“This is a song about how little groups of people will make themselves into smaller groups of people in order to feel stronger …” — Peter Gabriel, “Not One of Us (Live)”
One of the drawbacks of today’s hypermarketed and ubertargeted and supersegmented society is the loss of inclusivity as people seek those people who think and feel and act just like they do. Of course, this is nothing new as high-school children have been walled off from “the cool kids” and separation by caste and/or class goes back ages. But as Peter Gabriel sagely points out or as former outcasts Nirvana sang about in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — a song that arguably changed the course of music and pop culture — the idea of of “our little group has always been and always will” suffuses society. (And that the teen elitists that line was about would sing along was grand irony.)
Too much passion?
Years ago, the NHL and its broadcast partners attempted to help clueless fans like me by adding a blue dot where the puck was to make it easier to follow (and went a bit far by giving a red comet tail on a hard shot, but anyway). Some hockey fans and purists were aghast. The league sold it as a way to draw in casual fans, but that dreaded c-word just made it harder for traditionalists to take. Maybe if the league had sold it as being for older fans or those with poor eyesight, the reaction could have been better — it’s hard for anybody to despise accessibility measures on their merit. Maybe it still wouldn’t have worked, but who knows? (Happy to report we recently wrapped a Hockey 101 video meant to let students who aren’t hockey fans learn more about the game.)
A dirty little secret to many might be that I have become a big fan of professional wrestling. Yes, the winners are predetermined and it’s a soap opera for guys or whatever you want to say — but it also features a lot of amazing athleticism and great storytelling. (I could write a blog or presentation on the topic of “what professional wrestling has taught me about storytelling” but maybe another time.) I’ve done some writing and commentary on fan site Cageside Seats, which is generally full of great and supportive people who have respectful debates (which itself dispels one stereotype of wrestling fans) but it has its share of those with disdain for casual fans. “WWE is doing this for the casual fans,” the argument more or less goes on some booking decision or character, “when they should reward us smarks and hardcore fans.” (Smarks = smart marks, i.e. people sucked in by wrestling while acknowledging its staged nature.) These people would despise casual fans who tune into John Cena on “Good Morning America” but who didn’t earn their cred by watching indy shows in bingo halls, or something. They mean well, but they need to understand their brand of fandom isn’t everybody’s level of fandom.
With any sport or passion, the idea that people with a more casual interest than you are less worthy of enjoying your thing is silly. Without casual fans, you can’t grow hardcore fans. They don’t offend your fandom or passion. That would be like an advertising agency saying, “nobody will love this product as much as we do, so we shouldn’t even advertise it.”
Rise of the nerds
This topic comes to mind as I prepare to leave for HighEdWeb 2016 (#heweb16), a conference for those who work in higher education web communications, also affectionately known as “nerd camp.” Nerds and dorks and geeks and former outcasts find validation with others like us. Levar Burton is one of the keynotes, which tells you plenty.
We generally were the uncool kids in high school, or at least certainly not the cool kids. But a funny thing happened along the way — kids who went into computer science or math or other scientific pursuits started making money and driving the new economy. Nerdy became the new sexy, and while TV shows used to depict nerds as uncool and poorly dressed kids with big glasses who were the butt of comedy, today a show celebrating nerd culture like “The Big Bang Theory” can become a cultural sensation. “Freaks and Geeks” remains respected and loved despite not being a hit during its brief run. Bill Nye the Science Guy, a former #heweb keynoter, is respected and admired. Doctor Who has been a huge nerd, yet he is adored across the globe.
Whereas The Beatles exuded cool, acts like The Replacements embraced awkwardness and dressed like nerds and Nirvana’s uncool coolness turned the pop culture world on its head. It got to the point that even the some of cool kids in high school tried to rewrite their internal biographies to being the pariahs in high school.
And so, for a few days in Memphis at #heweb, the outcasts will become the incasts, we will salute the freak flags that fly and in general much awesome will take place.
My nerd is not your nerd
But I offer one request or caveat to #heweb16 attendees, and those in these situations in general. Not everybody is your level or kind of nerd. Not everybody has an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Trek. Not everybody knows every corner of the Marvel universe. Not everybody has seen every obscure film that you can quote from memory. And that’s OK: My nerd is not your nerd. Remember this, and be inclusive. Being an outcast once doesn’t mean that you need to make others who don’t share your interests or ardor into outcasts. This isn’t a competition, it’s a conference.
Many times, I’ll probably have to nod my head and smile to something I don’t understand or, if I’m brave enough, simply say I don’t know what somebody’s talking about. And many times, people may not get my insider or obscure references. With any luck and grace, I’ll know to stop and explain something to include them in my strange world.
I was at a (non-#heweb) conference years ago, where some of us were singled out by organizers as “team Tweet” or “the cool kids.” I bristled. I am fortunate to have been going to these conferences long enough to know some awesome people, but I was once that person attending his first #heweb and knowing nobody and feeling like a complete loser because everybody seemed to know more than I did.
So while I’m so humbled and happy to be heading to “nerd camp” in Memphis, I hope I can be one of those pushing inclusivity. Many of us know each other already but, if you’re new, please don’t let that stop you from getting to know us. We were in your shoes too. And if you’re one of us who has been to many #heweb conferences, please do your best to help others into our circle and feel comfortable. Being a nerd is a badge of honor now, but not a license to put those who aren’t your type of nerd — or even not a nerd at all — in an outcast circle we once (or sometimes still) called home.
Be kind and be inclusive. It’s something any good nerd would do.