The Appeal of the Nerd

Birds of a feather flock together

Maybe you also know this moment in early age, when things change from playing imagined games with your friends to having casual conversations about school, other children (or rather teens), boyish and girlish things… I dare to say that some young humans are glad to stop doing childish stuff, others tend to sports and some others continue to play, but with different media.

In my case Stephen King was the culprit. I read „IT“ at 8 years and became enchanted with the power of misfits. I didn‘t understand everything in the book, but the message remained burned-in my brain and heart: no matter how hard the enemies at school or at home beat you up and despise you, no matter how often you fail and no matter if you sometimes feel that it’s you against the world – because the world does not understand you…. As long as you believe in yourself, you will find real friends of your feather. And when you all flock together, things will happen. And things will change.

Georgie… (famous little brother of the main character, lured in with a red balloon by the clown Pennywise while walking in his yellow raincoat)…
Is that supposed to be you?

In the novel, seven children – united by their unhappiness and inability to fit in due to different reasons – form The Losers Club. In the end, it’s The Losers Club against humanities threat, the famous clown Pennywise (like Ronald McDonald in evil, you probably have seen that one, even if you neither know novel or movie, but in either case you’re missing out) or “IT”. I won’t spoil anything but IT tries to defeat all members by appealing to their individual fears and weaknesses, displaying them in an even more horrific manner. The seven Losers on the other hand recollect their individual and collective strengths, giving them the power to maybe defeat IT or not (that’s not spoiling, you really don’t know what happened in the end).

This raised hope in the child Marty. Maybe it’s ok that I don’t belong to the popular ones and that I don’t like small talk. Maybe it’s ok that I’m bad at sports but excel at inventing bazillions of Sailor Warriors (Sailor Radio, anyone?). And maybe there are others like me, who understand my passions and my wilful ignorance.

Well, that’s how it went. I founded no Losers Club but always assembled the nerds, geeks and weirdos, knowing that it would only be us who could fight Pennywise. Sometimes it meant having no real friends at all or only some semi-nerds as semi-friends. Sometimes it meant having real friends whom others never have seen talking that vividly.

Still, why nerds?

Now it’s time to define what I call nerdy, geeky and so on. Basically, people who enthusiastically devote their life, their free time and/or work to a passion that can be considered at the edge of society’s norms. Sometimes this goes along with ignoring skills that society thinks of as necessary and valuable (small talk, for instance, or wearing fancy suits and costumes instead of shirts or kawaii outfits). But that’s definitely no prerequisite!

To me, it’s all about the deep love to something very special: the collection of random things like Power Rangers Funko Pop! figures, the devotion to exotic research subjects, the excitement for a new release of the favourite manga, the fervour of understanding and applying Bayesian statistics or the goal of programming your own app for simulating rolling dices with 20 sides to propose to the equally nerdy girlfriend.

The topics to indulge in and enjoy one’s nerdiness or geekiness are vast and unique. Slackpropagation, a journal by statistical machine learning nerd (and music geek) Burr Settles shows a good overview.

In this article, he analysed Twitter data to characterize similarities and differences between “nerds” and “geeks”. This scatterplot is the result of words associated with nerds and geeks. Blue words are more nerdy, orange ones more geeky and words along the diagonal are similarly nerdy and geeky. Moving up, words become more geeky and moving to the right more nerdy.

I don’t want to delve into the distinction and the holy war of nerd vs. geek, but look at the words with a nerdy scale above 6. Neuroscience, biochemistry, startrek, physics, data, Zelda or thehobbit. The geeky scale is a little different as it does not only include topics of interests but also products or brands.

A diverse range of interests that all have one thing in common: you have to know the stuff to be able to talk about the stuff. That is the heart of the matter why nerds and geeks are sometimes considered weird or not sociable. Everyone likes to talk about the things they love! In some cases both dialogue partners understand each other’s topics, in some cases not.

So where’s the problem?

Being a mini data nerd myself, I did a mini survey among my friends. Nothing representatively for the nerd or non-nerd population. I just wanted to find out where people who consider themselves as nerds see possible difficulties with non-nerds. And the other way round: where do people who are in contact with nerds experience problems. Here is what I got.

As you see: it’s all about communication! Occasionally, both sides speak different languages. It’s not that they don’t (want to) understand each other. I am convinced that they just need a translator who bridges their differences and help them to understand each other.

That’s my personal holy grail, the mission I want to pursue and devote my life to. I don’t want to turn nerds into non-nerds (definitely not happening) but to alleviate the at times arising feeling of Me against the World. As a coach I want to be the translator, the bridge between the nerdy and non-nerdy world.

What about you? Do you know this feeling? Have you ever been in a Losers Club? (or secretly always wanted to because they’re quite cool, actually)

PS: The humour thing probably just separates the meme-loving people from the meme-not-understanding population 😛