Robert Hayden is king of the geeks.

He's proud to say so, too.

The 25-year-old graduate student at Mankato State University is known across the Internet for inventing the Geek Code -- a series of letters usually found on the bottom of e-mail messages that, when deciphered, offer a snapshot of the user's geekiness.

It's a way for geeks to scope out one another. But Hayden says it's a part of his effort to take the eek out of geek -- to turn what's largely thought of as a negative stereotype into something positive.

"The first step is to admit to yourself your geekiness," Hayden says in the introduction to his 17-page code. "Using this special code will allow you to let other un-closeted geeks know who you are in a simple, codified statement."

As an example, here is Hayden's Geek Code:

GED/J d- s:++ a- : C++(++++) ULU++ P+ L++ E -- -- W+(-) N++++ K+++ w -- O- M+ V -- PS++$ PE++$ Y++ PGP++ t- 5+++ X++ R+++$ tv+ b+ DI+++ G++++ e++ h r -- y++

What does this all mean? A true geek can eyeball this gibberish and quickly develop a personality profile of Hayden. (It takes him 10 seconds, tops, to figure out somebody else's code, he says.) Others can drop a person's code into a piece of software known as the Geek Code Calculator and it will spit out an instant analysis.

Hayden's personal code reveals this, among other things, about him: He reads books, but not on a daily basis; he wears T-shirts with political messages; he worships the television show "Babylon 5"; he doesn't understand the "Star Trek" phenomenon; he hates Windows; he reads many Usenet newsgroups; and he's not considered to be hot dating material.

Since its invention in 1993, The Geek Code has become part of Net Culture. A Usenet search comes up with 138,000 references to it in various newsgroups. A Web search engine found 30,000 pages mentioning it, then overloaded and stopped looking.

Hayden says geeks have always gotten an unfair rap.

"The geek originally was a carnival performer, then it devolved into a person who's synonymous with a nerd -- somebody who has no life," says Hayden, who is working on his master's in education, hoping to work as a school technology coordinator. "I wanted to reclaim the term and redefine it as somebody who loves and adores technology."

Hayden grew up in Virginia, Minn., and had a geek-like adolescence. He was his high school's newspaper editor, as well as a tech-head.

"I was the only one in school who cared about computers," he says.

He graduated from high school in 1989 and discovered the Internet a year later. "It was all downhill from there," he says.

He whipped together his first version of The Geek Code in two hours in 1993. It had only eight categories; the latest version runs 17 pages and has 35 categories.

"I did it for fun, but I knew if it caught on and people used it, that you'd be able to track the evolution of the Internet through the categories, and that's what has happened. Things have come and gone."

His code was a hit, embraced by thousands of Netters who added it to their e-mail signatures. And it continues to be popular: His "Geek Zone" Web page gets more than 300 hits daily.

Hayden's PR efforts on behalf of geeks everywhere seem to have worked. Suddenly, geek has become chic.

In Santa Cruz, there are Geek Houses (a play off of fraternity Greek Houses) and Geek field trips to Disneyland -- all documented on a Web page, of course.

At Harvard, an organization called Society of Nerds and Geeks (SONG) uses the slogan,"The geeks of today are the trendsetters of tomorrow."

Last month in Chicago, the city's "nouveau riche megabyte millionaires" gathered for an exclusive funding event that was dubbed The Geek Ball.

Quick to sniff out a special-interest group with money to burn, Macworld magazine is launching a magazine called GeekChic, which will include a Meet-a-Geek personals section and have interviews with "individuals who embody the geek ethos."

As geek gets trendy, Hayden has become the high arbiter of geek culture. He knows who belongs and who doesn't.

Apple co-founder and NExT CEO Steve Jobs may look too smooth to be a geek, but Hayden insists he is.

"He's probably a geek because he does what he does to have fun, and that's part of what it is to be a geek."

But Jobs' successor at Apple, ex-Pepsi honcho John Sculley, is not a geek.

"He's a businessman. I never got the impression that he takes a lot of pride in how technologically marvelous (the Macintosh is)."

Microsoft founder Bill Gates could have been a geek, says Hayden.

"Gates had an opportunity to be one and he gave it up. That happened when he decided that making money is more important than making good computer code. One geek trait is that you take pride in your work and it's my opinion that Microsoft hasn't produced a lot that's to be proud of."

