Twenty-one-year-old Raine Giorgio is slumped into the soft leather folds of the old couch in her apartment near the University of Denver, wavy brown hair pulled loosely back, small frame hidden beneath a blanket while she does her Netflix-ing, blogging, fan-fiction writing and texting beside posters of The Fifth Element (very geeky, Giorgio says), Mr. Nobody and Midnight in Paris (not so geeky). Occasionally she leaves her personal nerd nest to grab a comic from a nearby desk that houses a few of her most beloved series: Teen Titans, Iron Man and The Termination of Typhoid, among others.
That’s when a text from childhood friend Faith Lierheimer comes in.
Faith: Hey, I’m going to Venice. I can totally picture a stucky honeymoon fic of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes.
Raine: That’s a fluff fic waiting to happen. I’ll write one if you write one.
Fangirls like Lierheimer and Giorgio, who lost touch after elementary school and later reconnected at DU over shared obsessions, have their own bizarre language. A “fluff,” for example, is a fan fiction — aka “fic” — that gives you the warm fuzzies, Giorgio explains. A “stucky” is a special kind of -ship, a romantic pairing of fictional characters who haven’t technically been paired in their original publications and broadcasts. And a fandom is a subject — usually a specific TV show, movie, comic or book — in which a fangirl is interested, “anything somebody can geek out about,” explains Giorgio. “It could be really geeky science fiction like Orphan Black or something as fun as The Vampire Diaries, as mature as Game of Thrones or as youthful as Avatar: The Last Airbender.”
And then there’s “fangirl” itself. “‘Women in fandom’ is probably a better way to describe us,” Giorgio admits, “but I use ‘fangirl’ for ease of reference.”
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When the term first appeared a few years ago to describe an emerging crop of thirteen- to thirty-year-old STEM-loving, geek-obsessed females, it caught a bad rap, “probably because it conjures up images of young women screaming and crying and fainting during Beatlemania,” Lierheimer says. “The hysteria is all that makes the news, so instead of talking about the incredible community that has sprung up around Benedict Cumberbatch’s filmography, all that gets talked about in interviews is his sex appeal. The mainstream media doesn’t bother to actually look at our inner lives and appreciate the amazing bridge-building that’s happening between people of different ages, nationalities and life stages.”
“Fangirls,” Giorgio adds, “are interested in shows that have something unique about them — shows that have an atypical main character, and shows that are philosophical or clever.” These fans will spend up to sixty hours a week consuming and creating content inspired by their favorite entertainment outlets, and often forge bonds with the fictional characters with which they most identify. “Some people would say that’s too much, and that they should be doing something productive with their lives,” Giorgio notes. “But if you asked the fangirl, she’d say it was a productive week.”
Thanks to the Internet, fangirls have ample content to consume in the form of GIFs, DeviantArt, blogs and personal websites, as well as the usual ghosts — Twitter, Facebook — and websites like FanFiction and Archive of Our Own. But the content is scattered, and it isn’t always secure. “Mainly fangirls use Tumblr now, but that isn’t fandom-specific, and the posts can get hijacked by non-fandom people — not to mention that some bloggers get annoyed when fan stuff pops into their feeds,” says Giorgio.
Several years ago, Giorgio got frustrated while trying to find a specific kind of fan fiction and fan art to go with it. She’d started her search on FanFiction, but the site’s censors blocked her from retrieving the content she needed. Archive of Our Own doesn’t host art, and when Giorgio tried Tumblr, she was still disappointed. Fangirls needed a convenient place where they could aggregate their content, she decided, casually jotting the idea in her notebook.
That idea would eventually morph into NerdNest, the first-ever social-media sharing service and one-stop shop for fangirls.
Raine Giorgio (named after Juliette Lewis’s character in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives) used to watch Star Trek with her dad in their Morrison home. Back then, there wasn’t a word that described her habits. “I started using the term ‘fangirl’ a few years ago, but I’ve probably been one since age eight, when I picked up my first Spider-Man comic,” she says.
