Nerdery

David Spade will forever have a special place in my heart for what he did in the movie Tommy Boy. I’m not sure if it was his creation, but in that movie, Spade delivered a line that added one of my favorite words to the english language:

My fellow nerds and I will retire to the nerdery with our calculators.

I saw the movie back in high school when it was in the theater. Immediately—I mean, before we had gotten out of our seats—we were using “nerdery” to refer to our pack of nerds [1]. It’s like there was a linguistic void waiting to be filled, one that we had somehow never noticed before, and that term came to our rescue, identifying and defining a concept that we all knew but could never properly articulate.

It’s interesting that he’s clearly talking about a location in the quote, and not necessarily a pack. Nevertheless, the longing for this term is clear in the fact that literally every single person I know has exactly the same concept of what it means [2], despite having grown up in different parts of the world. That’s pretty rare for a concept so squishy, even if the term is only 13 years old.

ζῷον πολιτικὸν

Nerds are humans, and humans travel in tribes. Nerds may fail at popularity, but the human qua πολιτικὸν phenomenon is inescapable. We are social creatures, by our nature. You can’t keep up with it all on your own, which is why your lazyweb is smarter than google.

It’s kind of easy bait to just say that nerds fail at people, but to stop there is missing the point [3]. The lack of popularity doesn’t change the need for polis; it simply changes the types of people that nerds tend to associate with. Given the right conditions, we clump together, and form nerderies.

If nerds didn’t need people, we wouldn’t clump. We’d all be loners. And really, deep down, we’re not, no matter what we may tell ourselves.

You can do things with a nerdery that you can’t do alone. Hacking on your own can be fun, but no matter what it is, projects really take the fuck off when a few heads are working together. That’s how you get explosive momentum. No matter how smart or driven you are, you cannot do it alone. The genius of the future stands on the shoulders of everyone.

Connecticut

In high school, I was a part of a quality nerdery. We were the kids who sat in the back of the class in AP Calculus, who stopped doing homework so we could study harder and get a 5/5 on The Test. We made web pages and played dungeons and dragons. We ran with the artists and freaks.

But it was high school. Things were awkward and weird. We knew each other too well, and yet not at all. After graduation, I fell out of touch with most of those guys. Maybe there was a really strong tribe there, and I was just never quite in it. Or maybe we just grew up, and our interests diverged.

In college, I lived in Neff Hall, the designated geek dorm. It really was. The top two floors were even preferentially assigned to Honors College students. In my second year, we reached Critical Mass. We were a tribe, Tre Neff. We had a call. We organized acts of benevolent mischief. A decade later, I follow a bunch of them on twitter, and comment on their blogs. I moved to California with one of them, and we all know each other, an extended family of sorts.

California

Connecticut is beautiful, and great for a lot of things. I’m glad to have grown up there, and I would recommend that anyone spend their college years in New Haven. But it’s a terrible place to be a grown-up hacker. When I moved out to San Diego, I was sans-nerdery. Lone wolves catch no caribou.

Transporting my tribe to California was a pleasant fantasy, but not realistic. They all had their own lives. Some of them moved to Boston. Others were still in school in New Haven or elsewhere. Wasn’t gonna happen. Even if we were all local, we’d grown up, and we weren’t into the same things any longer. We were still friends, but not a nerdery.

So, that meant building a new one. When I got a job at a little windows shop, I thought Well, a nerdery just kinda happened in high school, and another one just kinda happened in college, seems reasonable that I’ll find one at a software company. Lotta geeks there. Ha. How very naïve. My god, we do fail at people.

There were about 30 people at that company, and I did meet more nerds there. A few became friends and are still. But somehow, it lacked cohesion.

After a few years, that job wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I focused all my time and energy on learning the latest in web development. PHP, CSS, Javascript, semantic markup, XML, and so on. I started writing a blog, reading blogs, commenting, conversing, everything I could do to tap into this tribe and be one of its members.

One day, a woman named Amy emailed me about a position at Yahoo. I interviewed, and an invitation to the technopolis fell into my lap. 3 years later, I’m still here, and my unwillingness to leave has even attracted some attention, temporary though it may be.

Stars and Nets

I’ve met a lot more high quality nerds here at this company, more than I can link to in one sentence. Since moving to Silicon Valley, I’ve also found other hacker groups and interest meetups and so on.

For whatever reason, it seems like only about 10% of the people we meet have friend potential, and only maybe 10% of those fall into the right blend of coincidence to actually result in any kind of useful relationship. Maybe these numbers are skewed down by the fact that I’m talking specifically about nerds, but I suspect that, for anyone, the vast majority of acquaintances and colleagues never make it to “friends”. There are only so many hours in the day, and relating takes time. We are limitful creatures.

When it comes to functional groups, size matters. A lot. The ideal size for a nerdery seems to be about 7 people, and it needs the right balance of skills.

Nevertheless, that 1% turns out to be quite enough, if you’ve got access to a big enough population. It’s quite helpful to start out at a large software company or a college that attracts technical talent. It’s easy to meet a few like-minded friends if you are exposed to a few hundred likely contacts. I didn’t realize at the time that the difference between college and that first software company was mostly scale; 30 employees vs 30,000 students. (It was a state university—at a place like MIT or Stanford, the pool would probably not need to be so large.)

Cohesion happens in the progression from “star” to “net”. star vs net (i win at art!) In this extremely technical diagram, the red dots are people, and the blue lines are relationships between them. A person’s group of friends and associates starts out as a star. We relate to people who might not relate much with one another, and who have associations with other people outside the group, that we don’t know.

The ideal net is where each of the points interacts with all or most of the others. That’s where the good stuff happens. We can spend less time relating, and get more value from it. See how all the blue lines cross over one another? Ideas flow across those channels, and they pollute one another as they bounce around. Conversations produce accidental ideas, and the more collisions, the more accidents are liable to occur. Nets tighten. Things get caught in nets. Tasty things.

I suspect that a functional group also can’t really be without a function. It has to start as bonding over some purpose, or else it just doesn’t get there. It’s hard to organically attract the right blend of skills without some need for those skills.

The way to get from star to net is just to get bigger. Meet more people, stick with the ones that seem the most interesting. As the star grows more dense, the spokes bump into one another, and it collapses in gradual steps. At some point, it’s ripe for being drawn together by some unifying project or task, and the right members join together to make it happen. Some pieces fly off, and the rest is pulled into the new shape.

The best communities organize themselves.

Thanks to Breanna Schlueter and Melissa Sconyers, who read an early draft of this and provided helpful feedback.

Footnotes

  1. For the sake of brevity, I’ve skipped the tired and boring “nerd vs geek” semantic hair-splitting. They mean roughly the same thing, depending on who you ask, and that’s not what this is really about, anyhow. #back
  2. A friend of mine pointed out that “nerdery” is like “club”, in that it can both refer to the location where the group congregates, as well as the group that congregates in the location. Seems reasonable. #back
  3. It is not my intention to imply that Paul Graham’s nerds essay misses any kind of point. He does some very good analysis of the reasons behind the phenomenon. #back