Geek culture is a monolith, and that’s boring.

20 March 2013 | 10 comments

narwhal

Things have changed a lot here at Otaku Journalist. I haven’t been writing as often about my own fandom activities (From the New World, Chihayafuru, and Spice and Wolf right now if you’re wondering). I’ve been focusing less on geeking out and more on what it means to be an observer and scribe of geek culture.

I was invited to participate in Charles Dunbar’s fandom identity project, and I wrote about why I think this is. I wrote about my my self induced alienation in middle school as a direct result of not toning down my love of anime. I wrote about bullying that I could have made all go away if I had just acted like less of a nerd.

Two girls used to follow me home from school, sneering at me and trying to rip the Gundam Wing pins off my backpack. Another girl, who I thought was my friend, stopped hanging out with me because her mom said I wasn’t a good influence. I knew what that really meant. I felt closest to people I met over AIM and chatted about anime with.

Can you imagine anything like that happening today? Anime is everywhere and is hardly something unusual. Studio Ghibli films play in theaters all over the Western world. Don’t try to tell me those bug eyed “Monster High” girls aren’t an American anime. Every news outlet covers wacky inventions and happenings from “Weird Japan.”

The Internet and increasingly attended fandom conventions unite us and ensure that geekiness is uniform just about everywhere. Geeks are practically a voting block, getting a WoW playing politician elected and singlehandedly smashing SOPA.

And then there’s the commodification of “narwhal bacon” geek culture. Some geeks criticize the “New Enthusiasm,” but not because it’s an indication of wearing your geekiness on your sleeve. It’s because it’s EASY to go for the robot-ninja-zombie laughs instead of delving into creative entertainment. It’s not that our geekiness is so edgy it’s controversial, it’s that our geekiness is no longer unique. Everyone is a geek about something.

I guess that’s why I write about anime fans less than I ever have before. It’s not a big deal if people like it. My new thing is using the same reporting narrative I used to expose the humanity of fans and applying it to all kinds of obsessions. I think the best journalism to write and to read is when you take somebody usually classified in the media as an other, and get to know them almost like a friend.

When I first discovered anime it felt marginalized to me. It was a refuge from the every day, an escape from everything familiar. Blame the Internet’s globalizing touch, but now it’s hopelessly intertwined with the rest of pop culture. Sometimes that’s awesome, but a lot of times it makes me nostalgic. Back when I was getting picked on, would anyone say I was just a “fake geek girl” pretending to like anime in order to seduce geek guys?

Now that everyone’s a geek, you can’t even entertain the fact that you’re somehow different from other people. You don’t ever have to be a loner if you don’t want to be. Sure bullying’s gone online now, but so have more ways to make friends.

How has the geek cultural shift from variable to monolith affected you?

(Illustration via dilettantiquity.)

  • http://www.genjipress.com Serdar

    I’ve found that I have to talk about the whole thing from the perspective of a creator rather than a consumer. Instead of just saying “hey, this is neat” (which most everyone else does at this point) I have to say “hey, this has these implications for people who are making things”. A drastic oversimplification, but you get the idea.

    It’s become that much harder to say things that are insightful, but in the long run that might be better for us — it will force us to evolve as a culture (and as a subculture).

    • Lauren

      @Serdar, thanks for commenting. As an author, you have a unique perspective among my readers.

  • http://kvclements.com Kat Clements

    A very thought-provoking article! It is a little strange and sometimes disconcerting to find how mainstream geek culture has become. It inevitably leads to some friction between “old-timers” (the people who loved geek culture before it was cool and were marginalized for it) and “newcomers” (people who have only recently been introduced to fandom).

    I suppose I’ve always technically been a geek, but didn’t really have words for it until I was in high school and college. I just liked what I liked and there was an end to it. So I don’t really mourn the end of marginalization the way some geeks might because I’ll continue to feel different from people, regardless of what I like.

    There are two major pros and cons that do occur to me. The Pro is that, because of the mainstreaming, geek items are more readily available than they may have been before. As a collector, that makes me happy. The Con is the potential for the things that make geek shows or ideas awesome, that could flourish *because* they were out of the public eye, might become dumbed down for the masses because “we’re too stupid to understand.” (That’s the attitude I feel from lots of networks with regards to their reasons for canceling awesome shows.)

    I think that, as long as you love something, you’ll find aspects of it to write about and share with other people, regardless of its status in society.

    • Lauren

      @Kat good point about geek items. When I was in middle school, I used to paste print-outs of anime characters to my school binders, or draw pictures myself. Now I could just buy an official That Anime binder. When I see all the Gravitation merchandise available at cons today, I want to take a younger fangirl by the shoulder and say, “Do you realize how LUCKY you are?”

      It makes me wonder what comes after this. When subculture turns into popular culture, what do people on the margins do?

  • http://missdirt.net Mary

    Yes! I love this post. I was feeling irritated about this very idea the other day. I hate to sound like a grouchy old nerd, but once upon a time, a geek was something you didn’t want to be called. Now people brag about it, and I’m like “Don’t you remember what it felt to be looked down on and shunned back in the day? Or did that not apply to you?” I’m really glad it’s become popular to be openly enthusiastic about whatever you’re into and especially that intelligence is now cool instead of dorky. But I have trouble shaking that irritation: “You call yourself a nerd? Whatever. I bet you got asked to prom.”

    • Lauren

      @Mary, Exactly! The most insane part is “fake geeks,” the idea that geek culture is so great that people have to pretend to be part of it! It reminds me of when I was in high school and people who wanted to be popular but weren’t were “posers.” Everything’s been turned on its head, but it isn’t a renaissance. More like “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

      • http://missdirt.net Mary

        At the same time, I feel like a jerk for judging people about it. You can call yourself whatever you want, and I shouldn’t care, right? So I’ve been asking myself, “Why does it bother me so much?” If I’m being honest, I think it comes down to my own pride being a little hurt because people who wouldn’t have spoken to me in high school are now calling themselves nerds and acting like they know Star Trek. “I’m like, bitch you don’t know Data. Best back off my android.”

  • Zoe Le Loir

    I ran into all of that when I was young. Though I was bullied and ostracized for other reasons really. My geek nature was just icing on the cake.

    When I was in my mid-teens or so, online meant BBS’s that one dialed into where you might meet people on bulletin boards into what you were. But I had to keep my time on them low as it was back in the day of separate long distance charges and it cost a fortune to call a neighboring area code for a couple hours.

    Anyway, I was into gaming (both video including arcades and table top games — mainly RPGs), science fiction/fantasy, bits of anime and comic books. None of these were really “acceptable” activities in the greater population to different degrees. Though, you always had your game group and your fellow regulars in the arcades for some group identity.

    Outside of that I found some like minded friends in terms of fantasy/science fiction all over through the fan club of Mercedes Lackey. In those days they were literally pen pals (though I am in touch of one to this day.)

    It’s funny (and, I think, heartening) that to one extent or another these are all acceptable and even mainstream. Even people who don’t get table top games have, at least, played video games with RPGs aspects.

    Though that also is rather strange to me (for lack of a better term) as, yes, you don’t feel that your niches are such anymore. Many of the things I mentioned are absolutely mainstream now and I’ve found what seems to be mono-culture in those niches with some outliers.

    And we now have overt sexism in fandom/geekdom as Lauen and other writers have pointed out. I didn’t see that much of it back in the day though I’m sure it was there. Just not so prevalent and in your face.

  • http://adamgurri.com Adam

    There’s always a long tail, and there’s always a head of the tail. Geek culture has always had a head of the tail where things were monolithic, and a long tail of idiosyncratic tastes. It’s just that it’s only recently that enough people are partaking of geek culture for the head of the tail to get really big and really obvious.

  • Britney

    Great article!

    Although I was quiet in high school, what I liked about geek culture was that there was always a group of people who understood you. There were times where I felt ostracized by other classmates but there were always the brave ones who would say, “Yeah. I watch anime and all that stuff.” and you would react, “Yeah, me too!” Boom. Instant connection. That was the case for me in college and also how I met my best friend.

    Now that I’m taking Japanese also, I feel more comfortable expressing my geeky tendencies and even my mom is (FINALLY) aware of the whole manga and anime thing.

    I just love that geek culture has evolved to the point where I feel more comfortable talking about it or explaining it to others. I do have a slight issue with new people joining only because some will do it because it’s cool but there may be those who were like me out there and were too shy to speak up about it so I can’t be too mad.