First Monday

Nerd vs. bro: Geek privilege, idiosyncrasy, and triumphalism by Joseph Reagle

Increasingly, geek culture is criticized as one that is biased; in particular, geek claims of meritocracy are thought to be naïve because they do not recognize the privilege (i.e., unseen advantages) of extant members. But some geeks are resistant to this critique. Why? Beyond the natural tendency to be defensive and the unproductive comparison of personal suffering, there is a geek-specific reason. Geek identity is informed by the trope of geek triumphalism: early insecurity is superseded by a sense of superiority. Geeks’ intelligence, unconventional enthusiasms (e.g., technology and fantasy), and idiosyncratic dress contributed to their marginalization, leading them to believe they would never do the same to others. And these same characteristics, later in life, become sources of success and pride, leading them to think they are more open-minded, objective, and beyond bias.


Nerds vs. bros
Geeks (and geek feminism)
Geek insecurity and suffering
Geek superiority and idiosyncrasy



Nerds vs. bros

In early 2014, Nate Silver, the analytic whiz behind the site FiveThirtyEight, was talking about his plans for expansion given that the site had been purchased by ESPN. Silver had gained fame by successfully picking baseball players and electoral winners using savvy quantitative analysis; new staff were hired for their ability to emulate his methods. Although there were some good qualitative journalists at places like the New York Times, Silver thought most analysts, columnists, and pundits were “worthless” practitioners of qualitative and “anecdotal” musings (Dickey, 2014). At FiveThirtyEight, he hoped his hiring would achieve a “clubhouse chemistry” among journalists that were quantitative, rigorous, and empirical. Emily Bell (2014), a senior journalist writing at the Guardian, noted that there were only six women among Silver’s 19-person editorial staff: “By the sophisticated math of this pundit — and Silver hates pundits — that is just under over 30%. Minorities — as, after all, women are a majority — are even more poorly served, at FiveThirtyEight and elsewhere.” Consequently, Bell believed “journalism startups aren’t a revolution if they’re filled with all these white men.”

In a subsequent interview, Silver offered two lines of defense. He noted that 85 percent of applications came from men; “that worries us” and his organization needed to continue to “make sure that we’re looking widely for the best possible candidates.” He also defended his allusion to “clubhouse chemistry” as a simple baseball reference, and “the idea that we’re bro-y people just couldn’t be more off” (Silver and Coscarelli, 2014). Silver’s expression of “bro-y” refers to a stereotypically macho culture, and it is related to the neologism “brogrammer,” which become popular in 2010–2012 to describe programmers who are more frat-boy than quiet nerd. Silver explained: “We’re a bunch of weird nerds. We’re outsiders, basically. And so we have people who are gay, people of different backgrounds. I don’t know. I found the piece really, really frustrating. And that’s as much as I’ll say” (Silver and Coscarelli, 2014). But even with so little said, there is evidence of naiveté and privilege.

First, Silver’s claim that “clubhouse chemistry” was an idle baseball reference was naïve. At the time of his comment, “cultural fit” and “chemistry” were beginning to be widely discussed as a contributor to the lack of diversity in the tech world (Hill, 2013). And the term “clubhouse” had long been associated with implicit bias, so much so that the term appears in the titles of works about bias in geeky realms, including a classic book about women in computing, Unlocking the clubhouse (Margolis and Fisher, 2002), and the most cited article about Wikipedia’s gender imbalance, “WP:Clubhouse?” (Lam, et al., 2011).

Second, Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist and frequent commenter on geek culture, countered that even if geeks are not “bro-y” in the “‘macho’ jock” way, they are “often fairly exclusionary to women but not in ways that Silver and his friends recognize as male privilege.” Tufekci wrote that when Silver and his friends “think of male privilege, they are thinking of ‘macho’ jocks and have come to believe their own habitus as completely natural, all about merit, and also in opposition to macho culture.” But this does not mean their own “culture is automatically welcoming to other excluded groups, such as women” (Tufekci, 2014).

