The Dork Ages
Commonplace Newsletter #98
We live in dork times1. Yes, you may have read many an essay or watched many a YouTube video or looked over magazine articles discussing geek culture or the revenge of the nerds, but we don’t hear so much said about the sheer dorkiness of the times we live in.
This might sound mean-spirited, a little callous even, but I think there is a whole layer of nuance, a whole conversation that isn’t being had when it comes to how dorky seemingly everything (and everyone now) is. And if you are like me, once you’ve caught sight of this phenomenon it can’t be ignored.
But before we get into this a little clarification is needed. Today all three terms- geek, nerd and dork- are used interchangeably and have become effectively synonymous, but in truth each one refers to a distinct concept. The former two words have largely blended together and have now been completely reframed and recontextualised to become neutral if not positive terms. Geeks and nerds now walk around with impunity. Whether this is a good or bad thing is for the reader to decide. As the Machiavellian politician Francis Urquhart in the UK original House of Cards was fond of mischievously saying “You might very well think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment”2.
However dork is still a pejorative term- and rightly so- but it is not used as often as it should be. Which is a shame as it is an extremely useful way to describe our current times, especially online. I’ll show you what I mean…
A geek is someone who is highly enthusiastic about a particular subject3- traditionally one that’s obscure or difficult for the average person to understand or care about. A nerd by contrast is (at least in the traditional usage of the word) someone who is earnestly eager about learning, intellectual pursuits, or academia. The term nerd had an implication of someone who had a considerable amount of specialist, often technical knowledge, to the point where a degree of social ineptness might be a by-product as they forewent socialisation for solitary and intense study.
The dork, however, is completely different. A dork is simply someone who has difficulty with social expectations and interactions. A dork is someone who just doesn’t ‘get it’ when it comes to how to conduct yourself in the world and what fluid and appropriate socialising looks like4. And, as the title of this piece suggests, such people are now absolutely everywhere, tarnishing everything they touch.
So, the dork- at least in the way that I use the term- is not just simply someone who is socially inept and incompetent. They are this way for a specific reason: And this reason as far as I can see is entitlement. All social interaction, as every well-adjusted, functional adult knows is a matter of give and take, it is a fluid, reciprocal art which naturally has something of a performative nature to it, this being the case the more distantly connected you are to your interlocutor. With a stranger you may (and should) perform the everyday pleasantries and small-talk that cultural etiquette demands, whereas with close friends and family you can be increasingly ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’. All painfully obvious stuff so far. Or so you would think.
But not so for the dork. The dork, you see, believes they are exempt from this and that they should be able to be themselves at all times and through this ‘honesty’ instantly garner respect and acceptance for simply just existing. Of course the real world doesn’t work in this way and it is instead a place that is predicated on value exchanges. You get out of it what you put into it, which is a more nuanced way of expressing the hard-line notion that in the end you often get what you deserve. Basic acts of civility and etiquette are a part of this- you offer up little morsels of small-talk and pleasantries to the barista who just made your coffee and the taxi driver who just drove you across town and you receive the same civility in kind. Give respect to get respect, as every third rate mafiosi movie will tell you5.
You would think all of this is just a natural and obvious part of becoming an adult, but therein lies the problem. Things aren’t geared up for adolescents to develop into functional adults anymore. This process of growing up still happens for the majority6 but it increasingly seems to be a product of either going against the grain or an eventual bored reaction to the perpetual teenhood that’s increasingly held up as the standard for all of us.
My take is that in the same way that the whole category of the teenager was invented post WWII as a means of stimulating the economy and marketing consumer goods to an impressionable cohort with disposable income, so too has this teenhood been encouraged to continue in the individual indefinitely. Hence middle-aged comic book fans, hence young adult novels being read by those who are no longer young adults (and being included in literature degree programmes), hence parents and their teenage children dressing the same and watching the same content on the same gadgets. Hence the whole sorry mess. Adolescence is as much a marketing category as it is an existential condition, and we will now all default to being perpetual teenagers unless we explicitly choose not to.
