Take Two for June 19, 2013

What's the difference between a geek and a nerd?

Burr Settles

Burr Settles

Do you know the difference between a geek and a nerd? Scientist Burr Settles does.

Do you know the difference between a geek and a nerd? Believe it or not, there has been plenty of discourse on this subject. Finally, science may be helping to shed some light on the debate.

Burr Settles, a specialist in machine learning systems, has analyzed Twitter feeds, looking for combinations of words that help define the difference between geeks and nerds.

For one, Settles defines them as such: 

  • Geek - An enthusiast of a particular topic or field. Geeks are “collection” oriented, gathering facts and mementos related to their subject of interest. They are obsessed with the newest, coolest, trendiest things that their subject has to offer.
  • Nerd - A studious intellectual, although again of a particular topic or field. Nerds are “achievement” oriented, and focus their efforts on acquiring knowledge and skill over trivia and memorabilia.

Below is a graphic depicting the data he collected on nerds vs. geeks:


Interview Highlights:

On why he decided to take on this study:
"I remember having a lot of conversations in graduate school because a lot of us were both geeks and nerds on whether there was actually a difference and what that difference was. In those conversations, we kind of thought, that geeks were more enthusiasts who tended to collect things, like trivia or memorabilia about the particular subject that they're interested in. Whereas nerds were more intellectual students of that particular field or topic."

On how he conducted the experiment:
"It was based on actually a quote by John Rupert Firth, who is a linguist, who said 'you shall note a word by the company it keeps.' And so the idea is to be more empirical about words and see how they actually are used. Because the data is available from Twitter through a service that they provide, I downloaded a month's worth of tweets and looked for the one that had the word geek/nerd in it and computed a correlation score for all the other words, to see what kind of company the two words keep."

On what he found:
"The interesting thing was, rather than pitting the words geek and nerd against each other, I figured there were some words that were geeky and not nerdy, but some were both, some were neither. So I computed these scores for geek and nerd independently and created a Scattergraph where you can see words that were geeky but not nerdy, such as culture, or shiny or trendy. And words that were more nerdy or not geeky or things like biochemistry and neuroscience, Harvard and Oxford."

On what he's learned from doing this study:
"One thing is, they are not mutually exclusive. You can be both a geek and nerd and again, I think the data reinforces the conversations I had with my grad school friends. Words like collect and collection and collectible and original, those were all associated with geek. Terms like math, history, calculus. If you're an enthusiast about a topic, if you're kind of a collector, or aficionado that's more geeky. But if you're a practitioner or an expert on the theory, than that's more nerdy."

On how the terms have evolved over the years:
"I'm not a historical linguist - and it's a shame that we don't have Twitter going back three centuries to verify how these words have evolved over time. So really now, it's a snapshot of the here and now and how they use it. Both geek and nerd were insults in the middle part of the twentieth century and they've come into their own in positive terms now. Geek has gone from being a circus performer to being kind of a social outcast and now being something hip and trendy."


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