In high school, Giorgio moved past consumption when she began participating in cosplay at Denver Comic Con and other local cons. Some people will spend hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on a single outfit, and that can be off-putting to those who don’t get it, she admits. But for her, she explains, “There was something about being a mousy high-school student and dressing up as a superhero, getting to go to a con with the personality of Wonder Woman and then going back to your AP Bio class.”
Giorgio has tried on a variety of characters and traits over the years, from the silliness of the Doctor in Doctor Who to the sass of Meg in Disney’s Hercules; she shows others who she is by portraying those she admires. When Giorgio donned Doctor Who garb, it was because “he’s had a very dark past and yet still manages to be so optimistic,” she says. Her own dark past involved a chronic illness caused by Epstein-Barr virus, which surfaced during her junior year of high school.
“I missed some ninety days of school that year,” Giorgio recalls, adding that Epstein-Barr “comes with a lot of health problems.”
During her last years of high school, Giorgio was a regular at the doctor’s office. Dropping to a measly 95 pounds, she became too weak to climb stairs. “This was a time I really grew strong in my geekdom. I couldn’t go ice-skating with my friends, because I knew if I got hurt, it would take me much longer to heal,” Giorgio says. “Since I couldn’t do normal kid things, I spent time reading and watching shows and doing stuff that doesn’t require using your body.”
Giorgio got well enough to enter the University of Denver, but had to take a two-quarter leave of absence. When she returned in the fall of 2013, she wound up in a freshman business class because the graduation requirement for her major had changed.
Stephen Haag, professor of practice at DU’s Daniels College of Business, created a program called Gateway to Business with the goal of making his introductory business class more interesting. “The challenge with a broad course like this is that it tends to be a huge lecture with a bunch of eighteen-year-olds who don’t know what they want to do,” Haag explains. So he flipped the script, adding a competitive twist that had student teams inventing apps, using a prototyping tool and writing their own business plans. Students were then given a chance to compete in what’s come to be known as the Madden Challenge, a Shark Tank-style competition in which undergrads present their apps to a group of local businesspeople, who can choose to provide funding for winning projects.
Haag’s competition is named for commercial real-estate developer John W. Madden Jr., who got wind of the course and offered to fund it, donating $125,000 — enough to keep the program running for five years. Some of that money goes directly to contest winners, but the majority funds app development for “students who are very serious about getting into development,” Haag says. “That’s where Raine comes in.”
During her time in Haag’s course, Giorgio decided to resurrect her fangirl aggregator idea, now dubbed NerdNest, and develop the app. She and her team were selected from a group of about 160 students to enter the 2014 Madden Challenge, and NerdNest placed second out of about forty entries. But that was just the start.
“At the end of the class, Raine was the only one who wanted to continue pursuing the project, and she’s been doing that on her own ever since,” says Haag, who’s been mentoring Giorgio along with professor Michael Myers. “The app idea her team landed on was in her wheelhouse; that was her real passion, and she’s getting to chase that dream.”
The dream became reality in mid-January, when NerdNest went live. The app was privately funded by Giorgio and her two partners: a family member who specializes in startups and an Atlanta employer with whom Giorgio had interned; that businessman owns a Hispanic-oriented marketing company and had contacts with the Argentine firm that did the programming and graphic design that got NerdNest online. As is typical for many new apps, the user stats “aren’t that impressive yet,” says Giorgio. But other benchmarks reveal NerdNest’s value and growth potential. “We have an average time on site of about fifteen minutes per session, which is really good, and we have a bounce rate of around 12 percent,” she notes. “What we really like is that the people using NerdNest use it for a long and intense period of time.”
Giorgio recently judged the 2015 Pitch Competition, an entrepreneurial event at Daniels, and got to talk about NerdNest with a group of business students. “It was cool to share the app with people who aren’t fangirls,” she says. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive: “People thought it was a really original idea. They liked that it was a unique niche, and a lot of them had never heard of fangirls before.”
