Nerd project

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Nerds & Geeks: An Etiological History and its Psychosocial Implications

Why is this research required?

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Look up Nerd in
Wiktionary, the free dictionary.

The way people construct or know their own and other's social identities affects the way people relate to each other and to their reality. By attaining a better understanding of what a nerd is, and where the spectrum of nerd identities/stereotypes came from, we may reach a better understanding of how this identity has shaped the way individuals experience and interact with society.

It is also useful, for the purpose of establishing the historical record, to examine "the nerd" at a moment in history when the work of computer nerds in particular appears to be profoundly re-shaping advanced societies. This is causing a profound shift in the social acceptance and media portrayal of nerds, yet an extensive literature search shows that there appears to be almost no current activity in academic research on nerds.

Questions involved

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Please use this space to brain storm.

  • What is a nerd?
  • What is the spectrum of "nerd-ness"? What are the core nerd personality traits?
  • How did this identity originate? And where? In what culture?
  • What are the implications of being labeled a nerd?
    • Is the term generally considered to be endearing, pejorative, or merely descriptive and neutral?
    • Is the label short lived or enduring?
  • What are the implications of labeling oneself a nerd?
  • What are causal factors involved with labeling oneself a nerd?
  • What are the psychological processes involved?
  • What percentage of heavy computer users label themselves as nerds?
  • What percentage of people label themselves a nerd?
  • What percentage of nerds will report positive valance about schema surrounding their identity as a nerd?
  • What is the differences between males and females who label themselves nerds?
  • Are "nerds" a cross cultural phenomenon? Or are they specific to only a few social groups?
  • Generally, do nerds have a greater or fewer number of sexual partners than the average person?
    • Are the quality of the sexual experiences of nerds of higher or lower quality than those who are "not nerds"?
  • Are there objective criteria for what is qualitatively or quantitively a nerd?
  • Gender bias.
    • Are social groups and activities that are perceived as "nerdy" subject to sexual stereotyping about their relevance to women and men?
    • Is there wide-spread misunderstanding about the relative worth of "nerdy activities" to women and men?
    • Is there active promotion of misconceptions about the relevance of "nerdy activities" to both sexes?
    • Do social groups that self-identify as "nerdy" unfairly exclude more women than men?


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It seems, thus far in the project, that the primary research tool will be research of current literature, and the qualitative study of various social facts. If it is deemed useful, then perhaps an ethnographic approach will be embraced as the study progresses.

Things to do

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  • Conduct an initial literature search and review
  • Obtain and read through all the research books and papers
  • Structure the project
  • Conduct additional research
  • Find other collaborators and suitable advanced discussion forums


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Since the microcomputer revolution of the mid 1970s, a new category of identity has been formed in the English-speaking world. This identity is that of "the nerd". The mass media has played a complex role in reflecting and amplifying the nerd stereotype. This media portrayal has built upon a previous tradition of portraying eccentric and obsessed scientists and inventors.

The portrayal of the nerd stereotype has happened at a time when other male roles (e.g.: "the sports jock") have also been changing in their nature and scope. Certain male identity formations have been de-legitimised by the media. Researchers such as De Oca have published research on other social identities such as the "The male consumer as loser" and have traced the etiology of this identity to the rise of the Superbowl, Sports Illustrated, and the connected marketing campaigns of alcohol companies.

The research of de Oca & Messner (2005) begs the questions, did the media shape the social identities of the individuals who could currently be stereotyped as "the male consumer-loser" or was this social identity a natural evolution brought about by other psycho-social causal factors that the advertising simply utilized to sell a product? To discover definitively what were the causal factors that led to the social perception of the existence of "nerds" is not necessarily the scope of this project. Tentatively, the scope of this project is to discover the possible causal historical correlates that coincide with the rise of the modern "nerd" identity, and what the possible causes and implications of this identity are.


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Nerd, as a stereotypical or archetypal designation, refers to somebody who passionately pursues intellectual or esoteric interests - such as books and video games rather than having a social life, participating in any physical activity, or having friends. The Merriam-Webster English Dictionary definition is an...

"unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially : one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits"

The term "Nerd" goes back at least to 1951, when Newsweek reported the usage as relatively new in Detroit, Michigan. By the 1960s, it took on connotations of bookishness as well as social ineptitude. The word itself first appeared in Dr. Seuss's book If I Ran the Zoo, published in 1950, where it simply names one of Seuss's many comical imaginary animals. The narrator Gerald McGrew claims that he would collect "a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too" for his imaginary zoo.

Another theory of the word's origin sees it as a variation on Mortimer Snerd, the name of Edgar Bergen's ventriloquist dummy.

Yet another theory traces the term to Northern Electric Research and Development, suggesting images of engineers wearing pocket protectors with the acronym N.E.R.D. printed on them.

In the 1933 film Dinner at Eight, Jean Harlow's character replies to her husband's suggestion that she might enjoy mingling with Washington "cabinet members' wives" by saying, "Nerds!... A lot of sour-faced frumps with last year's clothes on, pinning medals on Girl Scouts and pouring tea for the DARs..." [Spelling is from Turner DVD subtitles and not verified by the original script.] (However, this may be an intentional softening of the expletive "Nuts!", which was considered vulgar at the time.)

