From the mind of a nerd, every group that’s outside their own is a popular group, and all the nerds are dweebs that the rest of the school hates. It’s an arrogant piece of self-pity, because every clique stands on its own. Cliques of actors and actresses clump together and avoid the jocks and musicians and the bookworms. The bookworms form their own clump of intellectualism and peer out at other groups. Band geeks stick together and all join the fencing team. Jocks tend to be divided up by sport. These are not “popular” entities. They are separate. The primary difference between them tends to be their outlook on the rest of society. Jocks and nerds are all very alike – you get dicks in both groups, bright people and stupid people, passionate idealists and apathetic cynics. The one thing that stands out is that nerds take pride in alienation, usually alienation that doesn’t exist. You can put a jock into a group of nerds, and the jock will more often than not start talking with the nerds, joking with them. I think it’s because athletic society is one where everybody is united around the same goal, so that differences between people are to be accepted and ignored for the sake of unity. Put a nerd into a group of jocks, and the nerd won’t even try to fit in. He’ll wallow in his alienation, and in the process come across as disagreeable and dislikable.
Nerds like to protest that they were rejected from the start, that they never had a chance. I would like to twist this around and say: nerds are the most exclusive clique in any high school. I remember one incident, in my freshman year, where a group of my friends were sitting at a table and a kid with Down’s syndrome came over to say hello. One of my friends instantly glared at him. “Get lost, moron.” It was one of the most shockingly quick shoot-downs I’ve ever seen. And nerds act like this towards every group. Cheerleader come over and ask about programming? Shot down. Invitation to a study group? Rejected. The most bitingly ironic comes when a person in a group of nerds gets an invitation to a party. If you’re one of the more social people in your scene, try it. Invite an anime person or a programmer – one of those people – out to an event. Chances are you’ll be declined. There’s every possibility you’ll be rejected impolitely. The whole concept of the nerd clique is based on elitism: you need to be smart in order to be a part of the group. Moreover, you need to be part of the group or else you get rejected. As people grow up and more and more people in that initial group become more social and involved with other groups, they find themselves ostracized from that reject collection. So at its core the reject society is one of mutual disrespect: nerds become so worried that they’re unpopular that they begin acting nasty towards any outsider, and that leads to the group becoming just as unpopular as they fear.
Now, this is a generalization. There are nerdy people who aren’t rejects. There are rejects who are cool. The thing to realize is that most people are nerds and rejects, to some degree. A kid on my floor is jacked to all hell, plays the sax in marching band, and has a cute girlfriend who plays video games with him. My most-terrific roommate is listening to 99 Luft Balloons in the original German, plays Pokemon, and is generally an athlete-and-business major all-American package. Most people realize this. The only people who don’t are the self-conscious uncool people, who decide that they weren’t fated to be popular, who make that a central point of their existence. In their minds, only they have the keys to dweebiness, and nobody else is allowed in for fear that they’ll corrupt the precious balance of nerdery. They become elite in the worst way possible. And because people who are socially capable enough to realize this false dynamic tend to be scorned upon within the group, it means that nerds bond together around their least socially capable members, which perpetuates the problem.
In modern times it’s worse because of the Internet. Suddenly, a certain group of people, usually the people trying to escape society as-is, moved away to the digital society, made friends there. New cultures appeared, cultures of hipsters and /b/tards and the many cults of programming that arose. Memes, crystallized in text rather than in person, became incredibly potent and a sign of social status. The Internet favors a particular wit: humor that is referential in nature, short-term, and generally “inside” in nature. “The cake is a lie” is the first meme to come to mind. At my school, people began reciting this line whenever cake was mentioned. To people not “in” on the joke, it sounded like nonsense, which further led the meme-spreaders to a sort of arrogance. “It’s a nerd thing. You wouldn’t get it.” Mix that with the fact that “The cake is a lie” was not a particularly funny idea, so when nerds try to explain it the whole thing sounds fairly lame, and you’ve got a situation where people are further pushing themselves away from other groups. Because the Internet is relatively global, suddenly there were comparatively anonymous people beginning huge enormous trends which only make sense if you’re in the thick of things. These memes lack a local significance. They’re different from jokes about teachers and substitutes and all of the things that build together a local community. Online there’s a global community that people use as surrogates.
