Nerds and hipsters: The yin and yang of American subcultures
August 31st, 2011
04:00 AM ET

Nerds and hipsters: The yin and yang of American subcultures

Editor's note: Aaron Sagers is a New York City-based entertainment writer and nationally syndicated pop-culture columnist. He has specialty knowledge in 'paranormal pop culture,' has lectured at conventions across the country on the topic and is a media pundit on supernatural entertainment. He covers pop culture daily at paranormalpopculture.com and can be found on Twitter @aaronsagers.

The pursuits and appearance of both nerds and hipsters change constantly, yet when observed together, they always appear as funhouse mirror reflections of the other: united by their exclusion from the mainstream.

On one side is the form of the cool kid who obsessively pursues the obscure to achieve outsider status; the other side is the shape of the uncool kid whose outsider status is the result of his obscure, obsessive pursuits. Kind of like the Wonder Twins, but not exactly.

"Nerds take things seriously, and hipsters don't seem to take anything seriously; they're sort of natural enemies," Andrew Matthews, a filmmaker living in Austin, Texas, said.

The editor for the acclaimed feature documentary "Best Worst Movie," he also wrote – and will be sharing directing duties on – "Zero Charisma," a film about a "Dungeons & Dragons" nerd whose gaming universe is invaded by a hipster.

Matthews is a self-described nerd.

Like the main character in his movie, he's a "D&D" player – he created a club for it in high school – as well as a dedicated sci-fi enthusiast and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" fan. His "nerdery" made it difficult to be popular as a kid, he said. While he may be OK with that now, he said he understands why some nerds may not take well to hipster neo-nerds: Nerds want to be recognized for being experts at their passions, whether it's for science for gaming. Hipsters, through their self-presentation and interests, want to be part of the excluded uncool kids.

Although he credited hipsters with being curious, he said their interests as more fashion than substance. The nerd vs. hipster animosity – at least in his movie – exists partly because hipsters haven't paid the social stigma dues of being committed to a nerdy passion.

Seeing a hipster wearing a "TMNT" vintage tee buoyed Matthews' belief. "I got made fun of for having those, and now you're cool and have that. Is that fair?" he said.

Like poles that do no attract
Philip Zoshak, a 23-year-old literacy nonprofit worker in Orlando, Florida, agreed that nerds have to pay social stigma dues. However, he referred to it as his "nerd pride." Zoshak, a history, gamer and fantasy nerd, said when he thinks of nerds, he thinks of the skinny, awkward kid with glasses and adds, "I personally fit that bill."

Zoshak said he doesn't have nerd rage toward hipsters, but does attach a negative connotation to them because they are co-opting, not adopting, nerd culture.

"The idea of the hipster is to be passionate about being antisocial," he said. "For nerds, there's no choice but to be on the outside looking in."

This is the crucial distinction between hipsters and nerds, said Lisa Wade, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California.

Wade also runs the Sociological Images website, and focuses her research on how people create social differences within groups. She examines groups like nerds and hipsters to see how subcultures emerge or are actively cultivated, and to study the experience of being different.

For example, she said a hipster can take off the thick-rimmed glasses, but a nerd cannot shed what they've grown into as an outsider. Compared to hipsters who are self-excluding and could fit with the mainstream if they so chose, this cultural critic calls nerds actively excluded; "authentically misfits."

"They're stigmatized; they're seen as not very attractive, as socially inept and overly interested in things that nobody else is really passionate about," she said.

Even though nerd culture has evolved over the years (computer nerds are only a few decades old, for instance), nerds keep many archetypal hallmarks. But hipsters historically change – often – in reaction to the mainstream – and that leads some to question how authentic they are, Wade said.

"There is something entirely genuine in a nerd that you will not find in a hipster," Hayley Smith, a 23-year-old marketing professional in New York City said. She is also, probably, a hipster.

But Smith won't openly identify herself as a hipster. She said to do so, to say you are hip, is the antithesis of the concept – it's used as a derogatory term in her social circle. But if one were to look at her and her friends, "we would be called hipsters," she said.

Smith said she finds it appealing to re-appropriate things once seen as lame, such as mustaches, short-shorts and "grandma shoes" thereby making them cool.

"It intellectualizes something that is not intellectual," she said. "It turns the uncool into the cool; thus, if you have the power to make the 'uncool' cool, then you must really be someone cool. Get it?"

The context of cultures
Nerds and hipsters are similar in that they tend to obsess over the technical details of a pursuit – computers, fashions, steam punk accessories, etc., said Lee Konstantinou, a new faculty fellow at Princeton University in New Jersey, and Post-1945 literature and culture expert. He finds it “socially relevant" to compare them because of the two groups’ differing motivations.

Konstantinou explored the hipster subculture at length in "Hipsters and the New Gilded Age" for Stanford University's "Arcade" website and his "coolhunters" article in Duke University's "boundary 2" journal.

"Nerds geek out out of a genuine love of – or obsession with – whatever it is they're geeking out about," he said. "Contemporary hipsters – though they may often sincerely love what they geek out about – are also concerned with opposing the mainstream, so they're motivated by a social desire to distinguish themselves, to be quirky or hip or different from everyone else."

