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Columbia's Nerdy Society geeks out

The Nerdy Society brings Columbia's nerds together to celebrate the cerebral

February 13, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST

McLovin’s awkwardness; Hermione Granger’s love for books; Sheldon Cooper’s comic-themed T-shirt collection. Every iconic nerd has a trademark.

Columbia’s nerds, however, are not so easy to identify. No, they don’t all wear glasses, have frizzy hair or chatter about complicated scientific theory. They just love hobbies that might not appeal to the mainstream. A new group brings together like-minded individuals who own their nerd identities.

Just after moving to Columbia in January, MU transfer student Caleb Mueller formed The Nerdy Society as a way to meet people with interests similar to his. The group is a learning environment for community members who are “unironically enthusiastic” about nerdy things, according to its page on meetup.com, which it uses to increase member numbers and plan events.

“It’s not focused strictly,” Mueller says. “There are a lot of groups for just board games or just video games or something like that, but (The Nerdy Society) is actually going to be combining all of those things.”

Mueller is a computer science major who loves video games and sci-fi, specifically Star Wars. As a child, he preferred video games to playing in the neighborhood.

“Around the time I was 5, I got my first Super Nintendo, and that was my thing to do,” Mueller says. “People look down on that. Everyone seems to want kids to be active, but not everyone is going to be an athlete.”

The Nerdy Society has 42 members online, but Mueller has only met about 10 of them in person. The group has met four times since its creation, and the members share an interest in things such as video games, board games and anime, Mueller says. Although the group is still getting on its feet, it is filling a gap in the Columbia community.

“One of the things that I’ve gotten from members is that there’s really nothing like this right now,” Mueller says. “There’s not much going on as far as encouraging your geeky self.”

The Nerdy Society is the first branch of the St. Louis group The Nerdy Girls Society, started by Carolyn Noe on meetup.com in October 2012. Today, there are more than 900 members in that group.

Noe and her leadership team became interested in forming a partner organization, a nerdy guys group. After seeing an email from the group, Mueller contacted Noe and used the template of The Nerdy Girls Society to create The Nerdy Society, but didn’t limit the group to only men.

At a recent trivia night at Roxy’s, members of The Nerdy Society discussed their wide-ranging hobbies, jobs, the Super Bowl, high school experiences, music and travel destinations. Their not-so-nerdy conversations and weekly gatherings challenge traditional preconceptions about nerdiness.

Group activities, such as conventions or organizations like The Nerdy Society, are important because nerds typically enjoy hobbies where they spend time alone, says Benjamin Nugent, author of American Nerd.

“We sort of use the term ‘nerd’ to police the boundaries of the mainstream,” says Guðmundur “Gummi” Oddsson, an MU doctoral candidate in sociology, who teaches a class about identity. “The nerd, historically, is somebody who is excluded from the mainstream of society because they are passionate, even obsessive, about a pursuit that few care about.”

Tim Evans, an MU professor and the recipient of Mizzou Wire’s 2010 Nerd of the Year award, says popular culture icons have helped shift how society views nerds.

“Bill Gates and that group has certainly taken away some of the stigma that the word has,” Evans says. People admire and accept Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and other technology giants because of their success, ingenuity and creativity, he says.

Jennifer Henderson, an MU biology graduate student and active member of The Nerdy Society, says people are starting to see nerds in a new light.

“It’s changing now, but I think a lot of people, when they think nerd, think of this socially inept person who sits in their basement playing computer games,” Henderson says. “I don’t think that’s true anymore. It’s almost cool to be a nerd.”

Each member of The Nerdy Society brings his or her own “expertise” to the group, Mueller says. There is genuine interest to learn about and try others’ hobbies. Geocaching, playing games and watching Doctor Who are all activities the group recently talked about doing together.

Passion is at the root of nerd identity, and members of The Nerdy Society are celebrating their interests by connecting with other nerds and rejecting traditional stereotypes.

“These passions are what people put at the center of their identity,” Nugent says. “These are things by which they define who they are.”

Beth Aubuchon is one of the group’s board-game gurus and recently taught the group how to play Munchkin, a satirical card-based game that makes fun of games such as Dungeons & Dragons.

Aubuchon invites people to embrace their nerdiness. “Even if you don’t think you’re a nerd, take a second look, and you’ll find something that you’re a bit of a nerd about.”

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