I'd like to take a minute just sit right there, and I'll tell you all about how a culture got stolen.

DON'T YOU hate it when you wake up in the morning and find that your subculture has been coopted into the mainstream? Kills your entire morning, doesn’t it? For an increasing number of old-school nerds it’s not only killing their morning but their entire identity.

You’d think that having your culture accepted by the mainstream is a good thing, as it may actually lead to you being touched by a member of the opposite sex, but an increasing number of nerds aren’t feeling the love. They identify with their culture being rejected and separate from the mainstream, and when their culture is embraced, they feel betrayed.

Why is it though, that nerd culture has become so prevalent in the mainstream? Comic book movies regularly top the box office, being able to code a website has become a mark of respect and T-Shirt sales featuring ironic cake statements are going through the roof. 

With a cultural phenomenon such as this though, there is no one unifying answer that ties it all together. This ain’t Douglas Adams, people. Instead a myriad of technological, economic and artistic reasons are to blame for the rise of the nerd chic.

If you want to see which subcultures are dominant within mainstream society, you need only to go to the local megaplex. For years now, titles such as Spiderman, Batman and a ridiculous amount of video game adaptations have been hitting us in a wave of nostalgia and mediocrity.

In 2008, Dark Knight raked in just a shade over a billion dollars in a simultaneous nerdgasm and sadness over Heath Ledger’s death. 2003, Return of the King did similar business leading to a marked increase in the level of fluent Elven being spoken in public. If you needed any further evidence of nerd culture being coopted by Hollywood, look no further than the acquisition of DC Comics by Disney earlier this year.

It’s just not the dollars in nerd cinema driving the trend. Nerds have infiltrated Hollywood with directors like Zac Snyder helming big budget flicks like Watchmen and Superman and Peter Jackson winning the lit nerds over with one of the greatest trilogy adaptations of all time. It’s also well known that Nic Cage is a massive nerd; whether this is a good or bad thing depends on whether or not you can sit through a showing of Ghost Rider without going into a homicidal rage.

So how did this focus on nerd-related projects come to be? The answer lies in the economics of nerds.

You see, nerds happen to be white, male and aged between 15 to 35 years old. Guess which demographic happens to have the most discretionary spending? That’s right; it’s not the tweens but the nerds who have more money to pay for collectibles and other useless crap which is low-cost to manufacture.

Quite often, nerds while having jobs aren’t paying too many bills and aren’t at the stage of their lives when they consider putting roots down and getting a mortgage. Probably because they’re not at a stage in their lives when they can talk to the opposite sex, natch! Therefore, their priorities are them, themselves and they. Buying a USB stick shaped like a companion cube can seem like an essential purchase in the face of no other financial obligations. In short, marketers have seen a demographic ripe for the bleeding and have thrown so many impulse items and cultural tokens at it. Of course, money may make the world go round, the sun shine and puppies choke on industrial waste but it’s not the only motivator driving the nerd renaissance.

The internet.  

Your one stop shop for Brazilian fart porn, lolcats and downloadable D&D guidelines has perhaps been the biggest factor in the rise of mainstream nerds.  You see when the internet was but a whisper on the Ethernet, back when AOL was the big boss player and porn was hard-earned only the nerds were on it. They were the ones coding the rudimentary Kevin Bacon fan pages when everybody else was still marvelling at the mobile phone smaller than their heads.

But of course, the internet involved and the great Silicon Valley boom coupled with the dominance of Microsoft in the early to mid 90s led to the internet and technology being available in a lot more homes around the world.  By this stage, rudimentary nerd memes were rolling around the interwebs faster than the speed of a 2k dial-up connection.

We as a species have evolved so, so much.

Things soon started to snowball and media companies taking advantage of faster download capabilities took their content online, drawing a lot of people who didn’t traditionally hang around the tubes. Then social networking took off and the internet was entrenched in our daily lives as essential as traffic lights or electricity. During this time, the memes came thick and fast. PERL jokes and XKCD comics became in vogue and the ability to not only get these jokes but to also come up with them became essential. Nerd humour and traditional humour became one.

Today, as we move toward the semantic web and skynet finally taking over the ability to modify the technology has become a desirable trait and therefore nerds (who traditionally have this ability) have become a social commodity. You go to any social group at a trendy bar and I personally guarantee (not really), that one person knows how to torrent eps of Family Guy.

The nerds, it would seem have been integrated into the mainstream but hardliner nerds think that the mainstream is killing their outsider role. What to do if you’re a nerd losing your identity? You get even nerdier.

I’m talking about acquiring an unusually large vocabulary, including the not often sighted variation of ‘quaint’ (ultra nerds will dig it) and using it in every social situation possible. You’re on a date? Confabulate your date! Hanging out with mates at the bar watching the football? Insist the bar scene is ruining the verisimilitude of the game.

I’m talking about not just being good at videogames (who isn’t these days?), I’m talking about beating a game so hard its kids are born black and blue. I’m talking about getting every special item in that damned game, even if you lose your job and your friends over it. Isolation is a true nerd quality!

I’m talking about dedicating yourself to intellectual pursuits. Read Satres while listening to John Coltrane in the background and playing chess by mail against a Russian grandmaster. Then, enthuse about your intellectual pursuits to everybody you meet. If you meet somebody who actually likes Dan Brown, scoff at them with guffaws.

It’s really about taking the qualities which made your subculture a subculture in the first place and extrapolating on them. Make Urkel look cool. Of course, this is the type of ideological struggle that has been going on for centuries. First there was rock, and when that became too mainstream, punk developed.

So, what does the future hold for nerd culture? If I’m correct, and I am, there will be a splinter formed between those who accept the mainstream position of nerd culture, and those who think otakuism is a pretty okay hobby. Whatever the outcome of this split, nerd culture will continue to develop along cultural, technological and economic lines.

The first one to conjure up a projection graph for this wins a cookie.

- James McGrath


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