Nerd Nation calculates that it has arrived
You have to wonder what those middle school bullies who once stuffed John Green into a trash can think about him now.
And what about kids who looked at Green’s younger brother, Hank, and detected not a speck of brilliance, but instead focused only on the nerdy boy with a learning disability who enjoyed cult classics on TV?
“Bullies are complicated, and imagining them as merely evil is incorrect and not helpful,’’ John Green said. “When you’re a kid, you can’t see that. It was scary. I felt extremely isolated. And I felt deeply alone.’’
The Green brothers alone? Hardly. They are at the epicenter of Nerd Nation, whose adherents are gathered this weekend at the Hynes Convention Center — further proof, if we needed it in this tech-driven age, that geeks are to be marginalized no more.
Without irony and with a blend of guilelessness and passion, more than 3,300 of them have come to Boston to celebrate their eccentricities and their cerebral ways — and to hail the Green brothers as the hyperkinetic rock stars of an online community collectively known as Nerdfighteria.
“John Green has this saying that being nerd is just being able to be openly excited about something,’’ said Kelsey Becker, a 20-year-old MIT sophomore, just before the Green brothers took the stage to a sustained standing ovation Saturday morning.
“It allows you to be super-passionate about something and not be embarrassed,’’ Becker said. “I hid in middle school until I accepted that this is just who I am.’’
If the word “nerd” conjures up images of pocket protectors and thick glasses held together by masking tape, you’re in the wrong decade and at the wrong convention. Think Steve Jobs, not Steve Urkel.
You want to talk about the revenge of the nerds? Take a quick glimpse at this highlight reel:
John Green is a best-selling author of young-adult fiction, including “The Fault in Our Stars,’’ inspired by the story of Esther Earl of Quincy.
He has made millions, toured Africa with Bill Gates to help vaccinate kids in remote villages, and in 2014 made Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people along with Hillary Clinton, Edward Snowden, and Jeff Bezos.
“I was really flattered, but, to be honest with you, a little embarrassed,’’ Green said. “I mean I’m not even the most influential Green brother.’’
That would be Hank.
Hank Green is a musician and the cocreator of VidCon, the biggest online video conference in the world, and the founder of an environmental technology blog called EcoGeek.
He once sat knee-to-knee with President Obama at the White House, where he asked about the morality of drone strikes and reports of genocide in North Korea.
“Super weird and scary,’’ he said. “Amazing honor. I met Obama’s dogs. When I arrived at the White House, the staff looked at me and said, ‘How do you feel about your hair?’ ’’
The Green brothers have taken their act to a sold-out Carnegie Hall. Together they manage a sprawling online universe of educational videos and a YouTube channel where, as the Vlogbrothers, they have nearly 3 million subscribers.
In their twice-a-week four-minute videos, they come across as something between over-caffeinated chess-club wizards and the coolest professors at a progressive college where grades are optional and the dress code favors sneakers and T-shirts.
Both are married. Both are fathers. John is 39 and lives in Indianapolis. Hank is 36 and lives in Missoula, Mont.
Sampling their online personas is a seductive exercise in which extremely bright, somewhat manic men lead rapid-fire seminars on everything from the mating habits of giraffes to President Trump’s “very poorly targeted’’ immigration ban, which John called “a hot mess.’’
Here’s Hank taking apart a 1930s-era adding machine, marveling at its intricate internal sprockets. “Nerdy? Yes,’’ he says into the camera. “It’s very nerdy. It has in its functionality a beauty that I am a big fan of.’’
And there’s John, using multicolored Sharpie pens to paint his face, while musing about the irksome use of split infinitives and the virtues of antibiotics.
The connective tissue that holds this community together is an ethos that celebrates kindness and generosity.
There are code words and inside jokes. Nerd T-shirts were for sale on Saturday for $22, including one that read: “When in Doubt, Go to the Library.’’
Nerdfighters have their own cool hand gesture that is partly an homage to the Vulcan salute of “Star Trek” fame. And they’ve got their own motto that is invariably reduced to DFTBA — or Don’t Forget to Be Awesome.
“I do believe that being a good person isn’t something that just happens,’’ Hank said. “I think that we’re not necessarily designed for the world we live inside of. It takes consciousness and care to try to have the best impact on the world with every decision you make.’’
A decision that he made in July 2007 is credited for the brothers’ rocket ride to stardom in their uncommonly civil corner of cyberspace.
“I woke up one morning in 2007 just after moving to Indianapolis and looked at the front page of YouTube and I saw Hank’s face,’’ John recalled. “And I thought: That’s very weird. Why is Hank’s face on the front page of YouTube?”
Here’s why: Impatient about the release of the final Harry Potter book, Hank uploaded a song about it. YouTube placed it on its home page. It was viewed a million times.
The Green brothers’ videos, which had been typically drawing 500 people, were attracting 700,000 viewers within 72 hours.
It was the Harry Potter begets Nerdfighteria moment, the birth of a movement.
“It was a ticket to an audience beyond our imagination,’’ John said.
In that audience was a girl from Quincy, an early nerdfighter named Esther Earl, who died at age 16 in 2010 from thyroid cancer. Esther met John Green three years after her diagnosis at a Harry Potter fan convention in Boston. A friendship blossomed.
“Esther was an uncommonly empathetic person and also incredibly funny and wise in a way that attracted lots of people to her,’’ said John, who dedicated his worldwide bestseller, “The Fault in Our Stars,’’ to her.
He also wrote the foreword to her memoir, “This Star Won’t Go Out: The Life & Words of Esther Grace Earl,’’ which was being sold at this weekend’s convention at a booth manned by Esther’s mother and father, who run an organization to help families of cancer victims.
“This is Nerdfighteria, and Esther is really at the heart of that,’’ Lori Earl told me. “Caring. Loving. Fighting.’’
“Esther Day is Esther’s birthday on August 3rd,’’ she said. “It’s a holiday she picked. She said she’d like it to be about family and friends and saying, ‘I love you,’ to the people in your life. Every August 3rd, John and Hank say I love you to each other. It’s always awkward. And it always makes you cry.’’
As the nerds convened to celebrate 10 years of nerdfighting with a YouTube retrospective, panels on podcasting and songwriting, and a “Nerdy Sing-along,’’ the father of the founding brothers took it all in.
Mike Green is a Boston College alumnus and a former director of a land conservation group in Florida. He remembers John’s struggles with bullies.
He can never forget how Hank’s learning disability hampered him in high school and how thrilled he was when his younger son began collecting A’s in organic chemistry in college.
He’s often asked to describe what it is exactly that his boys do for a living.
“I call it energy,’’ he said. “It’s connective energy. . . . They’re creating something bigger than themselves, and they can have a tangible positive impact in the world.’’
He said he and his wife are as impressed as anybody at their sons’ work — work that the brothers keep at, even though success means they no longer have to.
“One of the things these people have in common is that they tend to be pretty smart,’’ Mike Green said. “But there are smart people in this world who don’t care. These people care.’’
People like Meghan Jenks, a 22-year-old graduate of Keene State College from Concord, N.H., who had a prime seat at the convention. “This is about celebrating intellectualism and being excited about things that other people don’t necessarily find exciting,’’ she said. “I feel nerds in all their forms find their own niches.’’
That’s precisely what Kelsey Becker, that MIT sophomore from North Dakota, did. The former middle school wallflower and self-proclaimed nerd came out of her shell in high school. She was the homecoming queen. She was elected student body president. She also happens to love robots.
How awesome is that?