I AM A GEEK!: The Video, the Backlash, and Why We Need to Take Back Geek Culture

For those people who haven’t yet seen the already semi-notorious “I AM A GEEK!” video from The Society for Geek Advancement, here’s some background: the video is a collaborative effort “bringing together some of the biggest creators, personalities and web celebs taking on the online world,” according to co-creator Shira Lazar. It’s a little unclear exactly what the Society (or “SGA”) and the project are all about, however, other than celebrating “our inner and outer geek” and encouraging people to donate to charity—basically, using “social media for social good” and having a good time doing it. All of which sounds pretty great, if a little vague (you can read the mission statement and details of the project here)…but then people started paying attention to the video, and trouble began brewing.

When people start ganging up on Wil Wheaton, official Secretary of Geek Affairs, beloved as he is in all corners of the Internet, you know that there’s something rotten in the state of geekdom. People have been genuinely upset by his involvement in the video, which seems to have an extremely arbitrary, or else rather calculated, perspective on the concept of geekhood. After hours of email and Twitter-frenzy, Wheaton posted an extremely cogent, well thought-out response to the criticism on his blog, explaining that “the project…changed from conception to release,” and detailing his own problems with the finished product while stressing the importance of actually embracing, rather than simply exploiting, geek culture.

As for the video itself, I find it confusing, even after multiple viewings. It’s very well-produced, trumpets a pro-geek agenda and features so many people that I find likeable and genuinely admire that I almost don’t want to find fault with it. Unfortunately, there’s no getting around the fact Lazar and company seem more concerned with dispelling certain conceptions of what it means to be a geek than exploring what it actually does mean. For example, we learn that a geek is not a “nerd” or “spaz,” doesn’t hang out in their parents’ basement, play Dungeons and Dragons or Magic: The Gathering, or “drink Mountain Dew or energy drinks.” So, the evils of caffeinated beverages and role-playing games are clearly the province of basement dwelling mouth-breathers and social misfits. Geeks, by comparison, are incredibly cool and tech-savvy—so tech-savvy that they feel the need to be completely condescending about it, explaining hashtags, memes, and terms like “tweets” versus “Twitter” in a way that makes you want to punch your computer full in the face. But, as Levar Burton himself says in the video, you don’t have to take my word for it…

Frankly, if being a geek means that I’m supposed to laugh when Kevin Pollack sneers, “JavaScript is not a play about coffee,” then I want no part of it. Kevin Pollack is not the boss of me, first of all—and why do these people love to hate on caffeine??? It’s creepy. I love caffeine. I didn’t sign on for this.

There’s so much else to complain about…the way the video opens with Lazar, in a low-cut tank top, shutting her laptop in order to make the crucial point that being a geek doesn’t mean you can’t have a great rack, or the fact that Shaquille O’Neal is included for No Discernible Earthly Reason?!?! I feel like I shouldn’t really need to spell this out, but here it is: having an active Twitter account does not make you a geek. Clear? Holy hell.

Wil Wheaton’s line actually serves as an excellent example of exactly how the video goes wrong. Wheaton, a self-acclaimed lifelong geek who plays both D&D and MtG, looks in to the camera and says, “I speak Python and CSS—not Klingon.” It’s not the line itself that’s really the problem—I’m sure it was intended to be tongue-in-cheek—it’s the fact that Lazar’s definition of Geek Advancement means promoting the tech- and social media-friendly aspects of the culture at the expense of other social and imaginative outlets. Why can’t it be cool for someone to be interested in operating systems and Star Trek, to know both Klingon and CSS, to be fluent in Python and be able to quote Holy Grail in its entirety?

One of the greatest strengths of geek culture is its remarkable inclusivity, its creativity, its ability to encompass and combine disparate ideas, modes of thoughts, and areas of interest without having to worry about keeping up appearances or maintaining the conventional status quo. To be so dismissive of traditionally maligned geek interests and so incredibly smug about our apparent technological superiority at the same time doesn’t celebrate geek culture—it’s just a cheap way of buying up some nice property in the mainstream, at the expense of the quirks, the playfulness, and the ability to be comfortable being different that is the essence of geekdom.

If there is one stereotype we should be moving away from, it’s the geekier-than-thou, Comic Book Guy-style sense of smirking superiority that only serves to alienate individuals from one another within and without the community. The creators of the SGA seem to think the best way to empower geeks is to ditch the nerdy comic books, hand the Guy an iPhone and a Twitter account, and make him over into an Ashton Kutcher clone, while retaining the obnoxious, supercilious attitude. This plan has the stink of a bad 80s movie all over it, and as someone who’s seen Can’t Buy Me Love more than a few times, let me tell you—it doesn’t work, my friends.

I truly love the idea of using social media to promote good causes like Room to Read, and the people involved in the SGA seem to have their hearts in the right place. I just don’t think they need to work quite so hard to make “geek” into the newest flavor of ultra-hip, when doing so narrows the definition and application of the term until it becomes essentially meaningless. The SGA needs to take a page from blogger (and fellow Tor.com contributor) Matt Staggs, whose recent Call for Geek Militancy seems more and more prescient all the time. “I AM A GEEK!” begins with a heavily edited version of the Wikipedia definition of the word “geek;” what people need to understand is that if the definition is going to change, it should be expanded, not narrowed, until it truly reflects a community of unapologetic iconoclasts who celebrate and respect difference in themselves and others. Until social media people understand the term they’re co-opting in that larger sense, I’m not buying what they’re pushing—selling out, even for a good cause, is still selling out. I know we can do better.

[Image by Flickr user Zambo., CC-licensed for commercial use.]


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