Penn alumni are at the forefront of a growing movement to make socializing safe for the world’s nerds. .
BY CAREN LISSNER MATZNER
Inside a dimly lit bar near the Brooklyn waterfront on a blustery October night, young professionals are sitting at small tables, drinking and checking each other out in two reflecting pools near the front of the room. A young man with a master’s degree in digital media walks onto a stage to give a slide presentation on the history and utility of infographics—and the crowd goes silent.
For 20 minutes, the man presents charts covering everything from worldwide farm production of soybeans to why there aren’t enough single datable black men (just to mix things up a little).
When he finishes presenting and departs the stage, Matt Wasowski C’96 walks on. Tall and blond, he is lit by the stage lights and appears again in the reflecting pools.
“Before the presentation, I asked how many of you knew what an infographic was, and six people raised their hands,” he says. “How many of you feel like you know what infographics are now?” He pauses to survey the raised hands. “That’s way more than seven people!”
Wearing a button-down shirt, his hair cut boyishly short, Wasowski looks professional and eager, but he’s not what one would think of as a nerd. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines a nerd as “an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person, especially one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.” Wasowski not only follows sports, he’s written a book on the subject. (True, the title is It’s Okay to Like Sports: How Women, Intellectuals, and Artists Can Find Cultural Value in Athletics, but still.) And he’s presumably even kissed his live-in girlfriend (Sarah Brockett C’99), who plays bass guitar in an indie band.
But Wasowski is a nerd. More than that, he is officially the “nerd boss” of New York.
Over the last decade, Wasowski has been part of a group of Penn acquaintances who helped pollinate America and then the world with a series of events called Nerd Nite (nerdnite.com) that urge participants to “be there and be square.” The monthly nights of learning (and drinking) have launched in nearly 30 cities around the world, from Amsterdam to Wellington, New Zealand (though most venues are still in the US).
Nerd Nites in New York and San Francisco have routinely lured as many as 300 attendees, leading many to ask why people are willing to pack rooms on weekend nights in order to learn from scholarly presentations. Some credit the Internet with making it easier for formerly isolated brainiacs to find each other. Others point to computers, but in a different way—they note that yesterday’s tech-nerds have become today’s Fortune 500 billionaires, so it’s become more acceptable to be smart and weird. Still others find it enthralling to simply consider the evolution of once pejorative terms like nerd, and to wonder what it says about the direction of society.
So how did an insult that once typically accompanied being shoved into a school locker become a term with which people proudly self-identify, and what does it mean for the future of community and communications? And, well, is it still an insult?
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Illustration by Graham Roumieu