Silver’s concept of himself as a “weird nerd” and “outsider,” in opposition to the “bro-y people,” is a common facet of identity among those who identify as nerds and geeks. This underdog-otherness contributes to the trope of geek triumphalism, as seen in the film Revenge of the nerds [1]. In the movie, the misfits of the Tri-Lamb fraternity and Omega Mu sorority use their idiosyncrasies and intellect to beat the popular kids in a campus Greek Festival; that which was a source of insecurity becomes one of superiority. At their moment of triumph, Lewis and Gilbert announce that they are done feeling ashamed. Gilbert declares: “I just wanted to say that I’m a nerd, and I’m here tonight to stand up for the rights of other nerds. I mean uh, all our lives we’ve been laughed at and made to feel inferior ... Well ... I’m a nerd, and uh, I’m pretty proud of it.”

Geek communities, however, often fail to achieve the diversity of Revenge’s fictional geek Greeks [2]. And when this is pointed out, triumphant geeks resist imputations of homogeneity, bias, and privilege on the basis of this trope. Previously, Mendick and Francis (2012) debated whether geek identity is “abject or privileged.” I argue it is both. Just as the debate about “fake geek girls” revealed that geekdom’s boundaries are defined and policed relative to the mainstream, especially the movement of attention (Reagle, 2015), geek identity is similarly informed by a sense of insecurity and superiority relative to the mainstream. Many geeks were made to feel inferior when growing up: they felt anything but privileged. Yet, later in life, they achieve a degree of success and believe their weirdness (including enthusiasm for technology and fantasy) is indicative of a superior, more objective and open-minded, perspective.



Geeks (and geek feminism)

Because Silver spoke of “weird nerds” and because I will speak of “geek feminists,” let us consider what these terms mean. I speak of hackers, nerds, and fans as types of geeks: “To be geek is to be engaged, to be enthralled in a topic, and then to act on that engagement” (McArthur, 2009) [3]. One can “geek out” about most any topic, though the term is most associated with technical and online interests. Fans, for example, are geeks who are enthusiastic about fiction and music. Hackers enjoy exploring and building technical systems. And nerds love learning [4].

Following my sources, I use these terms almost interchangeably, though they have distinct histories and meanings (Sugarbaker, 1998; Coleman, 2014; Dunbar-Hester, 2014). For instance, hacker was first defined in MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club dictionary five decades ago as someone who employed an ill-advised but playful technique (Samson, 1959). The word also appeared in the “Jargon File,” a collection of computer-related lingo started in 1975 and which received its greatest popular attention under the editorship of Eric Raymond (1991b), who also published it as the New Hacker’s Dictionary. Raymond is most well-known for helping found and popularize the open source movement — although this is overshadowed by his reputation as a neo-pagan “gun-toting libertarian” and author of a controversial blog (Raymond, 2010, 1998).

Geeks tend to be self-documenting, as seen in the “Jargon File,” early Internet FAQs, and contemporary wikis (Reagle, 2014). The Geek Feminism (GF) wiki and blog were established in 2008 and 2009 and follow this tradition by documenting and applying feminist-related concepts to notable events. GF’s founder, Alex Bayley (better known as “Skud”, 2012), wrote that “our main tactic is to document things.” Skud is a long time “open stuff” contributor and her path to GF included a pair of widely read essays about being a geek woman; she was also one of the first geeks to question the merits of meritocracy (Skud, 2011, 2009, 2000, 1998). The GF blog and wiki have about a dozen active contributors and the wiki describes itself as being “about women in a range of geeky cultures/communities/activities” (Geek Feminism, 2015a).

At the same time as Skud’s early reflections, scholars began to challenge the geek stereotype by considering the identity and practices of girls (Bucholtz, 1999), as well as the issues of masculinity and race [5]. Linguist Mary Bucholtz (2002) used the discussions of Skud’s essays to define geek feminism as one committed to both feminist concerns and geek enthusiasms. In turn, in 2008, Skud adopted this term herself when she established the GF wiki; the next year she started its blog as a “dedicated feminist space to talk about feminism and feminists in geekdom” (Geek Feminism, 2009). Other notable projects followed, often with overlapping membership. The Ada Initiative (2012) was “a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing participation of women in open technology and culture.” The online and print publication Model View Culture (MVC) sought to “present compelling cultural and social critique, highlight the work and achievement of diverse communities in tech, and explore the use of technology for social justice” (Kane, 2015). I refer to those affiliated with these activities as “geek feminists” — and reserve “GF” for the wiki and blog.