Worst of all, the Internet is faceless, and so it encourages the antisocialite. Here’s what I mean by that: online, your only voice is determined by the language you use. If you capitalize things and avoid acronyms, you sound cultured. That means that no matter how stupid your idea is, how moronic you are in real life, if you can capitalize words you’re automatically given priority on the Internet. When other people hear you, they don’t see you as the jackass you are. They hear the words you type, which probably sound cultured and sophisticated. (I still can’t read a punctuated sentence without thinking that the person behind those words is handsome and trim and well-educated, despite many years of disillusion.) That means that you have a sense of fulfillment about yourself that is wholly undeserved, and at the same time, people on the other end reach the conclusion that other people in the world are somehow better than the people where they are now, and that encourages the same elitist alienation that began the whole problem in the first place. And nowhere is this more crystallized most clearly than it is in the world of programmers.
Here’s a tidbit for Tumblr users: the average programmer sees Tumblr as cheesy and over-the-top and filled with sickeningly stupid hipsters. That’s the reputation Tumblr has online in coding circles. Programmers also think that Facebook is either intrusive or just stupid, that Apple users are conformists, and that certain languages are better than other languages. Hell, programmers argue over web browsers. There is an elitist and closed-off system among hardcore coders that says certain things are better than others, usually for no reason, often for bad reasons. I have argued with many a Linux Emacs programmer over why I make web sites using Coda on a Mac and the response I almost always get is: “It’s obvious you’re not a coder.” And to be honest I’m not a coder. I don’t code because I like seeing instant results when I do things, I hate languages that break when I forget a semicolon, and I have better things to do. So perhaps I am just a clueless Mac user. But perhaps I’m not a programmer because most programmers are so full of themselves and what they do that they forget what it’s like to be young and inexperience, or that it’s possible to want to learn to program without devoting a lifetime to it, or that multiple people can use programming to to multiple things.
The world of “programmers” is a world of alienation, where the majority of people don’t know what they’re talking about but act elitist anyway, and where the minority that do know what they’re talking about don’t permit people to think in ways that they don’t like. It’s why there’s such hostility from programmers towards DHH and 37signals, the guys behind Ruby On Rails. That’s a group that acts very lax and formless and generally seems to be having a good time, and they write a blog where they tell people what they do to work better, and every blog post I read on Signal vs. Noise elicits a reaction from some people who go “Fuck 37signals, I don’t have to be like them if I don’t want to”, ignoring the fact that 37signals never asked for conformity, and in fact seem to think that if you don’t like what they’re saying you should stop reading their fucking blog, since nobody’s forcing you to. Those people are acting on the assumption that everything is black-and-white and that Ruby on Rails is the “cool” group and that everybody else is uncool, and they get resentful, because that’s the sort of personality that is attracted to programming, not so much because it’s useful in designing things but because they’re good at scaring other people away.
I think it’s significant that every site I use and like is a site that gets criticized by programmers for not being made by programmers. Mark Zuckerberg gets ragged on a lot because he writes bad PHP or something. In discussions about Facebook people suggest that he doesn’t count as a programmer because he doesn’t write good code. The response that I try to lob into these discussions, reduced to its crudest form, is: Mark Zuckerberg is the CEO of one of the largest web sites on the planet, and his web site is beautiful, and it brings joy to a lot of people, so apparently being a good programmer isn’t what makes you design beautiful things that make people happy, in which case being a good programmer sounds like a fucking waste.