Hipsters "geek out" on questions of self-formation in relation to what cultural products they consume, Konstantinou said. Nerds are typically "more interested in things than in people" and are "interested in questions about technology, and questions about scientific information."

Yet he doesn't think hipsters intend to be disrespectful to a community they buy into. They are approaching nerd culture with "authentic but different" motivation, he said. So, if a nerd is interested in the technical details of the way a computer works for its own sake, the hipster as being motivated by a social drive to be distinct, he said.

"Nerds are useful to hipsters only because they are actively stigmatized," she said. "When hipsters appropriate nerdness, they are saying 'We are so not mainstream that we embrace the very thing that the mainstream rejects.'"

Subcultures as catalysts for change
Melissa J. Daniels, a 33-year-old professional photographer in Newark, New Jersey, sees the hipster experience differently.

Daniels is a hipster nerdy about astrophysics and "Mortal Kombat," among other things, and views hipsters as more diverse than nerds. She says hipsters are progressive thinkers who want to be seen as unique individuals and "reject culturally ignorant attitudes of the mainstream."

In her opinion, hipsters are activists affecting change through a rally and alter cultural trends, but the nerd is offering change via contributions to government and the sciences or technology.

"It's a way of paying homage to the nerds," she said. "If you're accepting a part of another's counterculture – and you're assimilating it into your own – you're accepting it as a part of you; that creates a common thread."

For Matthews, that homage would not have been unwelcome when he was younger.

"Growing up a nerd, you would have loved to be considered cool or would love to be stylish, but it was just kind of out of your realm," he said. "As much as nerds might hate hipsters, there's probably a little bit of envy."

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soundoff (18 Responses)
  1. larry

    generation a.d.d.

    February 19, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
  2. Jo

    Hipsters are just nerds with a fashion sense.
    They can turn the ugliest clothes fashionable.
    Yes, nerds are social inepts and mainstream society makes fun of this. Why hate hipsters when their only crime is to be fashionable.

    October 19, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  3. fordror

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    November 30, 2011 at 11:52 pm |
  4. john

    Demyx- if there was no hipster, then there would be no nerd, because then there would be no one to set the standar of being hip, therefore their would be no judgement on who is hip and who is not. nerds and hipsters work together to base society, and if 1 of them were to not work as predicted then it would have an impact on all of society.

    October 5, 2011 at 4:16 am |
    • James

      Untrue there were nerds wayyyy before ther was hipster therefore proving your statement untrue. ;|

      November 15, 2011 at 8:01 pm |
  5. HI-FI Janna

    This post is fantastic! Now I'm sitting here trying to figure out which I am...and I just don't know. I do care about clothes, so that sounds hipster...but I also do not think that I gravitate towards antisocial 'things' simply for the sake of giving society the finger...though I do enjoy that bit.

    Another thought: in college I minored in Womens Studies, primarily because my small lib arts school didn't offer a major in that field. As part of my experience in those classes I met a lot of like-minded women who were (and most still are) self-described feminists (myself included). Several friends from this group told me that they chose to become lesbians as a way to assert their feminism. What I mean is that they were honestly more physically attracted to men, but made a political decision not to date men. That's pretty hipster of them, I'd say. I don't mean that in a bad way...I found it rather admirable, though I did not go that route.

    -Janna
    http://www.hifilives.com

    October 2, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
  6. Pebbles

    Brilliance for free; your parents must be a seewtheart and a certified genius.

    September 20, 2011 at 9:13 am |
  7. Demyx

    The thing about being hipster is being non-mainstream. Being hipster is now more mainstream than the population of nerds and geeks combined. So since the hipster is non-mainstream and being hipster is mainstream then you can't be hipster without being mainstream. So there is no way to be hipster anymore.

    September 9, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  8. Omar

    Millions of people go to church to fit in. Are they hipsters?

    September 8, 2011 at 1:38 am |
  9. Coast2Coast Hipster slash Carles

    Hipsters– in my first-hand experience– are total nerds, but not always about cliche 'nerdy' stuff. In the group of friends that I consider both my closest and 'hippest' bunch, the conversations are more likely to get into the technicalities of sentence structure, or something metaphysical vs technical. Hipsters absolutely adopt a skepticism from nerds based off of science and fact that isn't readily accepted by any other culture, sub- or otherwise, but I do think we're reliant on the nerds for the information. You definitely have people in any mainstream or sub-culture who are on the fringe and allow for stereotypes to develop; that's where the Parliament-smoking, Am-Appy-donning, PBR/ High Life/ Sparks-swigging, intellectually arrogant trust fund baby comes in. Some of these stereotypes are pretty true, and I think that some hipsters were nerds growing up who finally found their niche, but in my experience going from US coast-to-coast, I've generally found that hipsters are rebels with a cause, but their main cause is to say F-you to mainstream 'why' answers that are wholly dissatisfying. It's not necessarily about challenging mainstream because it's a consensus that the punk generation is dead and needs to be revived, it's an intellectual dissatisfaction from more creative-minded, probably materialistic yuppies. I can assure any nerd that hipsters are not looking for nerd-rage, and would happily talk it out. Mike was actually right that most hipsters I've met wish they had the /mental capacity?/, /opposite-hemisphere thinking?/ that 'nerds' do.

