Getting a Life: The Social Worlds of Geek Culture

Monday, March 5, 2018

Guest blog by Benjamin Woo, Assistant Professor, School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University

When someone asks you where the idea for a research project came from, there’s a right and a wrong answer. The right one is about debates in the field and gaps in the literature, and it presupposes what you eventually discovered. I find the wrong one is usually more interesting.

The story behind my latest book, Getting a Life: The Social Worlds of Geek Culture, begins at an early iteration of the Toronto Comic Art Festival, now the premiere independent comics festival in North America. I wore a belt buckle made from an old Nintendo Entertainment System controller, and the compliments it garnered from my fellow comics aficionados came as no surprise. What did surprise me was that I kept receiving appreciative comments after I left the show and went poking around trendy boutiques on Queen Street West. Didn’t these hipsters know that Nintendo and classic video games were for us nerds, not them? Reflecting on the experience, I thought there might be a research project here — and there was, just not the one I was looking for.

I started out interested in exploring how geek culture was entering mainstream culture — a discourse I have come to call the “triumphal narrative.” This assumption that nerdy hobbies, pastimes and fandoms used to be marginal but are moving to the centre of media culture was everywhere at the time, as it has continued to be. But, when I went looking at how the press had talked about geeks and nerds since the late 1970s, I found that they were always in this state of arrival, always just about to have their revenge.

Instead, I started asking who was being left of out the story. When I looked at cultural criticism being published in mainstream media sources, I was told I should care about geek culture because of its broadening popularity, but where did that leave people who had been involved with it for years, even decades? I hung out in comic book and game stores, conventions and fan club meetings, spoke with the people who ran them, and interviewed participants representing a range of different communities within geek culture about the place they held in their lives. The result is a snapshot of one Canadian city’s geek culture scene at a particular moment in time.

Getting a Life argues that geek culture is a name for a set of social practices oriented to media such as comic books, games, and cult genres like science-fiction and fantasy. Over the years, media (especially whatever media happen to be new media at the time) have been blamed for isolating people, replacing active engagement with our neighbours and fellow citizens with a passive relationship with objects. In the spaces of geek culture, however, I found that media also provide the basis for community-making. The various practices of connoisseurship that draw people to the objects of their fandom necessarily put them in relationships with one another, and their shared cultural experiences create a common frame of reference for articulating — and struggling over — the values that are important to them.

Benjamin Woo is Assistant Professor of communication and media studies at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication. His research examines the production, circulation and reception of “geeky” media, with a particular emphasis on comic books and graphic novels. He is the Director of the Comic Cons Research Project and a level-five sorcerer. Getting a Life is his third book.

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As the voice of the humanities and social sciences in Canada, the Federation is a great supporter of books. Our Awards to Scholarly Publications Program (ASPP) has supported the publication of important Canadian scholarly books since 1941. Bookmark it! shares the story behind some of these fascinating books. Occasionally, we’ll also highlight other books that are significant to Canadian culture, society and research. Read more posts.