What Is Geek Culture? Redux
Geek culture is a term that gets thrown around a lot. But what does it meeean? Interestingly, “what is geek culture?” is usually one of our top incoming searches. And, hey! My 2013 post What Is Geek Culture is still being read, and read a lot, so I thought I’d supplement it with a brief note on culture itself. But then I started chatting with the WWAC staff, asking them some rather leading questions, and this became anything but brief.
The easiest way to conceptualize culture, I think, is an ecology of symbols, but symbols can have multiple meanings. What does the the term “geek culture” signify to you?
[avatar user=”claire.napier” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” /]
Claire: When I think “geek culture” (and I don’t really like to? But sometimes I do) I think of, basically, speculative fiction. But “comics” in general get mixed in, even if they’re about the most basic, relatable, realistic whatever, because they’re too young as a cultural option and have too much of a juvenile reputation. Ditto for video games. It’s scary to push for just calling these mediums culture, because a) culture is fancy, which means you might not be allowed in, b) if you are allowed in, people will make fun of you for being fancy, and c) people worry about elitism in moral terms. I guess “geek” does signify a certain refusal of the end of childhood, but I don’t know if that’s very useful to perpetuate. There are ways to be adults, mature and all the other ideals, without not loving impossible stories. When it’s used that way it’s usually contemptuous, to mean “huge lazy baby” rather than “person who enjoys things that children also do.”
[avatar user=”megan.purdy” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” /]
Megan P: I think that games in particular are just far far beyond geek culture at this point—they’re just ordinary pastimes. Comics are still a bit niche, which does allow for them to be singled out as unusual, not just any old part of culture. Picking up on the end of childhood thing: that’s something worth digging into. I don’t think that any kind of fandom or fan feeling should be connected with childhood in that way. We don’t think of people who are passionate about footy as childish, per se, although if they’re going to games in costumes or using it as a way to ignore their life, then we might, yeah. And I don’t think there’s anything childish about speculation or heroism or adorbs fantasies either, per se. But certainly there are childish ways of doing and enjoying anything—that refusal again, right?
[avatar user=”Annie Bulloch” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” /]
Annie: I think geek culture encompasses a lot more than liking certain pop culture properties. A huge amount of it revolves around having a career (or strong hobbies) in science and technology. There’s a reason why ThinkGeek sells jewelry depicting a caffeine molecule. Geekiness happens whenever a person takes a strong interest in something and digs in to learn all the details. Sometimes that leads to developing amazing technology, sometimes it leads to specialized academic pursuits, and sometimes it leads to knowing that there’s a discrepancy between the initial info we’re given about Buffy Summers’ birth date and what is established as canon later.
Claire: I’ve never associated geek culture with science, to be honest. My dad works in science (research biology), my mum got her degree in botany and is a scientific hobbyist, and they’re both so very, very much NOT pop culture-style geeks that I just can’t connect the two. Possibly it’s also a national-culture thing; in England we just don’t have the “science nerd” stereotype as strongly as America does. I don’t think we even have “science” as such an identifiable “thing,” to be honest—I don’t know if it’s the same, but when I was at school we tended to study biology, physics, and chemistry as separated concepts from age 11-16 and had the opportunity to continue one, two, or all of them as isolated subjects during sixth form, college, or higher education. After that, we forget that science is something that happens unless we’re working in it or watching a documentary.
Annie: Claire, you’re right that there may be some national culture differences. I live in Houston, which is where NASA is. We have lots and lots of engineers and scientists here since we are also a major center for the oil and gas industry and have one of the world’s finest medical centers. Our business partner’s day job is computer programming for a future Mars rover, and he recently switched to that project from programming for the International Space Station. He and my husband met in college because they were in a Vampire: The Masquerade LARP together.
If geek culture were embodied, what would that person look like?
Annie: A bit like the Greendale Human Being mascot from Community: an amorphous blob in a generally humanoid shape. But it would have a lot of pockets and random skills.
