For the longest time, and to some extent today, nerds were the target of intense bullying and social ostracization. Only in the past decade have people with traditionally “fringe” interests been able to enjoy their hobbies without being considered a freak. The stigma that was once associated with nerdism has been erased; the reasons for this change include these kinds of activities going mainstream, a more general acceptance of other ideas, and the growing confidence that this demographic is experiencing due to the internet.
I would have been bullied throughout grade school if I were born a decade or two earlier. Back then their was a harsh social stigma associated with being a “nerd” or “geek”. The popular TV shows of the time, such as “Family Matters” and “Saved by the Bell” were largely based off of making fun of the social ineptitude of these kinds of people. Though it still exists to some extent, this stereotype has been largely erased; at the very least, the demographic is no longer the target of persecution to the extent that it used to. Superheros and sci-fi have gone mainstream, tech giants are the superstars of our generation, and traditionally fringe interests, such as video games, anime, and comics are now very much in the spotlight. This movement has occurred due to changes in what defines the pop culture of this generation, the John Doe’s increased tolerance of others, and a rise in the number of people “coming out” as being a nerd.
Lets take a look at some possible reasons for this change. First off, the blockbuster movies of this generation are largely sci-fi/comic book themed, a genre that has historically been seen as “geeky”. After browsing the release dates of comic book movies throughout history, I’ve found that in the last ten years, there have been more superhero movies released than the previous 50 years combined (Wikipedia). According to box office revenue records, 9 of the top 20 highest grossing movies ever can be classed within the sci-fi or superhero genre (IMDB). This kind mainstream exposure of comic books, even if it is in the form of a movie, removes a lot of the stigma that was associated with liking superheros.
Both the casual and professional video game industries have experienced similar mainstream exposure. Computer games began as tough-to-come-by floppy disks with a sparse but dedicated community, one that communicated solely through old, online forums. You typically had to have someone “induct” you into video games, as they were such a fringe interest. The casual market is now a rapidly growing industry that was estimated to be worth $93 billion in 2013 (Gartner). Likewise, professional video game businesses have exploded into existence, attracting millions of spectators worldwide.
The above picture is of the Staples Center in South Korea during the 2013 League of Legends World Championship, which was watched by over 32 million viewers. Compared to the previous year’s 8.1 million viewers, that is a massive jump in audience members for the timespan of a single year (Redbeard). With that large of a playerbase, it becomes difficult to not be acquainted with someone who plays competitive video games.
Another rising demographic – though it hasn’t had the same explosive entrance that video gaming had – is the college student, a demographic which is historically seen as more open-minded, liberal, and accepting of (or belonging to!) smaller sub-cultures. In the past few years, college enrollment in the US has reached all time high, with over 40% of 18-24 year olds currently enrolled (PewResearch).
This rise in college enrollment allows for like-minded nerds to realize that they aren’t alone in the world, a feeling that can easily come if attending a smaller high school. Additionally, a larger pool of high school students aiming towards college eliminates much of the bullying due to studying too much or making high grades, as more people are trying their hardest so that they may get into college.
So far the reasons given for the erasure of the “nerd” stigma have been related to either mainstream exposure or an actual expansion of the demographic itself. I would argue, however, that possibly the most impactful reason would be due to the interconnectivity of the internet. Communities of like-minded people formed in the early days of the internet, and only grew from there. It proved to people with fringe-interests that they weren’t alone. The confidence that grew from this, and from internet celebrities such as John Green, an avid nerd activist and role model to many people who suffer from insecurities due to their hobbies, makes them much tougher prey for jokes or insults. It is difficult to hurt someone who no longer cares what you have to say, for instance.
Green was really the first to put himself on the internet and say “I’m weird and that’s ok.” In this video he goes through every weird thing in his childhood memory box and is more or less bragging about the items that made him different from the “popular” kids. Young teens struggling with insecurity about who they are can now see someone who embraces his quirks.
The past ten years have been an incredible time of progress concerning nerd culture. Video games and comic book movies are becoming the powerhouse forms of media in the 21st century; nerds are no longer in hiding as friendly communities of like minded people are just a click away; the world in general is becoming a more educated and more acceptable of other people and interests. This last decade has been a win for the little guy – here’s to many more.
“List of American Superhero Films.” Wikipedia. Electronic. October 25, 2014.
“All Time Box Office World Wide Grosses.” IMDB. Electronic. October 25, 2014.
“Gartner Says Worldwide Video Game Market to Total $93 Billion in 2013.” Gartner. October 29, 2013. Electronic. November 2, 2014.
Redbeard. “One World Championship, 32 Million Viewers.” LeagueOfLegends. October, 2013. Electronic. November 2, 2014.
“Trends in College Enrollment, Completion, Cost and Debt.” PewResearch. Electronic. October 25, 2014.