Is the Internet making us all nerds?

by Freddy GdiP

Vintage nerdsAs shallow as the above question might seem, it does hold a valid inquiry about the way our lives are being transformed by the web. In the following lines I will try to explain how and why I believe this might be happening:

Obsessive interest in niche subjects was once a major sign of nerdiness but it is now regarded as a normal byproduct of the World Wide Web in our lives. Internet is a great enabler of almost everything we want to know about anything. We spend hours fumbling around the Net, diving in hyperlinks, mesmerized by the infinite sub-topics and ramifications of our personal interests displayed in the multiple windows we open simultaneously. Maybe we didn’t need so much information on the giant isopod or the personal life of our favorite artist or the different kinds of premium shaving cream but we ended up engulfing it all because of its irresistible availability. The amount of information we absorb thanks to this extreme readiness is comparable only to the amount of information people considered nerds used to consume in pre-Internet times. Does that make us nerds?

Maybe the difference is that nerds would go to more extreme lengths to learn about the things that interest them than someone else would. Being a nerd before the digital Internet became widely available was hard work. As a music nerd myself –I think the official term is music geek- I used to spend all my pocket money on specialized magazines and CDs to get all the content I desperately craved for. I dedicated time and energy to pursue my interest -time and energy that I subtracted from other activities like hanging out with friends, playing sports or having a girlfriend- and achieved a degree of knowledge and passion for my hobby that no one else around me shared. In the process I also discovered that knowing too much about seemingly irrelevant topics and having an enthusiastic opinion about them isn’t politically correct. I can still remember the awkward looks people around me gave me when I talked passionately about a rock concert and I can’t help but feel ashamed of myself for actually letting those looks get to me. Confidence gained with maturity took care of that issue but even if it hadn’t, the Internet would’ve allowed me to remain at heart the same socially impaired teenager with too much energy to burn on music trivia without having to suffer those looks ever again. Adapt or die was it? Not anymore. It doesn’t matter how obscure your interest is, you’ll find thriving communities of like-minded people online. You can remain as eccentric as you wish because Internet allows and even encourages this type of behavior.

I changed. I’m not a full blown nerd anymore. But when I get online I can’t help but fall back on my old habits. Quite possibly, if it wasn’t for the Internet these days I wouldn’t spend so much time reading and looking up stuff on Melville-era whale ships or Brutalist architecture or whatever hot topic is on my current personal agenda. But I do because it´s right there for the taking. I don´t know if this artificially generated curiosity is the same as the genuine deep interest nerds have in things but it does generate a similar conduct.

Additionally, as it turns out, information gluttony is not the only geek-associated quality that the Internet fosters: it also makes us spend a lot of time staring closely at screens which, in turn, damages our vision: A typical nerd problem. Same with bad posture. And isolation. And spending more time inside than outside. So, in a way, we really are all becoming a bit nerdy ourselves thus, diluting the very things that used to set nerds apart as a social tribe. A sign of this is the current perception of nerds being truly mainstream for the first time in History. These days it’s ok and politically correct to be a nerd. Although nerds have been a part of pop culture for quite some time now this is the first time they are genuinely accepted not as the outcasts but as a respected and even desirable social role in our world. And the reason for this is that, quite simply, nerds aren’t so different from the rest anymore. Not only because they can be extremely successful or because they have embraced the more general culture but because the opposite has happened: The rest of the world has engaged in traditional nerd activities, thus, making nerds more mainstream.

Internet was invented by nerds. It has their codes, their language and its architecture fosters the development of nerd associated structures. It was an extension of their way of life into the realms of interconnected computing science and for a short while it was their almost exclusive stomping ground until it became accessible for the rest of us. So it´s just logical that, as when you start playing a particular sport you start acquiring its particular habits, when you incorporated the Internet into your daily routine you started acquiring some of its creator´s habits as well.