Nerd power: how nerds have become mainstream

Jessica Xing

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When English teacher Jackie Corso was in high school, Star Wars was strictly a family thing — most of the kids at her school didn’t talk about it, as doing so would categorize them as “nerdy”.

Yet today, it’s “cool to be a nerd” now. Studios spend big money to revive old franchises; conventions like Comic-Con have become a landmark in pop culture history. Superheroes have escaped their niche market and exploded in mainstream media —  it is truly a great time to be a nerd.

With bigger and newer movies, the growth of nerd culture has allowed people with similar interests to connect. More specifically, streaming sites such as Netflix, Hulu and Crunchyroll have allowed typically niche markets such as anime and comic books to become more accessible and gain a larger, more devoted following, changing certain negative perceptions these mediums used to have.

THE OFFICIAL DEFINITION for nerd culture has been hard to pin down, because so called “nerd culture” can encompass such a wide variety of subjects. Junior Cathrine Ying believes “nerd culture” is synonymous with “fan culture.”

“It’s not like you’re a nerd if you recommend a restaurant to someone,” Ying said. “ A lot of times people escape through these magical universes […] you consider yourself a nerd if you’re really passionate about something.”

Now, with the general public embracing Star Wars references and culture, Corso attributes the the growth of nerd culture with the rise of Silicon Valley.

“It’s the rise of the tech world,” Corso said. “With Silicon Valley, nerds are seen as people of power and influence. People like Steve Jobs have now become a cult figurehead. [Studios] are beginning to understand the value of those stories.”

A big part of “nerd culture” is the fanbase. Fans are often celebrated for their devotion to a certain media. They’ve created fanart for many shows they’ve liked, and also enjoyed cosplaying, or dressing up as many of their favorite characters.

Ying has participated in many fanbases both passively and actively. As a long time fan, they have seen the near exponential growth nerd culture has experienced over the years, and attributes a large part of that growth to the Internet Age.

“When I first went to a convention called Fanime, it was just people in the Bay Area who knew about it,” Ying said. “But this year, people from all over the West Coast came. It got bigger because people were sharing events from fanime and just — more and more things are spreading fast.”

Nerdy stories become more and more essential to mainstream entertainment, according to senior Nitin Ongole. Ongole enjoys some things that people would once classify as “nerdy,” like superhero movies. But, while he doesn’t feel pressured to take part in “nerd culture,” he feels that if a person does not watch certain TV shows or read certain books, they can feel a little disconnected from wider pop culture references.

“I’ve never watched ‘Game of Thrones,’” he said. “But there’s this huge group of people that like it; all my friends talk about ‘Game of Thrones.’ If I’m ever on social media, and I see some reference to it, I wouldn’t be able to understand it.”

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WHILE CORSO IS EXCITED about the integration of once “nerdy” stories into mainstream media, she can’t help but be a little cautious of studio exploitation and oversaturation — the potential damage sensationalism could do to the original franchise. Ying has seen how growing size has negatively impacted fanbases.

“A problem with the size and the connectivity is the sort of mob mentality it inspires,” Ying said. “It allows people anonymity to say hurtful slurs.”

On the flipside, with the growth of social activism, Ying saw how certain fanbases would use their sheer size to crusade for a cause they think is right. For example, Ying remembers seeing how a large number of fans celebrated the suicide of a fanartist because they thought a lot of her actions were problematic.

“The reason nerd culture is a thing is because we are connected as a community,” Ying said. “And being connected as a community means don’t be mean to people.”