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We Nerds Are Spoiled

18 November 2009 One Million Watts 18,108 views 5 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

The Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle has a display of early fan-created magazines, or “fanzines.” They are crude, ink-smeared messes, created completely on typewriters with simple drawings of fantastic otherworldly scenes. One fanzine in particular caught my attention; it was from the 1920’s and had a headline that said something like, “Let Us Band Together and Write Hollywood to Influence them to Increase the Number of Science Fantasy Motion Pictures.” That was the position of nerds throughout history — outcasts trying to wield influence on a system that barely recognized they existed.

These early nerds were all pen pals with one another and went to conventions to find other people that shared their interest, but no one recognized them as having any value. If nerds were noticed at all, it was to make fun of them. Slowly the nerds joined together using whatever communication they could. Finding another person who you could talk to about Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics was rare — a freeing and beautiful thing.

It wasn’t until the late 1960s/early 1970s that the power structure began to shift. When “Star Trek” was cancelled at the end of its second season, fans organized a letter-writing campaign to convince the network to produce a third season. Not only did the network notice, it worked. They cut the budget and produced such embarrassing gems as “Spock’s Brain,” but miraculously, “Star Trek” got its third season.

From that point forward, the balance of power shifted. No longer would nerds sit back and take what they were given, they became active participants in the projects themselves. From “Star Trek” to “Star Wars,” the more popular the property, the more each group of fans has grown to to feel that they own it.

Which leads us to where we are today. We nerds are spoiled. No longer are we trading rare prints of “Them” and “War of Worlds” or rooting through boxes of old magazines to find a publicity photo from that one really scary episode of “Outer Limits” we saw when we were ten and only half-remember. Now the world is set up for nerds.

The internet is like one giant instant fanzine where movies can live or die years before the first frame is ever filmed. In 2002, J.J. Abrams wrote a script for a “Superman” reboot that got such bad online reviews that the studio scrapped the movie. It’s rumored that Jon Favreau leaked fake stills from the set of “Iron Man 2″ so that people would be pleasantly surprised when they see the finished product. They think he’s trying to trick them into thinking the movie might have something that they don’t like so they’ll be happy when it doesn’t.

Every detail of everything nerd-related is blogged, twittered and dissected to death so far in advance of it actually being available to experience that it’s hard not to already have an opinion before you experience it.

Joss Whedon’s recently-cancelled “Dollhouse” had an organized group to save it from cancellation before its first episode was shown on TV. Think about that. People were passionately defending something they had never seen. It certainly wasn’t his best show, but it sputtered and lurched into its second season based solely on the misplaced enthusiasm of a small group of fans.

We are spoiled. That power has started to corrupt the structure of nerd culture.

If we can’t watch a show online within a day after it’s broadcast, we dismiss the network it’s on as out of touch. There is no middle ground in our world anymore. We either love something or we hate it. If the last episode of “Battlestar Galactica” doesn’t live up to our expectations, we dismiss the whole series.

Just this last weekend a “Dr. Who” special aired on the BBC in the UK. It’s not airing in America until mid-December. Of course I had to stoop to less than legal means to watch it. Wait a whole month! Are they kidding?

I used to wait years to watch it back in the 1970s. Buying smuggled copies of Dr. Who magazine to see what the next actor to play the part looked like two years before I could ever see him on TV.

I do miss the old days. I miss not even hearing about something until it hits the theater. Discovering it years after its release on some late-night movie showcase.

They also spoil us by playing to our worst tendencies. Why do you think every toy you owned as a child is now a summer blockbuster? They know you’ll talk about it. Incredibly creative people who could be doing amazing original work are stuck trying to figure out how to make “GI Joe” into a movie that will appeal to 18- to 30-year-olds, when the toys themselves are intended for 6- to 12-year-olds.

What world have we wrought?

I think it’s time for us, as true nerds, to relinquish some of our power. To let bad shows get cancelled without complaint and to quit obsessively searching for details about movies in development. Let them attract our attention with their awesomeness, not with their marketing.

Right now, our power is a chaotic squall of fan fiction and complaint. The people that create often don’t read online commentary because their “fans” are often their harshest critics. We not only boss around the creative people, we scare them.

Let’s take a step back and let the things we enjoy breathe and grow. Let’s be complimentary when we like a series and not complain about minor plot problems or slight inconsistencies in the mythos. Let’s stop sneaking onto sets and taking spy photos. Let’s stop dissecting this thing we love before we kill it.

David Wahl


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  1. Excellent article. I’ve been on about this general topic for years–as in, “It used to be an EVENT to have anything science fiction related on T.V., at least in prime time…now we’re saturated.” “Fan culture” produced Ray Bradbury, FAMOUS MONSTERS, half the underground cartoonists, etc., etc. Now it’s big news. As with “the Sixties,” you have to be careful what you want.

  2. […] nerds can be curmudgeons. David Wahl yearns for the good old days as he writes about how networking has changed science fiction fandom. Blame the convention, which allowed fans to get together and see just how many fans there were. […]

  3. This “new power” you talk about that is so confusing is known as being “the mainstream”. This is not a new or unusual power structure, this is normal, it is just new to nerd culture.

    The rise of nerd culture becoming mainstream culture is of course tied to the internet. We are literally in the throws of an information revolution that is just as much of an upheaval as the industrial or agrarian revolutions before us. This makes nerd culture the backbone of mainstream culture, because nerds developed the internet. When one looks at the IT backbone (not just the internet) we notice that built into the very core if this new technological revolution (that is destroying everything from newspapers to needing to have an office in a span of under 20 years, think about that) is nerd culture.

    There are countless technical aspects that require anyone at the heart of our new industry be familiar with nerd culture. You can’t wonder why commands involve NCC-1701 or why the number 42 is prevalent in programming, why things are named the way they are.

    The nerds of today are spoiled compared to the nerds of yesteryear. But if you compare the mainstream of today to the mainstream of yesteryear, its just more of the same. Nerds just are the mainstream now.

    As the Industrial revolution made the blue collar worker the mainstream, so too does the IT revolution make nerds the mainstream.

  4. While I can agree that nerds have been spoiled, I would say that almost everything you talk about in this article can be applied to everyone out there. The popularity of the net has made everything easy to watch and see and promote. No one has to wait for the things they love to come to TV sets anymore, if you want some obscure British sappy soap opera, you go online and download. The same thing applies to finding pictures and information about same show, you just look it up online, and is almost a guarantee that you will find something.

    Sci fi is not the only genre to get fans out there campaigning to keep the shows on air, or keep them on the air.

    In short, yah, nerds are more powerful than they used to be as consumers, but so is everyone else. Nerds have just grown a lot more in size, and why is that a bad thing, it just means better work is likely being done to attract more people.

  5. […] have no creative suggestions to make to Tim Kring because I don’t believe in wielding geek power on Hollywood — and anyway, NBC wouldn’t listen if I did. (Cough Leno cough.) However, I do have a […]

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