A data scientist says he has settled one of the most pressing conundra of the digital age. He has discovered the difference between geeks and nerds.
Burr Settles, software chap at crowdsourced translation platform Duolingo, rooted through millions of tweets to find the sorts of words that were used at the same time as either geek or nerd.
These were then plotted on an infographic, so that he could identify the sorts of words used by both subcultures.
Before starting his research, Settles made the following distinctions:
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.
Both are dedicated to their subjects, and sometimes socially awkward. The distinction is that geeks are fans of their subjects, and nerds are practitioners of them. A computer geek might read Wired and tap the Silicon Valley rumor-mill for leads on the next hot-new-thing, while a computer nerd might read CLRS and keep an eye out for clever new ways of applying Dijkstra’s algorithm. Note that, while not synonyms, they are not necessarily distinct either: many geeks are also nerds (and vice versa).
Settles used a statistical measurement called "pointwise mutual information", which allowed him to measure which words were most likely to appear in tweets alongside the words geek or nerd.
What he found was that words such as biochemistry, autistic, neuroscience or – confusingly – "goths" were nerdy, whilst words like shiny, hipster, webcomic, trendy or Etsy scored more highly on the geek scale. Phrases in the middle of his ranking, which might concievably be used by both geeks and nerds, are Doctor Who, Zelda and big data.
He said: "In broad strokes, it seems to me that geeky words are more about stuff, while nerdy words are more about ideas, like “hypothesis”. Geeks are fans, and fans collect stuff. Nerds are practitioners, and practitioners play with ideas. Of course, geeks can collect ideas and nerds play with stuff, too. Plus, they aren't two distinct personalities as much as different aspects of personality. Generally, the data seem to affirm my thinking."
You can see his original research – which is pretty darn nerdy [or perhaps geeky, by his definition—Ed.] – here. ®