Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Defining geek: Is it what you love or who you are?

I started a little firestorm at lunch this week when I called someone a geek while sitting at a table full of co-workers.

This led to an intense philosophical discussion about who is and is not a geek, prompting a few skittish people to ask “Am I a geek?” in quivering, fearful tones.

This column has turned me into a kind of “Geek Whisperer.” After my first World of Warcraft column, a co-worker came up to my desk and whispered, “I have a level-62 Paladin on Twisting Nether.”

That sounded like the beginning of a longer speech but she just looked at me like she was waiting for something. We sat in silence for a moment, then I realized what she was asking for. She wanted forgiveness. She wanted me to absolve her somehow and assure her that she was not a geek.

I squeezed her hand and said, “Don’t worry. A lot of normal people play Warcraft.”

She sighed in relief and returned to her desk. Most people don’t think “geek” is an insult, but it’s a very powerful word. During the course of our lunch discussion, I realized that there are two distinct ways to use the word geek.

The first case uses geek as a synonym for “guru” or “expert.” In this context, “geek” is a compliment. When you say, “That guy is a real golf geek” or “My wife is a Beatles geek,” you’re saying that person has a high level of expertise.

You have to be careful, though, because “geek” implies expertise taken to the extreme, to a level of obsession that can be considered unhealthy.

So that’s the first case, where the word geek refers to a level of expertise. But there is a broader meaning of geek that is not so flattering. I call this “The Breakfast Club” application, where geek is used to judge a whole person and pigeonhole their personality.

That’s the fundamental question we got hung up on at lunch. Can you be a “golf geek” or a “grammar geek” or a “history geek” without crossing the line into total, irretrievable geekdom?

This is a sensitive subject because it involves putting labels on people — an act that many people (including my 8th-grade counselor) say is inherently evil.

One of my best friends is like this. When the subject came up at lunch, he objected to being called a geek, even in a limited sense. In his life, he’s worked hard to cross boundaries and become a kind of ambassador between social groups. He resists all labels because he wants to be well-rounded — to be the kind of person who transcends stereotypes.

I sympathize with this because I’ve spent the last few years trying to be less of a geek, or at least trying to change what kind of geek I am. Geek may be a binary condition, but there are many levels of intensity within the category and not all geeks are created equal.

Star Wars geeks think they’re less geeky than Star Trek geeks. People who geek out over Battlestar Galactica think they’re less geeky than people who go to Renaissance fairs. And people who watch “American Idol” don’t consider themselves geeks at all.

System admins think they’re less geeky than C++ coders. While web designers and Photoshop geeks can pass themselves off as artists and avoid the label entirely.

It’s a natural response, I think, for individuals to resist anything that would pigeonhole them or limit their options. Because once we assign a label to someone, it’s very difficult for them to break out and be recognized as something else.

That was the most interesting part of my research into geekdom. When I asked people, “Are you a geek?” or “Would you be offended if someone called you a geek?” I was struck by how thoughtful the answers were.

This quest for identity is a vital part of a growing up, even when people don’t have a name for it.

People spend a lot of time forming and maintaining their identities, so some of them took my question as a challenge. Some of us grew up as “nerds” or “geeks” in a time when “geek” was a clear insult. Some people have worked hard to overcome their geek status and thought my question was an attempt to reopen old wounds.

I think “geek” was redeemed in the early ’90s, when the DotCom boom turned technical work and computer programming into glamorous occupations. For a while, geeks were money — until 1998, when the tide turned and the golden aura settled on investment bankers.

I can’t predict what the next anointed class will be but I suspect the golden aura will land in Washington, as our best and brightest switch from business administration to political science and start talking like characters from The West Wing.

It’s 2009 and the Geek Renaissance is long past. There’s still some glamour attached to Google and Microsoft, but the average programmer works in a cubicle now. The days of sexy startups and lavish office playgrounds are over. Even Google is cutting perks these days.

So is there still room in our culture for an old-fashioned geek? The Internet has pulled geeks out of their shells and fostered a kind of geek pride, but I think the ubiquity of geeks has started a rebellion.

Geeks have become so common you have to be very flashy or very specialized to use the label as a status symbol. The same Internet that nurtured geek culture has allowed it to fragment and specialize. People can pick and choose geek niches now, without making it a lifestyle.

In 10 years the only geeks left will be Wil Wheaton, the Numa-Numa guy and me.

Written by Michael B. Duff

June 19, 2009 at 17:38

Posted in Columns

2 Responses

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  1. How would you compare someone being refered to as “anal” to being a “geek”? I think it’s similar – just a diufferent layer if you will. But I think the first reference was coined to be more derogatory – perhaps because they are jealous of that person’s abilities.


    July 2, 2009 at 12:10

  2. Testing


    July 14, 2009 at 18:07

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