Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

When Exactly Did It Get Cool To Be A Geek?

In the final episode of "Freaks and Geeks," the Freaks group leader Daniel Desario accepts an invitation to play Dungeons & Dragons with the notoriously geeky A/V club. Surprised by Daniel’s warm receptivity to the game, the Geeks wonders what this means for their future status. As Bill puts it: "Does him wanting to play with us again mean he's turning into a geek or we're turning into cool guys?" Sam answers, "I'm going to go for us becoming cool guys." It's a nice ambiguous note on which to end the show.

Outside the universe of "Freaks and Geeks," a similar drift has occurred. Geekiness has accrued cachet, and geeks are becoming the cool guys. In an interview about the comedy web series "Geek Therapy," actress America Young observed: "We started talking about how geek is 'in' now. Everyone, all of a sudden, was proudly waving their geek flag. How cool is it that traditional high school status had been turned on its head?"

An interesting thing about the name of Paul Feig's show: When the words 'freaks' and 'geeks' first came into circulation, they were interchangeable; to be a freak was always to be a geek: an aberration, a spectacle, something to be gawked at. That said, who is and who isn't a geek has been contested since the word's first printed appearance, in 1876, and up through today, when the borders between 'geek' and 'nerd' are continually getting drawn, redrawn and then redrawn again. But if 'geek' always used to mean 'freak,' when did the two groups become (as suggested by Feig's show title) separate, even opposed? And when did that magic moment occur when it became okay, even cool, to be a geek?


'Geek' makes its first printed appearance in F.K. Robinson's Glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases with this definition: “Gawk, Geek, Gowk or Gowky, a fool; a person uncultivated; a dupe.” Parked there between “gawk” and “gowk,” geeks have always been, like freaks, positioned as a spectacle. Indeed, as everyone who loves Katherine Dunn's Geek Love knows, for the first half of the twentieth century “geek” was used to describe carnival sideshow acts and circus freaks: specifically, the sort who bit the heads off live chickens. The performance of standing in front of a crowd, biting off a chicken’s head might be seen as the original—and quite explicit—embodiment of the notion of geek as other: no one asked those geeks if they wanted to maybe go out for coffee later, either. As Stephen Shiff notes in a 1995 The New Yorker essay (sub. required)—the essay's title "Geek Shows" a clear play on 'freak shows'—geeks of the time were sometimes even more marginalized than freaks, who “had been reduced to their spectacular status by terrible accidents of birth, whereas the geek's calamity was entirely voluntary.”

                          Freaks and Geeks.
                          Freaks are Geeks.
                          Freaks = Geeks = Ultimate Outsiders

The beauty of Feig's title for the show is how it puts the words on two opposite sides of the see-saw: opposed but on the same platform. As the show's final episode hints at, freaks aren’t all that different from geeks, and both can be cool. But to pose freaks and geeks as cool is to move them from the outside to the very most inside—to the cultural and social center to which every normal person should aspire. As a phrase, 'cool geeks' is a contradiction in terms. But that’s not saying much. Since the meanings of 'freaks' and 'geeks' started to diverge in the 60s, the interpretations of 'geek' have grown hopelessly muddled.

Throughout the 80s, geeks became to replace other derogatory terms such as 'square' and 'egghead.' Geeks became detached from freaks only to enter other semantic wars, such as the one fought between geeks and nerds—one that seems (perhaps in principle) irresolvable.

An attempt to parse out the connotations of 'geek' and 'nerd' tosses one into a whirl of disputes (many of them rigorous and turning on subtle discrepancies). But for the most part, geeks have been associated with expertise, while nerds are afflicted with social ineptness. While some militantly police the borders between 'geek' and 'nerd,' others don't observe the difference. Geeks and nerds tussle over who has claim to the always-expanding, ever-powerful tech culture (a group once seen as a hyper-specialized subculture, but who have come to increasingly define Culture, with a capital C, at large).

Throughout the geek v. nerd debates, many have maintained that be you geek or nerd, either way you just can’t be cool. As Steve Lohr, a New York Times technology columnist, writes, "a geek suggests a person with special expertise, while nerd suggests social ineptness. And neither are cool."

“Special expertise” leads one to consider the myriad of geek subcultures: computer geeks, anime geeks, coffee geeks. Of course, being that he's a journalist with specialized expertise in the topics regarding technology and innovation, the inference here is that Lohr himself might be something of a geek.

