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Nerding out: The identity crisis of nerds becomes mainstream

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 3 2014 4:20 a.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, Sept. 4 2014 4:32 p.m. MDT

From left, Brittanie Larsen, Aaron Mead and Cameron John attend Utah's first Comic Con at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Troy Campbell wears a lot of hats: Duke University consumer researcher, scholar, basketball enthusiast … and nerd.

That last one, Campbell admits, doesn’t mean what it did when he was a 14-year-old in California poring over books chronicling the Star Wars extended universe.

"Actually, I consider myself a mainstream nerd," Campbell clarified. "I know my place."

Campbell's "place" is a spot on a sort of nerd spectrum that has emerged as entertainment once strictly considered nerd territory and which has become more widely embraced in pop culture. Campbell's status puts him somewhere in the middle — he's definitely more knowledgeable about Star Wars than a lot of fans, but he doesn't devote as much attention to it as he once did. And with the advent of the Internet, he doesn't have to.

"Nerd identity is a lot about knowledge: Knowing insider information, knowing what’s in and what’s not. Feeling mastery over something is amazing," Campbell said. "The Internet literally institutionalized nerds. The Internet makes knowing incredibly easy."

So it's understandable that current nerd culture can be a rude awakening for more old-school nerds, whose deep knowledge of sci-fi or comic mythologies came from years of meticulous attention — often in the face of scorn — rather than a few hours on Google before attending "The Avengers" with friends. These days, people entering their 30s, once ridiculed and labeled as nerds by bullies, now stand in line for the latest Marvel movie next to teens who proudly wear "nerd" T-shirts.

The dichotomy makes one thing clear: The rules of nerd-dom have changed and the boundaries have blurred.

"For nerds, it's the best of times and the worst of times because we're valued and accepted, but our world has been infringed on," Campbell said. "Not only our world, but our identity."

More fans, more nerds

No one knows better than Dan Farr that nerd culture has moved into the mainstream. Farr caught the Comic Con bug while selling 3D animation software at various conventions.

"I got pulled into the creative energy. You walk around these places and you can cut it with a knife," Farr said.

Farr is the founder of Salt Lake City Comic Con, now entering its second year after a meteoric 70,000 attendance last year — a record-breaking number for first-year regional Comic Cons. Attendance at the April Salt Lake Comic Con broke 100,000 attendees, making it the third-largest convention in the country.

"The first year, we estimated maybe 15,000-20,000 people would come," Farr said. "We had 30,000 registered the weekend before the event. Luckily, we were able to change our venue without a problem."

Farr attributes his convention's success to fan enthusiasm, which he believes is stronger than ever thanks to a robust lineup the past few years of movies and TV shows based on comics or fantasy novels.

"All the Marvel and Batman movies really helped build up the culture. 'The Walking Dead,' I think, has also driven a lot of popularity back to the comic culture," Farr said. "They may not read the comics, but they enjoy the comic stories."

It's a logical theory that the success of movies and TV shows with roots in comic books could coincide with wider cultural acceptance of nerd culture. It could also have led to higher attendance at regional and San Diego's International Comic-Con, the original and largest convention in the U.S. A history of San Diego Comic-Con attendance published on tech blog io9.com saw a 20,000-person jump from 2005 and 2006 — a few years after the first two Spider-Man films, Christopher Nolan's re-imagining of the Batman franchise and the end of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

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