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What’s a ‘geek,’ anyway?

The STEM engagement world is terribly naïve when it talks about audiences. Still. After all this time. Here’s an example:

Felicia Day is an actor who runs a very successful YouTube channel, Geek and Sundry. Which is pretty cool, actually: one of their top shows is a tabletop gaming chat show hosted by Wil Wheaton, what’s not to love about that?

Here, Day riffs on their audience, and the nature of ‘geek.’ She notes of ‘geek’:

In the six years I’ve been doing this, that word has become something else. We’ve been using it so much that it’s kind of lost meaning. “Geek” has become a cliché, a label, something to monetize and market to, to pigeonhole, to brand, to exploit.

It’s become something that describes a person who is defined solely by liking comics or games or movies or TV.

Day goes on to rail against this.  Fine. I’m very much a geek myself, and I don’t identify with the blunt marketing trifecta of comics/games/media. But then Day continues:

To me, “geek” means an outsider, a rebel, a dreamer, a creator, whether its our own world or someone else’s. It’s a fighter, a person who dares to love something that isn’t conventional.

Right. Yeah, see, that’s not me at all. Well, not in the way I think Day means it. Certainly, I don’t think her conception of ‘geek’ revolves around rationality and science in the way that mine does. But she represents a much larger population than I do.

The STEM community struggles with the ‘science is for geeks’ stereotype; but what we mean by ‘geek’ isn’t what some of our audience take it to mean. In trying to avoid labelling one segment of our audience, we’ve mislabelled (and failed to appeal to) another.

…and that’s irrelevant now, anyway – thanks to our misplaced worry, we’ve lost ownership of the geek brand. Rather than turn it to our advantage, rather than claim proud ownership of that segment and think of ways of appealing separately to those it doesn’t reach, we’ve run away, flapping our hands, saying “No, science isn’t like that!”

While we were earnestly explaining why you don’t have to be a geek to be a scientist, the largest marketing machine on Earth gleefully swept in, sold another Avengers movie, and made a fortune from all the people we were boring silly.

Oops.

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