geek culture

“Geek culture” is a bit of a nebulous term (and as a result I really struggle to ever type it without surrounding it in quote marks) but it is used, broadly, to describe the kind of entertainment and activity that appeals to people who could be considered “geeks”. That, then, raises the question of who could be considered a geek. Generally, I’d say the term describes people with more knowledge-based interests, stereotypically STEM but you can totally also be a geek about other things, like linguistics, history, politics, literature, film/TV studies, musical theatre, and so forth. Yes, this makes it a really broad term.

I watched a really interesting video on YouTube, Sarah Z’s The Rise and Fall of Geek Culture(external link), from which a lot of stuff on this page ultimately stems. Anyway, she said that the notion of “geek culture” dates back to the 1980s, and the original notion of a “geek” was that real stereotype of a socially awkward upper-middle-class white guy who was really, really into computing. Stuff that was really associated with “geekdom” at that time was stuff like tabletop RPGs, science fiction, and comic books.

Over time, “geek culture” grew, both in the amount of stuff that was linked to it and in the number of people who identified with it or at least with the cultural output that was linked with it. I feel like there’s a strong overlap here in Sarah Z’s conception of 21st century geek culture and what I would have just described as fandom. Things like video games and Buffy the Vam­p­ire Slayer were identified with “geek culture” but were also just widely popular among people who didn’t consider themselves really as geeks. The TV show Big Bang Theory was a controversial depiction of “geek culture” both because it was perceived as making fun of it and because it really just overlaid the “geek stuff” as flavour on top of a staid, traditional sitcom that made fun of the same things many other sitcoms make fun of (interactions between men and women, for example). The IT Crowd and Community, in contrast, are both seen as much more authentic shows (and in my opinion are certainly more creative and enjoyable).

Some of the characteristics of film/TV that became popular with “geeks” is that it tended to be very “self-aware”, written by people who’d dissected the popular tropes of their chosen genre and wrote dialogue that lampshaded their own use of those tropes, often with references to other media properties which had used them. The dialogue also tended to be snappy, witty and wry; earnest media that took itself seriously was not in vogue. The characterisation was often more about playing with tropes than trying to create realistic people, and the most popular trope of all was that of the “cool, detached hero” who tended to be a bit of a sarcastic dick but always saved the day. Some of the people who really got into “geek culture” adopted some of this cool detached dickishness for themselves, feeling that they and other geeky people were somehow better or morally superior to “mainstream” people.

Oftentimes, “geek culture” was categorised by a more consumerist approach to fandom than a transformative one. That is, it was less about producing fanfiction, fan art, long thought-out pieces of meta, fan theories, etc. and more about collecting stuff. For some people this meant collecting knowledge (quotes, trivia, etc. – with the people who didn’t know much trivia or many quotes just off the top of their head sometimes looked down on as “not real fans”) and for others this meant buying merch. Merch came to be a huge thing with “geek culture” especially as it got bigger, with corporations realising there was this huge market out there who would pay a fair bit of money for certain kinds of t-shirts, figurines, mugs, blankets, etc.. Some specific North American chain, Hot Topic, which I had heard of as a kind of entry-level “goth” store in the 2000s (the kind of store all the teenage emos shopped at, you know?) apparently totally reoriented to selling like “geek culture” merchandise.

“Geek culture” was often characterised by some kind of feeling of persecution, as many of the people who identified with it had been made to feel “weird” at school, perhaps were bullied, etc., and wanted to create this new subculture where no one (cough, cough) would be made to feel weird or excluded. The problem is that this was always more of a notion than a reality, with the section of the “geek subculture” that was heavily upper-middle-class cishet white males often being highly exclusionary against, like, women or POC, not to mention less affluent people who didn’t have the money for all the random stuff the consumption of which the gatekeepers considered an integral part of participating in their fandom. I don’t want to say all or even most of “geek culture” was like this though because if you read my first paragraph, the definition of “geek” itself is pretty broad and there were many “geeky” fandoms (like Buffy, Doctor Who, and so forth) that were seemingly not just dominated by the gatekeeping group I mentioned. Some­thing that was probably a wider problem was the phenomenon of the missing stair: a member of a group who is deeply unpleasant (in the original example the missing stair was a rapist) but everyone else in the group just treads quietly around them and discreetly warns newbies to the group, rather than ever doing anything to “fix” the missing stair (i.e. kicking the unpleasant person out of the group). In “geek culture” communities this didn’t have to be a rapist: someone who was openly misogynistic, racist or homophobic also had the effect of making people feel unwelcome to join that group (to say the least). Because so much of “geek culture” was conditioned by this idea that it’s mean to exclude people from groups, it was seen as preferable to tolerate the bigoted weirdo and let the people who had problems with him exclude themselves, instead (because then at least you didn’t exclude anybody).

I’ve used the past tense throughout this discussion because Sarah Z’s contention is that geek culture, as we knew it, doesn’t really exist any more. Some of the reasons for this are:

  • “Geek media”, as you might think of it, has increasingly just become mainstream pop culture. Movies based on comic book superheroes are just mainstream blockbusters that loads of people who do not consider themselves geeky go to see. Video games are totally mainstream. Teen culture does not really seem to include bullying kids with “geeky” interests any more (ymmv in some places, of course, but overall). So there’s no longer much logic in talking about “geek culture” as distinct from “pop culture”.
  • To the extent that there was a cohesive “geek” subculture, it completely fractured and broke apart in the mid-2010s. Sarah Z describes Gamer­gate as being a pretty pivotal event, pitting misogynists against progressives.
  • People becoming increasingly embarrassed to identify themselves with the “worst” parts of the geek subculture, exemplified by the Szechuan sauce incident. (I’m not sure this is really as bad as, say, the sexual predators who found cover within the “geek community”, but hey.)
  • People getting bored of that wry, self-aware kind of writing that characterised so many “geek culture” touchpoints. And especially the kind that made lots of references to other media properties, not really to make a good joke out of them or anything, just because once upon a time audiences felt smug when they “got the reference”.

Sarah Z described 2019 as, basically, the end of “geek culture” in the sense we used to use the term. She described it as such because of the clos­ure/bank­rupt­cy/what­ever of a number of meme sites, t-shirt sellers and whatnot that used to be big in the heyday of “geek culture”. Personally I might also point to the collapse of Tumblr, which was huge in fandom (and therefore I presume generally in “geek culture”) but decided in late 2018 to ban various kinds of NSFW content. This provoked an exodus of much of their userbase, and while Tumblr’s still around, apparently it now has only 20% of the userbase it had at its peak. Having said all this, fandom still exists, “geeks” still exist, other social media sites that were popular with “geekdom” (like Reddit) still exist, and media properties which appeal to people who might think of themselves as “geeks” still exist. It’s just kind of a specific era of “geek culture” which is over.