My Subculture Is Becoming Mainstream, Oh No!
August 10, 2009 6:29 PM   Subscribe

What is a geek? Does the term still have meaning? Recently, I've noticed that large groups of people I'd have never considered to be geeks claim the label as their own, citing interest in things like video games and social networking sites which were once the domain of geeks but have now become entirely mainstream. So, what does it mean to be a geek? If you self-identify as such, why?
posted by signalnine to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
A geek is an alcoholic who bites the heads off of chickens for booze.
posted by Max Power at 6:34 PM on August 10, 2009 [9 favorites]

Traditionally, I believe it referred to a circus performer who bit the heads off chickens.

A more modern definition I think would be someone who has an inordinate fascination with a subject. So, someone who really likes music is a music geek, video games a video game geek, sports trivia a sports geek. Therefore, someone can still be a geek and not conform to the general 'nerdy', uncool image some associate with the word geek.

Although, I'm sure the connotations of being a geek will have wide regional variability.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 6:39 PM on August 10, 2009

There was an interesting article the other day on the various definitions of "geek", specifically how it relates to girls, but you still may find it useful :
4 tips for understanding girl geeks
posted by amethysts at 6:44 PM on August 10, 2009

"geek" has the positive connotation of demonstrable technical skill. "nerd" has the negative connotation of social awkwardness and introversion.
posted by @troy at 6:46 PM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

It's late, and I am almost certainly not going to explain this very well, but I have a theory -- a very basic one -- and I will share it. This might be blindingly obvious, but I think it's an interesting example of changes in meaning (as in the case of "gay", etc).

As you say, with formerly geeky pursuits like video games and social networking entering the mainstream, the typical implications of "geek" have become somewhat watered down -- which is to say, it's not just spotty nerds playing games anymore. And I suspect that is what has lead, in large part, to the broader group of self-identified "geeks". Weak example: video games are for geeks. Girls now play video games. These girls become geeks. The kind of girl that plays video games also, generally speaking, might like comic books and anime too, since a lot of games are based on them, and so over time, interest in anime and comics becomes a characteristic of geek where it might not have been before. Very basic, and perhaps unlikely (like everyone else, I have no idea what girls like) example, but I think it explains what I'm getting at.

Which is what also leads to a lot of posturing from the "true" geeks, that rail against those that identify as geeks simply because they use MySpace. To the MySpacers, they probably think they're fully justified in calling themselves geeks, but the spotty geeks seem to take issue.

Kind of an interesting dichotomy that has a lot of common ground with the whole prescriptivist/descriptivist thing, I think.

Anyway, I think geek may have reached a point where simply being "alternative" in some way is enough to label yourself a geek and get away with it.
posted by nostrich at 6:46 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've always thought "geek" meant "someone with a large interest and/or knowledge base in something that the majority of the populace isn't interested in" which means that people who love model trains are geeks, as are stamp collectors, fanfic authors/readers, ferret-owners, and underwater basket weavers. There's also a "lack of social niceties" aspect to it as well, because "geek" was originally a term that referred to a circus sideshow.

There's a hierarchy of geek as well, and while I did think it funny at the time, the "geek" in me felt bad because dammit, some of my closest friends could put themselves in the lower tiers of that chart.
posted by TrishaLynn at 6:47 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Personally, the most common definition I hear is that a geek is anyone with an above average interest in some form of technology with sub-definitions like computer geek, audio-video geek, etc...
posted by tdreyer at 6:54 PM on August 10, 2009

"Geek" is a word people use to describe themselves, usually half-ironically, as being in some way more involved with what they consider "geek interests" than most people they spend time around--regardless of how those people compare to the population as a whole.