Then there's "Freaks and Geeks" creator Paul Feig, who despite being a millionaire with a series of Hollywood successes to his credit, would be the first to assert his own uncoolness, as he did during this interview with a writer from The Guardian:

“Oh, I'm very nervous. I mean, you just don't know, do you?" he frets, his dapper three-piece suit, lavender tie and matching pocket handkerchief unable to conceal his jitteriness. "I'm fighting against LA's tyranny of the casual," he says of his attire, with self-mocking defiance. But the reviews of Bridesmaids have been amazing, I say. He counters by reciting criticisms he claims were sprinkled through the praise (despite a thorough search later, I cannot find a single one of them).

As if all this weren't enough to give his publicist a heart attack, Feig launches into a theory about why he's "a failure." This leads to him recounting the days "when I couldn't even get a TV pilot made!" with such eagerness that one might think he was still a jobless hack, as opposed to someone involved in the best American TV of the past decade, including cult teen drama "Freaks and Geeks" (which he wrote), "Arrested Development," "The Office," "30 Rock," "Bored to Death" and "Mad Men" (all of which he did directing stints on). "Well, it's nice that people keep giving me a shot," he concedes.

I, for one, think Feig's claim to being “a pretty feminized geek” is utterly cool. But who am I to say? I'm just another geek.


But somewhere along the way, just like Feig, "Freaks and Geeks" itself became cool. These days, the short-lived production is a cult classic often invoked to signal one’s (arguably geeky) devotion to a once marginalized outsider, and underappreciated television series. The show's a 9.2/10 rating on IMDB is just one marker of the wide admiration it now enjoys. The geeky show got voted Most Popular, and as it did, Feig’s show, as a cultural artifact, became one more example of how what's geeky pivots on a hinge that swings between cool and un-cool so effortlessly that it’s often difficult to pinpoint which side our allegiances should lie if we are to remain at the popular kids’ table. Insiders are cool because they know something about the outside of the mainstream: this places them inside the inside, at the heart of cool. Geeks specialize and obscurity is often an indicator of their success. They know more. They know earlier. Hence they are cool.

It's hard to pinpoint who was the original cool geek, but chances are this eminent First One had something to do with the Internet and, by extension, the information boom: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sean Parker (now forever represented in my mind as a particularly manic Justin Timberlake). Geeks are characterized by a drive and enthusiasm that, as set against the slacker culture of Feig’s Freaks, has returned as being incredibly powerful. And cool.

A 2010 Wall Street Journal article titled “How Steve Jobs Made Geek Culture Cool” claimed:

But these days, we’re all geeks. Everyone’s got an iPod, an iPhone or an iPad, and it seems the whole world eagerly awaits to see what Jobs will do next. […] Geek culture is a new counterculture—a world full of amazing products and films, music and games for people who are proud to be nerdy and square.

Being always one step off and one remove from the crowd is to the geek’s benefit. Being a geek affirms one’s sense of individuality—one’s special status—through being different. If the rest of the world is catching up, then the true geek is only going to try a little harder to be the first to adopt.

Geeks push envelopes. Slipping from the OED's definitional radars, the current-day geek contains multitudes. The 'cool geek' can be intelligent and athletic. He can fix your hard drive, while holding a perfectly sociable conversation. These days geeks can even, goodness forbid!, be sexy. If power, which Kissinger assured us is the ultimate aphrodisiac, is sexy, then Silicon Valley geeks possess a lot of it. Having lots and lots of money probably doesn't hurt either.

Popular entertainment has capitalized on the connections between geekiness and desire through television shows like "Beauty and the Geek" and "Geek Love." That first show, a reality show promoted as “The Ultimate Social Experiment,” spins upon the logic that the possibility of romance among beautiful females and geeky males is a social challenge. Watching these figures move on your television screen, we’re supposed to wrinkle our brows because, yeah, beautiful people just don’t look like they belong with buttoned-up brains. But just as "Freaks and Geeks" once did, these shows strive to reconcile two socially and visually disparate groups.

