“Nerd” is the opposite of “hipster” in that while the clearest example of a hipster will never self identify as a hipster (instead giving some elliptical answer using the word “labels”), people with no business calling themselves a nerd seem to have little trouble identifying themselves as such.
It wasn’t always like this. It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of calling yourself a “nerd” would be as unthinkable as calling yourself a “creep”. If you self-identified as a nerd back then I wouldn’t dare challenge your claim to it, because speaking the word aloud was proof enough. However, at some point, the Internet went mainstream, nerds became a decent chunk of the Forbes top 100, and the word became a lot less derogatory. Ditto goes for “geek,” but for all the hand-wringing about definitions we’re going to assume the two words are interchangeable here.
In modern times nerds have gotten pretty protective of the label that they have liberated for themselves. For such a historically persecuted and marginalized group, nerds can be remarkably elitist in terms of who we let into our ranks. I believe this stems from people who were beaten up for being a nerd not respecting those who didn’t suffer a little for the label.
As with everything outside of high school, social labels aren’t that concrete and evolve over time. That being said, definitions lose meaning as they get too broad. For one to identify themselves as a nerd, one needs to be able to establish nerd credibility. Your “nerd cred” is your defence to your claim as a nerd and should be able to convince a potential challenger of your nerd-status.
Ways to Establish Your Nerd Cred:
1. Intellectual Pursuits
A deep curiosity bordering on an obsession about an intellectual topic is the backbone of your nerd cred. This could be a predisposition to get lost for hours in Wikipedia or a more traditional academic route. It’s easier to stake a claim on this if your academic interest lies in a Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM) field, but it’s not strictly necessary. It’s just that it’s hard not to be obsessive in a STEM major. However, the person reading about 3rd century Greek Economics at 2am has just as much a claim to this as the guy in the engineering lab. The key part is putting your well-being at risk rather than not knowing a quantum of knowledge.
For bonus credibility you can excel in such a field. Winning a Putnam math competition or being a finalist in a spelling bee will make it pretty hard for anyone to state that you aren’t a real nerd.
While purchasing tickets to a Doctor Who convention or having a thought-out position on “Kirk v. Picard” would pretty firmly cement your claim in this area the key trait is having knowledge and enthusiasm for a socially unpopular cultural topic. Nobody would give you nerd cred for being enthusiastic about and knowing all there is to know about the Twilight saga, at best you are a “Twilight Nerd”. If you have to put such a modifier in front it’s not real nerdy.
3. Early Adoption
Nerds wake up every day grateful they get to see what one more day into the future looks like. This means making use of technology and innovations as quickly as possible.
Of course, this is one of fastest moving areas to keep your nerd cred up with. In the 80’s, merely owning a computer was probably enough to establish credibly, but now every self-respecting socialite carries more computing power in her purse than existed on the space shuttle. New gadgets are part of this but so are online services; @bob on Twitter has a lot more nerd cred than @robertsmith149.
You’re going to have a hard time establishing yourself as a nerd if none of your behaviours negatively affected your ability to get laid in high school. I haven’t talked about gender so far but I think this is one facet where guys have an advantage. Simply put, we’re a lot more proficient at being awkward than woman are. This probably stems from girls being more social at a young age than boys.
In adults, this is a lot harder to detect as even the most hardcore nerd can adapt to social conventions given enough time. At some point nerds realize that social interactions are necessary if they have any hope of obtaining sex so they make it one of their areas for intellectual pursuit. Of course, no matter how good a nerd gets at faking social competence, some awkwardness is bound to seep out. Our only hope is that when it does we’re thought of as likeable enough that people just think it’s cute.
…So, how much nerd cred do you have?
Words by | Ian MacKinnon
Ian MacKinnon is a software developer and startup hacker in Vancouver, BC. You can find him on Twitter at @imackinn.