As for "geek interests", that can mean a lot of different things; I'm sure you've already heard most of them. Since calling someone a geek is often used as a compliment (that is, a faux-insult praising someone's discerning taste for things that the masses don't find interesting), I resent its increasing association with computers and software.
posted by k. at 7:08 PM on August 10, 2009

In my view, most people who embrace the term "geeks" are hardly geeks. Today--well, the past 15-20 years, really—the term’s most often embraced as an affectionate descriptor of people who are reasonably smart and who take unabashed interest in the details of topics beyond obvious common denominator interests like TV, dating, fashion, celebrities, and weddings--Basically, the interesting people.

Geek was a cruel and potent insult during the Reagan administration. Think Dungeons & Dragons-obsessed savants with asthma inhalers and special shoes who picked their noses and could barely ride a bicycle. Today people cultivate and exaggerate their own "geekdom," but the mantle most certainly helped no one get laid in 1982.
posted by applemeat at 7:19 PM on August 10, 2009

a lot of previously-considered-'geek' things have hit the mainstream.

if a video game makes $170MILLION on one day, i think it's safe to say that (some) video gaming is pretty mainstream.

even knowing what the "Internet" *was* used to qualify as geeky. but parts of it have entered the mainstream.

this question reminds me of a comment by cortex from a couple of months ago.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:23 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

applemeat, I think part of what happened is that some of us D&D-obsessed savants actually grew up to be reasonably normal people who could walk and chew gum, and even have conversations with girls. Some of us even fell in love and have dragged our wives or girlfriends into it. And yet we still obsess over our old hobbies, witness the hundreds (thousands?) of hours I've invested reading and adding stuff to (aka
posted by meinvt at 7:40 PM on August 10, 2009

I've generally considered "geek" to be a more general term for someone obsessed with a niche subject. For example, despite being a robot geek in everyday life, I'm secretly an archaeology geek. I can geek out about something -- talk about it very enthusiastically and endlessly while others look on in vague confusion and mild alarm.

"Nerd" I've always felt like was more specific -- the typical science fiction, D&D, socially awkward, technically-oriented type of geek. (Not that I'm hating on the nerds -- see my username) And whether it's from Revenge of the Nerds or just the fact that a drawn-out "R" sound is so much more satisfying than a drawn-out "E", "NEEEEEEEERD!" is a much more satisfying sarcastically-derogatory insult than "GEEEEEEEEK!", in my humble opinion.

But why do I self-identify? Because in sixth grade it's what I got called, maliciously, when I developed asthma, couldn't play the usual sports any more, and made the spelling team instead. Now as a grown-up nerd I MAKE ROBOTS. I MAKE THE FUTURE. I GET PAID TO MAKE SCIENCE FICTION HAPPEN AND LESSER BEINGS ARE IN AWE OF ME. You'd better bet I'm proud of it.

Did anyone say anything yet about geeks/nerds being all egotistical? Cuz I'm sure there's no truth to that.
posted by olinerd at 7:49 PM on August 10, 2009 [2 favorites]

This question has a lot of good insight, with both some generic information and some more specific resources for the geekily inclined.
posted by greekphilosophy at 7:53 PM on August 10, 2009

"Geek" used to have a negative connotation.

To the cool kids, a geek was not just someone who was really intently into a niche interest, but who was socially awkward as a result, couldn't relate to others, wasn't rich or athletic, etc.

But those labelled "geeks" were often just better-educated on a given subject (or lots of subjects) than their detractors.

Still, the divide between the Cool Kids and the Geeks persisted. Other than the requisite kicking-sand-in-the-face required to enter the Cool Kids Club, furtive, closed-door tutoring sessions and under-the-table thesis-paper-for-hire transactions were the only interactions between the two groups.*

Then, a strange thing happened. A savior appeared to geeks, in the name of one Bill Gates (Apple fans insert Steve Jobs here), a computer nerd whose interests (obviously) earned him a lot of money.

Suddenly, geeks had prestige and status.

Nerds everywhere could come out of the closet, and so they did, blinking in the bright sunlight as they pushed aside their D&D figurines, anime comics and Atari consoles to stand side by side with the cool kid who had once so cruelly mocked them for their sport.