Remember that first-ever, 1867 printed mention of 'geek,' which paired 'geek' and 'gawk'? That definition shows the word literally emerging from a function of sight: “Gawk, Geek, Gowk or Gowky.” The geek evolves from the gawk to become the awkwardly gowky. The Cool may be the Beautiful (or at least the conventional idea of what that is), but they still see themselves as the physical antithesis of the Geeky, the to-be-gawked-at.


Equating seeing with knowing leads to mistaking seeing as knowing. In "Beauty and the Geek," beautiful women struggle to reconsider their first impressions of gawky awkward men by recognizing the beauty inside the Geek. If we cut the link between seeing and knowing, what’s Beautiful and what’s Geeky no longer looks so clear-cut. What if we shuttle sight to the side? What if we try to see what’s on the inside? If on the Internet nobody knows what you are then they don't know what you look like. When physical embodiment can be obscured, or misrepresented, or even cease to matter, we’re forced to reorient our communication tactics. (The trope of geek chic glasses conveniently emphasizes the sacrifice of visual clarity in the accumulation of knowledge.) If geeks are notoriously awkward in person, they are equally notorious for their fluency in the impersonal science of mediated, wired technology.

As Internet culture (and its facilitation of specialization and fandom) grows, being a geek is increasingly associated with knowing. In a New Yorker essay, music critic Alex Ross highlights how blogs and Internet culture genre nourishes the classical music geek: "If, as people say, the Internet is a paradise for geeks, it would logically work to the benefit of one of the most opulently geeky art forms in history."

In The Laws of Cool, literary and technology scholar Alan Liu links cool with a capacity for knowledge: “Cool is a feeling for information.” This lexical association between “cool” and knowing, intuiting, or “feeling […] information” follows from communication theorist Marshall McLuhan’s division of technological media into the categories of “hot” and “cool.” According to McLuhan, interaction with “cool” mediums activated all of one’s senses, whereas “hot” mediums only triggered one sense—that of sight. Media is cool when it necessitates one’s fully active, stimulated, even erotic, engagement with a technology.

As extensions of ourselves—as the things that help us see and help us be seen—technologies are as sexy as the geeks that work them. “Let me further point out how ubiquitously the word 'sexy' is used to describe late-model gadgets.” So writes Jonathan Franzen in a New York Times essay about his "infatuation" with a new BlackBerry. Franzen continues:

… and how the extremely cool things that we can do now with these gadgets—like impelling them to action with voice commands, or doing that spreading-the-fingers iPhone thing that makes images get bigger—would have looked, to people a hundred years ago, like a magician’s incantations, a magician’s hand gestures; and how, when we want to describe an erotic relationship that’s working perfectly, we speak, indeed, of magic.

Gadgetry, the Internet, infinite information. It’s hot because it requires our participation. It’s hot because it begs an act of extension—of engagement and agency—from us, for our fingers on the screen. It’s hot because it’s cool.

Even the verb 'to geek out' (as opposed to the freaks who only 'geeked') implies an act or experience of excess. To geek out is to overdo it—to do it more and to do it better. More importantly for our ecology, to geek is to do it earlier. Being a geek is about caring, maybe even caring a little too much. If that’s what is currently perceived to be cool, I’m all for it.

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Related: When Did The Remix Become A Requirement, Wikipedia And The Death Of The Expert and Free The Network

Jane Hu is our official correspondent for very recent history. Geeks and Nerds Venn diagram courtesy of xkcd.

17 Comments / Post A Comment

Bobby Womack (#4,074)

For reference, please see the comments thread! where we briefly discuss the difference between nerds and geeks.

hypnosifl (#9,470)

@Bobby Womack It's a fun question to geekily pick over, no? The "definition" I've picked up through the way I see the words typically used is pretty similar to yours: I think of nerds as being more bookish and into academic type knowledge, like someone who's really into history or math, while geeks have a lot of knowledge/skill about more "fun" subjects like Firefly or building fighting robots. But my definition would differ from yours in that I don't really think of either of them as much more associated with bad social skills than the other, it's kind of expected that a high proportion of each will be awkward but there are also plenty of geeks and nerds that are more sociable and charming.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Very fun, thank you. With respect to the timing, I would say that there's long been a "misunderstood genius" geek figure who turns out to be terrifically sexy, in much the manner of the librarian who takes off her glasses and it turns out there is a movie star under there. Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, The Professor in Gilligan's Island, Kurt Russell in The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, and Jeff Goldblum in The Fly fool around with these ideas, for example(s). Related: the novel Geek Love by Katherine Dunn is SO GOOD.

markcuban (#219,642)

obviously i don't know first hand what had come before, but it seemed to me that when i was in high school in the mid 1990s here in the usa that the post-grunge era spawned a little bit more cleaned up, but admittedly self-conscious nerdy or geeky thrift store look (think the band Weezer) which time happened to coincide with the rising popularity of the nascent internet. Around this time, computer use and technology began to come into peoples' minds with as much frequency as popular music. My thesis is that popular culture unwittingly adopted geeks and nerds but this always happens sooner or later to all fringe groups.

