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Comic-Con: Nerd and Geek Community

Originally posted on Psychablog,August 8th, 2010.

Imagine that you are a basketball fan in a community that wasn't generally into basketball (or, more realistically, imagine having been a soccer fan 20 years ago). You watched the game on TV last night and want to talk about it with someone who "gets" it. People at work don't understand your passion and you've learned to be quiet about it with them. The only people you can share with are online, but it's not quite the same. Now imagine yourself going to a basketball game: everyone is there because they enjoy basketball. Although the fans may be divided by their team loyalties (so there are two groups of fans), it's the one place where you can enjoy the physical company of others who enjoy the sport as much as you do.

That's what it was like for people at the San Diego Comic Convention a couple of weeks ago. There were at least 150,000 people there, and the convention center was swarming with attendees, a good number of whom were in costume. I interviewed some attendees, asking them why the came to the convention. Most folks I talked to cited the sense of community as a reason they came to the convention; that is, they wanted to be with other like-minded folks.

I was struck by the power of community--a power that brought attendees from far and wide. An ethnically diverse community (and almost equal numbers of men and women) composed of families, couples, singles, and groups of friends. The folks at the convention may use the Internet to create their own virtual communities of like-minded "friends" (I use the term friends loosely, in much the same way as Facebook does). But there is something about stepping into a convention center, an exhibit hall, and a hotel, knowing that you share an interest with almost everyone there. It's similar to feeling that some people get when they attend a sports event-except in that case there are two communities in the same location, one for each team. At the convention, though, there were no "teams" in competition with each other. Sure, there were different groups: the artists; the comic fans, eager to meet the writers and artists of their favorite strips; the gamers; the popular culture crowd-relative newcomers, there for the previews and panels about upcoming films and TV shows. The different factions accepted each other as part of a big, generally happy, family.

Research tells us that social connections are important: they buffer us from stress, boost our immune system, give us a sense of belonging, motivate us, bring us joy, and make us feel liked and loved. (Of course some social connections can have the opposite effect-they can cause us stress, lead us to be immune compromised, and leave us feeling dejected; but I'm not talking about that now.)

A large portion of the attendees at the convention--or any comic convention--are likely to be some form of nerds or geeks. (What's the difference between a nerd and geek? That depends on where you live and when you were born, but you can click here for an overview on the distinction.) Depending on where they grew up and went to school, people who are nerds or geeks may socially have had a hard time--they may have been victims of bullying or social ostracism--or had a perfectly fine time with a group a like-minded friends.

The stereotype of nerds and geeks are that they are socially obtuse folks with Asperger's; that is, they aren't socially aware and don't know how to be socially appropriate. Not so fast. It isn't necessarily that nerds or geeks don't get how to be "cool." Rather, at least some of them reject the trappings of cool. They intentionally eschew the noticeable markers of cool (certain styles of clothes, topics of conversation, ways of speaking) (click here for The Whiteness of Nerds by Mary Bucholtz, 2000.) They cultivate an identity and appearance of being different. As psychologist Mel Levine notes

"There are a lot of depressed cool kids, and it's better to be a happy nerd than a popular anorexic...Nerdiness isn't a pathology."

When lucky, there are enough nerds in school or neighborhood to form a community of like-minded folks.

It's that community aspect that's so visible at Comic-con and similar conventions. There is the sense of being among one's people. It isn't necessarily that nerds and geeks can't be social; instead, their social interactions don't conform to the traditional ones.

"Nerd subcultures like the ones surrounding comic books and science fiction can be safe places for nerds to learn to make friends outside the brutal social hierarchies of school and the office. (Comic-Con, the largest annual nerd gathering, draws 175,000 fans of Gandalf and Wonder Woman to San Diego every summer)." (Nugent, 2007; click here for the post the quote is taken from.)

Before the Internet, only the lucky few nerds and geeks had a critical mass similar people to develop a sense of community. With the rise of the Internet, geeks were among the first to create a vibrant virtual community-they led the way. Consider these quotes from an article by Anthony Faiola in the Washington Post:

"The Internet has taken its power one step further. It is transforming them from an alienated and virtual community into a thriving, real-world fraternity -- and, to a lesser extent, a sorority -- whose members are physically interacting as never before at concerts, comedy clubs, even ‘nerd expos'."

"A lot of people are coming out of their geek closet and proclaiming themselves a nerd, and they are joining together in doing it," said David Glanzer, Comic-Con marketing director.

It is at conventions such as this one that nerds and geeks can have the experience that sports fans routinely have when, the morning after a game, they chat about the game with fellow commuters or people at work and expect that other people will know about the game and feel similarly. To community!

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Great post, Robin!

I was at Comic-con this year and one of my goals was just to get out there and meet people; people who read comics, like-minded people. I had been drawing almost in isolation for months before the convention and it was good take part this year.