FEATURE1 November 2011

Hear me out: We must befriend the nerds

Ever had an idea that you know is genius, but everybody else thinks is crazy? Here is your chance to share it with the world of research. This month, BrainJuicer’s Tom Ewing argues that we must work harder to understand nerd culture.

What’s the big idea?
If you want to understand modern culture, you need to understand nerd culture. All the street style, trendspotting, or cool hunting on Earth is very little substitute for a good few hours playing World of Warcraft.

Why do you say that?
Because I’m a nerd and I need friends.

Yes, but aside from that?
The idea of understanding nerd culture came from a workshop I did with Nick Gadsby of Lawes Gadsby Semiotics for this year’s MRS conference, which started as a drink-fuelled conference party brainwave and to our surprise mutated into an award-nominated success. The notion was to think about the ways nerd culture has infected modern life and how you could look at brands and research through that filter.

What do you mean by nerd culture anyway?
We’re pretty elastic about the definition. Nick is a semiotician, so he talks about the semiotic circle of nerdery, which is rational about the irrational and irrational about the rational. So nerds love games which put formal structures on fantastic worlds, but they also love randomness and incongruity. I’m more focused on fan culture and the kind of people who post pictures of kittens on the internet.

And this is relevant to research because…?
Well, take games – they encourage decision-making, problem-solving and creativity by making you work within a set of arbitrary rules, which is the root of pretty much everything interesting that happens online. Twitter with its 140 characters has more creative work done on it than Facebook and its longer status updates, for instance. And obviously there’s more you can do with game playing – BrainJuicer have had the idea of using games to push people into emotional hot states and look at how the decisions they make then might differ from the ones they make in more neutral environments.

Fair enough, but you surely can’t pretend that kitten pictures are relevant to what we do?
I think I can. I wanted to look at memes – the replicating mental constructs that Richard Dawkins conceptualised back in the 1970s but which made a jump into pop culture when the internet allowed people to spread and mutate ideas very quickly. Instead of kittens I ended up using those Keep Calm and Carry On posters which have become ubiquitous in Britain, because they’re an example of a meme which has jumped to the offline world (I saw it on a packet of ham the other day). Memes are interesting because they mutate as they spread. Looking at them gives you an insight into how content travels and changes in a network which is very different from the rather shopworn ideas about influencers walking around doing magic influencey stuff.

And you say this stuff has infected culture in general?
Absolutely – we are all part of nerd culture. Gaming is mainstream, web communities are helping dictate government policy, trolls are the new tabloid bogeyman. Thinking about all this stuff and understanding its roots gives you better lenses to view not just youth culture or online culture but all of culture.

So we should stop studying early adopters or mavens and study nerds instead?
Nerd was only ever a fun label really. The broad message for researchers is that looking at what people do – their behaviour, the culture that behaviour helps form – is more useful than just looking at what you think they are. A really good example of this is the Occupy movement. Not that I think marketers should be interfering with that, but if you thought you had an understanding of this huge segment called ‘millennials’ then the whole Occupy thing might have come as a bit of a shock as it didn’t fit with a lot of the generalisations about them. But if you were familiar with digital culture – how it’s emergent, iterative, spreads through mimicry and so on – you’d have got what was going on much quicker.

Got an idea you’d like to share with the research world? Let us know


13 years ago

Introducing the sentence "Nerd was only ever a fun label really" at the end of the article, to segway into a reminder that behavioural observation and understanding culutural context is "a must" is to me at least irritating. I read trade journals for information/insights. Also - is it OK to reference positively your own company in this kind of article? A major Feature article?

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13 years ago

Thanks for the comment Edward04 - I don't think I ever said anything was "a must" though! I'm sorry you found the closing segue irritating - I should have made clear early on I was thinking of 'nerd culture' as part of a wider subset of digital culture and then it wouldn't have seemed so clunky. But my general point - that looking at what happens within subcultures rather than applying segmentation-style labels to them is more rewarding - is hopefully obvious.

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