Good Nerd, Bad Nerd

The Facebook movie taps into the old stereotype of geeks as misfits. In New York, at least, the old image no longer applies

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, is portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network as a maladjusted misanthrope who talks like a robot and is better at communicating with his computer than he is with other humans. He is awkward, uncomfortable and helplessly off-putting when forced to deal with anyone who is not like him. Unable to hack it in the real world, he is moved to create a virtual version of it and anoint himself its lonely king.

Writing for the technology blog TechCrunch recently, Alexia Tsosis argued that Zuckerberg as depicted in The Social Network represented the archetypal “terror nerd,” a figure that instills fear and resentment in people who don’t know how computers work and have never written a line of code. The terror nerd presents a threat because he is “almost inhumanely driven by the formidable pain of never fitting in,” and because his technical ability gives him power over everyone who lacks it.

The movie, Tsosis wrote, thus marks the beginning of a new era in which “the Internet is the enemy” and “anonymous engineers have become creators of anxiety.”

But is it really that? Or is it the opposite: that is, a reminder of just how far computer geeks have come in recent years in terms of gaining the trust and respect of their nontechnical contemporaries?

The fact is that tech in 2010 does not connote what it used to: By and large, the best-known people in the industry are not geeky or threatening but charismatic, photogenic, friendly and idealistic. Unlike the “terror nerd” represented by the Zuckerberg character in Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s movie, they tend not to be closed off and isolated from the rest of society, but rather personable and empathetic. They fit in, they sit up straight, and the things they build on their mysterious computers are embraced and celebrated by the masses.

Think of David Karp from Tumblr, the blue-eyed darling of New York media who posts pictures of himself and his attractive girlfriend riding around town on a Vespa. Or think of floppy-haired Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley and cute-as-a-button Nate Westheimer of the NY Tech Meetup, both of whom have made careers out of services that facilitate the distinctly nongeeky pursuit of going out into the world and getting to know new people.

These are not terror nerds. These are cool guys, and they don’t scare anybody.

At the Web 2.0 Expo in New York recently, an advertising-oriented techie named Kelly Eidson recalled how just a few years ago, she avoided developer panels because watching the participants squirm and mumble onstage was too awful to bear. “People weren’t good at speaking!” Eidson said. “They were always really quiet and awkward, especially if they were by themselves. Now it’s like, they’re prepared, and they have a presentation and they’ve done it before—there’s a lot more taking pride in talking about what they’re making, telling people what it means and why they should appreciate it.”

These days, Eidson said, when she thinks of developers her brain no longer conjures up grimy guys eating Cheetos off their desks. Instead, Eidson said, she pictures skinny, iPhone-wielding hipsters with funky haircuts, “wearing dark skinny jeans, some designer shoes and plaid shirts with the sleeves rolled up.”

At stake in this shift is much more than just fashion, however, or even the health of a cherished subculture. Social skills have become essential in tech—they are the industry’s best weapon against the anxiety and resistance that so-called “normal people” have historically shown when confronted with an unknown future determined by technically savvy weirdos.

“There’s been a geekification of all culture over the years,” said Tristan Louis, a veteran Internet critic and, recently, the founder of the start-up Keepskor. “Computer geeks have moved from being the scary hackers who could blow up the world to, nowadays, building the new economy.”

Techies just don’t want to be scary anymore, and they don’t want to alienate people who aren’t like them. They need to be socially accepted by the masses because their products are by definition dependent on widespread adoption.

On Oct. 1, actor Tom Hanks announced an animated web serial he is producing about what the world will be like in the future: an optimistic take, Hanks said, that he hopes will serve as an antidote to all the dystopian scenarios that gloomy people like to dream up because they’re scared of the unknown. “Without a doubt, everything has changed, but not necessarily for the worst,” Hanks told The New York Times. “It hasn’t degenerated into an Orwellian society—just the opposite.”

It’s hard to think of anyone in Hollywood more perfectly suited than Hanks to take up the cause of techno-utopianism and spread its gospel. Indeed, his smiling endorsement of the tech industry—his apparent willingness to be its affable, nonthreatening face—underscores the industry’s transformation from a haven for strange, unappealing nerds to a bright and inviting sector of the new economy.

