I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a 2002 episode of Malcolm in the Middle called “Cliques.” It follows Malcolm and the other members of the gifted class—referred to on the show as “Krelboynes”—as they’re forced to assimilate back into the general population of the school. In the beginning of the episode, they blow up their classroom in a failed science experiment and have to spend several weeks separated from one another as they attempt to attend normal, non-gifted classes.
Over the course of the episode, they begin joining different cliques. One Krelboyne becomes a jock, one becomes a goth, one becomes a hip-hop kid, Stevie (Malcolm’s friend in a wheelchair) becomes a skater kid, etc. Slowly, the nerds work their way into these social groups and not only become the leaders, but they decide to wage war on one another. The episode culminates in a schoolyard showdown between all the cliques, a Krelboyne leading each of them, battling for supremacy of the school.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” one of the big jocks asks his friends before the big showdown.
“It’s too late for second thoughts,” a former nerdy Krelboyne, now leading the jocks, says to him. “The tribes have balkanized.” Then the nerd pauses, sighs, and dejectedly explains to the confused football players behind him, “They don’t like each other.”
This episode is a helpful way to look at the state of the Internet in 2015: angry nerds using mobs of sockpuppets to help them fight their anonymous culture wars. And incidentally, this exact thing happened a few months ago.
To put it bluntly, teenage boys created the first mainstream Internet culture.
In June, it was discovered that hundreds of users on the anonymous messageboard 4chan were posing as black women on Twitter and Tumblr in an attempt to misdirect and embarrass the online social justice community. Men’s rights activists, pick-up artists, and your garden-variety garbage Internet trolls were posing as deranged feminists to try and trick political activists into embarrassing themselves with fake hashtags. Some of the accounts had, shockingly, been up and running for more than a year. The discovery caused chaos within political activism circles as more and more accounts—some with thousands of followers—were outed as fake.
“Operation Lollipop,” as it was called, is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a world of “weird Internet” where men congregate anonymously, orchestrating stunts “for the lulz” like this one with more and more complexity. The Internet’s “angry nerdy man” problem is nothing new, but we’re now at a point where we need to deal with it before it eats us alive.
A power struggle
To put it bluntly, teenage boys created the first mainstream Internet culture. Early memes like LOLcats, Rickrolling, Leetspeak, “All Your Base Are Belong to Us,” and “You’re the Man Now, Dog” were all just inside jokes that kids were sharing on messageboards.
It’s no accident that half of the major early Internet-culture touchstones referenced video games, anime, and porn. Mid-2000s Web culture was the frothing manic id of thousands of teenage boys who were smart enough or had enough free time to figure out how to navigate crappy dial-up Internet.
As author Sharon Meraz points out in Women, Men and News: Divided and Disconnected in the News Media Landscape, it took six years after the creation of the first Web browser for men and women to achieve gender parity online. That’s a pretty big head start, and even then, men still spent more time plugged in than women.
Internet demographics change every few years. Computers get better and new social networks bring more diverse social groups online. That means that with every new year, young men become a less and less valuable primary demographic for tech companies to cater to.
It took six years after the creation of the first Web browser for men and women to achieve gender parity online.
Social media scholar Danah Boyd published a piece in 2011 titled “White Flight in Networked Publics—How Race and Class Shaped American Teen Engagement With MySpace and Facebook.” The controversial paper looks at the demise of Myspace within the context of race. Boyd argues that Facebook’s initial requirement of a college email address created a stratification effect. Race lines started to show as white college students and high schoolers began flocking to Facebook, turning Myspace into what Boyd refers to as a “digital ghetto.”
A similar issue occurred when Twitter was in its infancy. A 2010 Business Insider story called “Why Is Twitter More Popular With Black People Than White People?” very bluntly captured the strange racial implications of Twitter launching as a predominantly mobile and phone-based social network.
According to a 2009 Pew Research study, blacks and Hispanics were the first groups to adopt the mobile Web. Their rate of mobile Internet use was almost double that of white Internet users. John Horrigan, associate director of the Pew Internet Project, speaking to the New York Times, cited the high cost of personal computers versus the relative cheapness of smartphones as a major factor for the racial split.
