Good Nerd, Bad Nerd

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network as a maladjusted misanthrope who

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network as a maladjusted misanthrope who talks like a robot and is better at communicating with his computer than he is with other humans. He is awkward, uncomfortable and helplessly off-putting when forced to deal with anyone who is not like him. Unable to hack it in the real world, he is moved to create a virtual version of it and anoint himself its lonely king.

Writing for the technology blog TechCrunch recently, Alexia Tsosis argued that Mr. Zuckerberg as depicted in The Social Network represented the archetypal “terror nerd,” a figure that instills fear and resentment in people who don’t know how computers work and have never written a line of code. The terror nerd presents a threat because he is “almost inhumanely driven by the formidable pain of never fitting in,” and because his technical ability gives him power over everyone who lacks it.

The movie, Ms. Tsosis wrote, thus marks the beginning of a new era in which “the Internet is the enemy” and “anonymous engineers have become creators of anxiety.”

But is it really that? Or is it the opposite: that is, a reminder of just how far computer geeks, particularly those in New York, have come in recent years in terms of gaining the trust and respect of their non-technical contemporaries?

The fact is that tech in 2010 does not connote what it used to: By and large, the best-known people in the industry are not geeky or threatening but charismatic, photogenic, friendly and idealistic. Unlike the “terror nerd” represented by the Zuckerberg character in Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s movie, they tend not to be closed off and isolated from the rest of society, but rather personable and empathetic. They fit in, they sit up straight, and the things they  build on their mysterious computers are embraced and celebrated by the masses.

Think of David Karp from Tumblr, the blue-eyed darling of New York media who posts pictures of himself and his attractive girlfriend riding around town on a Vespa. Or think of floppy-haired Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley and cute-as-a-button Nate Westheimer of the NY Tech Meetup, both of whom have made careers out of services that facilitate the distinctly non-geeky pursuit of going out into the world and getting to know new people.

These are not terror nerds. These are cool guys, and they don’t scare anybody.

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At the Web 2.0 Expo at the Sheraton Hotel last Monday, an advertising-oriented techie named Kelly Eidson recalled how just a few of years ago, she avoided developer panels because watching the participants squirm and mumble onstage was too awful to bear. “People weren’t good at speaking!” Ms. Eidson said. “They were always really quiet and awkward, especially if they were by themselves. Now it’s like, they’re prepared, and they have a presentation and they’ve done it before–there’s a lot more taking pride in talking about what they’re making, telling people what it means and why they should appreciate it.”

These days, Ms. Eidson said, when she thinks of developers–at least those who work in New York social media–her brain no longer conjures up stocky, grimy guys eating Cheetohs off their desks. Instead, Ms. Eidson said, she pictures skinny, iPhone-wielding hipsters with funky haircuts, “wearing dark skinny jeans, some designer shoes and plaid shirts with the sleeves rolled up.”

At stake in this shift is much more than just fashion, however, or even the health of a cherished subculture. Social skills have become essential in tech–they are the industry’s best weapon against the anxiety and resistance that so-called “normal people” have historically shown when confronted with an unknown future determined by technically savvy weirdos.

“There’s been a geekification of all culture over the years,” said Tristan Louis, a veteran Internet critic and, recently, the founder of the start-up Keepskor. “Computer geeks have moved from being the scary hackers who could blow up the world to, nowadays, building the new economy.”

The very notion of the scary hacker–that anarchically inclined vigilante motivated by a desire to disrupt and frustrate authority–has become alien to contemporary techies to the point of being kitschy, so much so that on Saturday night a bunch of people dressed in “cyberpunk” costumes gathered in Williamsburg for a Hackers-themed dance party. (See The Transom this week.)

Techies just don’t want to be scary anymore, and they don’t want to alienate people who aren’t like them. They need to be socially accepted by the masses because their products are by definition dependent on widespread adoption.

On Friday, Oct. 1, actor Tom Hanks announced an animated web serial he is producing about what the world will be like in the future: an optimistic take, Mr. Hanks said, that he hopes will serve as an antidote to all the dystopian scenarios that gloomy people like to dream up because they’re scared of the unknown. “Without a doubt, everything has changed, but not necessarily for the worst,” Mr. Hanks told The Times. “It hasn’t degenerated into an Orwellian society–just the opposite.”

It’s hard to think of anyone in Hollywood more perfectly suited than Mr. Hanks to take up the cause of techno-utopianism and spread its gospel. Indeed, his smiling endorsement of the tech industry–his apparent willingness to be its affable, nonthreatening face–underscores the industry’s transformation from a haven for strange, unappealing nerds to a bright and inviting sector of the new economy.


IT IS QUITE a reversal to behold, following as it does hundreds of years of disdain for the technically minded, the scrawny and the obsessive. According to Ben Nugent, the author of American Nerd: The Story of My People, that scorn can be traced back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818.

“Victor Frankenstein’s problem is he gets so used to interacting with machines that he becomes incapable of seeing humans holistically,” Mr. Nugent said, “which is why he thinks it’s O.K. to take little bits and pieces of humans and arrange them into a monster.”

Over the years, the Frankenstein figure has been invoked countless times in books, films and television, Mr. Nugent said. One particularly good example is 1985’s Rambo II, in which Sylvester Stallone finds himself locked in conflict with a creepy geek named Murdock who uses computers to inflict harm onto American POWs in Vietnam. “It’s this working-class white man’s repudiation of the geeky educated guy who controls the government through computers,” Mr. Nugent said. “Rambo literally takes his machine gun and guns down Murdock’s computers.”

Good Nerd, Bad Nerd