When Tufekci responded to Silver’s defense that he was not “bro-y,” she spoke of his “privilege,” a term and critique popularized by Peggy McIntosh in 1988 [6]. In “White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack,” McIntosh (1990) shared that in her role as a feminist and educator she “realized the extent to which men work from a base of unacknowledged privilege, I understood that much of their oppressiveness was unconscious.” This insight led her to consider her own “unearned skin privilege.” She spoke of privilege as something that is conferred by birth or luck. As such, it is an unearned power (to dominate) rather than an earned strength. She also distinguished between illicit privileges (like being able to ignore the perspectives of the less powerful) and those that everyone should enjoy (like non-discrimination when buying a home). McIntosh then enumerated 50 “daily effects of white privilege,” including being able to “turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.”

In addition to the confessional format of her essay, it was influential for its (1) use of metaphor (“like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions”), (2) recognition that privileges of color, class, and gender are “intricately intertwined” (related to the notion of “intersectionalism”), and (3) linking it to “the myth of meritocracy.” On the latter point, she claimed that because of privilege, “this is not such a free country; one’s life is not what one makes it; many doors open for certain people through no virtues of their own.” Additionally, McIntosh’s (1990) insight was prompted by comparisons: although she lacked male gender privileges, she possessed racial privileges. As she more recently said, “I believe that everybody has a combination of unearned advantage and unearned disadvantage in life” and that privilege “changes minute by minute, depending on where we are, who we’re seeing, or what we’re required to do” (Rothman and McIntosh, 2014) [7].

As McIntosh’s essay became widely known, other scholars and educators reflected on how to extend and apply the work (Case, 2013). It is also the subject of critique itself. Lewis Gordon (2004) argued that the most important of McIntosh’s privileges were actually human rights and “as such, the term ‘privilege’ runs counter to their normative import since such rights are by definition imperatives that apply to and for all human beings.” [8] Naomi Zack (2015) agreed and argued for shifting focus upon the violation of black rights — and referring to unearned advantages as “entitlements.” Lawrence Blum (2008) drew greater distinctions between the consequences of unearned advantage: between a spared injustice (a harm avoided), unjust enrichment (benefiting from harm to others), and non-injustice-related privileges (benefits without harm). Blum’s other concerns about privilege included “its inadequate exploration of the actual structures of racial inequality, its tendency to deny or downplay differences in the historical and current experiences of the major racial groups, and its overly narrow implied political project that omits many ways that White people can contribute meaningfully to the cause of racial justice.” [9] Others have echoed this latter point. Andrea Smith (2013) argued that confessions of privilege lack transformative power. Although the ritual of confession temporarily grants those with little privilege the ability to judge the powerful, “Inevitably, those with more privilege would develop new heretofore unknown forms of oppression from which they suffered ... Consequently, the goal became not to actually end oppression but to be as oppressed as possible.” [10] (The GF wiki refers to this as “Oppression Olympics”; Geek Feminism, 2015b). Instead of such rituals, Smith argued for social transformation and political movement-building. Smith’s concern has been repeated in work by a collective of teachers (Jensmire, et al., 2013) and by Phoebe Maltz Bovy (2017).