Among the web sites I’ve heard criticized: Vimeo, Tumblr, Last.fm, Flickr, Hunch, the Hype Machine, Muxtape, Metafilter, Hacker News. Twitter’s another big one. People love smugly grinning about how it’s got no revenue plan, it suffers downtime, etc., but let’s be honest: even taking downtime into account, Twitter is used more than any one of a million other sites that are all usually up. Its founders get to talk to Oprah and get interviewed in the New York Times. An entire ecosystem has been built based around their API. That’s a pretty impressive feat, if anything more so because of how simple it was.
I’ve come to realize that most of the people I’ve met who make cool things aren’t nerdy. I’ve met a few people who make the web sites I use daily, and every time it strikes me that they come across as normal people. If I were at a party it wouldn’t surprise me to find them there. Even at their nerdiest, this sort of designer and programmer comes across as less of an uncool asshole and more of a cool dude whose job happens to be programming. In fact, I notice this in all fields. The people who are really good at what they do are the people who tend not to make a big deal of how good they are. But it’s worst with programming, because when young people want to learn to code, they don’t run into the good types. There aren’t cool programmers taking people in under their wing, with the exception of why the lucky stiff. When you go online and want to learn programming, you run into the uncool assholes. The people with the exclusive language. The ones who’ll take “How to I make a web site that people can join” not as an admission of some guy who doesn’t care about the details but as a sign of weakness. I’ve seen responses to that question that range from “You obviously aren’t ready” to “It depends on how you want the site to scale.” What bullshit! If I want to make a clubhouse for some friends all I need is a tree and a sign, and most people I ask won’t give me tips on architecture. Similarly, there’s a _ridiculously fucking high barrier to programming, because there’s this ridiculous elitist attitude that worries about details that don’t matter.
The world of programmers is the only world I know that has this going on, and I’m involved with the world of artists as well. See, artists, for all their youthful dickery, graduate out of that phase once they realize how little rules have to do with art. The people who stick to iambic pentameter just because it’s a form and forms are good quickly realize that iambic pentameter never helped anybody who wasn’t always writing well. One of the things that writers teach is that at the core of writing isn’t word choice and syntax, it’s what the words mean. Similarly, in acting there’s a lot of focus on body control, vocal control, facial control, but actors know that’s not what makes acting good. Acting comes from what all these things mean. In the end, they’re props used to enhance the main message.
Groups of actors and writers tend to be likable in a way that nerds aren’t, even when they’re cruel. There’s a sympathy to them, a sort of understanding that all these systems and discussions and nitpickery is necessary, but not the final goal. As a result, you can be a bad actor in a group of good actors, and while you’ll be talked about behind your back quite a lot it’s the talk that comes from people not who like subterfuge, but who know that criticism might stop a person from keeping on trying. Similarly, whereas a bad writer will deny a person their artistic value because they aren’t philosophically correct or approaching art with the right viewpoint, the good writers avoid discussions like that and focus on expressing that idea most correctly. The programming mindset, on the other hand, is the mindset of EPIC FAIL, where insulting things for stupid reasons makes sense. It’s the mindset where the language matters more than the creation, where communities form not around mindsets and ideas but around the tools of the trade. That’s why it’s no surprise that the most common nerd-art crossover is the musical one, and that so many people in the nerd mindset focus not on the subtleties of music but on the tools, the cool guitars, the neat amplifiers, and why the most common types of nerd music are the blatant ones that require the least thought to comprehend.
These aren’t all nerds and programmers, of course. These are the self-described nerds and programmers. The people who define themselves by the groups they’re not a part of rather than by the things that make themselves tick. The people who would rather be a part of an exclusive clique that calls itself uncool than be friends with a lot of people who all do different things. The unhealthy people, the angry people, the people who, somewhere along the way, missed out on growing up. It’s a group of people that sucker in a lot of young kids and a lot of bright minds, and it’s an absolute drain on talent and eagerness and creativity, and it needs to stop.