Update: Please also see the follow-up to this post, “Geeks vs. Nerds” Revisited.
When I tell people that I’m doing a dissertation on geek cultures, I think the question I get asked more than any other is: What’s the difference between a geek and a nerd? I’m never really sure if people actually want the full answer to this, but the short answer is that different people mean different things; most folks I’ve talked to either use them synonymously or think of one term as similar to but slightly more denigrating than the other (with ‘geek’ coming out on top somewhat more often). Here’s a short collection of links (in no particular order) directly addressing the distinctions people make between these terms, which I may update later rather than starting over again as a new post. Update: I’ve also started throwing in relevant examples explaining the difference between positive and negative uses of these terms.
- Jon Katz at Wired gets people riled up by suggesting that geeks are cool now, not nerds. I can’t find the original article that started the debate, but here are two articles written in response.
- Wikihow on how to tell the difference.
- OkCupid’s Nerd? Geek? or Dork? Test.
- A conference paper (PDF) by Lars Konzack examining distinctions made by people on Wikipedia.
- The editors of She’s Such a Geek! note that contributors objected to the book being titled “Female Nerds,” believing ‘geek’ to have more positive connotations.
- In Embracing Insanity: Open Source Software Development, Russell Pavlicek devotes a whole chapter to discussing why you need to understand “geek culture” if you want to do business with open source developers. In a footnote, he explains that it’s important not to confuse geeks with nerds, as ‘nerd’ is still considered negative.
- An editorial comment in the Wired letters page reassures offended readers that ‘geek’ can have positive uses:
Hang on a sec, wrote one reader, why do Wired editors “go out of their way to insult the technically savvy by calling them geeks.” That’s missing the point â€” where you hear an insult, we hear a term of endearment. A geek isn’t just someone who can articulately defend her opinion of who the best Babylon 5 commander was. (Sheridan.) It’s any dogged explorer or crazed inventor, anyone who fixates on a project and won’t let go, anyone who builds his own damn rocket! It’s a label to be proud of, in any star system.
This comment clearly assigns positive meaning to scientific/technical pursuits and negative meaning to fannish pursuits, but by answering its own exemplar question, it humbly admits the author’s acceptance of membership in the negatively geeky group.
- In reply to a 2005 post titled “Have Geeks Gone Mainstream?”, Slashdot readers weigh in on whether it’s cool to be a geek, or whether it’s just cool to cop a geeky style. The original person who poses the question ties it in to computer science enrollment, but others bring in other geek interests, suggesting that even the readers of a site for “News for Nerds” don’t quite agree on what these terms mean.
- From geekculture.com forums: “Whats the difference between dork nerd and geek?” [sic]. The first answer sums up all the specific distinctions that follow: “everybody has a slightly different definition for each and most of the time, the definitions overlap enough to make it impossible to specify definitive differences between them.”
- From Slate: What’s the difference between a nerd and a nebbish? Suggests that nerds are targets of envy because they’re now respectable, whereas the nebbish is just a loveably pathetic loser with no particular connotations of media skill (but with a much clearer connotation of religious/ethnic/cultural membership).
- From Rocky Mountain News: According to this humorous piece (drawing, perhaps, on the wisdom of the author’s children), geeks are knowledgeable of technology, nerds are mostly just klutzy, and dorks remain undefined, but probably something worse than nerds.
- From Baylor University’s Lariat Online: This writer, a professional writing major, sugegsts that nerds are tech-job-oriented, whereas geeks are “not so productive” and have “eclectic interestsâ€”including elaborate, self-designed costuming and foam faux-weapons.” He goes on to suggest “five levels of geekdom,” describing himself as “moderate.”
- In an even earlier Slashdot post (2000), commenters respond to the question of what the difference is between geek and nerd, and which they prefer. The comments show a variety of opinions, though the “geek is a nerd with social skills” opinion ranks high. Another commenter points out that this thread revisits an even earlier post on the same topic (1999), which had been inspired by an article asking the same question from News and Observer (now offline, but available at Archive.org). That article starts out with the commonly-accepted notion that Bill Gates made geeks coolâ€””The richest man in America made his fortune by being obsessed with technology”â€”but goes on to question this assumption by attempting to make a hard distinction between geek and nerd, with some “spanning” the gap. Connie Eble, an English professor and slang specialist, states that “The definition changes all the time and it means different things to different people,” and so the article notes: “we’re stuck creating our own definitions based on what people tell us.”
- Militant Geek, a site that tracks geeky apparel, asserts: “Geeks are those that have technical aptitude, nerds are bright but socially awkward, and dorks are just inept excuses for protoplasm.” To clarify, it offers a humorous chart.
- Michael James Gratton compares the Jargon File definitions of geek (connoting someone who chooses “concentration rather than conformity”) and nerd (a “pejorative” for someone who is of “above-average IQ” and unskilled in “ordinary social rituals”).
- Primary0 finds the dictionary definitions lacking, noting that “A geek is said to be a more social nerd.” Suggests that geeks are more narrow in their obsessions than nerds.
- A number of links (1, 2, 3, via Church) discuss replacing ‘geek’ with some other, less “chic” term, arguing about what ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ really mean along the way. Readers/listeners seem to find ‘geek’ to be preferable to alternatives.
- A widely-circulated Venn diagram offers an intricate distinction between geeks, nerds, and dorks (though at least one writer I know of was dismayed to see this on the web; he had a very similar diagram of his own planned for inclusion in a book, albeit with some terms in different places). Webcomic xkcd offers a less detailed but no less accurate Venn diagram of its own.
- On CNN, The creators of Robot Chicken debate the difference between geeks and nerds. I add this even after officially closing this post because not only does it handily illustrate that even geek luminaries disagree on these terms’ meanings, but it also reveals that products like Wizard magazine use such distinctions as part of constructing their audience!
We are talking about the internet here, of course, so there’s a lot more where that came from (and, unsurprisingly, this comes up pretty frequently in my own interviews). I just figured I’d share some examples here to to help me keep track, and so I’d have a page to point back to next time someone asks.
This post is closed for future updates, but comments are still welcome. Please see the follow-up, “Geeks vs. Nerds” Revisited.