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August 6, 2008

Louisville Geek Dinner: Don’t call them nerds

A geek is not a nerd. Nerds are typically known for their lack of basic social skills. This is the first piece of information you need before stepping into the room at the Bluegrass Brewing Company in St. Matthews for a regular gathering of self-proclaimed geeks. They obviously have social skills because they are gathered to exercise them. They are drawn here for the semi-annual Louisville Geek Dinner, an event that calls for anyone passionate about technology to attend — which, you may imagine, brings a crowd diverse on the social register, even if something like 80 percent on this night are dudes. 

Some arrive sweaty-palmed — you know, first-timers. Others swagger in with confidence and a pocket protector — they’re the veterans, having attended most of the previous events. A handful seek business prospects (“Those are the aggressive ones,” says attendee Jason Lambain). Most are simply in search of conversation, which, loosely translated, means techie stuff that normal people cannot comprehend. After being in the room less than 15 minutes, the jargon is soaring so far over my college-educated head that I feel like a child whose parents are mouthing the words they don’t want me to hear. 

Benjamin Thomas is the founder of the Louisville Geek Dinner. He first had the notion after discovering a podcast of a London Geek Dinner while he was living there for a spell. “I put up the web page with the basic concept and talked to people,” he says. “I got five people to go, and e-mailed like 10 more. I begged people to show up.” 

The website Thomas created is geeked out — it is entirely wiki, so users can sign up for the event directly or add information and tips as they see fit. Despite geeks’ claims that, by definition, they have social skills, the site includes tools for introverts (maybe they’re trying to convert some nerds?). There are links to articles like “How to Network: For Introverts,” as well as a precise description of what to expect at the dinner to calm a newbie’s nerves — information like “when” and “if” to order food, and a justification of the standard nametag. 

The first dinner, in 2006, drew less than 50 geeks, but Thomas stayed the course. Now he doesn’t have to beg anyone to come. More than 100 people are here tonight. This is the first dinner with sponsors, which covered the cost of the T-shirt given to the first 100 who slapped on a nametag. 

The only geek to approach me, Lesa Seibert, sponsors the event with her business, Xtreme Media. This is her fourth dinner. “I am a geek,” she says. “I’ve been a geek for a long time. (I’m into) sci-fi, computers, new gadgets. I was even in the high school band. … I’m proud to be a geek.” 

Although Seibert is one of a few to address the geek stereotype, most have no problem with the label, which now is about as chic as Twittering. 

“I think that a long time ago, geek used to have a negative connotation — the guy in thick glasses who had no social skills and couldn’t really function in society,” Thomas says. “I think a geek, or someone who fully understands technology, has turned into a positive thing.”

“I’m very proud to be a geek,” David Ely says. “It used to have a black eye, but now it is a badge of honor.”  

Many arrive at the BBC alone (“without a safety to rescue him,” someone says), but it doesn’t take long to recognize familiar faces. The pool of technology-minded gurus in Louisville is large but not intimidating. Joe Sykora, of Greater Louisville Inc. and Fortress Network Security, is known as the “big wig” in town. “This is a fantastic idea for the community,” he tells me.

I left Louisville Geek Dinner v0.5 convinced: Geeks are cool. How did they ever get such a bad rap? I’m guessing it had to do with those infamous anti-social nerds, none of whom could be reached for comment. Well, nerds, if you’re out there, and if you start a Nerd Dinner, I’ll be there to tell your side.  


Cassie Book attends Butler University and is willing to walk several miles in searing summer sun for Ollie’s Trolley.