Geek Cultures: Media and Identity in the Digital Age

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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digital media
new media
niche markets
fan studies
cultural studies
Communication Technology and New Media
Critical and Cultural Studies
Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Ethnicity in Communication
Other Communication
Social and Cultural Anthropology
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This study explores the cultural and technological developments behind the transition of labels like 'geek' and 'nerd' from schoolyard insults to sincere terms identity. Though such terms maintain negative connotations to some extent, recent years have seen a growing understanding that "geek is chic" as computers become essential to daily life and business, retailers hawk nerd apparel, and Hollywood makes billions on sci-fi, hobbits, and superheroes. Geek Cultures identifies the experiences, concepts, and symbols around which people construct this personal and collective identity. This ethnographic study considers geek culture through multiple sites and through multiple methods, including participant observation at conventions and local events promoted as "geeky" or "nerdy"; interviews with fans, gamers, techies, and self-proclaimed outcasts; textual analysis of products produced by and for geeks; and analysis and interaction online through blogs, forums, and email. The findings are organized around four common, sometimes overlapping images and stereotypes: the geek as misfit, genius, fan, and chic. Overall, this project finds that these terms represent a category of identity that predates the recent emergence of "geek chic," and may be more productively understood as interacting with, rather than stemming from, dimensions of identity such as gender and race. The economic import of the internet and the financial successes of high-profile geeks have popularized the idea that nerdy skills can be parlayed into riches and romance, but the real power of communication technologies has been in augmenting the reach and persistent availability of those things that encourage a sense of belonging: socially insulated "safe spaces" to engage in (potentially embarrassing) activities; opportunities to remotely coordinate creative projects and social gatherings; and faster and more widespread circulation of symbols - from nerdcore hip-hop to geek-sponsored charities - confirming the existence of a whole network of individuals with shared values. The emergence of geek culture represents not a sudden fad, but a newly visible dimension of identity that demonstrates how dispersed cultures can be constructed through the integration of media use and social enculturation in everyday life.

Paul Messaris
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