    September 4, 2011 at 3:02 am |
  10. Also Mike, but not that first one...

    There are a few, but very easy questions to ask yourself to determine if you are a Hipster (NYC variety): Do you shop at "American Apparel"? Do you thing Williamsburg is the best possible neighborhood to live in? Are you living off of a trust-fund set up by your parents? Do you go to punk/ska/goth/metal shows and say things like "Oh, you're dressed like a punk/rude boy/goth kid/metal head. I get it. Cool."?

    If you answered "yes" to any of these questions: Congratulations, you are a hipster. Please shave that stupid excuse for a mustache off your face, smack yourself for paying $80 for a flannel shirt and give your sister back her capris.

    September 2, 2011 at 1:46 pm |
  11. Mike

    I think, and people are likely to get mad at me for saying this, that the reason the Hipster/Nerd angst exists is because each side kinda wants to be more like the other. Take, for example, me and my friend Bob (actual name... I'm not just making someone up, I swear). Bob is a hipster. He loves his Macbook, his iPhone, his iPad, his iToilet, his iToaster, and anything else Steve Jobs happens to crap out his posterior. He loves roleplaying, but generally only indie games... Burning Wheel, Mouse Guard, etc. In fact... he loves anything. I've never heard of any of the bands on his iPod, never heard of any of the movies he watches... it's crazy. But, for all his hipster glory, he really just wants to be a nerd. He hears me talking about playing Warmachine and wishes he could join (but, being married with 3 kids, has no time for it). We talk about our software projects, and when I start talking about the tools I'm making to look at satellite code, he looks at me with some sort of awestruck look on his face, like "Wow, I wish I could do that... it sounds way better than web apps."

    At the same time, I do find myself wishing I had his life. I don't have his Charisma, his self-assured nature, or his admittedly superior sense of style. Once, when he was pulled over for speeding and the cop asked him, "Do you know why I pulled you over?", Bob replied, "Is it because I'm black?" (he's not). I'd never have the guts to do something like that... I'm always "Yes sir, right away sir." I may joke with him about the vast superiority of my Droid 2 over his iPhone 4, but the truth is, he keeps up with that stuff better and can do more with his than I can with mine (and, being an iThingy, one must admit that while it falls ever-so-slightly behind in function, it certainly doesn't lack in form).

    I think the two halves of a whole imagery of the Yin Yang symbol is almost perfect... we're each comfortable, more or less, in who we are, but see something in the other that we wish he could have. He wishes he could have my freedom to do what I like without caring about what other people thought, and I wish I could be charismatic enough that other people actually cared what I thought. The truth is, we're both fine... he enjoys being a father, and given my "freedom" would quickly find himself right back in the family life (though probably playing more games). And people generally do care what I think, I just need to not think out loud quite as often, and offer up less of the thoughts people don't particularly care about.

    September 1, 2011 at 3:24 pm |
  12. rwilli94

    I have this theory that you're only a hipster if you're convinced you're not a hipster. The best cure is to come clean. Confess! Say it with me now: I am a hipster. There. Now we're not hipsters anymore. Except now we believe we're not hipsters, so we're hipsters again. Dang it! I had it on vinyl! No, no, no. I confess, I am a hipster. There, clean. Oh, no! I liked them before they were cool! I'm a hipster, I'm a hipster! Pleeeeease, don't make me wear something ironic! I promise I don't have any fashion sense!

    Seriously, though, I think there's a lot of overlap between these two pigeon holes. As a matter of fact, I'm fairly convinced these kinds of labels only exist to divide people. Who's to say that someone else is a hipster? You can't see into that person's heart and know how legitimately he cares about something. Only he can know how he feels about music or movies. And even if they are just interested in these things to fit in with the out crowd, why is that evil? Don't we all need a place to belong?

    Belief in these kinds of stereotypes can make geeky people fit stereotypes about geeky people. Like the Comic Book Guy persona. We don't want to exclude others because they aren't "nerdy" enough. Just like it's wrong for the "cool kids" to judge us, I think it's wrong for us to pass that social stigma on to someone else.

    Even if you find people who do fit the hipster stereotype, maybe there's something they can teach you. Your typical imaginary hipster is into music, so ask them which bands they like and give them a try. There's nothing wrong with taking advantage of a chance to grow.

    September 1, 2011 at 1:39 pm |
  13. Rob

    Hipsters are the parasite that feeds off the leavings of nerds. We dispise them because they get all of the perks with none of the drawback. Nerds unlike hipsters have true sustenance and passion for what we are. Hipsters are cold hallow things.

    August 31, 2011 at 10:23 pm |
    • Manoj

      Why is "geek,+ nerds" possible and "geek,+ nerd" gets ttalsnared into "geek,+nerds"? (With "nerd, + geek" there is no such problem though "nerd" still becomes "nerds"). A bug in the engine?

      May 24, 2012 at 7:00 pm |