It’s arguable, but in the last decade or so nerd and geekdom has come to be celebrated by the mainstream. Pop culture is attempting to cater to geek tastes, and we don’t deride people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates for not extremely attractive or sports personalities. The 80’s certainly didn’t give as much credit to those of us on the more niche end of culture. Times have changed.
Have times changed for the better? Sure, when I was in college it was acceptable that some friends and I could found a video game enthusiasts club and wear shirts featuring Pac-Man and the Konami code. But we’re at the point where video games are so embraced today that motion controls are flying off the shelves so parents can get their children to incorporate some movement into their lives. In some schools, DDR was accepted into the gym curriculum. Games are simply accepted as a part of young culture and require workarounds to make sure kids are physical. There’s something wrong with that.
Then there’s the culture empowered by acceptance. This is a problem largely found on forums and large-scale blogs, but enthusiast clubs and conventions will reveal their fair share. Empowered geeks find it acceptable to condescend to others, mainly because the source of geek identity is internal and can only be expressed through words. No one has a problem with people sharing their knowledge or preferably anecdotes, but there are those out there who believe that they are entitled to belittle others and eschew common courtesy. Why? Because they know stuff.
It’s really frustrating to me because I honestly enjoy discussing the media, and the internet is a great way to connect to new people in an exchange of information and ideas. An issue I’ve found with discourse on the internet is that new threads bump older ones (e.g., every new post on a blog suggests that the older posts are out-of-date, and new discussions on forums move older ones down the list until they are moved to another page), but that doesn’t compare to the types of individuals one might encounter. What kind of discourse can you hold with individuals who believe that maturity is optional and snark is always tolerated?
Fortunately, I’m not the only person who has noticed this. Cracked recently posted an article about the damage the internet has done to culture in general, with the first point being that there is a spill-over from the internet to real-life in terms of how to properly express yourself. On the Nerdist, which so far has the least snarky and rude comment boards I’ve recently encountered, the recent podcast with Xeni Jardin Boing Boing touches on the inappropriate behavior of internet folks toward the end. It’s also just a really good episode that even brings up Patton Oswalt’s Wired article from months ago, which I talked about back in December. Awareness doesn’t fix the problem.
So the next question is the root cause of this problem. Part of it is the widespread cultural narcissism of America. Self-centered, self-indulgent, and no doubt that the activity in question has some perceived self-gain. This isn’t the clinical narcissism of the psych texts but the type of narcissism shared in posts on The Last Psychiatrist. This is a flair for personal satisfaction that stems from a fractured center. What are these people lacking in other aspects of their lives? Internet geek bullies tend to spend quite a bit of time commenting on forums and blogs. In other instances, you might find person at a convention who seems a little too old to be there (not that there should be an apparent age differences), and that person is causing a ruckus and arguing with people for no reason. There’s an empowerment in these areas, but there’s a lack of power in the rest of reality.
It’s not a lack of self-esteem, though. These people have quite a bit of esteem for themselves in their interest areas, although it does help to hide behind the glass of a computer screen. This may be an attempt to strike some balance in their lives. Crappy job and personal life but brilliance in the memorization of Tolkien’s works. It may be their only escape from a mediocrity they always swore they’d avoid due to their superiority. There could be a number of reasons why these people act this way, so try to have some understanding.
But there is no fix. Not by those of us who are merely witnesses. (Because I can assure you that none of us have this problem. At all.) It’s all on their shoulders. One of the biggest problems in the counseling profession is that change cannot be imposed on others. It’s a process that comes within. People improve when they actually want to improve. It is a slow and frustrating process, but it doesn’t start happening until the people look to make it happen. These geek bullies will not change unless they find reason to change. People keep bad habits because they see that they work for them, and they don’t try to change unless they get stuck along the way. In various settings, these antisocial behaviors actually go rewarded. There is definite ego indulgence at play.
The best one can do is be aware of his or her own contribution. As long as we provide positive examples to each other (and to ourselves), we do make for a better social atmosphere. In engaging the geek bullies, being the better person probably will not garner any props. Hey, it might not even go noticed. But at least you didn’t stoop to that level.
I know that sounds weak. Unfortunately it won’t matter until there’s a cultural shift away from celebrating mental masturbation and toward, hopefully, prosocial behavior. My hope is that by exhibiting the desired behaviors, we can start building our own geek/nerd/enthusiast communities in the desired image.