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Pop Culture Corner: Everything and Nothing is Nerdy

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A fan cosplays as Batman from the DC Universe during the 2018 New York Comic Con at Javits Center on October 6, 2018 in New York City.
A fan cosplays as Batman from the DC Universe during the 2018 New York Comic Con at Javits Center on October 6, 2018 in New York City.
Photo by Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Growing up and trying to determine what’s cool and what is nerdy is exhausting. For the small percentage of naturally cool kids—the good looking ones, the smart ones, the socially savvy ones—being cool comes naturally. But for everyone else, the rules are wildly inconsistent. Consider:

  • Professional musicians are cool. Singing in choir is not cool.
  • Being good at sports is cool. Being good at a video game is not cool.
  • Action movies with superheroes are cool. Comic books with superheroes are not cool.

But after you get out of high school and college, the roles get reversed drastically. The most wealthy people on the planet are not athletes. Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos all made their fortunes through technology, a traditionally uncool thing in modern American culture. But beyond that, the people that make six figures in the real world are, by and large, traditional nerds: Silicon Valley types, software developers, engineers.

That phrase should jingle something in your mind, though: traditional nerds. So much of our understanding of what is cool and what is nerdy comes from decades of ingrained pop culture. And while I think it’s premature to say that the nerdy things aren’t nerdy anymore—those collective feelings take a long time to dissipate—it’s not the same anymore.

Take, for instance, fantasy sports. The jocks at your old high school probably have more than one fantasy football league set up. Everyone plays fantasy football, in fact; their teachers also probably have a league, and your workplace likely does, too. There’s a lot of money in fantasy sports, and as such there are a lot of impressive-looking former NFL and college stars who will discuss it and give you advice.

And yet, fantasy football is, objectively, just about the nerdiest thing I can think of. Why on earth would anyone decide to pick fake players for their fake teams and tabulate how many “points” they got for your fake team, when all the while real football is being played by those players on football fields. It’s ridiculous. But no one calls fantasy football players nerds.

Why is that the case? Well, two reasons. One, that sports are generally cool and that most sports-adjacent things piggyback off that cool factor by proxy. Two, that more and more things are, if not becoming cool, becoming not nerdy. A whole bunch of people watch Marvel movies who would otherwise, well, not engage with those characters or those stories. Another data point is the video game industry, which is projected to reach $159 billion in worldwide revenue this year, or one and a half times that of the entire global film industry. And with money comes mainstream acceptance.

So what is nerdy, if anything, nowadays? To me, nearly everything can be nerdy with the proper dedication. Video games aren’t really nerdy. But what is nerdy is getting into a role playing game that you write a very intricate guide for the usage of one specific character in your party on Gamefaqs, for free, just because you like it. Liking Spider-Man isn’t nerdy. What is nerdy is developing an encyclopedic knowledge of every version of the character so that you can correctly identify the media source for every one of his suit designs. Liking airplanes isn’t nerdy. What is nerdy is reading lots of books about them and having your favorite 1940s era fighter plane and enjoy explaining the unique features of the passenger aircraft you’re riding to your nonplussed seatmate.

Some things will never be nerdy. That’s just the fact of life. But nowadays, so many things are nerdy, and so little is nerdy all at the same time. Some would say that discussing one specific baseball team on an online forum over and over again with internet friends that you’ve never met nerdy. Maybe it is. But does anyone really care?