[avatar user=”ardo.omer” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” /]
Ardo: It would look like Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day. I think we’re seeing great strides in getting women more visible in geek culture as opposed to before, but it’s still very white. Outside of diversity, I think we’ve reached the point where geek culture has become mainstream. At least in regards to showing off your geek pride via t-shirts and cosplay. Whether regular folks want to hear about the geeky stuff you have to say is a separate issue and, from experience, they usually don’t (the rents’ eyes just glaze over).
Lana: Geek culture embodied would have a million heads, one body, and one t-shirt that says “Goonies never say die.”
Laura H: Liz Lemon from 30 Rock.
[avatar user=”wendy.browne” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” /]
Wendy: Geek culture looks like me. And you. And that guy. And that woman over there . . . Geek culture is such an eclectic collection that asking to wrap that all up into a single package is almost . . . insulting. The beauty of geek culture is that everyone can fit into it no matter who they are and I always love discovering geekiness in people who don’t fit into the stereotypical geek mold.
Jamie: Depends on who you ask. To me, it looks like anyone who’s a geek to anyone who identifies themselves as one. To Hollywood it looks like Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, Sidney Poindexter from Danny Phantom, the pre-makeover look for Honey Lemon from BH6, Steve Urkel (which is amazing since many people refuse to acknowledge that there are black geeks/nerds), Kevin Smith, the guys from the 30-year-old Revenge of the Nerds movies, and the like.
Desiree: Anyone can be a geek, so I think there’s no specific criteria for what a geek could look like—they could be the cheerleader or the kid locked in a library. If they love something geeky, they’re a geek. But, if I had to pick an actual person it would be Dwayne McDuffie.
Carolina: A Doppelgänger who assumes the form of anyone who calls himself a geek.
Is geek culture a network of people, a network of interests and things, or a network of symbols? Or all or some of these?
Annie: Geek culture is a network of people who enjoy various things to a similar degree. A diagram of all the subsets would look like a fractal. Symbols tend to be important to humans in general, as a way of identifying a group or philosophy they embrace or consider themselves a part of. I have a lot of t-shirts featuring comic book or pop culture iconography, and I know a lot of trivia about a lot of those things. I don’t care about sports at all, but I acknowledge the direct analogy between the way I like things and choose to show it, and the way a big sports fan knows all the stats and wears clothes featuring a team logo, or even a replica of a specific player’s jersey. I feel like sports are boring, pointless games for children, and I am well aware that most non-fans think the same thing about comics.
Ardo: Hmm . . . I’d say mostly a network of interests. I think that’s the glue that holds it all together. No matter who you are (generally), if you’re interested in the same “geeky” thing, you will gravitate towards those other people who are also interested.
[avatar user=”lana.jaeger-barstad” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” /]
Lana: Geek culture is a network of interests and things. The tricky thing about the term “geek culture” is that it sounds like a narrow, specific term. But all things “geek” are actually as varied as things considered to be “literature” or “art.” People can argue all day long about whether or not something falls into a certain category, but the truth is that almost all things can be included within the label. It can be argued that all activities are equally geeky, whether you are larping, sketching, knitting, cosplaying, or anything-elsing. As long as it is an activity that is at least partially fueled by creativity and community, it is geek culture.
[avatar user=”laura.harcourt” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” /]
Laura H: The thing I keep running across about “geek culture” is that it often seems to be brought up to prove a point: mostly, that a thing does or does not happen in “geek culture,” or that people who belong to it act in particular ways. Sure, you get the occasional lifestyle guide, but those tend to advise geeks on how to embrace their geek culture while also becoming conventionally attractive/appropriate/understandable.
Wendy: I’d say it starts with the things and symbols and connects through the people who understand and love them. As is normal in human nature, we gravitate towards others who share interests in those things, but my favourite part about geek culture is that it’s still got this kind of secret club nature to it, even though geekery is the new black right now. As in, going back to #1, you never quite know who’s a geek sometimes, but then someone makes a subtle Star Wars reference . . . and you know that you’re both members of that secret club . . .
Jamie: People network based on what attracts them—so the symbols and interests are what bring the people together.
