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Nerd culture as we know it has been around for several decades—at least. Bonding over a hobby combined with a love of things that are seen as “nerdy” has created a distinct subculture driven by consumer consumption for creative products.
But nerd culture in its modern form hasn’t always been this way. It’s shifted over the years to become more organized and involved, and there are some key franchises (and fandoms) to thank for this transformation.
1. Lord of the Rings
Lord of the Rings is the earliest book-turned-franchise on this list, although it was originally a trilogy of fantasy novels written by J.R.R. Tolkien between 1937 and 1949.
A sequel to the much-beloved Hobbit, Lord of the Rings follows Bilbo’s nephew Frodo as he gets swept up in a quest to destroy the true ring of power. This inclusion of Lord of the Rings into Tolkien’s larger Middle-earth mythology gave rise to curative fandom, where fans poured over the details in his novels to catalogue all the world-building elements. Think wikis, but analogue.
Lord of the Rings’ influence on modern fandom cannot be overstated, and while newer books are now shaping current trends we have to acknowledge how this text formed a basis for much of modern fantasy.
From board games to LARPing, to cosplay and newer book series, Lord of the Rings created a whole genre of “Tolkienesque” fantasy that set the standards for decades.
2. Star Trek
While Star Trek is not the oldest franchise on this list, it is absolutely the earliest fandom that we recognize as a “fandom”.
Beginning in 1966 with the original Star Trek series and running to the current day, Gene Roddenberry’s creation has become one of the highest grossing franchises of all time. It’s notable for both its stance on civil rights and its cultural influence on the genre.
Star Trek fans—colloquially known as “Trekkies”—spawned a legion of loyal consumers that in turn led to the creation of tie-in novels, toys, and one of the earliest known “nerdy” conventions: Star Trek Lives!, held in 1972.
Star Trek is also notable for being the first place where transformative fandom—i.e. a focus on adding to the canon, instead of cataloguing it—took off. The popularity of the “slash” ship Kirk/Spock—AKA a male/male romantic pairing creating by the fans—led to the proliferation of fanfiction.
3. Star Wars
Star Wars is a behemoth unto its own, and its popularity and expansive world-building has given rise to the “superfan” in modern nerd culture.
Originally created by George Lucas with 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope, it has since spawned a franchise that includes toys, books, comics, movies, TV series, conventions, soundtracks, food and resorts. It holds multiple Guinness World records, and this is because it tapped into an inherent need by fans to use this wider world-building as part of their collective “identity”.
4. Harry Potter
A series of novels written by J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter follows a young boy of the same name who discovers that he’s actually a wizard. Harry is then whisked away to a magical world that exists alongside ours to attend the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He goes on a series of adventures.
This book series was where you started to see modern fandom emerge. It’s combination of curative knowledge building, consumer products, and acceptance of transformative fandom combined to create a cultural storm.
Since the books were released, there have been a series of movies and countless fan iterations building upon the original. There are over 198,000 Harry Potter fanfics on Archive of our Own, and a staggering 840,000+ on Fanfiction.net. The sheer amount of fanfiction has cleared the way for fanfic to be accepted in the wider nerd culture as a form of genuine expression.
5. Marvel Cinematic Universe
Marvel as a franchise has existed long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or “MCU”. But its unique form of filmmaking—a series of interconnected anthology films that spanned a decade—showed the power of nerd culture at the box office.
The first film, Iron Man, was released in 2008, with the final film Avengers: Endgame set to be released this month.
Finally, Twilight deserves to be acknowledged for its influence on modern fandom. A series of fantasy novels about a teenage girl who falls in love with a vampire, Twilight is notable because it specifically showed us the power of female-dominated fandoms and popularized the idea of “shipping” in the public conscience.
Note: Shipping is when fans imagine two characters together romantically, and support that relationship through fandom.
Twilight was seen as a joke because of its fans’ focus on romance, but the fans grew up, its legacy continued, and its popularity was responsible for shaping a lot of books that came after it.