What exactly is a computer "nerd"?

review of:   Kendall, L. (2000). “‘Oh No! I’m A Nerd!’ Hegemonic Masculinity on an Online Forum.” Gender & Society, Vol. 14 No. 2, April 2000 256-274. 

Kendall conducted a two-year study as participant-observer of a “Mud” (“Multi-user dungeon,” an “online forum” or text-based chat room that also operated “primarily as a social meeting space” [257]). She went looking through the mud for the performance of “gendered,” “raced” identities among the participants, and she found them–with the predominant “gender” being male and “race” white. She notes that–no surprise–the “offline” U.S. culture’s gender and race stereotypes are reflected in the “online” U.S.culture, although with certain variation. Kendall also provides nuance to the definition of “nerd,” a social role held by technologically capable, nonathletic white males in U.S. society (1995-97). 

Since the study was performed relatively early in the Internet age (the early to mid 90’s), the Internet had not yet penetrated the mainstream of American culture, and was still predominantly work-based and male.  And so, the mud she studies (“BlueSky”) is composed of members who are “almost all…from middle-class backgrounds…white,, young, male, and heterosexual” (258).  There is some diversity, with 27% of the mud female, and 6% Asian-American, but most of the active talk in BlueSky (and so its normative discourse) is done by the white guys. As Margolis and Fisher saw in school CS departments in Unlocking the Clubhouse (2003), Kendall points out, on the part of the Blue Sky “mudders,” an active resistance to the entrance of newcomers into the BlueSky “clubhouse.” Not everyone is welcome; only those who perform as  hegemonically “white” and “male.” She notes that, although the communication in BlueSky lacks any video, audio, or anything other than text, mudders nonetheless convey much about themselves and their feelings through “repeated patterns of speech and specialized features…to add the nuance and depth that such attributes as tone of voice and gesture provide in face-to-face communication….they experience their online conversations as very similar to face-to-face interaction” (259). Similar to other U.S.social communications, the author finds that the mudders’ discourse reveals the “gendered” and raced” structures of offline U.S. society. Specifically, the “gendered” aspects of their discourse evince “hegemonic masculinity,” which Connell (1995, 77) has defines as “the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women” (260). Some examples:
  • The nerds echo the offline “locker room” with its misogynistic jokes and objectification of women as sexual playthings (e.g., “Did you spike her?” is a running joke). They do not consider women in their “clubhouse” as worthy sexual objects, referring to them as “pasty skinned blubbery pale nerdettes” (265)
  • The nerds express their frustration at offline U.S. women, whom they see–stereotypically–as only being attractive to violent males: “Nice guys end up being the friends to whom those women say, ‘You’re such a good listener, let me tell you about the latest horrible thing my inconsiderate sweetie did to me” (267). At the same time that they implicitly reject the hegemonic male culture’s valuing the “dominance” of a woman, the nerds are quick to stereotype the women who reject them as masochistic.
  • The nerds’ “aggressive displays of technical self-confidence and hands-on ability” found in their offline serves them well in BlueSky. Here as elsewhere,  the author sees that a man’s relation to the machine helps him establish his masculine identity. She quotes Cockbun (1985, 12) “Technology enters into our sexual identity:  femininity is incompatible with technological competence; to feel technically competent is to feel manly” (261). She brings up Wjcman’s (1991, 144) suggestion that nerds have “an obsession with technology …[in an] attempt by men who are social failures to compensate for their lack of power” (262). Whatever. It works in BlueSky.
  • The nerds accept the title “nerd” as “both a desirable and marginal masculine identity” (262). They have accepted the social role expectations that they will be “fascinated by technology, [have] interest in science-fiction and related media such as comic books… and perceived or actual social ineptitude and sartorial disorganization” (262)

And so, even as they distance themselves from hegemonic masculinity, the nerds express the social norms and gender roles. Their BlueSky is rather “gendered.”

