“Can I interest you in everything all of the time” – Bo Burnham, Welcome to the Internet
At what point do you realize that you’re no longer part of a culture? That you’ve aged out, that the culture has shifted beyond you, that the things you once thought were cool are seen as cheugy? And, if you being part of this culture is central to your identity, to your self-perception, what do you do? How do you react?
What do you do when you realize you’re no longer a nerd?
We’ll get back to that in a moment. The question was shared with me on TikTok by @midnightlibrarian, who posts some really great M:tG content. Feeling like nerd culture now, focused on video games, cosplay, MCU, and the like may no longer have a place for the elements of nerd culture that he partakes in. That the ground may have shifted beneath their feet. That, even though they still self-identify as a nerd, that identity is called into question, as they don’t identify with the aspect of nerd-dom that is now dominant in the hierarchy. It can be unsettling, this feeling of being unhomed, of the the doubt and instability that this feeling brings with it. How do you deal with it?
There’s no one true way to deal with it, but some work better than others. One of the ways that emphatically doesn’t is one we reach to instinctively. Standing your ground, and defiantly resisting the entrance of newcomers to your corner of the nerd culture happens time and time again. It’s a large component in a lot of the online “toxicity” that happens throughout nerd-dom. And it works so well: just ask the model railroaders and OG wargamers how well leaning in to grognardia worked out. If you can find them.
(Yes, it’s the internet, I’m aware you can still find them.)
I’m hard pressed to think of examples of nerd-dom that have successfully resisted the changing tides. And, as noted, the defense mechanisms that get deployed in these Bourdieu-sian wars over social capital are incredibly toxic. (But more on this later: a working paper of mine on toxic gamer cultures was recently accepted to a conference, and I’ll publish more on that as it gets closer to publication). In the meantime, perhaps a Simpson’s meme sums this position up best:
Of course, if you want to resist without contributing to the (overt) toxicity, you have other options available to you. I call it the “smile and wave” approach. (It works better if you’re humming along to The Headstones tune of the same name while you do it). It’s a recognition that cultural change is constant, and that trying to capture the vagaries of youth culture is like reaching for a sunbeam with a butterfly net: amorphous and ephemeral, and constantly just out of reach. For most of us, this can be fleeting: we may happen to be down with whatever is cool for the moment, but in an instant it’ll pass us by. It’s okay though, it’ll happen to the next generation too:
Going down this road can still be toxic, depending on delivery, as it may arrive with an air of condescension and dismissiveness. It can be bundled with elitism, nostalgia, and smugness, and we’ve recently seen what lies down the road of nostalgia. But delivery is everything, and it can be server up with a slice of wry too.
And this leads us to our third path: just let it go. (No need for a Frozen take here, you can write your own.) This can be the hardest path, to put it down and walk away. It can be difficult to push aside something that you’ve drawn in and made part of your identity. It can involved some self-awareness and self-reflection, and honestly who has time for that in the midst of the dumpster fire that has been the Twenty-twenties so far. Realizing that others’ enjoyment of things within your culture in no way impacts your experience or enjoyment is hard, because it feels like it does, especially in the moment. If you’ve spent your childhood and teens feeling ostracized, and finding solace and friendship within a little corner of nerd culture where you’ve been left undisturbed, it can be traumatic when it opens up to the mainstream and all of a sudden everyone is there with you. (More on this later, in the above mentioned article). It can be hard, really hard, to let it go.
Ultimately, something as vast and amorphous as nerd-dom is no one thing. The shifting tides of interest and attention will lift some boats and sink others. And as nerd culture has become more prevalent in the 21st century – as nerd culture has become pop culture, with the rise of the MCU, videogaming, et al. – those tides are larger and moving swifter than before. And that’s okay.
Being a part of nerd culture does not mean you need to be down with all of nerd culture. One of the (many) ways that a show like The Big Bang Theory misrepresented nerd-dom was the ease and facility that the gang were suddenly into everything nerdy, from week to week. Grad students and post-docs! Please! Hence the Bo Burnham quote in the epigraph: the internet will present you everything you might be interested in with click or two, and the algorithmic engines of Google, Facebook, and TikTok will show you anything tangentially related to it in the service of advertising, but there’s no need to dive into it all. You’ll be overwhelmed; the tides are too strong.
But that doesn’t mean you need to let it go either, to let that identity pass you by. You can maintain your position within nerd-dom, maintain your geek cred, and let it thrive within you. You may look at what “the kids these days” are interested in, and see if you can share what they love about it too. Or you may decide to put it away and move on to find a new element of interest, move to a new stage or new field, with new areas of excitement on the horizon. The paths are open, the choice is yours.