewhat against dubbing her a nerd because she’s pretty attractive. One of the common bonds of the Tribe of Nerd is low social status—pretty girls don’t have that. She could, however, remedy that by sleeping with a nerd, and in one stroke a)lower her own social status, and b) contribute something to the group. On the Internet, the demand for this is phrased very matter-of-factly: “[show us your] tits or gtfo.” Interestingly, though, that’s all she has to do: a girl can hang with the Star Wars geeks without knowing a thing about Star Wars, as long as she’s putting out. She won’t be called on her lack of Star Wars knowledge (except possibly by envious nerds w/whom she’s not sleeping).
This girl is not attractive, and for nerds on the cool side of nerdiness, she will likely not even be able to sleep with them to gain entry to the Tribe of Nerd. However, if she brings whatever currency this particular group of nerds is built around, she may be able to enter as “one of the bros.”
This is Summer Glau, a.k.a. the Nerd’s Social Nightmare. She’s a stunning actress who’s played central roles in several undeniably nerdy films and TV series (Firefly, The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and even The Cape) and so handily outnerds anyone in nerd skills, and yet isn’t sleeping with any particular (low-status) nerd. The nerd thus feels slighted because she has not paid the traditional female price to be a member of the Tribe, but undeniably deserves membership in the tribe by virtue of beating the nerd at his own game.
I must conclude that actresses that appeal to nerds—Zoe Deschanel, Summer Glau, and Emma Watson come to mind—are forced to acquire quite a bit of tact to deal with the bruised egos they (even if unintentionally) cause and encounter among their fans.
There is more to explore on the nuances of female nerds, but this is too long already, so I’ll move on.
A Caution to Nerds
A few months ago I threw out a throwaway definition of nerds while writing a post about automation:
Nerd: a guy who reacts to being a small fish in a big pond by retreating to a smaller pond.
This wasn’t a complete definition, as we saw above, but you could certainly do a lot worse. Let’s look at our definition again:
Socially inept, smart, working, provides no immediate or visible value
Our definition begs a question that we haven’t yet addressed: If he’s working, how come he provides no immediate or visible value? What exactly is he working on if it provides no value?
What he’s working on is some form of capital—rather than producing immediate value, he’s trying to find an advantage that will help him produce more value in the future. This may be a skill, or knowledge, or a scientific discovery, or a computer program, or any number of things—the point is, it’s something that’s completely useless right now, when he’s working on it.
Now, it would be nice if all nerds were out seeking an advantage because they were just that crafty. However, there is another possible reason: they’re scared of conflict. Competing in the “big pond” was too much for them, and they’ve sworn off all conflict as a result.
If a nerd has this, then his life may be pretty difficult. The ability to handle conflict—constructively, destructively, any way but avoidantly—is an essential part of the human condition.
Well, that’s the Essence De Nerd, distilled into blog post form for you to analyze to your heart’s content. I would urge any nerds reading this to take a look at their lives and consider how much of their time is producing delayed value as opposed to instantly available value. This time differential can be important even in conversation styles.
Happy nerding (or not)!
Cane Caldo, “The Invisible Horror“
Donovan, Jack “The Way of Men: Masculinity Explained”
dropit_sphere, “Red Pill Take on Honor”
Honor series, Art of Manliness
“Shane Battier,” Wikipedia.
Cane Caldo, “Take A Number”
*In a kind of Zen way, if you understand this post, you’ll no longer think of me as a nerd.