BBC Future

Life:Connected

Social media, Doctor Who and the rise of the geeks

About the author

Tom Chatfield is a British author. His most recent book, “Netymology”, explores language and technology. He blogs at tomchatfield.net and tweets at @TomChatfield

Thanks to the fact that like-minded souls are only a click or a search-term away, the unthinkable has happened – geeks have become not only acceptable, but even chic. But there are good reasons to be lovingly suspicious of this culture, as Tom Chatfield explains.

One person’s insult can become another’s badge of pride. In religion, words like Methodist, Mormon and Quaker first appeared as disparaging terms, and were then taken up in defiance by believers. In the politics of gender and sexuality, words like “suffragette”, “queer” and “dyke” have been re-appropriated by those they were coined to abuse.

The word “geek” is less ideologically loaded, but it too came from the lowest levels of society. Arriving in English from low German, a geck originally described a fool or crazy person. The term probably migrated to America via European travelling circuses, where it was used first to refer to gullible punters. By the early 20th Century, the phrase referred to the most outlandish performers and exhibits in carnivals – and to an outsider even among these outsiders, a "wild man" chasing and biting the heads off live chickens.

Exactly how this insult escaped carnival culture and became generic is mysterious (although William Gresham’s carnival-set 1946 novel Nightmare Alley, and subsequent film, had a lot to do with it). But, by the 1980s, the arrival of geeks as we know them had been cemented in iconic style by the coming-of-age film Sixteen Candles (1984), courtesy of a character known as “The Geek” whose brainy awkwardness set the mould for an era.

Geeks – like their cousins in etymological oddity, nerds – were the pitiable extremes of an era in which only terminally under-confident males were obsessed with computers. Yet, as the realm of computing bred its first generation of millionaires and then billionaires, the unthinkable has happened: geeks have become not only acceptable, but even chic – to the extent that YouTube is hosting its first Geek Week.

Not everyone will admit to geekish tendencies, but the screens on every desk and in every pocket say differently: love or loathe the word, almost all of us have some element of geekery in our lives. Indeed, given that almost every conceivable obsession now has a presence online, “geek” is as much a label of enthusiasm as of expertise. You might be a coffee geek, a board games geek, or a retro-geek fashionista. Or you might get your geek on for Doctor Who, following liveblogs and hashtags covering the announcement of Peter Capaldi as being the 12th doctor, or creating a whole new genre of music, Trock, dedicated to the Gallifreyan time lord – and in the process earning its originator Alex Day the opportunity to visit the real Tardis (video above).

No matter what you’re into, it seems that courtesy of modern technology you’ll never be alone for long. Like-minded others are only a click or a search-term away. And so too are whole realms of sharing, comparison, collaboration, one-upmanship, status anxiety, and the sheer timewasting gloriousness of typing “check this out!” next to a YouTube link.

‘Geekocratic moment’

For many people, such enthusiasm – even over seemingly trivial issues – is a road towards cultural participation and creation, and perhaps other forms of engagement as well. The screen is a lot more forgiving than face-to-face first encounters, and shared enthusiasm can be a powerful binding force.

Yet, at the same time there are good reasons to be “lovingly suspicious of geek culture”, as the author China Mieville put it when I interviewed him last year about the business of writing cult fiction in the 21st Century.

On Wikipedia, articles about Star Wars or Star Trek are often better referenced, longer and more passionately debated than those that are more important by almost any sense of worldly value, such as events during the Second World War, the lives of major historical figures, or even religions (and that’s before you start listing YouTube celebrities).

Ours is, as Mieville notes, a “geekocratic moment”. Shared passions and ideas have a curious force of their own online, and even those who adore this will admit that this can lead to warped priorities – from staggeringly brutal flame wars to trolling and deeply engrained sexism.

Then there’s the triumph of the geeks themselves: not only the new hordes of enthusiasts, but the alpha geeks whose creations drive much of our online world. From Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin (not to mention the late Steve Jobs, perhaps the closest thing to a patron saint the cult of geek has so far enshrined), technocrats are shaping the texture of our lives as never before. And this brings its own species of hazards.

Ours is an age of big data, and even bigger surveillance – of unprecedented information freedom matched to the unprecedented dominance of a few global players who own the “ecosystems” through which this information flows. Each of us is free to indulge our passions and predilections as never before – yet the channels through which we do this can be perilously narrow, and our perspective on the world correspondingly warped.

At least, this is what can happen – but it need not be an inexorable fate. Online, you’re never alone, and perhaps the greatest gift of this fact is that you’re never more than a few screens away from someone who has been there before, answered the question, questioned the assumption, solved the problem – or edited the Wookieepedia. Your passions and distractions are yours to negotiate, in tandem with whomsoever you can enlist along the way.

Once upon a time, geeks were freaks in the most literal sense: humans rendered sub-human, performing in front of a baying crowd. Outposts of the internet can still feel like that today. Yet, in our geekocratic moment, something fundamental has shifted. Nobody is outside the crowd, and nothing human is entirely strange. This is far from an unqualified cause for celebration – but it’s much too late to turn back the clock.

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