Networks like Facebook and Twitter have grown tremendously since then. A large portion of those changes appear to have been aimed at bringing in more users while dealing with the simple fact that people of different races and genders just don’t really get along online. So we’ve seen a ton of new features that allow users to create their own gated communities within larger social networks.
Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, Twitter’s mentioning system, and both networks’ use of hashtags and private messaging seem to exist in part to prevent not only “white flight” but to eliminate the inevitable conflicts that happen when a melting pot becomes too crowded. It doesn’t always work, but it allows for more breathing room than Myspace did.
Between 2010 and 2012, Pinterest, Snapchat, and Instagram all launched. In 2013, Tumblr was purchased by Yahoo. All four apps are nails in the male Internet coffin: They’re mobile-friendly and incredibly visual, and most importantly, they’re popular among teenage girls. Instagram’s userbase is 68 percent female.
White men aren’t steering the ship anymore.
So take a culture of mostly white, educated men who feel victimized by the rest of society. Give them a digital space to congregate in. Then slowly start to fill that space up (not literally, of course, because the Internet is infinite) but shrink their sphere of influence. New sections of culture appear that they have no involvement in. Young people flock to mobile, they socialize on messaging apps, and they don’t care what new meme is currently trending on Reddit. They have their own memes. (“Black Twitter,” for example, has its own Wikipedia page.)
White men aren’t steering the ship anymore. For almost a decade now, that male-focused Internet culture has been getting pushed further and further into weirder and darker shadows of the new social Internet. And over the last year especially, it’s become clear that in a world where Internet and real life are inseparable, the narrative of “Internet nerds fighting back at the society that scorned them” is not only wrong, it’s dangerous.
Attack of the manosphere
In May, 22-year-old Elliot Rodger stabbed three men to death in his apartment, drove to a nearby sorority house on the University of California, Santa Barbara, campus, and shot four people, killing two female students. He then drove to a nearby restaurant and killed another student. Rodger exchanged gunfire with the police and drove through the city of Isla Vista, Calif., shooting at random people until he crashed his car and shot himself in the head.
Rodger posted a YouTube video before his killing spree, detailing his belief that women deserved to be punished for rejecting him. It was also later discovered that he was an active member on a website called PUA Hate, an online community centered on the idea that feminism is a sexual strategy invented by women to help them select better, more attractive mates for genetic reasons. The larger movement it’s part of is called the “Red Pill,” named after the scene in The Matrix where Neo takes a red pill and then sees the truth of reality.
In August, a man named Eron Gjoni wrote a rambling blog post accusing his ex-girlfriend, independent game designer Zoe Quinn, of having a sexual relationship with a video game journalist. The blog post spawned the #Gamergate movement, whose mainly young, male followers began sending death and rape threats to female game developers and female social-justice advocates.
Video game critic, vlogger, and writer Anita Sarkeesian, independent game developer Brianna Wu, and actress Felicia Day, along with Quinn, have all had their personal information leaked online by Gamergate supporters, who all the while have told the press that the movement is about ethical journalism in the gaming industry. Most critics believe the movement is actually about harassing women and making sure the video game industry remains focused on young men.
Over the last year especially, it’s become clear that in a world where Internet and real life are inseparable, the narrative of “Internet nerds fighting back at the society that scorned them” is not only wrong, it’s dangerous.
In September, a project dubbed “The Fappening,” orchestrated by users of 4chan, resulted in the leak of over 500 stolen photographs. The majority of photos were nude selfies of female celebrities. The anonymous leader of the project, calling himself “the Collector,” planned to sell the leaked photos for bitcoins.
In October, men’s rights activists set up a fake domestic violence campaign. They called it the White Ribbon project and used the tagline “end violence against everyone.” The fake site MRAs built led users to a paypal donation page for the notoriously misogynistic website A Voice for Men. It ended up causing all kinds of confusion for people who actually just wanted to donate to an anti-domestic-violence campaign.
In November, a pick-up artist and dating coach named Julien Blanc posted a YouTube video called “White male fucks Asian women in Tokyo (and the beautiful methods to it).” In the clip, Blanc claimed that white men could literally physically pick up Asian women and carry them off. It contained footage of Blanc assaulting random women on the streets of Tokyo.