High-profile geeks like Al Gore and Stephen Hawking continued to pave the way, and now it is considered a positive thing to label yourself a geek.

We've always been here, but now we are the cool kids.

*Or at least that's how it is in the movies.
posted by misha at 8:29 PM on August 10, 2009

High-profile geeks like Al Gore

No. Not a geek.
posted by applemeat at 9:00 PM on August 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've built several computers from scratch; I've installed, oh, 20 or so Linux distributions; I've posted AskMes about programming and MIDI, I watched Helvetica all the way through, voluntarily. I got my iPod touch, jailbroke it and played Earthbound on an SNES emulator before listening to music on it. I circuit bent a Staples easy button and played it in my avant-garde faux-serious poetry "band".

I am a geek.
posted by papayaninja at 9:28 PM on August 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

Geeks value doing a task or amassing a collection correctly, completely, and/or in every possible permutation. They will do this without you paying or praising them.

Mainstream culture is appropriating the "look" of geek culture because people saw computers lead to wealth and light entertainment, which is what mainstream culture always valued.

Let them take the name and the "fashion." We'll be busy anyway, doing our thing.
posted by Jorus at 6:04 AM on August 11, 2009

If you are talking about the geek as nerd subculture then I don't get where you consider that social networking sites were the domain of geeks. A nerd social networking site would never go beyond IRC or Usenet. The modern social networking site would horrify a true nerd. True geeks still communicate with other geeks almost exclusively through IRC.
posted by JJ86 at 6:22 AM on August 11, 2009

True geeks still communicate with other geeks almost exclusively through IRC.

or else via text only mailing lists where people still get pissy at people sending mail that has more than 80 characters per line and god forbid you send multimedia email or html formatted mail.

and the "top-posting is evil" vs "top-posting is totally okay" argument rages on.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:11 AM on August 11, 2009

Back in the '90s or thereabouts, it seemed that there were all sorts of geeks. Biology geeks. Math geeks. Engineering geeks of various types. Physics geeks. Geology geeks. Computer geeks.

These days, it seems like "geek" either means what used to be specified as a computer geek, or some trendy term. There's a "Geeks Who Drink" pub trivia quiz that gets into sports and celebrities. Thbbft, I say. Thbbft!
posted by yohko at 9:36 AM on August 11, 2009

Previously, from last summer: Whats the difference between a geek, a nerd and a dork? Is geek == nerd now?

the mantle most certainly helped no one get laid in 1982

And yet by 1984, Revenge of the Nerds seemed to promise that possibilty.
posted by Rash at 10:16 AM on August 11, 2009

Interesting usage of 'geek' found here. From the site: "Geek the Library is a community-based public awareness campaign designed to highlight the vital role of public libraries for individuals and communities, and raise awareness about the critical funding issues they face."
posted by onell at 1:17 PM on August 11, 2009

Response by poster: Personally, I mostly talk to friends over IRC or a mailing list. I run a dotcom startup, I've been programming since I was 8, I run my own gopher server, my AI IRC bot has a Twitter account. The first time I was on BoingBoing was for sculpting a life-size snow-bust of Alan Turing. I coded a website to announce the birth of my son and live-tweeted it. I'm in the process of founding a hackerspace. I build supercomputing clusters for defense contractors and I cure bacon in my spare time.

So yeah, I guess I'm pretty much a geek by any definition that doesn't include oral chicken decapitation. My question is really, what do people like me call themselves? If geek encompasses pretty much everyone vaguely "alternative" at this point, maybe we need a new word?
posted by signalnine at 2:06 PM on August 11, 2009

Every subculture eventually gets consumed by the mainstream. Any new descriptor will eventually be co-opted again.
posted by amethysts at 6:24 PM on August 11, 2009

I don't know if I agree with it, but this picture was on Digg just now, and I thought of this thread.
posted by papayaninja at 6:55 PM on September 6, 2009

I actually think the connotations of "geek" vs. "nerd" are probably regional.
posted by delmoi at 5:03 PM on January 15, 2010

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