This is an origin story. I take quite a bit of pride in being a geek, though admittedly it hasn’t always been that way. When I was young, other kids mocked me for my love of science and my slow evolution into a geek. As I got older, I started to realize what was cool to other kids and what wasn’t. I would often make fun of things I loved to in order to try to fit in. Finally though, I came to understand that I needed to embrace who I was and just be myself. As I became more confident in my own identity, I lost any doubt that I was a geek, and I began to wonder what exactly that was, and by extension, what made me one.
If Prof. Indy says it, it must be true.
Indiana Jones himself said that 90% of archeology takes place in the library, so I figured I’d start where all great investigations start: the dictionary. Sure enough, I found a pretty good definition of geek from Webster’s English Language Learner’s Dictionary:
1 : a person who is socially awkward and unpopular : a usually intelligent person who does not fit in with other people
2 : a person who is very interested in and knows a lot about a particular field or activity
It is the second definition that I found the far more interesting, as it supports my own definition of geek, which is: “a person who exhibits a certain, highly elevated degree of passion for a particular topic, which is often outside the mainstream.” For me, being a geek is about learning about and doing the things that I love—regardless of what they are—and finding people that share those same interests with whom to exchange knowledge.
From either my personal definition, or Webster’s, one could infer that any person could be a geek about anything, but that isn’t entirely true. There aren’t exercise geeks or stock market geeks, but there are people who are very interested in and extremely knowledgeable about both (they are called something different).
So what then makes an activity geeky? What allows those that partake in it to proudly bear the title of geek correctly?
The first important characteristic is that it is outside the mainstream of popular culture. This doesn’t mean it has to be way outside the norm, but there does need to be some degree of separation; think the classic stereotype of jocks vs. geeks. For example, playing video games is a pretty common pastime for many people in their teens and twenties—and even some older ones as well. While gaming has become more popular, I would argue that only a limited number of games would be considered truly mainstream, such as Halo or Call of Duty. Though there are millions of casual gamers, Geeks play their games religiously for hours on end, until they know exactly which weapon to use under what circumstances and the exact terrain of every map.
This guy knows every map.
Another great example, and a personal favorite of mine, is comic books. Thanks to movies such as Avengers, the Dark Knight trilogy, and Man of Steel, superheroes appear in our culture and our minds like no other time in their history. I can barely walk down the street or go out to dinner without seeing someone wearing a Batman t-shirt or an ad for Iron Man. But while our society is almost saturated with these characters, the comic books in which they all originate are still largely ignored and in some cases even looked down upon. On the silver screen, these characters are accepted and even adored, but the comic books have never become a social norm.
What separates the average person with perhaps a passing interest in a geeky subject and the true geek, is also the zeal with which they embrace their subject. There are plenty of people who have read graphic novels such as Watchmen as part of a high school or college class, but unless they became instant fans, just reading doesn’t make them geeks. The geek who deserves the title is the World of Warcraft player who jumps online for a raid, sick as a dog, because there is a slight chance at picking up the rare item he’s coveted for months, or who drives to his local comic stores every week, regardless of the weather, to get his weekly books (I think hurricane conditions are the only ones that have kept me home—a badge of honor.).
I would even have to consider a small, select group of Twilight fans as geeks. This does not apply to most of them. But there are those select few who demonstrate the necessary ardor. Those who pick Team Edward or Team Jacob, talk about the books and movies non-stop, and even ruined comic con for more than a few people. These people are geeks too, albeit annoying ones (Lord, give me strength!). Geekhood is about the passion, and they have it in abundance.
Although the pursuit of knowledge in and of itself is not geeky, a thirst for geeky knowledge is another defining aspect of a geek. I have seen comic geeks, driven by passion for a particular subject, dig through box after box of back issues just to find a random appearance of their favorite character. The drive needed to persist at this task is impressive (If you disagree, try it for a few hours. It is way harder than you think. I know; I’ve done it several times). What impresses me even more is that they knew their favorite character could be found in these random and seemingly unrelated titles. Any ordinary person can read the main comics that focus on their favorite person, but a true geek takes the time and spends the energy to research even non-speaking, background appearances. To a geek, the acquisition of information is sometimes even more important than the information itself.
Not only do we gather vast storehouses of semi-useless trivia, we also love to share our knowledge, both among those who appreciate it and unsuspecting friends and relatives. There are countless fan sites and forums dedicated to nearly every type of fandom, no matter how seemingly insignificant. For the consumer desperate to know what was different between the Megatron figure released in Japan and the one in the US, there is someone out there who knows that difference, and will enthusiastically share it. I myself am quite proud to admit that I own not one, but two different Star Trek Encyclopedias. My friends have even placed bets on me in a Star Wars trivia contest at New York Comic Con, though sadly I didn’t go nearly as far as they’d hoped.
I have also learned specialized skills, such as dice based probability, that almost completely lack practical application… Except, of course, figuring out the odds of making a successful roll in Warhammer 40K in seconds flat.
The downside of this quasi-savant status, is that geeks have a bit of a “tough love” stereotype when it comes to people who are new and don’t know everything yet. Reality is that while there are a few jerks with a pathological need to feel superior by belittling people who know less than they, the overwhelming majority of geeks out there are more than happy to share their knowledge and experience, and educate those who are new to geekhood or expanding their existing geek horizons.
It’s the passion that drives geeks to do these things even though they are not something that the rest of society considers normal. It is important, then, to realize that the same passion that makes a person identify with geeks everywhere should make him proud of his status. I was once told by a coworker that I shouldn’t mention my love of comics to women because it is creepy. TO HELL WITH THAT! This who I am and I’m not going to hide it or apologize for it just because it’s something that someone doesn’t want to see. We live in a modern society on foundations built by famous geeks—Bill Gates and Steve Jobs for two—and it’s time we stand up and be proud of who we are. My name is Andrew, I’m a geek, and I couldn’t be happier.