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Nerdy no more, 'geek chic' emerges as the new brand of cool

Hodgman_Long_09_02142008.jpg

John Hodgman, left with Justin Long, has become the new nerd hero. From his appearances on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and Apple's television ads, Hodgman has developed a significant fan base, and televison shows are taking note. (Photo Courtesy of Apple Computer)

Hodgman_Long_07_02142008.jpg

John Hodgman, of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and Apple's television ads, has become the new nerd hero. He has developed a significant fan base, and television shows are taking note. (Photo Courtesy of Comedy Central)

Hodgman_Long_08_02142008.jpg

John Hodgman, of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" and Apple's television ads, has become the new nerd hero. He has developed a significant fan base, and television shows are taking note. (Photo Courtesy of Comedy Central)

“Hello, I’m a Mac,” says actor Justin Long, clad in jeans, sneakers, a T-shirt and a hooded sweatshirt in Apple’s “Get a Mac” commercials. “And I’m a PC,” replies actor John Hodgman, wearing an ill-fitting suit, clashing tie and large, dorky wire-rimmed glasses.

The commercials pit Long’s laid-back style against Hodgman’s stodginess to pose two questions: Which character would you rather be and, by extension, which computer would you rather buy?

Unwittingly, however, Apple has created a new anti-hero with the ads. Message boards and pop culture Web sites are ablaze with praise for Hodgman and backlash against Long. Valleywag.com, a Silicon Valley technology site, devotes an entire section to John Hodgman.

Writing about Apple’s latest ads for the ultra-thin MacBook Air that don’t feature Hodgman, blogger Nicholas Carson writes “Until I get some John Hodgman, I’m not sold.” On TheAppleBlog.com, “VolleyballJerry” writes that after he sees the ads he “wants to smack Long.” And “Dan Coulter” sums it up on Mudsugar.com, another pop culture Web site: “I’d rather hang out with John Hodgman than with that poser from ‘Dodgeball,’” he writes.

Seth Stevenson, a media critic for Slate.com, says Apple miscast the commercials. “Hodgman got all the laugh lines,” he says. “He was more charming, the underdog and more likable.” Long, not Hodgman, became the antagonist. “It was a big mistake to cast your character as the straight guy,” Stevenson says, of Long “He was smug and off-putting.”

Hodgman’s cult following marks the rise of a new brand of cool--geek chic. In a society obsessed with makeovers, the “geek” has remained unabashedly himself: earnest, awkward, bumbling. And he’s finally getting noticed. Hollywood’s latest stars like Michael Cera, Daniel Radcliffe, Jason Schwartzman and Hodgman, the poster-boy for the movement, have recast the leading man and changed public perception. Cutting across all sectors--from media to retail--the nerd figure has come to power.

The rise of Hodgman’s own star is a testament to society’s newfound geek worship. A regular on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” he plays the role of a “Resident Expert.” He is also the author of “My Areas of Expertise,” a book of satirical trivia, and is a humor editor and contributor to The New York Times Magazine. Through his many outlets, Hogdman has turned his dorky shtick into a sphere of influence.

On prime-time television, the CW network has found a remarkably successful geek formula. Allison Kaz is the casting producer of “Beauty and the Geek,” a show in which attractive (and often ditzy) women are paired with geeks for a series of competitions. The geeks steal the show in spite of the ladies’ formidable physical charms. It is the seemingly backwards guys who teach the so-called beauties valuable lessons in kindness and character. “There has been a shift in the definition of what a geek is,” she says. “The show has definitely brought coolness to the geek term.”

When looking for geeks for the show, Kaz zeroes in on people who are obsessed with a single subject. “You don’t need to have gone to an Ivy League school to be a geek,” she says. “You can be passionate in a certain craft and that makes you geeky.” A refreshing, new take on geeky.

Cashing in on the trend, several Web sites have found a niche in the online world: geek paraphernalia. ThinkGeek.com sells clothing, toys, gadgets and electronics to, well, geeks. NerdyShirts.com’s inventory includes T-shirts that read “The Internet is for Lovers” and “I (Heart) Google” and a stock of retro calculator Casio watches, the Rolex of geek accessories.

Jason Tocci, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania whose dissertation is on geek culture and who founded the Geek Studies Institute, says the Web sites show where the debate in the geek world stands. “A lot more products are more willing to brand themselves as ‘nerdy,’” he says. “People use these words in a very self-deprecating way as a way to maintain that they are not losers.”

The changes are also being felt within the geek community itself. As society comes to view geeks as cool, Tocci says, the geek world reacts by going one step further. For a long time, he explains, calling oneself a “geek” was cool but being called a nerd was uncool, a subtle distinction for most, but significant to those in the know. But in the last year or two, he says, “a lot more people are willing to use ‘nerd’ as a positive term.” In other words, when the masses embrace geeks, true geeks get geekier to stay ahead of the curve.

With the prevalence of Mac Guys nowadays, the PC Guy becomes society’s blameless rebel, the outsider. Describing the Mac Guy as “a nouveau geek,” Micah Johnson, associate editor at Details magazine, remarks, “He looks strangely like the rest of us.”

The PC guy’s geekiness is surprisingly compelling. Even Marcel Molina--a 26-year-old Austin, Texas, software engineer who exclusively uses Apple computers and admits his wardrobe could be hung on the Mac Guy without any noticeable difference--says he can’t help but fall for the PC Guy. “He’s just confused and he wants to be loved,” he says, his inner geek responding.

E-mail: jpj2110@columbia.edu