On Geekdom and Authenticity

© Andrew Evans / PR Photos/Courtesy Starpulse.com

© Andrew Evans / PR Photos/Courtesy Starpulse.com

I’ve been reading with interest the write-ups in various news outlets this week on Chris Hardwick, the current King of the Nerds for all us geeks, dorks and miscellaneous tweedy people out there. He’s generally likeable and I enjoy watching him host @Midnight on Comedy Central and AMC’s Talking Dead, the Walking Dead after-show.

But his interview in the New York Times this past Thursday gave me pause.

I suppose I’m mourning the gradual loss of the “authentic” Chris Hardwick. He used to use the @Nerdist Twitter handle personally, and now that his company has been sold twice (once to Legendary Entertainment and again to a Chinese conglomerate), he’s handed it over to a staff of folks. I assume that even before these transactions, the account was managed by someone on his behalf, but this move simply confirms it. He is seemingly everywhere and nowhere these days. Hosting three shows, a weekly podcast, and dozens of other projects, he’s become ubiquitous not just in the geek world but in pop culture at large. Screen Junkies parodied him as “nerdy Ryan Seacrest” and while I think that’s a bit harsh, I understand it on the over-saturation level. He’s so busy building an empire that it seems to me like he’s lost a bit of what made nerdy people like me cotton on to him in the first place and enable him to become our Palpatine.

From the New York Times interview:

The Internet can be a harsh place, full of nasty personal attacks. Mr. Hardwick, a digital evangelist if there ever was one, gets particularly exercised about such viciousness. Discussing his philosophy for the podcast, he said he “always wants people to leave feeling a little bit better than when they got there.” And that optimistic maxim serves as a guiding principle.

His celebratory tendencies get him bashed regularly on social media as a cheerleader — don’t turn to Mr. Hardwick if you’re looking for a brutal takedown of “Batman v Superman” — but he wears those criticisms proudly.

“I feel there’s enough negativity, there’s enough cynicism, there’s enough walled garden and exclusionary behavior,” he said. “You can get that so many places.”

There’s none of that snobbishness in Mr. Hardwick’s empire.

“The soul of it, if I were really breaking it down psychologically, is pretty simple: I always felt excluded when I was in grade school, and I wanted to create something where no one would ever have to feel that way.”

That last part made me glad–glad to see a fellow bullied kid rise above it and become successful–but it also made me a bit sad. If you’re always “a cheerleader,” as the NYT puts it, are you being honest? There’s a way to not be a troll or a geek elitist but still be true to your own feelings on all these cultural entities.

In fact, I think that the cheerleading is actually hurting some of Hardwick’s properties. On Talking Dead, he never takes the network to task for questionable storytelling tactics. The show has become a stage for formerly behind-the-scenes staffers to suddenly have a public persona and a platform for their own musings. There are no hardball questions for them and really nothing for them to do except have their egos stroked.

I don’t feel that Hardwick’s really got a handle on how the audience feels about what the writers and producers are doing on Walking Dead, and that’s a problem both for Talking Dead and for AMC as a whole. Their flagship show is losing viewers–as of the end of season 6, that includes me–and it stands to reason that their after-show will as well. Season 6 was all about audience manipulation, at least in my mind, and if Hardwick is really a fan like the rest of us, it would be nice for him to at least acknowledge that he’s felt jerked around, too. He claims “it doesn’t bother” him, that he trusts the producers, but that doesn’t feel real to me. It doesn’t have to be an “attack” or “snobbishness,” just honesty. I don’t question whether Hardwick is a real nerd; I question whether he’s an honest one. Because if everything is always positive, then authenticity isn’t even a question anymore; it’s a joke.


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