They were particularly impressed by the fact that Giorgio is trying to turn an interest into a paying gig; she hopes to work with NerdNest full-time after she graduates and turn the startup into a legitimate business. “There’s a general level of condescension when it comes to fandom,” she admits. “It’s not considered a hard art, and I think there is still a lot of prejudice against it.”
But NerdNest could change that.
Giorgio used the $1,000 prize from the Madden Challenge to hold focus groups at the 2014 Denver Comic Con, collecting research on the fangirl demographic — a group that hasn’t been studied much. She examined how many people watch certain shows, what percentage are female, the number of fan fictions posted online, and how many hits those fictions garner. As a result, she can now confidently estimate that there are about 10 million fangirls in this country.
These fangirls are the future of how content will be distributed, Giorgio says. “We multi-screen-watch,” she points out, referring to the way some viewers will text or tweet while consuming content. Watching Sherlock, for example, isn’t a passive event for a fangirl: It’s a lens through which to critically view the world and understand her place in it. “People in fandom are quintessentially dreamers and idealists,” explains Giorgio. “Being involved in fiction gives you this other life. Why live one life when you can live 25?”
A fangirl’s main mode of conversing is through fiction and art, and many write fan fiction — supplemental novels about their favorite characters that are often much longer than traditional 100,000-word novels and unearth passions, traits and motives that the original writers never imagined.
At Denver Comic Con, Giorgio could also take a closer look at cosplay. Aside from exposing quirks and traits, cosplay allows fangirls to access parts of themselves that aren’t necessarily real but reveal deeper truths nonetheless. Fangirl Kyra Ferguson, a local high-school senior who attended the 2014 con, routinely impersonates the villain when playing one of her favorite video games with her twin brother, who is always the hero. “We found this ironic,” Ferguson says, “because in real life, I tend to be the nicer one. I think it has to do with how we are at heart: He’s a really nice guy but doesn’t always come off as that, and I tend to follow a more personal agenda.”
Ferguson and Giorgio met when Giorgio recognized Ferguson’s costume: Zatanna, the vixen magician who appeared in several DC Comics. Ferguson spends upwards of forty hours a week consuming and creating content — and talking about media, too. “My friend and I will talk about it in English class when we’re supposed to be talking about Pride and Prejudice,” Ferguson says. “One day we started talking about Teen Wolf, and one of the girls at our table walked away.”
While NerdNest is technically a gender-neutral site, it clearly caters to the way fangirls view fandom. Females tend to collect, sort and revisit their material, Giorgio explains, whereas males are more likely to engage in one-time viewing. At NerdNest, fangirls can make their own nests: mini-blogs, essentially, where they focus on content.
In contrast, boys often focus on themselves. “It’s like you have to prove yourself [to them], and a lot of girls are turned off by that,” Giorgio says, recalling a time when she picked up a Spider-Man sweatshirt at the mall and overhead two boys questioning whether she actually knew anything about the comic.
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Fangirls have also been turned off by the ongoing Gamergate controversy, which began last August when several young men made virtual threats to rape, kill and dox (access the personal information of) certain high-profile women in the gaming industry. The incident brought attention to sexism and misogyny within the gaming subculture as well as geekdom in general — which is why Giorgio made safety a priority when creating NerdNest.
“We have a zero-tolerance policy for harassment or aggressive behavior; we reserve unilateral rights to remove people and content deemed inappropriate,” she says. Operating in a safe environment, fangirls are empowered to continue doing what they love, she explains, which is absorbing and creatively expanding content.
“When you think about geekdom, it’s a lot of male characters,” says Giorgio, pointing to The Avengers. “That doesn’t stop girls from liking it more than guys.” Still, it’s exciting when a new leading lady is inducted into geekdom, and that’s happening more frequently. “We are beginning to see a stronger presence of female characters in the geek world, which means fangirls have gone beyond the consumption of the goods into creation of content.”
With Giorgio leading the way.