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Talk nerdy to me

Talk nerdy to me

[photo of montage of author Benjamin Woo and the cover of his book "Getting a Life."]
Carleton University/McGill-Queen's University Press

Author Benjamin Woo and the cover of his new book, Getting a Life.

“This book is about someone you probably know. It might be about you. It’s about the people we sometimes call ‘geeks’ and ‘nerds.’”

That’s the start of Benjamin Woo’s new book, Getting a Life: The Social Worlds of Geek Culture. The book is a scholarly and humorous work, drawing from both cultural theory and individual interviews. It also tackles head-on the stereotype of geeks as loners isolated from the rest of society. Geeks, says Dr. Woo, whether they are gamers, comic book collectors, or cosplayers, are also community-builders, expressing their values through a valid shared cultural experience

“Part of the stereotype that needs to be debunked,” says Dr. Woo, “is that something that is mediated – whether it is electronically or otherwise – is somehow not as social or not as real as other forms of interaction. “One of the things I’m trying to write back against is the narrative we’ve told ourselves about entertainment media over the last hundred years or so. It’s the story we told ourselves about reading novels, about watching television, about video games, and it’s definitely a story we’re telling ourselves about social media and smartphones, the idea that new forms of media isolate us from other people, they hive us off into a private world of fantasy. “But one of the things that struck me, in my own experiences as a comic book fan and someone who plays role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, is that interaction with these media – even if there is a moment of private consumption – typically feeds back into forms of interaction with other people, and that our relationships with media are often simply ways to structure and shape our relationships with other people.”

On expressing your deepest, truest self

“The problem of individualism in mass society is a long-standing concern for social philosophers and social scientists. How is it that people think of themselves as expressing their deepest, truest selves by purchasing commodities that are mass-produced by corporate capitalism? How do people think of themselves as expressing their deepest, truest selves by imitating groups that they’re joining? There’s been a lot written about this kind of dilemma, this seeming bind that people find themselves in.

“But it’s not something that vexes me terribly because I think the desire to find and create community is to create a space in which we can think through and articulate what is important to us as individuals. There is no one that is this kind of absolute, Rousseau-ian individual, radically on their own, and trying to figure out, from square one, “What is best in life?” Instead, we are always working those questions out in the context of our relationships to other people. So I see the kinds of communities that form in the space of leisure, like fan communities that make up what we call geek culture, as just another set of contexts in which people can pursue those questions. It looks pretty different than the more traditional ones, such as religious communities, our immediate family, people who share our ethnic or national background – those are also spaces for working out those questions. None of those have gone away but we have added a bunch of other kinds of spaces and contexts wherein people can explore different aspects of those questions of their identity and of their values.”

On toxic masculinity in geek culture

“There is nothing wholly unique about geek culture as a staging ground for toxic or problematic behaviours. It didn’t take geeks and nerds to invent racism or sexism or homophobia. These are deep, poisoned waters in our culture that we are all drinking from, to greater or lesser degrees. But by the same token, there are certain features of geek culture that shape how these broader socio-lcultural forces are expressed in these communities that I think has made them spring to the spotlight now.

“The sense that many fans have – that deep emotional connection they have with the object of their fandom – often bleeds into a sense of ownership. The way that some people have reacted to things like Gamergate, the Ghostbusters reboot, or the latest Star Wars episode is propelled by that subjectively felt experience or feeling of ownership over these franchises. The fact is that the marketing of many of these products, particularly over the last couple of decades, has actually played to this type of exclusive fan identity. One of the features of the promotional apparatus, particularly with adaptations, is the sense that the producers of a film adaptation of a beloved comic book or science-fiction novel have to prove their credibility to the fans. They need to get those fans on side to do their own free, viral guerilla marketing for them. So they have to establish he idea that ‘Hey, we’re fans, too. We understand this deep understanding of this.’ It plays into the sense of fans having a kind of special relationship to the good.

“But one of the things we are seeing now is that producers of popular media are finally seeing that women and people of colour and LGBTQ+ folks are also fans, also audiences, and if you want to make a film doing a billion dollars worldwide, you’re not going to do that without getting them on board as interested audience members, too.

“The one thing I dislike about that is that the narrative often seems to pretend that women and people of colour and queer folks weren’t always participants in fandom. But certainly, they – we – are able to articulate ourselves as audiences now, with particular interests and demands about representation and participation in these spaces. And from my point of view, that is a very positive thing.”

[photo of Benjamin Woo]

Benjamin Woo

  • Assistant Professor, Communication and Media Studies, School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University
  • BA'04 (Film, Sociology), Queen's University
  • MA, PhD (Communication Studies), Simon Fraser University
  • Post-doctoral fellow, Department of English, University of Calgary

Getting a Life: The Social Worlds of Geek Culture is published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.

[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 3-2018]