The video prompted the hashtag #TakeDownJulienBlanc. While the backlash against Blanc was growing, he was on an Australian speaking tour. The Australian government canceled his visa, effectively ending the tour. Then 151,000 people signed a petition demanding he be banned from the U.K. He was subsequently denied a visa in the U.K. and Singapore.
These incidents aren’t related, but their proximity isn’t an accident either. They are heads of the same hydra living underneath the murky waters of the “weird Internet.” Pick-up artists, hackers, gamers, men’s rights activists, and just flat-out trolls are all part of a culture that has been growing in the background; no one seems to know what to do with them. And their attacks are becoming more frequent and more alarming.
This “manosphere”—for lack of a better word—is a cluster of men who feel ostracized and angry. Their sandbox is closing, and they are terrorizing everyone outside of it.
The ‘suffering nerd’ is dead
“Nerds,” as people have come to identify themselves, simply don’t exist anymore. We live in a world where 27 million people gather to watch an international video game tournament, where the third-highest-selling movie of all time is based on The Avengers comic books, and 6 million people tuned in to watch Game of Thrones. The concept of the suffering, ostracized nerd is quickly losing relevance.
Gamergate’s trajectory went from underground rumblings to national news story to fringe hate group in about a month.
Mainstream social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram don’t have much need or want for a core group of fanatical male power users. It’s simply bad business. These tech companies have made it clear they’re focused on finding and keeping new users. They want to become bigger, which means the adolescent white male influence on the Internet becomes more and more irrelevant—which will make their anger that much louder and more dangerous, at least in the short term.
Reddit is really the last unapologetic mainstream website that lets its male users completely dictate its culture. It’s home to one of the largest pick-up artist communities online. It still has a section dedicated to the ideology that inspired Elliot Rodger’s killing spree. It was the birthplace of the men’s rights movement and a central hub for Gamergate. The traffic Reddit generated from the Fappening made the site enough money to run its servers for a month. Reddit decided to pull down the leaked celebrity nudes only the day after it had broken traffic records.
Recently, a new subreddit called Black People Twitter has been gaining popularity. It’s described as a place to post “screenshots of black people being hilarious on social media.” It was one of the rare times I noticed that Reddit as a whole seemed interested in a nonwhite perspective.
“Sorry it’s such a bummer,” he tweeted. He made a point to separate Reddit the platform from the single user who created the sub. “Happens across platforms, Tumblr, WordPress, even Twitter itself,” he said. Then he linked to a Tumblr called Shit Black People Tweet, which has almost no activity on it, unlike the Black People Twitter subreddit’s 173,000-plus followers.
The manosphere won’t stop lashing out immediately, but it will lose.
Ohanian is wrong: That sort of thing doesn’t happen across all platforms—or, at the very least, it doesn’t happen in the same way. Reddit’s community has inspired and organized actual real-life catastrophes, as opposed to being used to document them. Nowhere else online—with the noted exception of 4chan—does that kind of identity-building and organization take place. This is not to say that more diverse spaces like Instagram or Twitter are not without their own evils.
Gamergate’s trajectory, though, went from underground rumblings to national news story to fringe hate group in about a month. Gamergate, by all accounts, is on its last legs—but its most fanatical users are still committed to harassing women such as Brianna Wu. I’m hoping it’s a head-on-a-pike example for communities looking to organize similar movements.
The manosphere won’t stop lashing out immediately, but it will lose. It will be pushed further and further into the fringe. The only hope is that we’ve reached its peak of violence, but I’m worried that we haven’t. There is a reality that is slowly but surely revealing itself through all this, one that may have always been true: These anonymous men aren’t underdogs who have been unfairly excluded from pop culture due to their dense interest in quirky topics. They’re antisocial hatemongers, and one way or another, they will be left behind.
At the end of that Malcolm in the Middle episode, by the way, all the nerds end up getting hung on a fence by their underwear. The episode ends with a joke that, in this context, is actually a little scary.
“What is with the self pity? Albert Einstein had to carry spare pants until he was 24,” the gifted class’s teacher says as he takes them all home. “Did he cry about it? No, he drew on that experience and helped build the first nuclear bomb.”
Illustration by J. Longo