Joshua Schachter, who created the pioneering social bookmarking site Delicious while working at Morgan Stanley, said that building consumer software aimed at regular people requires a certain kind of emotional intelligence and a capacity for empathy.

“A lot of great product design is emotional,” Schachter said. “A lot of building a product is putting something out there and listening to people’s reactions. You can’t get angry if they say it sucks: That’s meaningful; that’s important. If you’re able to understand and connect to the feedback, you can build a better thing that people don’t react to negatively.”

Charlie O’Donnell of First Round Capital said that social start-ups need founders who can perceptively observe and relate to other people. “I think that comes from just talking to people and understanding other people’s situations and being social enough to relate to people who aren’t like you,” he said. “If you were just a developer coding away in the basement and you weren’t particularly social … you might not be able to understand the nuance of how the average person thinks about, say, privacy.”

And therein lies the heart of the matter, which is that in the age of social media, developers must be sensitive to how the average person thinks—and feels—about a whole range of issues that are likely to make them nervous and scared if they are not carefully and strategically addressed.

Take, for example, Chris Dixon’s Hunch, a New York-based recommendation service. The way Hunch works is that you open an account and then start answering multiple-choice questions about your habits, values and preferences. The questions are all over the map: Which of these four people do you find most attractive? What’s your favorite kind of pizza? Do you wear a hoodie to work, or a suit? They are surprisingly fun to answer, and once you get going, it can be hard to stop. But the real point of using Hunch is to ask it questions and get answers back based on data collected from you and your fellow users. The more of Hunch’s questions you answer, the smarter it’s supposed to get about suggesting things you might like.

There are those for whom this a scary proposition. What happens when people start trusting Hunch so completely, one wonders, that they start doing whatever it tells them? Could it be that an individual would risk losing his sense of self, if every personal choice that might distinguish him from other people is determined by this piece of automated software? Dixon and his team bumped into these fears after their description of Hunch as a “decision-making” application caused some people to denounce the service.

“We changed the description precisely because some people were like, ‘Now we’re outsourcing our decision-making to computers!’” Dixon said. “And that’s not really what we intended. We don’t want people to decide whether to get divorced based on our website. … I just sort of thought that was obvious, but I guess we needed to spell it out a bit more to some people.”

They started calling it a recommendation engine, which according to Dixon has “milder connotations.”

While changing the language seemed to have the desired effect, Dixon knows full well that he’ll never be able to eliminate every skeptic. There have always been and always will be some fearful people, he said, who suspect the tech industry of laying the groundwork for some dystopian future in which humans have been transformed into mindless cyborgs with no sense of self or purpose. Those people, according to Dixon, tend to be motivated by self-interest rooted in fear of their own obsolescence, and tend to be wrong.

“There’s a natural aversion to change,” Dixon said. “A lot of these technologies are supplanting older technologies. The newspaper and magazine businesses are shrinking as a result of social media, and as you’d expect, older people from those industries are afraid of that.”

At the recent Web 2.0 Expo, entrepreneur Tim O’Reilly gave a keynote speech in which he called upon engineers and founders to recommit themselves to putting their talents toward making the world a better place. The future, he said, “is all about what happens when we work together.” In a tone that conveyed nothing so much as childlike wonder, O’Reilly spoke of all the “fascinating applications that let us work together, that let us change the world together.” Techies who lived through the end of the dot-com bubble say that the possibility of a backlash toward this newest wave of technology might not be far-fetched.

“It’s cyclical,” Louis said. “Right now we’re in a period that’s largely positive towards technology. I think we’ll enter another cycle in probably another five years that will be largely negative about it. [The cause] could be that some of the larger start-ups become overly powerful. You can see people are starting to question the motives of companies like Google and Apple, and even Facebook is starting to get there. You start getting some cracks in the picture-perfect image people have of technological changes, and that will result in a fair amount of negative press for a while. … In better times, people look at the machine as the magic box and look at the people who can operate the machine as the high priests. In dark times, they look at it as dark magic.”