McIntosh’s work has been translated into the geeky domain, including Jonathan McIntosh’s (2014b, 2014a) — no relation — essay “Playing with privilege: The invisible benefits of gaming while male.” A video in which prominent male geeks read from “Playing with privilege” was featured on Anita Sarkeesian’s (2014) Feminist Frequency YouTube channel, for which Jonathan McIntosh is a producer. Science fiction author and feminist John Scalzi (2012) wanted to communicate the effects of unearned advantage “without invoking the dreaded word ‘privilege’.” Scalzi wrote that it is not that the word is incorrect, but that it is not a word that geeks are familiar with. But they do know video games, and Scalzi explained that being a straight white male is like “the lowest difficulty setting there is”: opponents are easier to defeat, quests are shorter, and one can gain extra powers more easily. Of course, “You can lose playing on the lowest difficulty setting”; it is just the easiest setting to win on. “The player who plays on the ‘Gay Minority Female’ setting? Hardcore.” Scholar Lisa Nakamura (2012) agreed, while also noting that Scalzi’s “white geek masculinity” permitted his message to be heard beyond that of women raising the same concern, including Aisha Tyler, a female gamer of color. Ironically, Scalzi, as a critic, is playing on a lower difficulty setting — something he would likely acknowledge. Yet, even those playing on lowest difficulty setting will no doubt have encountered difficulties in life. A decade before Silver’s comments were a topic of discussion, comic book artist Bary Deutsch (2004), creator “The male privilege checklist,” explained that “being privileged does not mean that men do not work hard, do not suffer. In many cases — from a boy being bullied in school, to soldiers selecting male civilians to be executed, to male workers dying of exposure to unsafe chemicals — the sexist society that maintains male privilege also immeasurably harms boys and men.” Nonetheless, men typically do experience advantages by virtue of their gender, including “the privilege of being oblivious to privilege” — of which Nate Silver’s claim about “clubhouse chemistry” is a good example.



Geek insecurity and suffering

In December 2014, Scott Aaronson (2014b), a computer scientist at MIT, posted an entry to his blog about the “sad news that Prof. Walter Lewin, age 78 — perhaps the most celebrated physics teacher in MIT’s history — has been stripped of his emeritus status and barred from campus.” MIT found that Lewin had harassed students of an online course, and it took the step of removing recordings of his lectures from MIT’s OpenCourseWare (OCW). Little was known about the harassment and much of the initial discussion focused on the wisdom of removing Lewin’s famed lectures. (Details of Lewin’s abuses was more fully revealed by a victim a month later; Straumsheim, 2015) Although Aaronson believed the charges were “extremely serious” and that Lewin should “be treated as harshly as he deserves,” he believed that depriving the world of Lewin’s lectures would be “a tough call” even if Lewin “had gone on a murder spree.” Over 500 comments followed this post in the next few weeks.

One of those comments charged that Aaronson’s post was callous. Anand Sarwate (2014), an electrical engineer at Rutgers, claimed that “ignoring the real hurt and trauma felt by those who are affected by Lewin’s actions is an exercise in privilege.” Subsequently, Aaronson wrote that “much as I try to understand other people’s perspectives, the first reference to my ‘male privilege’ — my privilege! — is approximately where I get off the train, because it’s so alien to my actual lived experience.” Aaronson (2014a) explained that “given what nerdy males have themselves had to endure in life, shaming them over their ‘male privilege’ is a bad way to begin a conversation with them.” He confessed that for much of his life, especially during his adolescence, he was deeply lonely and anxious: “I spent my formative years — basically, from the age of 12 until my mid-20s — feeling not ‘entitled,’ not ‘privileged,’ but terrified.” He was terrified that his sexual interest in women might cause him to be “scorned, laughed at, called a creep and a weirdo, maybe even expelled from school or sent to prison.”

Aaronson’s resistance is like Nate Silver’s (2014) protest that “We’re a bunch of weird nerds. We’re outsiders, basically.” The insecure geek asks: given my suffering, how could I possibly be privileged? A number of authors responded that in addition to being shy, awkward, an outsider, and a target, other geeks faced additional disadvantages. Feminist author Laurie Penny (2014) responded in the New Statesman that as a nerdy teenager she had also been terrified of the opposite sex and of having her desires known. And “unlike Aaronson, I was also female, so when I tried to pull myself out of that hell into a life of the mind, I found sexism standing in my way.” Arthur Chu (2015), a popular geek blogger and former Jeopardy champion, sympathized with Aaronson’s feelings: “I’ve felt a lot of those feelings and, more importantly, I’ve known my share of guys who were that bad off.” But Chu noted that although Aaronson’s pain “came from things that happened inside his head,” many women also faced being “harassed and groped by men in the tech world.” The advice columnist Dr. Nerdlove (2015) feared that by “mythologizing the nerd as downtrodden and powerless,” nerds end up treating others badly, “ironically enough, in much the same way that the jocks and bullies act towards us.” Importantly, geekdom’s resistance to this critique likely arises from seeing itself as different from the mainstream:

“We’ve been rejecting what the world thought about us for so long that we’re unwilling to see that criticism isn’t necessarily an insult and that sometimes they’re right and we’re wrong.”

Hundreds of posts followed in the comments of these essays and on the geeky discussion sites reddit (alecco, 2014) and MetaFilter (octorok, 2014), revealing two difficulties with challenging privilege: comparison and defensiveness. In a better world, the sharing of suffering would lead people to be more compassionate, as sometimes happens, but in many cases the opposite can happen, such as when “the goal became not to actually end oppression but to be as oppressed as possible” (Smith, 2013) [11]. The inherent hazard with the notion of privilege is that it is relative, leading to unproductive and alienating comparisons at the individual level. Also, the term “privilege” is often invoked as an imputation: expressed as a personal challenge and taken as a personal insult — even if the greater concern is about structural inequities. This obviously prompts defensiveness.

Unfortunately, it is easier to speak about what is visible (Lewin and his videos) rather than what is not (those harassed). In this case, Aaronson wrote of the “sad news” that the public was losing Lewin’s instructional videos. Comparatively little was said about the welfare of those harassed. It is also human to more readily see the world from the perspective of those most similar to one’s self. Yet the imputation of privilege often pushes these insights farther away. Consider an alternative critique: “Your position within a larger social structure (e.g., race, gender, class, and education) is preventing you from appreciating a (less fortunate) person’s perspective.” This can be followed by specifics: “How do you imagine Lewin’s victims would view MIT maintaining the videos?” Such a statement might have been less likely to prompt Aaronson to “get off the train.”

My rephrasing of the privilege critique, from imputation to perspective-taking, is not intended as a tone argument, which can be used to derail a substantive conversation (Geek Feminism, 2014). Rather, I want to stress the substance of the privilege critique: to manifest structural inequities and their specific consequences rather than issue insults. This is why Scalzi’s likening of “the dreaded word ‘privilege’” to a video game’s difficulty setting is useful. This is a type of game readily understood by geeks, and it is a metaphor that is less likely to arouse personal defensiveness and the unfruitful comparison of suffering. It places focus on the inequities built into the game rather than the circumstances of the player.

In any case, geek identity and discourse is shaped by expressions of insecurity — suffering even. Silver (2014) thought of himself as a weird nerd and outsider. And he is not alone. Computer hacker Meredith Patterson (2014) wrote of how the criticism of Silver was evidence that weird nerds and geekdom was under siege. The “weird” (or “outsider”) nerds have ample reason to fear incursions from the mainstream because their “own lived experience yields proof after proof that they, and their outsider norms, will be first against the wall when the popular kids come.” For her, geekdom had proven to be a sanctuary from the challenges of “growing up with autism”; it is a space where outsiders and weird nerds “fit in a little better without having to try so hard.” Silver, as a weird nerd, simply “wants to work with people who understand him.” Why should they have to accommodate newcomers within the culture weird nerds built? When cool nerds, macho brogrammers, and politically correct feminists arrive, the weird nerds are put up against the wall. Even many years after high school, geek insecurity remains.



Geek superiority and idiosyncrasy

Geeks believe that being smart and idiosyncratic contributed to their past marginalization. These same attributes contribute to their present success. Obviously, Silver felt his quantitative abilities were superior to the “worthless” offerings of others (Dickey, 2014). Similarly, it is not unusual to find geeks who believe that their affinity for computers and programming make them more objective and less biased (Nafus, 2012).

