Super nerds that send a movie into stratosphere

Nerdgasms happen when nerds become suddenly quite excited. Nerds are people with deep interests in sometimes quite abstract areas. Nerds are super fans, with deep and abiding love for their chosen niche. It turns out the world now revolves around super fans, thanks to the internet.

David Bowie nerds go mad when a new box set of him trimming his toenails comes out. Battlestar Galactica nerds queue for hours in the snow for an autograph from one of the cast. Comic book nerds get dressed up and go to conventions dressed as their favourite superpowered wonder. It’s not all about comic books and video games, either. Rugby nerds know which way Brian O’Driscoll turned in the 76th minute of the March 2000 game against France. Wine nerds know the name of the grape they are drinking – not the type of wine or its vintage: the name of the actual grape. Nigel, most likely.

Nerd knowledge reaps benefits. When pitching their idea of a TV show based on his books to Game of Thrones writer George RR Martin, rookie producers David Benioff and DB Weiss impressed him with their deep knowledge of who might be the mother of one of the main characters, Jon Snow. If they knew nothing, the inexperienced producers would have been sent packing by Martin. But they were fans of the 2,000 pages of fantasy fiction, and their fandom made them (and Martin) world famous.

My UL colleague Professor Eoin Devereux studies the sociology of fans, and fandom. Fans create their own highly creative cultures around their shared interests.

There is no nerd like the Star Wars nerd. The Star Wars nerd collects comics, toys and books, watches the new cartoons with their kids, binge-watches episodes three to six, nurses a particular hatred for a character called Jar Jar Binks, deeply wants to see the Holiday Special, knows what the ‘Machete order’ is and who Darth Plagueis was. You go google those, I’ll wait. Back? Okay.

The Star Wars franchise is roaring back to our screens on December 17. It’s pretty certain to make a lot of money, but what interests me is the tension between wanting to experience a nostalgia element of seeing this universe recreated with my kids, and the worry that the films won’t do my memories justice. Like many others I have good cause for this worry: I’m looking at you, Phantom Menace.

This is not as frivolous as it might sound. Economists Abhjit Banerjee and Timothy Besley studied nerd behaviour as a set of peer group incentives. They found nerds gravitate toward positively shared interests – if you know a lot about Tipperary hurling in the 1950s, and you hang out with people of similar interests, one person’s deep knowledge enriches all of the group. The same group dynamic holds true for local history, for education – study in groups – and for information spreading across the internet. It’s something called a Power Law.

How do you decide what is beautiful? The American mathematician David Birkhoff had an answer. His theory was that for a work of art to be pleasing it should be neither too regular or predictable, but it should not pack too many surprises. In other words, beauty increases as complexity decreases.

Now let’s talk meteors. It turns out that the mean frequency with which different types of interplanetary debris like meteors and shooting stars hammer the earth’s atmosphere is described by a Power Law. There are very few huge meteors, and proportionally more, and more, as the size decreases to almost nothing. This is why we are all still alive.

The economist Art DeVany studied why some movies do well while others do not. Readers may be aware of films like WaterWorld which cost $200 million and then bombed, while films like 1996’s Swingers were made for half-nothing and went on to gross millions. The answer is a Power Law: some films in every year gross 100 times what others will make, and this happens because of information, chiefly spread through word of mouth. Marketing and PR help spread the word initially. But DeVany’s work showed who was the best at spreading a positive message about films: the super fans.

Nerdy super fans are a tiny proportion of any audience. They will buy everything produced by a band, a writer, an artist, or a brand. In a world where every niche can be explored thanks to the internet, and where many things can be procured illegally because of the low transaction costs and relative anonymity, you need super fans as an artist to make a living. And this is why bands’ touring schedules have exploded: the economics of recording music mean the only money to be made is by travelling to your audience and giving them something unique.

They’ll also buy the T-shirts and the CD while they are there. Super fans should get treated like royalty by the bands and services they are loyal to, and yet precisely because they are so interested, the nerds typically don’t get treated well.

Business models are changing to accommodate super fans. Online services like connect individual craft producers with potential fans. So If you want a hand-stitched T-shirt of Darth Vader walking an At-At like a dog, is the place for you. (Yes, I bought one.)

The nerds will inherit the earth, thanks to the internet and the new economics of production under Power Law-like uncertainty. The economics of being a nerd have never been better.