The Concept of Nerdiness in Digital Age

The following article was written as an assignment for the The History and Significance of Race in America class.

In the movie The Social Network, Mark Zuckerburg is called "a nerd" by his girlfriend Erica Albright when they break up at the beginning of the movie. Indeed, Mark is described totally as a nerd throughout this movie. Not only does he wear the same cloth all the time and talks very fast and logically, but also what he actually does indicates something that is more related to the characteristics of a nerd. In this article, two preceding studies of nerds ("From Nerds to Normals: The Recovery of Identity among Adolescents from Middle School to High School" (1993) by David A. Kinney and "The Witeness of Nerds: Superstandard English and Racial Markedness" (2001) by Mary Bucholtz) are to be examined first, and some more aspects of nerds that are not mentioned in these two researches are also to be examined to see how the situation and meanings of a nerd may have changed in the digital age.

To see how adolescents change their self-perceptions from middle school to high school, David A. Kinney had interviews with 81 jr. high and high school students and observed them at the schools and other places in a small Midwestern city (The actual location is not disclosed) in the early 1990s. What he found there is the fact that about one-third of the interviewees had been labeled as a nerd or ostracized by the other students in popular groups in the middle school. However, they became self-confident and see themselves "normal" after they entered high school, involved in extracurricular activities, and joined in new friend groups. He explains that since there are mainly only two groups (popular and unpopular) in middle school, many students try not to be labeled negatively by the popular group at school. They try not to do any stupid acts so that they are at least seen "nomal." Especially at these ages, they tend to think what their peers say to them as themselves. Many of them cannot establish their own personal identity at this stage. On the other hand, after they get into high school, they find a variety of student groups including the ones that hardly exist in the middle school such as punks and freaks. Many of them found their favorite new peer-group that provides friendly supports and positive and reflected appraisals to them. They now can escape from the trendies' expectations and evaluations, and develop a more positive sense of self through the positive peer relationships. At the end of the paper, Kinney introduces several preceding studies on how the high academic achievers use strategies such as "clowning" to avoid being labeled as a nerd including the case of black students who try not to be called "acting White." In a word, the nerdiness at a middle school is viewed something that has to be overcome and replaced with the "normals" (Kinney, 1993, 24), and at a high school it is something that is acceptable as a part of one's identity.

On the contrary, Mary Bucholtz focuses more on race. She argues how the white students in a high school who regard themselves as a nerd distance themselves from the coolness of mainstream white and black subculture. She collected the data through the interviews with the students at Bay City High School in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1995 and 1996. She insists that unlike the negative images of nerds that are widely conceived in the society, they have their own communication strategy to deliberately position themselves away from the whiteness and blackness of youth cultures at school. First she categorizes high-school students into three groups: African-American students who indicate blackness, European-American students who indicate whiteness, and nerds who detach themselves from the first two groups. The groups are not divided by their skin colors. They are categorized by the visibility of whiteness and blackness. For instance, Asian Americans are categorized as nerds since they are seen as a minority and thought to be good at science and technology. She also mentions that European-American students often fall into a double-bind situation because they have to behave cautiously not to be seen by their peers as if they imitate black culture, while most of their "cool" youth culture is actually borrowed from African-American teenagers. In other words, much of the youth subculture is once deracialized and adopted to the white youth culture. White students have to walk on a thin line not to be too black but to be cool. According to Bucholtz, nerdy students try to be uncool to deviate from the white norm that the cool white students have. She calls this attitude toward cooler students "hyperwhite" or "too white" (Bucholtz, 2001, p. 86).

Bucholtz also explains language ideology of the coolness and the linguistic tendency that nerdy students often show when they speak. She names the language "Superstandard English" (Bucholtz, p. 87) because they are likely to use Standard English excessively when they talk. They often try to speak in "supercorrect" forms (p. 88). According to her, they try to avoid the influence of language ideologies that blackness and whiteness have by using "hypercorrected" Standard English (p. 88). More specifically, they fight with the three semiotic processes that language ideology has in general: iconization, fractal recursivity, and erasure. During the interviews with them, she notices that they do not use slangs much. It shows that they try not to get involved in the "cool" world. She analyses their discourses in the interviews in detail and finds that they not only avoid using slangs, but also use the terms that shows their intelligence to the listener. She also did a phonological examination on their utterance and found out that instead of using colloquial Standard English, they speak in a careful speech style similar to a reading style. Bucholtz suggests that it forms a link to intelligence and is furthermore associated with independent thought. Another point she mentions is the vocabulary and grammar they often use. It was observed that they use polysyllabic nouns with a stance of scientific objectivity without empiricism. She says this is the moment when they show the performance of their nerdiness (According to her, intelligence is the primary concern for them). They told her that they are much involved in studying and other intellectual work and are not interested in the youth subculture around them. She concludes that their attitude toward academic achievement is a strong counterattack against the notion that academic endeavors are not cool.

Compared to Kinney's work, Bucholtz conceptualizes and formulates her theory much clearer, but there seem few points that are dropped because of the dichotomy and formulation. First, even if she focuses on symbolic racism, categorizing only whiteness and blackness is a little too rough. Thus it is a little questionable to call the nerds as "superwhite." There are references to Asian Americans as "honorary" whiteness (Bucholtz, p. 87), but there is no reference to the Hispanics at all. Also there is no characteristic distinction between male and female students. There could be some differences since the word "nerds" are more likely to be labeled to male students. Her unique point is that she points out the direction where the nerds try to go. She calls the direction as "intelligence" and "independent thought" (p. 92), more specifically "an investment in a wider institutional and cultural norm" (p. 96).

However, Bucholtz does not specify the community or space in detail where the nerds try to move into. She just conceptualizes the position that nerds often take. Some other studies show that there are actual places where nerds can fully express themselves. For example, Katie Hafner points out in her article ("Woman, Computer Nerd -- and Proud," The NewYork Times, 1993) regarding female science-majored students at M.I.T. According to her, they found their comfortable places such as Tech Square where the M.I.T. students gather or at home with her older brother who thought her computer programming during her high school days. Another example is Lawrence Eng, who is an Asian American and also calls himself otaku (a Japanese word for nerds). He writes in his dissertation paper about otaku culture, in which he can see himself as if  "[he] is at the center of attention within a vast social network of connections" on a web forum of Japanese anime (Eng, 2006, p. 1). Above all, after 2004, social media including facebook has become so popular in the U.S. that almost every body in jr. high and high school students has his or her own account. Even though they still have to spend half of their time in school in a day, quite a large number of them can probably find their own comfortable space in cyberspace now. They probably expand their friend-network outside of their schools and some of them may build their personal identities such as "nerd pride" there. This trend may affect the meaning of the term "nerd" more positively such as intelligent, respectful, and interesting, and may become more close to the nuance of the word "geek," which is used more positively than nerd today. This social-networking aspect in self-identification has to be focused more regarding this topic.

In the movie The Social Network, first Mark wants to become a member of the Phoenix S K Final Club so badly that he willingly accepts the offer from Winklevoss twin brothers (who are also the top athletes in the Harvard boat club) to program a social network website for them. At this point, he is just a nerd who wants to become a member of a popular group at school just like Kinney observes in middle school. However, after Mark found the website has great influential power even to the students outside of Harvard University, he changes his direction toward broader world. He forgets about becoming the member of the Phoenix SK Final Club just as same as the nerds Bucholtz describes in her research (One thing in the movie that is different from her theory is that one of the main members of the fraternity Divya Narendra is non-white (Indian)). In this sense, this movie clearly describes the socializing phases of a young male nerd at the beginning of the digital age in the early 2000s.

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