Finally, oral history at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, holds that the word was coined there, spelled as "knurd" ("drunk" spelled backwards), to describe those who studied rather than partied. (This usage predates a similar coinage of "knurd" by author Terry Pratchett.)

The term itself was used heavily in the American 1974–1984 television comedy Happy Days which was set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the mid-1950s.

In the 1940s, the word "weakling" or "wimp" was used before the word "nerd" was used widely. Comic book ads for Charles Atlas weights and workout books were often accompanied by a short comic strip about a skinny "weakling" and his girlfriend at the beach. In the strip, a muscular bully kicks sand on the weakling. His girlfriend leaves him for the bully. The weakling exercises (using Atlas's trademarked "Dynamic Tension" method) until he has bigger muscles than the bully. He then defeats the bully in a fist fight. The girl leaves the bully, and joins the former weakling again as his girlfriend. This simple comic strip may have shaped nerd-versus-bully storylines thereafter.

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Dramatic media depictions of good nerds typically reveal them to be good-hearted people who wish harm on no one, but are bullied by their obvious intellectual inferiors. Many nerds in fiction play roles as supporting characters who provide valuable sources of information or useful skills for the heroes. Nerds as lead characters often have a secret identity as a superhero; in these cases, a put-upon person has a wonderful secret (examples include Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Clark Kent/Superman). Nerds in supporting roles often feature as technological geniuses who invent or repair various devices that enable the main characters to move towards a goal. They also serve as socially inept foils to much more charming main characters, and are sometimes depicted as being lovelorn and longing for attractive females who are beyond their status.

Nerds are often used for comic relief, for example by overconfidently making advances towards a woman they like but being rebuffed in a rude (but funny) manner. Sometimes they are made to be overconfident to the point of obnoxiousness, to make them seem deserving of their poor treatment.

Evil nerds, typically embittered from a lifetime as a social outcast and seeking revenge upon the world, provide a popular archetype for the supervillain, often as a mad scientist. This suggests that these characters represent the subconscious cultural fear that the highly intelligent have the ability to do great harm, and a willingness to do it. This seems to be the modern equivalent of the portrayal of scientists in the science fiction "bug movies" of the 1950s, representing societal fears about the harmful effects that nuclear power might cause.[citation needed]. A more modern example of the evil nerd is enemy computer programmer Boris Grischenko in the James Bond film GoldenEye. Grishenko also embodies the obnoxious aspect in some nerds, with his catchphrase, "Yes! I am invincible!" after having cracked a computer code.

The total opposite of a nerd is shown in Jay Ward's "Mr. Know-It-All" cartoon segments. Bullwinkle, also known as Mr. Know-It-All, thinks he can do certain things, when he cannot due to his stupidity. In the cartoons, Boris Badenov (or some other evil character) usually beats up Mr. Know-It-All. Meanwhile, the time-traveling duo from this cartoon series — Mister Peabody, a talking dog, and his boy, Sherman — are both nerds; they both sport dark-rimmed glasses, and the dog wears a bow tie.

The artist "Weird Al" Yankovic composed a song entitled White and Nerdy. In the song he lists typical characteristics of a nerd. For example, being an avid Star Trek viewer, knowing programming code, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and editing Wikipedia.


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Non-nerds often think of nerds as intelligent yet socially awkward people. Nerds generally express an above-normal interest in a particular complex subject and often function as polymaths. Topics dealing with science, technology, comic books, complex board games (particularly chess, role-playing games, and wargames), classical music, artificial intelligence, video games and science fiction, horror and fantasy literature books, TV shows and movies have all become heavily associated with nerds, as have conventions relating to these various topics.

Despite their crucial function as a class within modern society, there has been almost no serious and methodologically-reliable academic research published on geeks/nerds, apart from a handful of studies of their consumption-based fan cultures. Some commentators have noticed similarities between pronounced nerdy behavior and the neurological disorder known as high-functioning Asperger syndrome. The lack of serious studies of nerds means that we have no basis in research for proving such a correlation, causal or other relationship between the two types.

In the practice of psychology, geeks and nerds can be said to be Myers-Briggs Type Indicator INTP, ENTP or INTJ, and, in various cases, ENTJ. However, due to speculation over the difference of nerds and geeks, the types cannot be sorted into their subsequent classifications. Also, all types have the ability to be nerds, whereas the INTJ, INTP, ENTP, and ENTJ are near definites for being nerds. The INTP is the classic programmer type, INTJ the classic scientist type. However, due to the sterotypical shyness and social ineptitude associated with nerds, the INTP and INTJ are more likely to be classified into that group than their Extroverted counterparts. These two types are the Introverted iNtuitive Thinkers. As Introverts they are stimulated by thoughts and ideas, rather than people and things. They are often quite happy spending hours absorbed in solitary activities. As iNtuitives, they are more inclined toward abstract concepts and subtle connections than in concrete examples or direct experience. As Thinkers, they are more adept in logic and reason than feelings or emotions. This combination makes INT's masters of mathematics, logic, and science, but rather oblivious to social graces. Both INTJs and INTPs tend to be outwardly nerdy and actively rebel against social rules they view as irrational and meaningless. However, INTJs tend to learn to put on a facade of surface conformism to draw less attention to themselves. For example long hair is, not surprisingly, common with INTP men, whereas INTJ men would keep their hair cut low, and dress conservatively.

