What Sparked the Birth of Geek Culture?

The question posed in this post’s title has been at the center of a debate I’ve been having lately. This person, whose opinion I generally value greatly, suggests that “geek culture” as a concept didn’t exist prior to the 1980s; it was born, he suggests, out of the credibility accorded to geeks through their mastery of digital media. Therefore, digital media should be considered at the heart of geek culture as a whole. From my perspective, I do think that digital media have been key in transforming what we know as geek culture, but I have some reservations about the line of reasoning that places such media as the initiator of this culture in the first place.

My first thought on this was that this completely cuts out plenty of self-identified geeks whose media interests have nothing to do with digital media, such as comic book fans, toy collectors, and role-players. I don’t have any data handy that demonstrates that these groups willingly called themselves geeks before Devo and Bill Gates lent the term a little more credibility, but the group that refers to itself as geeks now certainly has some important historical antecedents that existed under a different name. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘geek’ wasn’t used synonymously with ‘nerd’ until the ’50s, and ‘geek chic’ wasn’t seen in print until the ’90s, but the seed of what we mean now when we talk about geeks existed much earlier.

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book goes so far as to suggest that the way we currently understand geeks can be traced back to the late 20s:

Once in the subculture, the boys fine-tuned one another’s identities around the self-definition “science-fiction fan”—an indifference to clothes and appearance, a manic but unsentimental bonhomie in their meetings, an amused disdain for the drones who didn’t understand them. There was no word for it yet, but now we can see this as the birth of geek culture. And from it every subsequent geek culture—comics, computers, video games, collectible figurines—has either grown from or taken much of its form. (Jones, 2004, p. 37)

From this it goes on to cast Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel as a member of this subculture.

Geek Monthly, meanwhile, suggests that Star Wars might have marked “the birth of geekdom”:

Long before Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s pop and Yoda proved size matters not, Star Wars was a pop culture milestone, a film that managed to transcend being simple popcorn entertainment to become an enduring classic on the level of The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind.

I’ve heard that Star Wars succeeded in uniting the formerly disparate fantasy and science-fiction fan communities, which have basically been the same community (or at least the same convention market) ever since. (I can’t remember where I heard that, so if you know of something I could cite, please send it along.) Star Wars also introduced Hollywood to movie merchandising, which had a significant effect on keeping fans involved even after the movie(s) ended. Also notable is the fact that Nerd Pride Day (el día del orgullo friki), started by fans in Spain in 2006, is celebrated on May 25—the release date of Star Wars.

Perhaps even more relevant than arguing about the history of media fan traditions, however, is the origins of geek culture in student harassment. Well before the spread of digital media, kids derided one another as “nerds,” and before that, as “eggheads,” for seemingly being studious to the exclusion of being social and fun (as referred to in a book I was reading today, published in 1979, and positioning “eggheads” as a term popular in the 1950s). Even if the terms change a bit, the meaning remains the same, and school is where people first encounter these terms. Also, it’s worth noting that fairly recent research (as recently as 2005, that I’ve seen) indicates that kids still use ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ pejoratively. Lots of these kids, as indicated in my interviews and in existing literature, get into geek/nerd crowds in their local school cultures—is that not (or does it not potentially develop into) “geek culture”? The pejorative usage of ‘geek’ and ‘nerd,’ of course has little or nothing to do with computers, but getting labeled that way almost certainly affects the way people construct identities and communities into adulthood.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that digital media aren’t central to geek culture, just that I wouldn’t say they caused its “birth” so much as its blossoming. It’s pretty relevant that Nerd Pride Day was organized over the internet, and my research so far indicates that this is how lots of geeks have networked with others sharing their interests. Plus, when I ask interviewees why they say it’s now cool to be a geek, even the comic book collectors (who don’t consider themselves computer geeks) credit computers and the wealth people assume they must bring.

Whatever the case, I figured this would be the best forum to think through these thoughts as I write up my literature review and think about structuring my chapters. Please feel free to comment or email if you have any input.

3 thoughts on “What Sparked the Birth of Geek Culture?

  1. “the seed of what we mean now when we talk about geeks existed much earlier … Now, I don’t mean to imply that digital media aren’t central to geek culture, just that I wouldn’t say they caused its “birth” so much as its blossoming.”

    I agree. Science fiction conventions have been going on since the 30’s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_fiction_convention#History — I’m not sure how well-documented this is online, but I’ve seen old photos and programs (in a glass case), and it’s clear that the first WorldCon was in 1939). I would have looked to pulps (it wasn’t all detective thrillers) rather than comic books for geekdom, but I’m not sure about the timeline. The Men of Tomorrow book looks interesting, at any rate.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Just to follow up: as I wrote about elsewhere, a Wired writer tracing the history of the Transformers also places the “dawn of the modern nerd era” in the rise of sci-fi action figures; Ron Eglash (2002) goes even further back, suggesting that the first nerds were amateur radio enthusiasts in the 20s, based on a comment by an SF author.

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