There's a television show that came out a couple of years ago, called Freaks and Geeks. I've watched through it a couple of times, and have really enjoyed what I've seen, but there's always been one thing that's bothered me: the kids in the school really hate being called a geek. They're repulsed by it, go to great lengths to avoid the term, altering their own behavior, and things like that. Part of this, I know, comes from a lot of the negative connotations with the word, which I've always found troubling, and another part is the times, and the possession of some hindsight.
Geeks are cool these days, for a lot of reasons, and there's a lot of writing on the walls that says so. Avatar, and a number of other science fiction, fantasy or horror films topped the box office for monetary totals, Neil Gaiman's book, American Gods was the first book to be chosen for an international, interactive book club on twitter, and so on. There is an entire sub-culture blooming that centers around every element that had once been only reserved for the geeks exiled to the back of the cafeteria.
It's not the material, however, that really determines if any one person is a geek or a nerd, it's largely in how they perceive the world, approach problems and how they value knowledge. I've come to understand that in a large part, reading Lord of the Rings, the Foundation Trilogy, watching Star Wars or Star Trek a hundred times or obsessing over movie rumors is something that appeals to those of a more geek-oriented mindset. It might be something about the way authors construct totally new and alien worlds, landscapes and events in all forms of media, or it might be some more basic desire to explore, and more importantly, to learn, about something.
I had a friend of mine tell me, when we lived in London, that she found me to be very passionate about any number of subjects: history, science fiction, travel, whereas she noted that she felt that she lacked that. I don't know if that was the case, but I do know that I'm not alone in that mindset, and I don't think that it's something that's grown or changed. I suspect that a very real reason for why geek culture is really something that's become somewhat more popular is the ability for people to really begin to talk with one another. Since high school, I've begun to realize just how vast the 'geek community' is, because it reaches into so many subjects and places. My earliest experiences with this sort of networking goes back over ten years, to Star Wars message forums (TFN Boards, Starwarz.com, Starwars.com and various EU book sites), to major blogs and their commenting abilities (such as Boing Boing, io9, SF Signal, Tor.com, to name just a couple) to things like facebook and twitter, which allow for their own cross-communications to spring up and flourish.
Geeks like information, I've come to understand, and the best thing to happen to Geek culture is to have the ability to share and create information across the board with the internet, where it's easy to find and to distribute, through any number of means. We talk about books, films, comics and concepts, across the world or with a simple meet up in a library or bookstore to create a rich environment that really allows for something special: community.
Community is important, I think, much in the same way why groups such as Gangs, the Boy Scouts and After School programs exist: they give people a sense of purpose, belonging and a place to exchange ideas amongst their peers - this has always been the case. In 1940s England, Science Fiction fan clubs sprang up across the country, often with small groups in individual towns, which would later coalesce into larger groups with time. The same thing happened in the United States, and throughout these groups, members wrote letters to each other and magazines, gathered in homes, small conventions, to discuss what they had been reading and often, their own works, giving rise to science fiction writers in their own right. The same thing has happened in the digital age.
Thus, these interactions and groupings really are important, especially to those lonely kids in Freaks and Geeks, who had no one to turn to - they turned to each other, and supported (sometimes) their friends when needed. The same is true, here, because when that happens, new ideas are exchanged, created and brought to fruition, in a fantastic fashion.