 How “raced” is BlueSky? Somewhat less than it is “gendered.” Males on BlueSky are explicitly and unequivocally heterosexual (with two “bisexual” exceptions), but there is some flexibility to the social category of “white,” such that Chinese-Americans are able to refer to themselves as “white” with little difficulty. But this is only because in their cultural performances, non-white BlueSky-ers behave very “white,” and because the interface of BlueSky shows no color. Even the mudders who know that one member (“Jet”) is a Chinese-American allow him to call himself “pretty white” when he is contrasting himself to the African-American response to the Rodney King riots. But to the nerds, being all-white is not esteemed, either. To be extremely “white” would mean being “whitebread…bland,” with its connotations of  uninteresting.  In sum, as they do with their attitudes toward women, the mudders “bring their assumptions about race with them to online interactions” (270).

So do the BlueSky mudders accept unquestioningly the hegemonic culture of white men in U.S. culture? Not entirely. With regard to women, the nerds reject the hegemonic behavior of men who abuse their women; but they also reject and stereotype the women who allegedly respond to such abuse. This pattern “distances” them from other men, and from most women, which allows them to enjoy their own company (a mixed blessing, one supposes). With regard to their “whiteness,” the nerds reject the hegemonic ideal of whiteness (“waspy”), and yet assume that they and the rest of their clubhouse are “white,” and they will contest the whiteness of any member whose offline identity has been verified to be “non-white.” So like the “clubhouse” excluders of Margolis and Fisher’s study, the BlueSky  mudders have created an insular community, one that women and non-whites can belong to only if they perform “white masculinities” (272). So yes, the mudders of BlueSky are “inclusive,” but they also continue “a social structure in which white middle-class men continue to have the power to include or not to include people whose gender, sexuality, or race marks them as other” (272).

Kendall notes that, as of 1997, the term “nerd” was gaining in social respect. What accounted for the rising importance of this “sartorially disorganized” class? Was it the Revenge of the Nerds movies of the 80s and 90s? No. According to Kendall,  the “growing pervasiveness of computers in work and leisure activitites” (262) makes a nerd’s social stock rise. One sees in 2010 the status of “computer geeks,” (a synonym of “nerd”–see chart above) a similar rise in esteem. For several years, the Best Buy chain of computer resellers has deployed their esteemed technical service people to the community in cars proudly labled “Geek Squad.” But a larger point that Kendall implies is that the rise of a technology in society can alter the social order of relations. With computers came new value for the nonathletic male.

*
Given the assumptions of this article, it’s certain that the online communities I foster with my students now, and that the ones I envision for the future will reinforce the values, assumptions, and world-views of hegemonic white masculine culture unless the moderator does something to counter it (such as to point out unquestioned assumptions and thereby foster a critical culture). 

And yet, are social expectations and gender roles all bad? Clearly, no, if one looks at them as a “technology” that has developed to assist the furtherance of the “progress” of the species. Considered from a evolutionary perspective, social roles and expectations function as tools for the maintenance and perpetuation of society itself through “natural selection” of the fittest. It may be important to correct the imbalances and resulting injustices of social role enforcement where they arise (as they do, and have, between the sexes and the races in offline society), but to reject cultural norms entirely would be to throw out a useful tool in the progress of the human species. The web, with its capacity for transparent inteactions, holds promise for a “gender-neutral,” “color-blind” online society that may have salubrious effects on the offline society. 

I would ask my colleagues whether they would have considered the gender- and raced-based implications of their online instruction were it not for Professor Pate’s inclusion of this article in our required reading. And do they think that they can actively counter-act the influence of white, male hegemony in their implementation of Internet-based pedagogy? If so, how?

References

Cockburn, C. 1985. Machinery of dominance: Women, men and technical know-how. London: Pluto.

Connell, R. W. 1995. Masculinities. Berkeley:  University of California Press.

Kendall, L. (2000). “‘Oh No! I’m A Nerd!’ Hegemonic Masculinity on an Online Forum.” Gender & Society, Vol. 14 No. 2, April 2000 256-274. 
image courtesy of creativecommons.org

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