Mind Over Media: Nerd out with reference culture



When someone comes over to my house for the first time, there is always a look of shock on their face when they enter my room.  It might be the “Batman: Mask of the Phantasm” poster, or maybe my “Neon Genesis Evangelion” action figures.  There’s always an internal debate I have about hiding my “Dragonball Z” tapes.

I can feel my guests’ eyes roll as they notice the “Battlestar Galactica” fan art that hangs above my television. Point being— I am a nerd.  I know what I love, and when I love something I get deeply immersed in it.

Not too long ago, I found myself channel surfing in a hotel room.  I stumbled upon a show I had never seen before: “The Big Bang Theory.” If you have never seen the sitcom, it is about a group of socially awkward nerds and an aspiring actress, named Penny, who lives across the hall.  Penny  is often used as a “normal” character for the nerdy boys’ idiosyncrasies to bounce off of.

After watching the show, I couldn’t help but feel exploited. I didn’t find myself connecting with the characters or the conversations.  They all seemed to have high functioning autism or were super-geniuses. It is as if I’m not supposed to relate to them.

One scene opens up with a slow pan across the group of nerds on their computers with headsets on.  The laugh track plays before a word is muttered. Thus, the joke is that there  is a group of nerds playing an online game in their living room.

The humor is written in a way that plays on the microculture shock someone experiences when peering into the culture. It’s a stereotypical reference to the subculture. The audience is supposed to laugh at the outsider idea of nerds.

This is a good example of something I call reference culture.  Reference culture comes out of a society of information overload. We live in a post-internet society, one where all different types of media and subcultures are only a Google search away.

Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, explains in an issue of Wired Magazine, “All things digital get bigger and smaller at the same time.”

Chuck Lorre, creator of “The Big Bang Theory,”  has perfectly captured this contradiction with his show. As a result, a subculture like ‘nerd’ gets more visibility in the mainstream media, but in a superficial light. If the show was more authentic to “nerd culture,” it would alienate viewers who aren’t immersed in the subculture.

Because of the Internet, culture has gained a depth and vastness larger than ever before. This makes it harder to create television shows that have wide-spread appeal.

In order to accommodate an expanding pop culture, the depth we ascribe to these topics diminishes.  This is essentially killing pop culture, or at least causing it to cave in on itself.

This is evident in referential comedies like “Big Bang Theory,” but also when you look at blockbuster films. The most successful films, such as superhero films, reboots of past franchises and genre studies, are referential in nature.

Neil Postman, a popular media critic,  argues that people don’t necessarily want knowledge; they want simplicity. He cites an example of this being the way televised news programs evolved into talking hairdos and superficial exports of world events.
It’s shocking  that Neil Postman made these statements in 1985, seeing as how well his theory fits in with the way culture has been affected by the Internet.
We have access to unlimited information at our fingertips, and yet our media is being dumbed down by it.

I always thought of the Internet as the democratization of media, but perhaps it just brought us opportunity for more commercialization.

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