By Mandi Bierly
Updated July 02, 2007 at 12:00 PM EDT
Credit: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Richard Cartwright

How do you define the word geek? Here’s why I’m asking: Yesterday, I started reading the next book I’ll be reviewing for EW, Allyson Beatrice’s Will the Vampire People Please Leave the Lobby?. It’s a collection of essays on life as one of the leading cyber-supporters of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (pictured), Angel, and Firefly — and how Beatrice’s “true adventures in cult fandom” completely changed hers. (In addition to finding a family in the online communities devoted to the shows and validation in an initially antagonistic friendship with producer/writing hero Tim Minear, she also cofounded a company that plans Internet fan community events and entertainment industry gatherings).The title of the book refers to the condescending way non-believers address Buffy fanatics when the latter are, say, greeting each other loudly at a convention. S—, I’ve been to one Buffy fan convention. Am I a geek? Why have I never considered myself a geek? Quick, someone define geek!

addCredit(“Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Richard Cartwright”)

According to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (that I didn’t even know I had in my cubicle — and that, I should probably note, is copyrighted 1998), a geek is: (1) A person often of an intellectual bent who is disapproved of, and (2) A carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake.Let’s just move past No. 2 (which made my day) and tackle No. 1: Does the word still always have a negative connotation? Maybe the five years I’ve spent in EW’s safe-harbor halls have made me totally delusional, but today, if I hear someone called a geek, I’m pretty sure I’m gonna like him or her — or, at the very least, be fascinated for a moment. It’s like Josie Geller (Drew Barrymore) says in Never Been Kissed: “The smart kids, who everyone else always knew as the brains, but who I just knew as my soulmates, my teachers, my friends.” (I’m sure you’re tempted to define the word loser for me right now, but please resist.)

Assuming we agree that geek doesn’t have to be a diss (safe to say I’m preaching to the choir here on PopWatch, no?), let’s break it down further: Are you a geek if you appreciate certain things on any level (traditionally, sci-fi, comics, videogames), or does your geek status depend not on what you like but on how much you like it? So, for instance, do you only become a geek if you’re a Buffy fan who starts following the careers of the show’s writers and producers?Are you automatically entered into geekdom if you like anything that’s not “mainstream”? South Park still has cult ratings by virtue of being on cable — are you a geek if you like that show? Would you ever consider calling Sopranos or Deadwood fans geeks? Are you a geek if you watch DVD bonus features? Or, only if you sit through commentary tracks hoping to hear pearls like Deadwood‘s Ian McShane calling his purposely uninformative audio with Timothy Olyphant over the Season 2 opener (where Olyphant’s Seth Bullock bones Alma Garret) a “boner feature”? Or is a geek simply anyone who’s passionate about something that you’re not into?

So back to the original question that spawned my identity crisis: How do you define the word geek? And are there still occasions when you feel persecuted for being one?