- The Washington Times - Monday, July 25, 2005

CHICAGO (AP) — Maybe it’s because young computer gurus are enjoying the millionaire life. Perhaps it has something to do with the unexpected popularity last year of the movie “Napoleon Dynamite,” about a quirky, dancing teen and his sleepy Idaho town.

Whatever the reason, being a nerd, a geek, a dork — whatever you want to call the tragically unhip — is becoming a source of pride.

Case in point: Steffi Weiss, a 15-year-old in the Chicago suburb of Lake Zurich, who plays violin in the school’s orchestra.

This spring, she and a friend bought black mesh sports jerseys — something like the football team’s — and added “ORCH DORKS” in white letters on the front, their last names on the back and their instrument on the sleeves (VLN I, for first violin, in Steffi’s case).

“We used to not be able to stand the fact that we were in orchestra,” says Steffi, who’s been playing the violin since fourth grade and proudly wore the shirt to her high school this year. “Finally, we realized that’s where all our friends are and that’s where we have the most fun.

“So why not just say we’re dorks?”

There was a time when teens who tried something like that would have been asking for some serious goofing. But today being smart and sensitive, even a little socially awkward, is often considered cool — and the signs are everywhere.

“The O.C.,” a TV show popular with teens, has Seth, a comic-book-loving nerd played by actor Adam Brody. Bands such as Weezer also feed off the dork image, complete with horn-rimmed glasses and a song about being OK with not fitting the Beverly Hills mold.

And, increasingly, people are parading around in shirts that say “Dork Pride!” among other things. Such items have gotten so popular that CafePress.com, an online merchandiser, has created a special category for shirts and other items celebrating geeks, dorks and nerds.

Philip Kaplan, 29, the founder of the startup online ad company AdBrite — and one who’s long played upon his own dorky reputation — finds the whole phenomenon amusing.

“In high school, I didn’t go to parties. I didn’t have a lot of friends,” says Mr. Kaplan, who lives in San Francisco and also created a tongue-in-cheek Web site that chronicled the dot-com bust. “Now all the people from high school are asking me if I have a job for them. So I guess it wasn’t so bad to be a dork.”

People who track youth trends have noticed the shift in attitude, too.

“It feels like, for a while there, we were hearing so much about bullying in schools — and this is almost a time for the geeks to stand up for themselves,” says Schuyler Brown, a trend-spotter for advertising and marketing firm Euro RSCG.

Michael Lee, 28, a self-proclaimed nerd, is happy it’s happening. “It’s society validating who I am,” says the marketing manager from Perris, Calif.

But he also worries that the popularity will be short-lived, returning him and fellow nerds to a life of ridicule. “Because it is a trend,” he says, “it’ll become extremely untrendy.”

For now, though, he’s going with it and has put a bumper sticker on his motorcycle that says “Talk Nerdy To Me” so he attracts the kind of women he’s looking for — “a librarian type girl,” who likes to go to bookstores and art galleries and whose eyes don’t glaze over when he starts talking about the finer points of “Babylon 5” or “Battlestar Galactica.”

But Uyen Mai says she knows how to spot a true geek, dork or nerd — and she likes what she sees.

“I see them as eccentrics or maybe smart, gentle people with a passion for something that may not be popular at the moment, like maybe computers, ‘Star Wars,’ physics,” says Mrs. Mai, 28, a university employee who lives in Walnut, Calif.

To prove her point, Mrs. Mai has an “I (Heart) Dorks” tank top, which she wears often.

“My husband is not nearly as amused by the shirt as I am. I thought he’d be flattered,” she says. “Oh, well.”


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