Desiree: I think geek culture is a network of vast interests that have evolved into a fully blown culture of differing people, politics, and even language. Geek fandom is so vast and large it can hardly be anything but a culture.
[avatar user=”carolina.mello” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” /]
Carolina: A network of interests and things. In its origins, a geek is someone who wants to learn every little tiny detail about something they love so much, to the point that this behavior is socially unacceptable. Thus, there can be all kinds of geeks—a dog geek, a beer geek, a pencil geek . . . At the same time, it’s a bit misguided to believe that’s what someone means by “geek culture,” for the term has evolved and became its own thing. “Geek culture” usually refers to these hobbies that were considered infantile in the near past, but still managed to become popular. Comics, video, tabletop and role playing games, animes, etc. In my opinion it’s a vague term that means whatever certain social groups want it to mean.
What can never be a part of geek culture?
Annie: Anything that can be a part of human culture can be part of geek culture, at least in theory. I don’t understand trainspotters, sports fanatics, or doll collectors, but those are some darn geeky pursuits.
Ardo: Depends on your definition of geek culture. For example, some definitions would single out sports and some would include it because of the level of fanaticism.
Lana: I believe that anything can be part of geek culture, save for blatantly political movements. I do not believe that fanatical belief systems can achieve the status of geek culture, because it is not an examination of art or culture. All forms of political fundamentalism are unchanging, biased views of the world that do not lend themselves to community, evolution, or experimentation, which are the three things at the core of geek culture.
Annie: I find that the worst aspects of geek culture are the result of fundamentalism. There is so much negativity surrounding everything from a character getting a new costume to whether the community should evolve to let women participate. I hate that, but there are those geeks who out a lot of energy into gatekeeping and maintaining the status quo.
Someday, I’m going to write a book about how religious denominations are the result of what amount to fandom wars.
Claire: Annie, you’re gonna love Elizabeth Coody’s next column.
Laura H: I think a lot of the business decisions that make geek culture possible (the administrative world behind the Big Two, for example, and the fact that the forces behind the creative aspects we all love are driven by capitalists in suits) are anathema to most geeks. We all know it’s there, but we pretend it’s more individual than that.
Wendy: Hmm. Tough one. In an ideal world, I’d love it if elitism was not part of geek culture, but—despite being the downtrodden—there are far too many in geek culture who have their fundamentalist ideals about what or who does or doesn’t belong.
[avatar user=”jamie.kingston” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” /]
Jamie: Sports culture. There’s still a “make fun of/bully the nerds” culture that is warmly embraced by sports fans. Right down to the point where Dragoncon has a hard time keeping its block of rooms safe. The Chick Fil-A Bowl attendees know Dragoncon is the same weekend, and they have been intentionally using the con’s room discount codes to get discounted rooms so they can watch football. Then, because they have hotel keys, they hang out in the lobby of the hotel and make fun of/harass the cosplayers. This has necessitated a huge increase in security for the con and its hotels. This has resulted in more money spent and more signage created to generate awareness. Yet, sports culture is still lauded in all its racist (that Washington team, that Cleveland team), sexist (cheerleaders), bullying, hypocritical (dressing up and face painting is not frowned upon or mocked if you do it for YOUR TEAM) glory.
Laura H: Hugs for all! Just not the guy at con with the “Free hugs!” sign. Just . . . no.
Claire: Those guys make me so nervous!
Laura H: Good, your survival instincts are intact and working correctly! Incidentally, I wonder what the cross-over level is between those guys and the guys who complain about people calling them “creepy” at a glance without benefit of the doubt. I would bet a lot.
[avatar user=”desiree.rodriguez” size=”thumbnail” align=”left” /]
Desiree: In an ideal world, I’d say problematic behaviors and beliefs, such as sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. That’s in an ideal world, however, because comics, video games, books, anime, movies, and TV shows (all of which I think can be a part of geek culture) are an escape from reality—a safe haven for the harsher realities of the world and an ideal reflection of what the world could and should be. So, it’d be nice if the culture behind these ideals could reflect that.
Carolina: People who want to label and categorize everything and everyone. The gatekeepers who believe they have the power to decide who is a geek and who is not.