And this is where dorkiness comes in as it is a very teenage mode of being. Entitlement- thinking you automatically deserve respect, attention and preferential treatment merely because you exist- is the hallmark of both the moody teenager (who can be temporarily excused) and the adult dork (who cannot be). There is something about this state- grounded in insecurity and a lack of confidence earned by navigating the real world in all its complexity- that leads one to broadcast who they are (or want to be seen as being) with signifiers, which is another way of saying ‘consumer goods’. I can’t help but conclude that dorkiness is allowed to exist because it’s so good for business. Dorkiness is when people willingly algorithmize themselves and sort themselves into consumer demographics to be advertised to. The ripple effect this has had across different mediums of expression, activities and hobbies has been significant.
You see it in the dorkification of cinema where things have degenerated into competing ‘fandoms’ who all champion their chosen corporate franchise as true believers against the outsiders who differ politically but still think that being 38 years old and highly emotionally invested in comic book movies is appropriate and proportionate7. You see it in the dorkification of music where people become sub-genre gatekeepers, over praising the chosen few while sneering at people who might have different taste. You also see this in musicians (especially amateur guitar players) who become pedal and amplifier obsessives without having any creative ideas to express on their ever-expanding collection of gear.
You see it in sports where people become statistic-obsessed moneyballers8 who can win any sports based trivia game but who have zero athleticism and would probably gain zero enjoyment from spectating if it weren’t a means to craft an identity and signal this identity to others.
You also see it- and this one might hurt- in memes, which is the dorkification of humour and wit into easily parseable and replicable little units of mirth, wherein the joke is invariably that the ingroup I am a part of is good and the outgroup that you are a part of is bad. Sounds pretty dorky when it’s put like that9.
It is possible to be a geek but not a dork. It is possible to be a gamer, or a comic book reader, or an anime watcher (or whatever) without also having to be a dork. It is also possible to be a nerd- and be into programming or computer building or metal detecting and so on- without succumbing to dorkdom. It’s all about not turning the thing into a talisman, a shorthand for who you want people to think you are: ‘I will become a fan of X so that people see me as Y’ is a terrible frame of mind by which to approach life and it’s one that social media and the advertisers who profit from these platforms have been more than happy to foster, whether tacitly or overtly.
Dorkiness ends where true self-knowledge begins. And this is a product of becoming yourself rather than signalling a (make believe) version of yourself for the benefit of some imagined community. Without these off-the-shelf signifiers we have to gain accomplishments, defeats, stories and experiences to bring to bear as we navigate through life. We will only get out what we put in.
Until next time,
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Yes, I know that between the title and this opening line I have already used the same pun twice already. The Dork Web, anyone? I’ll desist now. I’ve gotten it out of my system.
I haven’t seen the US version. The first, and standalone season of the UK version is only four episodes, and in my opinion well worth watching.
Originally a geek referred to a freak show act. The geek would be presented in a cage as a dirty loincloth wearing savage, more animal than human, who would bite the head off live chickens. For real. The geek would usually be a very advanced stage alcoholic who would commit this daily act of brutality in exchange for a bottle of rotgut. William Lindsay Gresham’s excellent novel Nightmare Alley describes such a geek and how he came into being. This is all largely irrelevant to our discussion but I thought it was interesting and I never pass up a chance to recommend that novel.
I can already foresee some critiques of this along the lines of pre-emptively medicalising and excusing some of the behaviours I am about to get into. But having ADHD, or autism, or Tourette’s Syndrome or bipolar disorder does not make you a dork. For the sake of this discussion, I want the reader to assume that the dork is mentally and physically ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ barring their dorkiness. As a side note, my younger brother has learning disabilities and is autistic, yet he always manages a polite greeting. However he is still working on his goodbyes, opting at the moment to announce “I’m off!” while marching away.
While of course showing you the opposite in action.
I fear this assessment may be a little too optimistic.
To be clear, I think you can like what you want. I don’t believe in that whole guilty pleasure idea. The problem becomes when you tie your identity to this stuff and so every bad review of your franchise de jour stops being something that’s shrugged off and instead becomes a narcissistic injury.
A moneyballer- named after the Brad Pitt baseball vehicle Moneyball- is the term I use to describe a number-crunching small-time gambler, the kind who rarely wins in spite of having spent untold hours memorising player statistics and squabbling on Reddit.
Memes are funny when they are fresh and those rare people who create a meme from whole cloth clearly do possess wit. It’s those who then hammer these memes into the ground through endless repetition and- this theme again- using memes to craft their identity who are the issue here.