Building the World’s Biggest Nation of Nerds (Through the Internet, Of Course)

Last weekend, myself and over 3,000 strangers gathered at the Hynes Convention Center to attend two days worth of diverse seminars, performances, workshops, and meetups. Once there, however, barriers of age, gender, interests, and geographical location were broken down in favor of one commonality: the self-proclaimed title of “Nerdfighter.” (a fan of the Vlogbrothers Youtube channel) So, yes, I’ve officially paid to meet strangers from the internet three times (again: I’m Sorry, Mom). But if you thought this was just a quirky Boston-based community of 3,000, you are sorely mistaken. According to an online survey conducted by the Green brothers, Nerdfighteria stretches to over 140,000 people around the world. Had every Nerdfighter been able to make it out to Boston for the convention, 2 Gillette Stadiums would not have even been big enough to seat us all.

The Green Revolution

When I say the name John Green, your mind probably jumps to headlines made by the thousands of girls flocking to the premiere of The Fault in Our Stars back in 2014, but to a vast number of those screaming girls, he represents something much larger than a YA novel.

Alongside his brother, Hank, John Green has successfully cultivated a global community of young adults brought together by their co-run Youtube channel, Vlogbrothers, which currently has 2 million subscribers and ten spin-off channels which have amassed over 11 million subscribers. Over the past decade, the brothers have also successfully launched DFTBA records, an ecommerce store for Youtuber merchandise as well as a record label; two charities; a line of conventions–one of which being Vidcon, a wildly successful convention for Youtubers and their fans so impressive it was denoted a “Revolution” by Vanity Fair; and innumerable other incredible side projects.

 

Despite their vast repertoire, all of Hank and John’s projects do stick to a few key themes: philanthropy, education, and the overall embrace of all things “nerdy.” But being a Nerdfighter is nothing like being a ‘Belieber’ or even a ‘Whovian’–as the Huffington Post describes, “Nerdfighteria is a place where young people come to see themselves as civic actors.” Unlike other online communities, this isn’t a one sided communication: a vast majority of Nerdfighter content and organization of events stems from fans, not just John and Hank, and that’s why it works. Nerdfighteria almost functions as a mini country: it has its own unique ‘economy,’ education system, and language, and though there are definitive leaders in John and Hank, its success relies heavily on the democratic participation of its citizens.

Philanthropy: Decreasing World Suck…one video at a time.

One of the main objectives of Nerdfighteria has been “to decrease world suck” through openly supporting marginalized people and communities, raising money for and promoting various charities, and being generally good people.

 

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(me & a friend at the convention last weekend)

As a community, Nerdfighters have raised over $8 million total for various charities through their annual fundraising initiative, the Project for Awesome (P4A), in which members of the community are encouraged to post videos explaining why the community should donate that year’s earnings to a charity they’re passionate about. Donators can send money into the general P4A fund, and after the fundraiser ends the most popular charities receive a percentage of all funds raised.

 

But it doesn’t stop there: Nerdfighters are also the largest lending group on Kiva and have been running a foundation called “This Star Won’t Go Out” since 2011. The foundation was created in honor of a Nerdfighter named Esther Earl who died at age 16 of cancer in 2010 and inspired parts of John Green’s most famous novel, The Fault in Our Stars. In 2008, Esther had become friends with a group of 5 other Nerdfighters whom she met in the comments section of Vlogbrothers videos and continued to meet up with at various Nerdfighter-coordinated events in Boston. After her death, that same group of girls created “This Star Won’t Go Out” to provide grants to families of children with cancer; with the help of the Nerdfighter community the organization has been able to distribute over $400,000 since 2011.

Education: A Crash Course in Expanding Your Reach

Even if they aren’t familiar with the Vidcon, the Vlogbrothers, or even John’s books, almost every American student that’s gone through middle or high school in the past 8 years has been exposed to one of the Vlogbrothers’ most successful projects–Crash Course. An online educational video series that now spans twenty different disciplines, Crash Course is one of the highest quality free educational content providers available to middle and high school students.

crash_course_youtube_logoThe remarkable thing about Crash Course is that it’s created to be as accessible as possible.. Because all Crash Course is published on Youtube, any person with access to internet can get close to the equivalent of an AP curriculum right in their homes. Ever the promoters of free access to education, Crash Course has also recently published their first textbook in World History, which is available for free download on their website. The project is mostly funded by fans who choose to subscribe to Crash Course on Patreon in return for a few perks, like extra videos and merchandise.

 

In addition to being an admirable and respectable endeavor, Crash Course has also played a huge role in expanding and diversifying Nerdfighteria. According to 2014 Nerdfighteria survey data, approximately 10% of all Nerdfighters (including me!) first found Vlogbrothers via Crash Course, and each of the annual surveys since then have shown that about 75% of Nerdfighters watch Crash Course regularly. Crash Course not only increased the Vlogbrothers’ overall exposure, but it brought in community members who may not have otherwise found the Vlogbrothers–teachers, parents, younger students, and a lot more males.

All things Nerd: Putting the “Nerd” in Nerdfighteria

According to a thesis study done by an undergraduate at St. Mary’s College, “culture is created and recreated through the interactions of pre-existing social structures and everyday interactions.” The student argues that the Nerdfighter community has been so successful because it does everything an offline community would do–it cultivates one on one as well as group communication, creates its own meanings for different symbols, and this meaning helps guide members through new situations. Within Nerdfighteria also exists many subcultures–they have distinct passions for things like contemporary art, astrology, Harry Potter, and pretty much anything else you think a nerd might like. But all of these people are connected through a mutual love for the Vlogbrothers and everything they stand for, which not only exposes members of the community to a vast array new interests, but provides resources for creating art and clubs and events for niche groups of strangers around the country.   

Having been created nearly a decade ago, Nerdfighters have racked up quite the collection of ‘inside jokes’–so many, in fact, that they created a database of Official Nerdfighter Lexicon. They even have their own signature hand sign (see: featured image) and slogan “Don’t Forget to be Awesome” or “DFTBA.” A reference to any one of these ‘inside jokes’ to a Nerdfighter will immediately make you a new friend–and it’s this kind of culture that allows the community to persist even outside of the Youtube realm.

Furthermore, the Vlogbrothers have repeatedly referred to their own channel as “one of the only places on Youtube where it only gets better when you scroll down,” referencing the fact that the comments on their videos generally actually result in positive, deep & constructive conversations, rather than just trolling. Nerdfighteria has become a safe space for young people to discuss issues of politics, racism, self image, education, and, of course, puppy sized elephants among their peers–a testament to the incredible ability of the Vlogbrothers to cultivate a community that is positive, engaged, and intelligent. In my eyes, that’s a truly incredible feat.

One comment

  1. Interesting post. I have never heard of many of these. I’ll have to look them up.

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