"The Nerd Within": Mass Media and the Negotiation of Identity among Computer-Using Men

Article excerpt

This article examines media representations of nerds as part of the cultural context within which a group of participants on an online forum perform their identities. Given their frequent use of computers and relationships to computer technology, these young, mostly white, mostly male participants must negotiate their relationship to the potentially stigmatizing, but also partially respectable nerd stereotype. They do so by emphasizing the "masculine" qualities required to accomplish their computer-related jobs, asserting the colorblind nature of online interactions, and using ideas about nerds to distance themselves from women and sexuality. Thus, despite its negative aspects, the nerd identity provides a rich conceptual resource with which computer-using males can interpret their own and others' identities.

   "An unhealthy fascination with technology on the part of a few adolescents
   had awakened the nerd within us all."

      --Robert Cringely, narrator, "Triumph of the Nerds" (documentary)

   Ulysses looks in henri's glasses and sees his reflection and exclaims, "Oh
   NO! I'm a NERD!"

      --From a transcript of a conversation on the online forum BlueSky

Identity formation and performance occur in the context of enduring social structures and relations of dominance, subordination, and resistance. In this article, I look at a particular masculine identity, the "nerd." In particular, I consider media representations of nerds as part of the cultural context within which individuals negotiate their identities. I juxtapose analyses of various media images of nerds with statements and interactions from my research on an online forum among people who use, resist, and negotiate their relationship to the cultural definition of the nerd. In considering connections between people's nerd identities and media representations of the nerd, I seek to complement several other threads of research which address similar issues, including research that focuses on socialization (Fine, 1987; Thorne, 1993; Willis, 1981); analyses of images and messages contained in mass media (Gray, 1995; hooks, 1990; Pfeil, 1995; Smith, 1993); and studies of the relationships of media fans to the cultural objects of their critical affection (Jenkins, 1992; Penley, 1991; Radway, 1991).

Whereas fans might meet specifically to enjoy and discuss a particular media object, groups of friends such as the one I studied online constitute a group for other reasons, and may not organize their time and relationships with each other around particular media. Yet, media messages form part of the cultural and interactional context of individuals' negotiations of identity even when those individuals are only casual consumers of media. While I do provide some evidence of familiarity on the part of my research subjects with some of the media objects I analyze, in the main I elide the question of specific exposure entirely, treating the nerd as an ideal type and discussing both media references and people's identity performances in relation to that ideal type.

My use of the ideal type of the nerd reflects the everyday practice of my research subjects themselves. As Berger and Luckmann (1966) suggest, typifications form an important part of our relationship to the social world. While given little conscious thought in the "natural attitude" of everyday life, they enable us to organize our perceptions of the world around us and to coordinate smoothly our actions within that world. The participants on the online forum BlueSky(1) use the ideal type of the nerd, derived in part from media depictions of nerds, in negotiating their identities. They measure their own and others' identities and behaviors against this type.

In what follows, I first describe my online research and the media sources I examined. I then outline the basic stereotypical components of nerd identity and discuss the relationship of this identity to Connell's (1995) concept of hegemonic masculinity. …