Physicist and author Stephen Hawking ("A Brief History of Time") is one. "If you read him, you'll see he takes pride in his work but it doesn't consume him."

And Albert Einstein is a member of the Geek Hall of Fame.

"There's your classic geek. He did what he wanted to do and the world be damned."

Geeks, notes Hayden, are different from nerds. The popular media often make the mistake of writing articles about "Revenge of the Nerds" when they really mean a geek's revenge.

Hayden explains the distinction:

"In a nutshell, a nerd is somebody who lets technology run their life and a geek is a person who runs their life with technology. For example, a physics student who spends 11 hours working in the lab because he has an assignment to do on particle lasers is a classic nerd. The geek will go out and party and then suddenly remember he has to do a physics assignment."

While some give physical qualities to geekiness or nerdiness, Hayden insists that's not what it's all about. "It's a behavioral thing. One of the important things you see in geek culture is nonconformity."

Mostly you see it in dress and music.

"Alternative music was rampant within the Net culture long before it became rampant in the popular culture, and the idea of wearing jeans and T-shirts to work was a geek thing before IBM finally dropped its dress code."

Geeks have a sense of humor, too, while nerds don't.

Here's something geeks find funny:

Question: When does a geek father cry?

Answer: When his son creates his first homepage.

In addition to helping geeks seek out geeks with similar interests through the code, Hayden established the geek playground known on Usenet as alt. geek. But that forum -- like most Usenet discussions -- has degenerated into a series of flame wars and off-topic ramblings.

"I created alt.geek several years ago. At the time it was just a social group, but now there's so much cross-posting and flamage that it's really no longer a medium for intelligent discussion. I'm still there, but I just lurk. There may be 40 messages a day, but only one worth reading."

Hayden says his geek fan club has an international flavor.

"I get huge amounts of mail from Finland. It's a classic computer hacker haven and the country's on the forefront of Internet's concepts. I get quite a few from Sweden and Germany, and I got a message the other day from somebody who wants to translate the code from English to Japanese."

While he's known by geeks worldwide, Hayden wonders what more he can get out of his invention.

"It's gotten me in Rolling Stone magazine, but it hasn't brought me other fame and fortune. I haven't figured out if there's a way to do that."

His latest version of the Geek Code isn't a year old yet, but Hayden's already at work on his next release. He's reading over 1,500 e-mail suggestions on how to improve it.

With each revision, he adds and deletes outdated cultural icons. An early version asked users about their interest in the TV dinosaur Barney; that question is out. The code no longer indicates whether the user wears glasses or how many pens he or she carries in a pocket.

In a controversial move, Hayden considered taking out questions about appearance in the code. A loud Net protest nixed that plan.

"People said to me, I'm using the code to find a girlfriend on the Net,' so I left it in," he says.

His new version of the Code -- "I'm calling it Geek '96," he says -- is due out by year's end, but it probably won't be his last.

"I'll do it until I die or get a life," Hayden says.

He doesn't expect either to happen soon. How To Be One

Remember, it's not looks that count. It's the attitude. Geeks love technology and love their techno-jobs. If you can get over the hurdle of enjoying work, you're halfway there.

Geeks enjoy a little socializing -- they're not solitary creatures like nerds -- but their mixing is often online. A popular geek thischannel on Internet Relay Chat is (pound)root, which is largely made up of Unix systems administrators. Others who enjoy a good Unix discussion are also welcome, though.

Geeks enjoy talking about the new additions to the NASA Home Page. Notes Geek Code creator Robert Hayden: "It's got photos and hard data. There's something to be said for sitting down with a bunch of numbers and crunching them. Don't forget: The geek is also a researcher in academia."

A true geek reads computer books, but is careful about what's on the reading list. For example, Wired magazine isn't geek. Nor is the HotWired Web site ( .

"It's too mainstream and popular to qualify as being part of Geekdom," says Hayden. "HotWired is MTV of the Net." (C) 1996, Knight-Ridder Newspapers Take a Look Among geek web sites:

The Dilbert Zone,

The Santa Cruz Geek Scene,

The NASA Home Page,

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory Home Page,

GeekChic (online beta issue),

Geek Chic (Another e-zine not affiliated with the above publication), (C) 1996, Knight-Ridder Newspapers CAPTION: Robert Hayden of Mankato University, inventor of the Geek Code.