A PROGRESSION OF NERDERY
If you’re a nerd who’s used the internet (which is why you’re reading this blog, most likely) you’ve probably seen the Brunching Shuttlecocks’ ‘Geek Hierarchy’ chart. And if you haven’t, well, check out a copy of it below.
Of course, this chart is 12 years old now, which makes it nigh prehistoric when compared to the general pace of the internet. And so, I decided I’d take it upon myself to update it, to reflect new and different fandoms, maybe showing the overlap between them through the cunning use of Venn diagrams or something.
Of course, modern fandom is nebulous, expansive, and often cross-pollinated between various shows/comics/what have you. I soon realized making a diagram that was as succinct, readable, and hilarious as the Brunching Shuttlecocks one would be very, very hard to do.
As I was puzzling over this, I cooked up a more generalized theory of nerdiness, which can in turn be applied to just about anything, from Avengers to Zardoz.
My theory is simple: there’s a typical progression in how a modern viewer engages with certain pieces of media (or hobbies, or whatever), and the further down you go, the more time you invest, and the ‘nerdier’ it seems. The steps are as follows:
For better or worse, you have no knowledge whatsoever on the subject. Pretty simple.
Example: “What’s a Breaking Bad?”
At this point, you’re generally aware of the series’ premise, and possibly some of the key people involved. Maybe you caught a random episode here or there, or maybe you heard about stuff through your friends, or maybe it’s general cultural osmosis.
Example: “Oh yeah, Breaking Bad’s that show about the dad from Malcolm in the Middle as a chemistry teacher who cooks meth, right? My friend says it’s really good.”
This is the ‘baseline,’ where you sit yourself down and watch the show, read the book, play the game, whatever. Just you and the TV, or book, and so on. Generally a passive experience.
Example: “Oh hey, Breaking Bad’s on Netflix!”
And here’s where you can start to get ‘nerdy,’ depending on just how enthusiastic you are about the show. It’s human nature to want to talk about things that you like- the real rub is finding someone else to talk about it with. The more popular something is, the easier it’ll be to find someone to talk to about it. Now, the wonderful thing about the internet is that it’s becoming much, much easier to connect with other fans. One could argue that this ease of connectivity has been the driving force behind the “Geek is the new cool” movement, with Hollywood cranking out Explodey Genre Blockbusters year after year now. It’s worth noting that the next few steps aren’t necessarily sequential; they tend to all blend together, but that makes for more confusing charts or something.
Example: “I love this show! Saul is the best character.”
So, you’ve watched a good chunk of a given show, but you want more. Unfortunately, most media is finite, so theoretically, you’re gonna run out of stuff to watch/read/whatever. Now, you could go back and consume the same media over and over and over again (which some people do), or you can branch out into other stuff. The exploration stage is when you start actively seeking out other, related media based on your existing tastes (often starting the whole process over again in a tangential offshoot of this chain of fandom). The funny thing about this step is, as you watch more and more stuff, your tastes can become more and more refined, and so you may have to dig deeper and deeper to find new stuff.
Example: “Imdb says Bob Odenkirk was in something called Mr. Show. Maybe I should check that out.”
So you’ve watched a show. And you love the show. But what do you do on the long break between seasons (or the not-so-long break between weekly episodes?) Simple, really, you go ahead and make your own damn content, and put it on the internet! Fanfic, fanart, fan films, fan…whatever. When the fans get to make content for themselves, they also have the opportunity to go in other directions that the original work wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. Slash, alternate universes, whatever you want to do, there’s no stopping you. Now, I would argue that certain works are more conducive to fanfic than others, but that’s another blog post entirely.
Example: “Oh man, you’ve got to read my Breaking Bad fanfic. Only the gimmick is, they’re all still in high school! Saul is a hall monitor. Also he makes out with Uhura. Did I mention it’s a Star Trek crossover?”
Emulation (the “Funny Hat” stage)
This one’s very closely related to the Creation stage, but I figured it was notable enough to earn its own spot. As creating a cosplay outfit is a very creative way to show your fandom- but at the same time, it’s the most outwardly visible way to do it. By dressing up like your favorite character (or whichever one you look most like), you’re outwardly broadcasting “THIS IS A THING AND I LIKE IT A LOT.”
Example: “Hey, check out this sleazy brown suit I got for my Saul Goodman costume!”
Admit it. You’ve got A Thing for this show (or game, or movie, or whatever). You have a nigh-encyclopedic knowledge of its characters, actors, writers, and what have you. Really, the best measure of if you’re an obsessed-fan or not is how much shit you would flip if you met some of the Principals people behind your chosen fandom. And that’s okay! At least, so long as you admit to your fannishness, and don’t let it override other parts of your life.
Example: “Man, I would totally flip my shit if I met Bob Odenkirk, but it’s not like I’m waiting in the bushes outside his house.”
And this is where things get weird. And to be fair, 99.999 percent of the fans of just about ANYTHING aren’t going to reach this state. This is where one goes from being a ‘devout fan’ to a ‘creepy fan.’ This is the point where every conversation you have brings in Your Fandom (caps intentional) in some way. This is a bad place to be. Don’t go to this place.
Example: “OMG BOB ODENKIRK I AM IN THE BUSHES OUTSIDE YOUR HOUSE NOW HAVE MY BABIES.”
The key thing
Now, if you’re reading this blog (especially if you’re reading after all this), I imagine you’ve gone through a lot of these stages already. However, as I was hacking this stuff out, I realized that some activities/shows/whatever ‘skip steps,’ so to speak, and that’s what makes them nerdy. Or rather, that’s what makes them seem nerdier than other stuff.
I mentioned Breaking Bad in my examples, because it’s got a fairly straightforward progression of the steps. First thing you’re watching the show, and before you know it you’re trying to get the right color of blue sugar for a meth-candy prop.
In comparison, take, say, Live Action Role-Playing. LARP, for short, it’s a thing I do sometimes (and may blog about later). In order to ‘consume’ LARP, you’ve got to participate, maybe dress up, and BAM, all of a sudden you’re in the “Funny Hat” stage.
In particular, funny hats are often used as shorthand for nerdiness in various incarnations. How many times have people asked you if you wear wizard hats when you play D&D? Or heck, whenever there’s a comic/anime/whatever convention in the news, it’s the cosplayers who get pictures taken of them. On the flipside, if I say ‘imagine a typical sports fan,’ how often is that random image wearing a jersey of his favorite team/player, and possibly team-color facepaint?
Now, this is just working with frustratingly vague stereotypes. Still, I think I may be on to something here. Take, for example, D&D. On the aforementioned Brunching Shuttlecocks chart, tabletop gamers are less geeky than LARPers. I postulate this is because a D&D game only skips to the ‘creation’ stage, instead of going straight to funny hats. As in a tabletop RPG, you’ve got to make up at least your own character and actions and stuff. However, you’re not jumping ALL the way down the chain, either.
As a result, you can look up from your character sheet, point at the guy in the funny wig and poofy shirt, and say “At least I’m not THAT guy.” (It’s also worth noting the guy in the funny wig and poofy shirt is probably having a lot of fun, and possibly with ladies that dig on funny wigs and poofy shirts, but I digress).
Likewise, someone who just reads SF/F books or someone who watches Sleepy Hollow can point to a D&D player’s character sheet and funny dice and make a distinction that way. Ultimately, I admit such distinctions of who’s nerdier than who are quite arbitrary and silly. This said, I find these levels of nerdery pretty interesting and ripe for discussion.
And worse comes to worse, at least I’m not writing erotic self-insert Star Trek furry fanfic.