Nerd Nation Was Here

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There is a civil war going on amongst the geeks.  How was I not told?

It turns out the geek community is split right now.  Since hipsters have recently adopted so many of the traits of geek culture – the dress, the hair styles, the nervous ticks, the social awkwardness, the lack of hygene – true geeks have been working to reestablish their authority.

It should be noted that such a discussion would have been very helpful to my status in elementary school.  Alas, all of this is two decades too late.

Moving on, the battle line has been drawn.  Those labeling themselves as “true geeks” have decided that one must be studied and committed to the sciences and technology to be truly considered a geek.  Anyone that dabbles only in the worlds of entertainment and/or liberal arts is an impostor – labeled geek chic – worthy of disintegration by ray gun…if ray guns existed.

TRUE GEEK                                              GEEK CHIC

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To ensure their rightful thrown remains intact, the true geeks have cultivated a number of behavioral traits (or markers) that anyone labeled geek chic would find inaccessible.   The primary marker of a true geek today is geek humor.

Geek humor is rather complex.  Some subcultures do not understand the humor of other subcultures, but that’s for another blog post.  The one thing most true geeks can agree on is xkcd is funny as hell.

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xkcd is a comic started by Randall Munroe.  Born in 1984, Munroe is a programmer and graduated with a degree in physics.  Before and after graduation, he acted as a contractor for NASA.  He also likes to “go to goth clubs dressed as a frat guy so [he] can stand around and look terribly uncomfortable. At frat parties [he does] the same thing, but the other way around.”

True geek?  Yes.

Munroe’s comic came to life after he realized his stick drawings along the margins of his notebooks needed their own gallery.  He started xkcd by scanning his work.  Here’s a sample:

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I don’t get it, but I’m not the audience.  There are a lot of true geeks out there that eat this stuff up.  His audience has been growing by leaps and bounds, and today xkcd is so lucrative that Munroe has left his gig at NASA to draw full time.

A few weeks ago, Munroe posted this comic:

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Again, I don’t get it, but xkcd readers did.  True geeks immediately noticed coordinates in the banner at the bottom-left frame:  42.39561 -71.13057 2007 09 23 14 38 00

Interpreted, these are coordinates to a small park in North Cambridge, MA, on September 23, 2007, at 2:38 PM.

The xkcd forum lit up.  People starting talking about what these coordinates meant.  It was soon understood that this would be a gathering of massive, geek proportions.  People started making plans.

Jason Tocci, author of Geek Studies, got wind of the event and made his way there.  Here is a bit of his report:

As I walked into the park, I saw some college-age guys milling about, making eye contact with me to see if I was there for the event. They greeted me as I approached; one was from Long Island, and another was from Russia. He flew here just for the event, and had to get help from others on the XKCD forums in obtaining a visa…

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By 2:30, hundreds of happy geeks were scattered across the park. A small group was competitively trying to see how far they could extend tape measures before they bent (as suggested in this post). A few were in costume or carrying props; I spotted one furry, a guy in a cape, a few people dressed as stick figures (e.g., tape over a white outfit), several people with foam or papier-mache weapons, and two people holding up “citation needed” signs (as in the Wikipedia reference from this post). The folks with fake weapons had playful battles for onlookers.

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The center of the playground was especially densely packed with mostly college-age men and women shoulder-to-shoulder in t-shirts referencing XKCD, Penny Arcade, MIT, and countless obscure jokes about science, math, and video games. I hurried to the center of the throng, taking pictures as I went, as people started a ten-second countdown to 2:38. After the cheers that followed, some started chanting “Ran-dall, Ran-dall,” calling for the creator of the comic to appear. I noticed a giant, unfinished version of the comic strip that started it all, affixed to the fence against the basketball court.

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Randall Munroe appeared next to the strip just as people were calling “Speech! Speech!” All heads turned and the crowd quieted as he shouted, “Thanks for showing up.” Laughs, and he explained that the original strip ended wrong; apparently, wanting something enough does make it happen. Cheers, and he explained the next step: This means the comic needs a new ending, so he brought some markers. “It’s like Wikipedia,” he shouted, and in no particular order, people made their way to the strip to finish it in their own ways.

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To me, this is a truly beautiful thing. 

This meetup shows how an audience can be empowered by the Internet and, more specifically, social media.  There are true nerds all over the world, many of whom want to find like-minded people.  Yes, we have seen this many times before with flash mobs and MMORPGs, but who would have thought that a comic strip, a web forum, and mapping coordinates would be what is necessary for true nerds to organize? I would love to know if Munroe had any idea what he was starting when he posted that comic weeks ago.

I wish I could have been there.  I wouldn’t have fit in, but maybe that is to be expected.  Who fits in among those who do not fit in?  The xkcd meetup proves that, even in the face of competition from the geek chic, the true geeks have staying power in American culture.

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