A geek is not a nerd. And vice versa. Unless, of course, they are.
When I was a kid, I wore thick black glasses, long pants that were too short with formal Stride Rite shoes, and walked while looking down into a paperback book. And frequently into things.
I was a nerd.
Today, adults wear thick black glasses, long pants that are cuffed fashionably short with retro sneakers, and walk while looking down into an iPhone. Frequently into things.
These are geeks. But the difference is that theirs is a choice, a matter of style. They, unlike me, were not born this way.
It’s a critical difference. One almost as important as the unresolved Star-Trek-or-Star-Wars debate. And now that everyone is trying to define what lies on either side of the geek/nerd chasm, it’s time for an unabashed life-long, self-identified nerd to resolve this once and for all.
Being a nerd is sitting on a ripe plum that some jock surreptitiously placed on your folding chair at junior high graduation, when you are wearing white slacks. Perversely, it is also being the only guy with the guts to ask the first girl to the floor at the junior high dance, since you know you have nothing to lose by not looking cool. (Because you never will, of course.)
It is the surreal experience of overhearing a jock, one to whom you’ve tried to reach out with reason, rather than be beaten up again, share with his cohort, “Frank’s not a bad guy. You just have to get down to his level.”
It’s the desperation inflicted by this social isolation that drives nerds. To withdraw (as I did) to work on the first West Coast Star Trek convention. Or to take apart and rebuild non-judgmental mechanical machines – and, as the engineering and individual skills improved, electronics kits and later computer and personal technology. To create our own perfect (or, well, perfectly post-apocalyptic, without those annoying and slow-to-understand-us popular people) science fiction and fantasy worlds, whether we wrote them or relived them in role-playing games or other media.
Or to co-found Apple. Or Microsoft. Or Google.
Nerd is to tinker with tech; geek is to admire and acquire. Nerd is innate; geek is learned. But both are self-identified, associated with intelligence and along a continuum with frequent overlap, making external categorization (“oh, look, Martha, it’s of the genus nerdus Redmondus!”) virtually impossible.
Many agree with those distinctions, as my request to define the divide in one sentence on nerd-spawned Facebook and Twitter revealed.
“Geeks ogle the toys while the nerds figure out their inner workings in about ten minutes,” wrote one friend.
“Geeks are the consumers of what the nerds are cooking up,” opined another.
“With new tech geeks are like, ‘Let’s reprogram it to make s’mores’ and nerds are like, ‘Whatever, I wrote a better one when I was six’,” chimed in a third.
Uber-tech personality Chris Pirillo cemented that perspective, albeit in his own understated manner: “Nerds love knowledge for the sake of knowledge; geeks love knowledge for the sake of unapologetically making you feel stupid for not having the same level of knowledge as they do.”
For those who totally flip the geek and nerd definitions (e.g., “Geeks make cool things. Nerds collect cool things.”) I will rely on historic usage and give nerd the nod for tech savvy. The term dates back decades in its tie to technology. Geeks, on the other hand, haven’t fared so well in the dictionary. As writer Harlan Ellison has noted, geeks were the carnival sideshow performers, sometimes alcoholics, who bit the heads off of live chickens. Leading one friend to determine that, “Nerds will eat the rest.”
A few commenters took a situational-geek approach, as the now-underused term “to geek out” implies: that geeks are passionate about … something. And tech is just the latest object of fanboy desire: “I know a lot of plant geeks, for instance,” responded one, “In addition to food geeks and other genre geeks.”
And a handful of others adopted the “Seriously? This is a thing?” perspective. “All I know is that anyone who cares about the diff between geeks and nerds is either a geek or a nerd,” and, “Nerds and geeks are indistinguishable from one another to an outsider.”
But one common thread emerged: geek is the current cool/hip/sexy term. And no one, ever, has said being a socially awkward, misfit, inwardly tech-focused nerd is cool. Except to other nerds.
Still, the pain of having grown up a nerd never quite ebbs. It’s in the self-conscious awareness of checking pants lengths obsessively. Of making sure shoes are at least not completely out of style. Of adjusting eyeglasses for proper alignment. I know. I do all of this. While a geek can simply move on to the next cool meme.
I’ve said before that nerds like to tinker while geeks like the lifestyle. Yet I suspect there are few nerds who love the nerd lifestyle, though many have accepted it and are satisfied by its inner rewards.
In the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing, characters share an exchange about the futures of teen sisters Baby and Lisa that’s tattooed on my hind brain. “Baby’s gonna change the world … (And) Lisa’s going to decorate it.”
It may sum up nerds vs. geeks better than I ever could.
Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) is a strategist, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose regular GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech. See the column archive. (Roll credits.) Thanks to Lois Buhalis, Crane Stavig, Stuart Vincent, Bill Martens, Marjorie Osterhout, Mark Loundy, Jennifer Lloyd, Lee Wilson, Carey Armstrong and many others for suggesting one-sentence definitions. And to the dickhead who put the plum on my chair.
Previously on GeekWire: