Back in the old days, nobody called themselves a nerd. Other people called them that, and then gave them a wedgie and drove off to Make-Out Point with the nerd's girl. Nowadays, many, many people get so proud of being nerds that they get mad when anyone implies they are not a real nerd, and often write scathing rebuttals on the Internet.
Now, how the hell did that come to be? To figure that out, we have to look at exactly what people think makes up a nerd these days.
By almost anyone's definition, part of being a nerd is that regular people look down on you. Now, that's pretty broad. They could consider you pathetic for your weekly D&D games, for being very good at math, for being bad with the opposite sex, for wearing sweater vests or for any number of things, depending on how you further define "nerd," but more on that later. The point is that ordinary folks consider you pathetic and uncool.
That's been a part of what "nerd" means ever since people started using that word. A lot of people want to claim the actual origin now that it's a cool word, but all the claims agree (ironically?) it was about calling somebody uncool. Everyone seems to agree that wherever it came from, Happy Days popularized it, with episodes like this one where a She-Devil brings in a nerd for everyone to laugh at (Spoiler: It is Fonzie in disguise).
But now a lot of the people who get labeled "nerds" are hardly social rejects. Movies glorify hackers as cool rebels. The lives of computer moguls like Steve Jobs and the Google guys are actually envied by people. When they give a movie hero 10 unbelievable high-prestige jobs at once to show how cool they are, one of those jobs is often "brilliant scientist," as in "Vin Diesel plays a brilliant scientist who is also a daredevil stuntman and the President of the United States."
"Denise Richards plays a brilliant scientist who is also a stand for attaching large breasts."
So they're hardly rejected by mainstream society, yet they still get labeled "nerds" in some quarters.
When people call these guys nerds, they're clearly not thinking about the social rejection aspect of the word, but about something else ... in this case, smarts.
Smarts have been associated with nerds from the beginning, describing people who would rather be studying than partying. Back then, pop culture made it pretty clear that it wasn't cool to be smart.
Via Adam Thinks
While playing a high school dropout, Henry Winkler himself had a bachelor's as well as a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale School of Drama.
In a time when the U.S. manufacturing sector was booming, people didn't have to be rocket scientists to do well for themselves. Sure, a decent education didn't hurt, but being genius-level brilliant didn't exactly catapult you into top positions or do much for you if you didn't want to be in the space program or something. But times have changed. Fewer and fewer people work with their hands, and all the sweet jobs have something to do with computers, which were little more than a weird government experiment back when the word "nerd" was coined.
People at the time did not picture these things making them into sexy billionaires.
Nowadays, most self-made millionaires build their empires on some fancy computer trick, like building an online community gossip site (Mark Zuckerberg), getting people addicted to virtual farms (Mark Pincus) or stealing other people's operating systems (Bill Gates). Kids that dream of "showing everybody" so that "they'll be sorry" someday often dream of hacking their way to the top with a brilliant computer idea.
Even people who dream of blowing other people away with their unique blend of hip-hop and baroque organ music, or their refreshing comedy routine about how Justin Bieber looks like a girl, hope to make their big break with a YouTube video or word-of-mouth about their amazing blog (spread by buzz from their fake Twitter accounts). No matter which way a person wants to hit it big these days, they've got to master technology and the Internet (or hire someone who can) to get that door open.
Wolfgang Ingenfeld (NSFW)
The other way to get attention, of course, is to completely fail at technology.
People being smart doesn't make them outcasts anymore, it makes them popular and successful, and enough people have carved out that path that we don't even need to wait until they become rich and famous to accept them. That weird kid that figured out how to look up porn on the school computers isn't automatically a target for ridicule. He very well might be running his own company at 21. Also he figured out how to look up porn on the school computers.
In most areas of society, people aren't rejected just for being smart anymore. Maybe it's that we know we need smartness in our computer-driven world, and maybe it's decades of shows like Square One and Mr. Wizard and Mythbusters teaching us that math and science are cool. Either way, being smart hardly fits in with the whole "outcast" picture of nerds. What else defines a nerd, then?
People who are crazy about some sci-fi series or comic book often call themselves "nerds" based just on that. They're not making any claims about their own intelligence, unless we're considering a detailed knowledge of Farscape trivia to be a display of intelligence these days. But they do feel like these hobbies have some kind of connection to a definable "nerd" personality that includes intelligence, so it feels more positive to call themselves a "Buffy nerd," than just a "Buffy fan." That way they can be a smart person who cares too much about Buffy and not just a person who cares too much about Buffy.
The other reason they use the term is for the social outcast aspect, because they feel like the world judges them unfairly for memorizing entire Buffy episodes or getting married in Star Wars regalia.
Damn Cool Pictures
You have to give these people credit for not going with the predictable Han/Leia match-up like all the other Star Wars weddings.
And that makes sense if you realize how monolithic pop culture used to be. Not because people used to be more sheeplike in the old days -- I'm sure everybody had their own individual ideas and opinions -- but because people only had three channels to watch. This was literally true at the dawn of television broadcasting, and stayed relatively true through the '70s, when nine out of 10 American viewers only watched shows on one of the Big Three networks on any given evening. People could have diverse opinions about Leave It To Beaver, but they couldn't express them by watching The Sopranos instead.
If anything was "indie," it stayed "indie" because there wasn't any goddamned mechanism for getting it to everyone. You couldn't put your Keyboard Cat film on NBC. You couldn't print your own records and mail them to everyone in the country. Mainstream pop culture back then truly was mainstream in that everybody got it, and nobody could get anything else. So if you liked or did anything outside of that, you really were a lonely weirdo that would never find anyone else that liked to play princesses and aliens.
And now you can make a billion dollars doing that. Go figure.
Every year since then, though, has seen the development of more and more niche-targeted entertainment, starting from cable and its 500 channels, to satellite radio, to, of course, the Internet. You can watch a news channel that shows only news that proves you are right; you can listen to a personalized radio station that only plays songs you like; and you can find all five other people in the world that enjoy Garfield/James A. Garfield slashfiction.
People have splintered off so much into their own personal choices that almost nobody's favorite entertainment list matches anyone else's. It can be argued there really isn't a mainstream anymore, now that all entertainment is a la carte. If someone is going to judge you for knowing the eye color of every incarnation of the Flash, you can point out their glass house of running a website to track Arnold Schwarzenegger's height.
Yes, it's a real thing. Why shouldn't it be?
It seems like almost everyone these days gets a little fannish over something most other people don't even know about, and wouldn't get, if that's what being a nerd is about. But if everybody is a nerd, can anybody still be a nerd?