Nerd Processor

The Decline and Fall of the Modern Nerd

The sad saga of how fandom transformed from being about love into hate and intolerance

“Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope,” 1977. © Twentieth Century Fox

Traditionally, nerds were always portrayed as outsiders looking in: Gazing at the high-school groups of popular athletes and cheerleaders, the cool kids, and all the others who never had a Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Guide fall out of their backpack while rushing to class. Things have changed. It’s a nerd’s world, where geeks dominate pop culture and entertainment, and the studios and publishers and so on peek inside, in hopes of figuring out how to constantly appease their new nerd overlords.

As a young nerd, I understood I was an outsider (in fact, it was made abundantly clear on many occasions). But suddenly I’ve become a member of pop culture’s new ruling class — and it has me wondering if I need a plan to escape.

For the first time since high school, I have felt genuine shame in telling people I am a nerd. When I have had occasion to tell someone I’m a Star Wars fan, I immediately feel the need to qualify it by adding, “but I’m not one of those crazy assholes you hear about.” I love Game of Thrones, but I can’t think of the series at all without also remembering all the hate spewed about the final season. There are an increasing number of things I used to enjoy that feel tainted by the hate other so-called fans feel for them, and it’s getting harder and harder to separate the two.

Nerds, myself included, should be delighted by the way things have gone. Star Wars fans have gotten a bevy of new movies, Marvel comics obsessives have witnessed a great cinematic adaptation of an entire comics universe for more than a decade. We’re living in a world where Hollywood is so desperate to please nerds that it’s dredging up everything we’ve ever been obsessed with — I think the fact that a movie based on the excessively ridiculous ’80s cartoon He-Man and the Masters of the Universe may make it into theaters is as clear a sign as any that nostalgic nerds are now ruling this particular playground.

On the surface, that’s a pretty great “problem” to have — our wildest adaptation dreams are coming true, practically on a daily basis. Plus, Hollywood listens to the fans, and sometimes even seeks our input, which in theory could be useful in helping movie and TV studios realize what made nerds fall in love with a character, franchise, etc. in the first place.

It isn’t working like that, of course. As traditionally nerdy things like sci-fi, superheroes, and fantasy has become the dominant, most financially lucrative entertainment in the world, Hollywood has been catering to nerds — to the point that it’s now kowtowing to them. If a studio makes choices that fans don’t feel best represent the character, or if they hear rumors that a certain plot point might happen which they think might “ruin” the franchise, or if there’s basically any change that deviates from their collective consciousness’ idea of how these properties are “supposed to be” — nerds freak out, at which point studios pay for costly PR campaigns either to earn back their goodwill, or mollify them.

Studios have given nerds power, and power has corrupted us. By acknowledging these fans so much, and catering to them to wholly, they’ve given nerds a wholly unjustified sense of equality with those making the entertainment. Worse, when studios do try to placate fans by bowing to their wishes, it confirms what these fans have always felt in their hearts — that these franchises belong to them. So when The Last Jedi varied too much from “traditional” Star Wars, some nerds were so enraged that they boycotted the franchise they ostensibly enjoyed. When the final season of Game of Thrones failed to meet expectations, 1.7 million people signed a petition for HBO to remake it to fans’ liking, as if the network owed it to them. So whenever Hollywood makes a decision they don’t approve of, they think it’s their right, if not their duty, to have a gigantic temper tantrum, and to scorn anyone who stands in the way of them getting their way… or who dares to have a different opinion.

I am absolutely dreading the inevitable freak-outs and vitriol spat out by those Star Wars-hating Star Wars fans.

Nerds have always been defined by their passion, and passion can be a wonderful thing. But passion seems to turn so bad so quickly. There’s an oft-used adage, “No one hates Star Wars like Star Wars fans,” which also happens to have been a line I used to hear verbatim about Star Trek fans, too. I mean, Game of Thrones’ final season wouldn’t be loathed by so many if they hadn’t adored the series first.

I sincerely believe that there is more nerdy love in this world than hate, but love is quiet, and hate is loud. Hate is screamed, or typed in all caps. Hate makes 1.7 million people sign an angry, meaningless Change.org petition to demand a new final season of Game of Thrones, but love doesn’t inspire the other 15 or so million people who watched the show to sign a second petition, stating, “I either was okay with everything that happened in season 8 or I genuinely liked it, so hey, great work, guys.” And even if all 15 million other viewers signed that latter equally meaningless petition, we’d always hear more from and about those 1.7 million supposed “fans.” The haters are such a small part of the nerd community, but they’re so loud, and so omnipresent, that it’s ruining fandom for me.