If we go back to Raymond’s (1991a) “Jargon File,” we can see early evidence of presumed superiority in the definitions of terms used for social status. Hacking is said to be a meritocracy, topped by the alpha geek, wizard, or “true-hacker” — a claim which is often naïve (Reagle, 2017). Additionally, hackers are said to “dress for comfort, function, and minimal maintenance hassles rather than for appearance” — so much so that some might “neglect personal hygiene” and “quit a job rather than conform to dress codes.” Sandals, jeans, and t-shirts are staples of the hacker wardrobe. Such a culture does seem more focused on substantive merit, and it may be more accommodating to those with sensory sensitivities, a common attribute of autism. This “low tolerance” for matters of appearance is said to even extend beyond long hair and bare feet towards a purported blindness of gender and color: “after all, if one’s imagination readily grants full human rights to future AI programs, robots, dolphins, and extraterrestrial aliens, mere color and gender can’t seem very important any more” (Raymond, 1991a).

Whereas poor dress and hygiene can signal superiority, from the hacker’s perspective, conventional attire is a mark of inferiority.

<suit> n. 1. Ugly and uncomfortable “business clothing” often worn by non-hackers. Invariably worn with a “tie”, a strangulation device which partially cuts off the blood supply to the brain. It is thought that this explains much about the behavior of suit-wearers.
2. A person who habitually wears suits, as distinct from a techie or hacker. See <loser>, <burble> and <brain-damaged>. (Raymond, 1991a)

In a series of famous essays among geeks, programmer and venture capitalist Paul Graham (2004a, 2004b, 2003) wrote about the identity and behavior of hackers and nerds. In a five thousand word essay on “Why nerds are unpopular,” Graham explained that young nerds fail to appreciate that being popular takes effort.

Teenage kids pay a great deal of attention to clothes. They don’t consciously dress to be popular. They dress to look good. But to who? To the other kids. Other kids’ opinions become their definition of right, not just for clothes, but for almost everything they do, right down to the way they walk. And so every effort they make to do things “right” is also, consciously or not, an effort to be more popular. Nerds don’t realize this. They don’t realize that it takes work to be popular. (Graham, 2003)

Instead, nerds spend their time learning to make great things, like designing rockets, writing well, and programming computers. This preference, combined with the uninspiring and prison-like environment of school leads to a barbaric culture in which nerds fair poorly. However, after leaving school, the mature nerd can find like-minded peers with whom they can make great things and for which society amply rewards them.

Graham concluded that hackers’ desire to focus on interesting work and to be thought smart was so strong that “sometimes young programmers notice the eccentricities of eminent hackers and decide to adopt some of their own in order to seem smarter.” I suspect geek communities are prone to the “red sneakers effect,” meaning that status and competence can be communicated via signals of idiosyncrasy, like red shoes (Bellezza, et al., 2014). Sometimes, geek idiosyncrasy is even recognized as competence by the mainstream, such as Mark Zuckerberg’s penchant for hoodies.

However, the interpretation of these idiosyncrasies is gendered and raced. For example, although Zuckerberg’s hoodie has been argued to be “savvy, not snotty” (Nugent, 2012), hoodies worn by young black men prompt a different debate about thuggishness and fear (Givhan, 2012). Raymond’s definitions of “hackers” and “suits” presume male geeks; yet, one can imagine that sloppy or unhygienic women are not viewed as charitably as their male counterparts.

Beyond the material benefits that techies can enjoy later in life by way of good paying jobs, geekiness is thought to endow additional benefits [12]. Geeks think themselves to be more open-minded, analytic, and objective — there is evidence that they exhibit the analytic cognitive style [13]. Nonetheless, this does not mean that geekdom is without bias. Whatever it is that “weird nerds” are, that weirdness has a cultural legacy, including that of white masculinity. Despite any superiority relative to the mainstream, geeks and geekdom can still have their own biases which triumphalism renders invisible.




