In June 2010 w00tstock came to the Midwest, and I had the joy of witnessing the Chicago show. If you’ve never heard of w00tstock, I’m not surprised; it takes having your ear pressed to the right kind of ground to know where and when it will take place. None of the traditional means of advertising are used, and essentially all promotion is done via #w00tstock hashtags on Twitter. It’s billed as “3 hours of geeks and music”—for those under forty, that’s a nod to the original Woodstock’s tag line—and has also been described by its founders as “nerd vaudeville.”
In short, it’s awesome. But I must express a “dejected arrr” (as w00tsters might say) for the way that, even as w00tstock celebrates and validates its target audience, those descriptions unwittingly perpetuate the negative stereotypes of that audience.
Notice how the words “geek” and “nerd” have been lumped together above. This has been going on a long time, perhaps decades: geek and nerd are used interchangeably and little distinction is made between them. Occasionally folks attempt to define them, as Randall Munroe did in a recent issue of xkcd; but he was only about half-right. As he wrote, “The definitions I grew up with were that a geek is someone unusually into something (so you could have computer geeks, baseball geeks, theater geeks, etc) and nerds are (often awkward) science, math, or computer geeks. But definitions vary.”
Indeed, definitions vary. He’s nailed it with the definition of geek: someone unusually into something, either as an expert or an enthusiast, usually to the point of excessiveness. As he points out, it need not be a technological field, either. There are plenty of sports geeks out there; we just tend to call them by a more general term of which they’re a subset, sports fans. A baseball fan is anyone who gets excited over the prospect of the clean-up batter swatting one over the fences for a base-clearing home run; a baseball geek is the fan who can recite that batter’s on-base percentage and home run count for every season they’ve played in the majors, minors, college, etc.—and will recite those figures, incessantly.
Munroe’s definition of nerd is a little too limiting, however. To me, this is a more accurate and straightforward definition of nerd: someone devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits. Again, they need not be particularly high-tech or computer-related endeavours. Take Arnold Poindexter, from the seminal 1984 film Revenge of the Nerds: with his myopia he’s not likely to be a computer adept—but he sure can saw a mean electric violin.
Taking these two definitions together, we find that nerds are entirely a subset of geeks; being “devoted to an intellectual pursuit” automatically makes one “unusually into something.” Therefore, all nerds are geeks, but not all geeks are nerds. The difference lies in whether or not the field of pursuit is an intellectual or academic one. (Of course, this means that at least a few of the “nerds” in Revenge of the Nerds were, in fact, merely geeks.)
I’m not looking to cut on xkcd or Randall Munroe, as I’m a fan of the comic. Yet I do think it’s unfortunate that he perpetuates the stereotype of nerds being socially inept. Webster’s Dictionary is even worse, making this slur its primary definition: “an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person.” You’d think that the nerds at Merriam-Webster—and yes, every lexicographer is a nerd—would seek to abolish this derogation as no longer accurate, if indeed it ever was. The correct word for that definition is: dork.
Getting back to w00tstock, it (and its following) triggered me to invent a fourth term.
There have been a limited number of w00tstock performances—only fifteen ever, and only one announced for 2011 to date—and it may be a victim of its own success, since I’m told that in its wake its principals have gotten so popular and busy that it has severely reduced the possibility that they will all be able to coordinate their schedules for future w00tstocks. In other words, seeing all four founders—Wil Wheaton, Adam Savage, and Paul & Storm—on the same stage together at the same time is likely to be, from now on, a very rare occurrence. In other other words, get your tickets for w00tstock 3.0, July 21 at the Balboa Theatre in San Diego, now! (I’d link to the ticket sales site, but it’s Ticketmaster, and they’re evil.)
So, for all those interested folks who lived too far from the w00tstock cities, for all those who wanted a ticket but found them sold out, what’s the recourse? How can they see what this wonderful “night of geeks and music” is all about? Watch it on YouTube, right?
No. No, no, no.
Sure, every performance has been filmed and posted on Youtube. But not one has been recorded on anything better than a handheld mini-cam or—more likely—camera phone, with ambient (i.e. wild) sound. Each and every one of them is shaky to the point of being hard to watch, and even when the performer can be understood their voice is often washed out by the laughter of the surrounding audience.
Which brings us to our new term, sub-geek: someone unusually into something, but who engages in it in a half-assed way. A geek who’s not even geeky enough to do a decent job with their geekitude.
w00tstock is performed under Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) which means, in essence, that anyone is free to share and adapt the work, as long as they provide attribution of the original authors and don’t use it for commercial purposes. So why then, after fifteen performances, has not one person thought to bring a professional camera rig—or even just a frakking tripod—and maybe bribe the sound guy (beer might work, though cash is better) to patch into the house audio? Not to make a buck off of it—just to make a decent quality video for fellow fans.
How many w00tstock audience members were in their high school A/V clubs? How many of their former A/V advisors would rather beat their own heads against a brick wall than watch these jiggly, overexposed, inaudible videos? I’ll wager both numbers are non-zero.