I went to a nerd college and was in the nerdiest dorm on campus. For awhile those who wanted to do anything remotely non-geeky (i.e., go to concerts into the city, drink in non-geeky environments, enjoy movies that weren't sci-fi or b movies) were bullied and ostracized. The irony is even huge nerds were ostracized if they didn't conform to certain nerd standards. It was less Revenge of the Nerds and more Animal Farm.

I'm pretty sure the geek takeover has been overblown (the people who want to succeed are just going to the industry where they're more likely to succeed). Nonetheless, the lack of social skills that once was seen as a flaw to be worked on is now being celebrated and charming and quirky.

deepomega (#1,720)

@Ethan Stanislawski It's almost as though there's no moral difference between nerds and non-nerds. And any in-group that gets large enough will behave like assholes. HUH.

Jason Sands@twitter (#219,646)

The show ended, btw — not that this is terribly important, with Sam's sister going off to follow the Dead around.

jfruh (#713)

That Franzen quote on the magicalness of gadgets reminds me of this bit that I've always loved from Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle:

We watched the Laboratory's receptionist turn on the many educational exhibits that lined the foyer's walls. The receptionist was a tall, thin girl — icy, pale. At her crisp touch, lights twinkled, wheels turned, flasks bubbled, bells rang.

"Magic," declared Miss Pefko.

"I'm sorry to hear a member of the Laboratory family using that brackish, medieval word," said Dr. Breed. "Every one of those exhibits explains itself. They're designed so as not to be mystifying. They're the very antithesis of mage."

"The very what of magic?"

"The exact opposite of magic."

"You couldn't prove it by me.

Dr. Reed looked just a little peeved. "Well," he said, "we don't want to mystify. At least give us credit for that."


To me, part of the nature of geekiness that I've always liked (and liked in myself, so I suppose I defend it as part of my self-image) is wanting to know how things work. People started using computers in the '70s and '80s not because of what they could do (they really couldn't do much), but to see how they worked, and to see what they (the hobbyists) could make them do.

The attitude that "Computers are geeky, iPhones are computers, I love my iPhone, therefore I'm a geek," when paired with "my iPhone is magic!" strikes me as almost a little cargo-culty. The Franzen quote may have been wrenched out of context, but the fact that you like to play with your iPhone doesn't make you a geek any more than the fact that you like to drive makes you a motorhead (or whatever the term was for people who liked to tinker with their car engines, back when that was a thing).

barnhouse (#1,326)

Gah! what a great comment, @jfruh, it caused a cloud of tiny hearts to emerge and float around my head.

jfruh (#713)

@barnhouse *blush*

stuffisthings (#1,352)

To answer the rhetorical question in the title, I posit that it was some time between when I was in high school (and got made fun of for using the Internet) and when my girlfriend was in high school (when one would be made fun of for not using the Internet).

KenWheaton (#401)

Probably about the same time you turn 25, move into an industry of geeks and stop giving a shit about what the Alpha-whatevers (jocks, mean girls, aggro-nerds as mentioned above) not in your self-selected group think about you … and you start making damn sure that those same groups know that THEY'RE not cool (in your world at any rate).

I'd say some time between the first performance of Lysistrata and the death of the eurozone.

NightOwl (#11,168)

"Media is cool when it necessitates one’s fully active, stimulated, even erotic, engagement with a technology."

Does getting a little turned on when my Sims Woohoo count?

swizzard (#329)

Can we at least all agree that those "I <3 Geeks" t-shirts are crap?

NickJ (#228,022)

Geeks are cool. I am a geek. That means I'm cool. I'm so cool I'm going to give you a tech tip: Motorola's mc65 is going to be the next hot new gadget in 2012!

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