You might say that geeks are late to feminism. Geek feminists’ critique of privilege appeared well after the critique first emerged. Jonathan McIntosh’s (2014a) “Playing with privilege” appeared a quarter of a century after Peggy McIntosh’s (1990) “Invisible knapsack.” Scholars have since moved on to describing weaknesses and limitations of the critique itself, as well as raising intersectional concerns about race, sexuality, gender expression, and class. Nonetheless, this is an important moment for geek culture. Geek feminism is making significant inroads into a historically naïve and resistant culture; this is happening at the same time that geek culture is becoming more mainstream via consumer technology, gaming, and movies — Sarkeesian and McIntosh’s (2014) YouTube video has over a million views.

Despite this lag between McIntosh’s idea and its deployment in this subculture, it is important to understand how feminist critique is received; in this case, what are the reasons for geek resistance to the privilege critique? In addition to the more general issue of comparison and defensiveness, geekdom has its own impediments. Geek identity is informed by the trope of geek triumphalism: early insecurity is superseded by a sense of superiority. Geeks’ intelligence, idiosyncrasy, and unconventional enthusiasms (e.g., technology and fantasy) contributed to their marginalization, leading them to believe they would never do the same to others. And these same characteristics, later in life, become sources of success and pride, leading them to think they are more open-minded and objective — beyond bias. This notion of triumphalism may not be limited to geekdom. I expect it to be found in other subcultures in which early insecurity transforms into a sense of superiority. But geekdom will remain the exemplar of triumphalism because of (1) the extraordinary span between the insecurity of the weird nerd and what they can later accomplish and (2) the growing influence of geek culture on the mainstream. End of article


About the author

Joseph Reagle is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University. He’s been a resident fellow at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard (in 1998 and 2010), and he taught and received his Ph.D. at NYU’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. As a Research Engineer at MIT he served as an author and working group chair within the IETF and W3C on topics including digital security, privacy, and Internet policy. His current interests include life hacking, geek feminism, and online culture. His most recent book is Reading the comments: Likers, haters, and manipulators at the bottom of the Web (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2015).
Direct comments to: j [dot] reagle [at] northeastern [dot] edu



I thank those who read and gave me feedback on this piece: Carol Stabile, Sarah Jackson, Nora Schaddelee, and First Monday’s anonymous reviewers.



1. Film scholars Kom Kunyosying and Carter Soles (2012) refer to the “simulated ethnicity” of geeks as part of “geek melodrama,” though, surprisingly, do not consider Revenge of the nerds in their analysis.

2. Although the film’s diversity was of tokenized stereotypes, it was a rare and mostly positive representation in the mainstream. Even so, Lewis’ sex with a popular cheerleader, by leading her to think he was her boyfriend in disguise, rightfully complicates some geeks’ appreciation for the movie.

3. McArthur, 2009, p. 62.

4. When I speak of geeks and their culture, I am speaking generally. There is precedent, among geeks and scholars, for speaking of these as coherent types. Of course, although enthusiasm is a defining attribute, there are differences among individuals.

5. Kendall, 2002; Eglash, 2002; Massanari, 2017, p. 332.

6. Others, before McIntosh, did allude to privilege. In 1935, W. E. B. Du Bois (1995, pp. 700–701) wrote of the advantages bestowed upon poor whites for their complicity in racial oppression. Decades later Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963) wrote of how “privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” In 1967 socialist writers Noel Ignatin and Ted Allen (2011, pp. 149–150) returned to the class consciousness of Du Bois, writing how white workers received “the material and spiritual privileges befitting” their “white skin.”

7. Rothman and McIntosh, 2014, paragraph 15.

8. Gordon, 2004, p. 175.

9. Blum, 2008, p. 320.

10. Smith, 2013, p. 265.

11. Ibid.

12. Technical ability and geekiness itself might even be thought a privilege.

13. Moore, et al., 2002, p. 48; Bachmann, 2010.



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Editorial history

Received 9 May 2017; revised 20 December 2017; accepted 27 December 2017.

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Nerd vs. bro: Geek privilege, idiosyncrasy, and triumphalism
by Joseph Reagle.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 1 - 1 January 2018