In the works of Riso and Hudson, specifically Understanding the Enneagram revised edition, page 180, point 10, the term "nerd" is used as a primary reference to (and indication of being) Enneagram type 5.

Differences from Geeks

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Pundits and observers dispute the relationship of the terms "nerd" and "geek" to one another, as many use the words synonymously. The two terms are commonly used incorrectly, or are misapplied, particularly by journalists.

Some view the geek as a less technically skilled nerd. Others view the exact opposite. The lines between geek and nerd are often thin and ill-defined, however a general consensus is that a "geek" is a person who obsesses in one area or another, whereas a "nerd" is a highly intelligent person who is very scholarly and does well in many domains such as math, science, computing, etc. Geeks are more associated with obsessive knowledge. For example a Star Trek geek (or Trekkie) is someone who could tell you extremely trivial details about Star Trek and may be likely to watch the show on a daily basis or go to Star Trek conventions. A person can be a nerd in almost any subject, but is usually associated with things that most people don't do or things that require an intellect, for example a person who plays a lot of video games could be called a gaming nerd, but it would be inappropriate to call an obsessive chef a cooking nerd because many people cook and it is a daily activity, whereas video games are more of a subculture. Another difference some people make between nerds and geeks are that nerds are more "bookworms" whose interests are in the fields of academia, such as mathematics and science. Geeks are interested in computers and video gaming, or movies with large fan-bases such as Star Wars. Also, many wish to differentiate between nerds who are deeply engrossed in purely entertainment oriented genres and nerds who are deeply engrossed in subjects that require serious study and committment and have real-life career potential or applications. The fanboy type nerd, while able to absorb and recall trivia about film, television, and fictional subjects in general is not the same as an independent computer hobbyist who submits original contributions (such as freeware applications) on the internet or a person who regularly uses his intellect to solve his own computer problems without outside assistance. While both are considered highly intelligent, "nerd" has become more of a term of endearment, while "geek" still carries a more negative connotation. Nerds will often refer to themselves as nerds without shame and seek friendship with other nerds. The use of the word "geek" is slowly becoming less and less. The interchangeable use of the terms "geek" and "nerd" is a main cause of the lack of distinction between the two. A good example of this is found in an episode of the television show, Married... with Children. The protagonist, Al Bundy, complains about wearing glasses, saying he will look like a nerd. His friend, Jefferson Darcy, responds, "No, Al, you won't be a nerd. You're too dumb to be a nerd."

Some regional differences may exist in the use of the words nerd and geek. Some claim that on the North American west coast the population prefers the term geek to nerd, while the North American east coast prefers the word nerd to geek, (see Ellen Spertus's web page on The Sexiest Geek Alive).


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  • Tocci, Jason. "The Well-Dressed Geek: Media Appropriation and Subcultural Style" (Paper given at the MIT5 conference. PDF, 180kb).
  • Kendall, Lori. "'The Nerd Within': Mass Media and the Negotiation of Identity Among Computer-Using Men." Journal of Men's Studies, 7(3) (1999): 353-69.
  • Kendall, Lori. "Nerd Nation: Images of Nerds in U.S. Popular Culture." International Journal of Cultural Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2, 260-283 (1999)
  • Kendall, Lori. "'Oh No! I'm a Nerd!': Hegemonic Masculinity on an Online Forum." Gender & Society, 14 (2) (2000): 256-274.

Girl nerds

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  • Bucholtz, Mary. ""Why be normal?": Language and identity practices in a community of nerd girls." Language in Society (1999), 28: 203-223. Cambridge University Press.
  • Newitz, A. & Anders, C. (Eds) She's Such a Geek: Women Write About Science, Technology, and Other Nerdy Stuff. Seal Press, 2006.

In Japan

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Substantial cinema-released documentaries

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  • $100 & a T-Shirt (2004) (A feature-length documentary on U.S. fanzine editors).
  • Genuine Nerd (2006) (Feature-length documentary on Toby Radloff).

Background material

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  • Dinh, Diana. "The Gaming Geek Culture" (2001). Part of the Silicon Valley Cultures Project.
  • Messner, M.A. & de Oca J.M. (2005) "The Male consumer as loser: Beer and liquor ads in mega sports media events." Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 30, 1879–1909.
  • Frayling, Christopher. Mad, Bad And Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema. Reaktion Books, 2005.
  • Weeks, David. Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness. 2nd edition. Kodansha, 1997. (A sympathetic 200-sample study of English eccentrics, by a doctor in Edinburgh. He concludes that eccentrics are not mentally ill, and that many are saner than the general population)
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Theories from psychology and sociology:

Gaming and RPG fan cultures:

Nerds in the media:

See: Wikipedia's list of nerds in the media

Possibly Informative Material

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