Case in point: I have always loved the deeply funny, and slyly clever, Adult Swim cartoon Rick & Morty. In 2017, the now infamous “Szechuan sauce” incident took place, in which a fun co-promotion between the cartoon and McDonald’s went to hell after the very limited supplies of the dipping sauce ran out. I’m sure there were some fans who left empty-handed and disappointed, but politely. But many, many Rick & Morty fans turned into raging assholes, screaming at McDonald’s employees who had absolutely zero responsibility or power over how many packets of sauce they received (if they’d received any at all) — because they felt entitled to a goddamn dipping sauce discontinued in 1998 but brought back, just because one of their favorite cartoons had mentioned it. The show returns for its fourth season in November, and I honestly don’t know if I’ll be able to enjoy it, or even watch it, without thinking about all of the other fans who harassed hundreds of McDonald’s employees in the show’s name.

From the outside looking in, all people can see and hear are the angry nerds who make demands, and seem to be dictating a great deal of the entertainment industry. These outside people are seeing them clearly, but there’s a giant world underneath that surface level, where there are still communities devoted to actually enjoying the properties they love, who still get excited about announcements, who are actually so happy that a prestige TV adaptation of the Game of Thrones novels was made at all. And even though the series didn’t stick the landing, that doesn’t actually take away from all the joy and entertainment its provided them over the years. Again, these people love quietly — and it’s a good thing, too, because if those hateful Thrones fans found them, they would harass them simply for being satisfied.

My job requires me to stay on top of nerdy news, so I hear the hate and see the awfulness constantly. It depresses me, and it makes it hard to enjoy anything I should be excited about. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is beautiful, but while I watch it I can’t help but think about a bunch of shitheads who’ll inevitably find the story of small heroes fighting their evil overlords to keep the planet from being destroyed as somehow being leftist propaganda. I’m looking forward to seeing The Rise of Skywalker, the final movie in the new Star Wars trilogy, this December, but I am absolutely dreading the inevitable freak-outs and vitriol spat out by those Star Wars-hating Star Wars fans, and more dreadfully, who they’ll target and harass for “failing” the franchise. With so many of the nerdy things I love, I can’t help but worry someone, somewhere is being an asshole to someone else in its name. So many of these things that have given me joy over the years now feel tainted.

It’s easy for those outside to look inside this dark new world of fandom, because its worst inhabitants are so many and so loud. Hollywood sees them and vindicates them by greasing their malevolent squeaky wheels by catering entertainment to them in the first place, or placating them when they’ve earned their wrath. Journalists can see the power these nerds have to influence Hollywood and how they use it to berate anyone that doesn’t agree with their own opinion and harass anyone they hold responsible for failing their beloved franchises. (Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss backed out of appearing at the show’s panel at San Diego Comic-Con back in July, and I don’t blame them — all they would have received there was an hour of scorn from fans who felt more ownership over the show than the actual showrunners.)

I won’t pretend nerds haven’t always been easily riled up, and I’m certainly not blameless. I certainly seethed about the perceived crappiness of the Star Wars prequels, and my hate for Michael Bay’s immaturely lurid Transformers movies is well-documented. But I also like to think I’ve mellowed some, and become more forgiving — and most importantly, more accepting so that even if I think something is bad (e.g., E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial or Fantastic Beasts 2) I can still express my opinion without also going on a crusade to convince people who love it that they’re wrong, because these are the people who remember that being a fan of something is about loving it.

But all this toxicity makes me not want to be a fan at all, which is a scary idea for a dude who has spent almost the entirety of his entire personal and professional lives as a nerd. It’s one of the fundamentals of my very being. If I escaped to the outside, and left behind Star Wars, video games, and an untenable TV viewing schedule behind, what would I do instead? What would take its place? Who would I even be? I have no idea, but it’s an indication of how dire things feel that I’m even entertaining the thought of trying.

I would miss them if I broke out of this new nerd order, but I don’t think I can. Being a nerd defines me so much that even if I managed to leave and make it to the “normal” world, and got a “normal” job at, say, a bank, and ditched all my DVDs and action figures for a set of golf clubs, I’d still keep peering back inside. I’d always want to see what’s coming out and learn what I’ve missed — and thus I’d still see all the problems that permeate fandom, and I’d still be just as depressed by them, no matter how many golf lessons I took.

Honestly, there’s no escape for me. I’m trapped inside by my own nerdiness. All I can do is find and celebrate whatever positivity I can, and try not to let everything awful defeat me, and drive me away from the things I love. I know things will never be perfect, but maybe one day it will be better. All we need is a little peace… and quiet.

The former editor of io9.com, Rob Bricken has been a professional nerd since 2001. He also often cries at children's cartoons.

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