This is the Modem World: Seven levels of nerd hierarchy

Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

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I have a confession to make. I love /r/cringe, the sub-Reddit dedicated to those moments usually caught on video that make us feel better about our lots in life when we can watch a 30-second chunk of happenstance and walk away thinking, "I am at least one level of dork above that person."

Back in the day you were either a nerd... or not. There were no levels of dorkiness like we have today. You were into computers and Dungeons & Dragons or you weren't: that was pretty much it. You were grouped into a subculture that enjoyed all things electronic, idolized Brian Tochi, knew who Steve Wozniak was and could explain why Weird Science was not a nerd revenge film, but actually a celebration of giving up the machine for love and conformity shrouded in a Hughesian attempt to finally give the dweebs a chance to get some. Still a cool movie, though, and a righteous theme song.

In the early tech days, things were pretty binary: nerds vs. cool kids. Sure, there were geeks, sportos, motorheads, dweebs, dorks, buttheads... but they were either cool or not. Nowadays, some nerds are... cool. Just this week Jimmy Fallon, the upstart king of late night, is doing something he calls Video Game Week. Imagine, for a moment, Johnny Carson, David Letterman or even Kimmel doing that. They're all too cool. But now... Fallon is cool.

What exactly happened?

It seems, not only as evidenced by /r/cringe, but also by television programming like The Big Bang Theory and just about any Greg Mottola movie, there is now a complex nerd hierarchy, and the coolest nerds are free to make fun of the not-so-cool nerds, and so on. It's a meta thing. It's a bizarre thing, and it's the world we live in.

So with that, here are some of the nerds we love to make fun of.

This list is far from exhaustive and, as subcultures change overnight, probably full of inaccuracies, so I invite your additions and corrections in the comment section below.


These nerds -- arguably accurately -- look to Japan for inspiration, but take it a little too far and make others a bit uncomfortable. Coiffed like anime characters, they feign Japanese accents and shout words like "kawaii" and "sugoi" at mall meet-ups. Some say, "Nya!" In the end, they're harmless and we'll probably realize they're pretty cool in, say, 20 or so years. Weaboos are made fun of by all nerds regardless of rank. Bottom of the food chain. Noobs who will most likely graduate to another level of nerdiness.


When the "Lightning Bolt!" video first graced the intertubes in the early 2000s, it made millions of nerds worldwide feel better about their own predilections. LARP stands for Live-Action Role Playing, by the way, and it's the act of taking the fantasy out of RPGs and acting it out IRL. LARPing is nothing new -- one could argue that Civil War re-enactments are LARP events. Either way, LARPers, when going to the extreme of taking paper balls and throwing them at fellow players as lightning-bolt vehicles, are among the nerds we other nerds love to make fun of.

Modern Goths

To be fair, goths were always pretty nerdy, what with their antisocial behavior and deep interest in times of yore that often led to uncomfortable Bram Stoker pseudo accents. But the goths of today have split into micro-factions from mall goths to cyberpunks to steampunks to others I'm not about to even try to parse at the risk of being called out as a poseur. But that's just it, isn't it? They take themselves way too seriously, and the rest of us are aware of this and find it kind of funny. Just last month I was at Disneyland when I noticed that hundreds - nay, thousands -- of visitors were dressed in what could only be described as Harajuku 2004. I was confused, asked one what was up and was informed that it was "Bat's Day." Go figure. I love goths -- you keep the Bauhaus and Siouxsie dream alive -- but some of us other nerds are making fun of you.

IT guys

There's a show about them. We all see them in our offices and universities. They have long hair. They have weird beer guts. They love .net and Azure. They think Apple is child's play. Fallon captured Nick Burns the IT guy on SNL brilliantly and probably launched his nerd-friendly career leading us all to Video Game Week. We dare not make fun of IT guy lest he not help us the next time we forget our passwords. We love you, IT guy. Your hair is awesome and you're smarter than us. MOOOOVE!


Somehow, video gamers have sauntered almost all the way to the top of the nerd heap. Back in the day, gamers were snot-nosed arcade dwellers who smelled of Jolt Cola and vitamins. But today, they're cultural critics who appear on television, run respectable publications and pundit their way into social discourse, always reminding us that the video game industry is now bigger than Hollywood. Good on them, but at the end of the day you're still sitting in your jammies playing games. Boom! (I play all the time, by the way.)


A long, long time ago, the more opportunistic nerds realized that they had a platform called the internet and they went forth upon the packets and scribbled words about technology that were delivered to legions of lesser nerds and came unto them as prophets of the technologies. The other nerds saw this and it was good and raised their cellphones and controllers in toast and said, "Hail, the prophet bloggers who bring us news of the smartphone! We love to hate them!" And so it was. Hashtag.

The Prophets

Jobs, Gates, Berners-Lee, Miyamoto, Sagan, Hawking. Alive or dead, they can do no wrong. While we may poke fun, we never deny their impact, and we thank them for our daily tech. Or not. Maybe we hated what Jobs did with Apple in the '90s and think that Gates should take over Microsoft again to get them back on track. Hello, Xbox One, Bill?

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.