Objects of Desire

An analysis of r/TheRedPill, r/Braincels, and 4chan/pol, with Edgar Yau.

Datasets used

Edgar Yau is an undergraduate student in linguistics at the University of Rochester. He is currently researching online hate communities after spending his recent adolescence immersed in them as a participant.

For the uninitiated, a brief bestiary:

4chan is an anarchic (not to be confused with anarchist) message board whose subforums range in topic from gaming to the outdoors to hentai. 4chan/pol, the “Politically Incorrect” subforum, is 4chan’s politics board and one of the most active alt-right spaces online.

“Red pill” is a term of various usage that functions as the alt-right counterpart to wokeness, referring to everything from the acceptance of the inevitable collapse of democracy and the welfare state (as in Nick Land’s “Dark Enlightenment”), “race realism”, and—in its most popularly understood usage due to its association with the subreddit r/TheRedPill—a belief in the manipulability of female psychology that unlocks sexual bonanza.

“Black pill” is a more recent coinage used in similar revelatory contexts, but in discourse about sex, it specifically refers to a more nihilistic worldview than the red pill. Whereas sexual red pillers believe that women are effectively hackable, black pillers maintain a genetic reductionism, arguing that any and all limits on one’s satisfaction in life is an absolute function of physical attractiveness, only slightly mutable via plastic surgery. Members on r/Braincels, the popular incel (involuntary celibate) subreddit, commonly refer to the black pill.

Edgar Yau: It’s been about three, four years since I’ve actually been a part of these communities. Now I’m more of an observer, but I’ve stayed really up-to-date with the controversies and the outrage that goes on in them. In middle school I played video games and it’s the way I connected with my friends. It’s an interesting subculture for a boy to get all caught up in. The gamerspeak is very distinctive, games are very irreverent, they just kind of say whatever and if you get offended, you’re offended and everyone makes fun of you for it.

It’s not a first person shooter thing, it’s just a gamer thing. I wasn’t primarily playing first person shooters at that time, I was playing a lot of Minecraft with my friends and going on all these random servers. Even then it was like, who can build the biggest swastika? It was this whole idea of, I’m not getting offended, so if other people get offended they’re stupid, they’re vulnerable, they’re idiotic. What right do they have to control the way that I speak? The concept of freedom of speech is huge in these communities.

I started researching this because I was playing Call of Duty with my friend one day online, and within two minutes I heard a prepubescent voice say the n-word. I was catapulted into my adolescent years.

Andrew Thompson: Angela Nagle talked about this in Kill All Normies where she discusses the idea of extending cultural capital into subcultural capital. The distinction between groups in this case is based on one’s knowledge of these very esoteric references and memes and language, like gamerspeak, and I would say also on your ability to withstand insults. If you bristle, you’re sort of being filtered out of the subculture.

EY: The instant some feminist critique of games comes out, it feels like the enemy outside is coming into my space and telling me that I shouldn’t like something. There are only two options: you either double down on your opinions, or you kind of acknowledge that maybe they’re right. I don’t want to say that I was too young—I was around 16—but I was probably just too certain of what I thought and how I felt that I didn’t consider just for a second that those criticisms might not be totally baseless. The interesting thing is that I’m not from here, I grew up in Hong Kong and I only came to the States for college, but I was still extremely involved in this stuff.

AT: I really think of people in these subcultures expressing this fear about threats against “the West”. To hear that you are actually having these experiences in Hong Kong I wouldn’t have expected.

EY: I went to an international school so their first language was English. It was a very Western atmosphere. Out of all my friends, I was the deepest into this stuff. I was bringing a lot of these ideas to them, especially my guy friends, and they would latch onto it. Then as I’d talk about it around my female friends they’d freak out and I’d feel vindicated. Because like, Oh, I triggered someone. I have the power to deliver this uncomfortable truth them and make them emotionally react.

I can’t speak to how similar or different it was from an American high school experience, but it was certainly a very Western experience. It’s embarrassing to admit, but a lot of the guys would just say the n-word and we would get reprimanded for it. All of these moral norms in the US are the same over there. Obviously we’re consuming American pop culture, we’re watching American TV shows, we’re listening to American music. There was no connection of that word for me to race, it was just the idea that I get to use it and I can just kind of say that and trigger a reaction in people. And that’s kind of a global feeling.

AT: I was talking to somebody recently who told me he was really into this stuff for a time during his adolescence. This is somebody who if you met him you would not guess in a million years that any of this materiel ever appealed to any part of him, and it did. I’m almost 33 now—this subculture as I witnessed it in my own adolescence was more or less the same. The platforms were different, I don’t think 4chan existed when I was in high school, but the texture of it was all pretty much identical in the sense of using racial slurs, maximizing offense, and being jarring in the worst possible way. I didn’t really participate in that, but my teenage rebellion certainly had a digital form. This was when we had AOL Instant Messenger. I would just find people and troll them. I was just like a little shitposter. The line dividing my own form of trolling and more outwardly hateful activity is razor thin. Between you and talking to this other person and thinking about me, and thinking about other people I know from high school, I’ve realized that this transgressive online behavior is not this fringe practice that a few troubled youth drift into, this is pretty pervasive among males of a certain age to the extent that I would almost say you can assume that if you see a young male who isn’t exceedingly attractive, he is probably involved in this in some way, or is adjacent to it. It’s just the culture they default to. What the media has done is framed it as this marginal subculture when in fact, it’s actually this mainstream culture that just hasn’t been identified as such until very recently.

EY: I think that’s spot on and that’s something that I’ve been looking into a lot, how it’s actually the norm. Often the media doesn’t treat the internet with the respect that it needs to. There’s no discussion of it with an actual understanding that these are real people and this is a serious phenomenon. I remember on CNN they were like, “Who is this hacker 4chan?” It reminds me of the kinds of things that I was thinking, because a lot of this is kind of a rejection of the mainstream media, mainstream ideals, partially to be edgy, but also partially because you don’t feel like it reflects or represents you.

AT: There’s just more people engaging on /pol today than there were just a few years ago. So now it’s even more mainstreamed than it was and has developed a critical mass.

EY: There’s almost like no meaningful, actual alternative to these monolithic places of discussion. If you go on Reddit, for example, there is still a voting system where the most popular ideas go to the top and the most controversial ideas [within a given subreddit] go away. And so if you want to express controversial ideas that don’t necessarily line up exactly with the way everyone around you is supposed to think, there’s no way to do that.

The way that 4chan is laid out, it feels like you’re forced to engage with as many ideas as are thrown at you. There are conservative Reddits, but then those don’t really get as far as 4chan. And you don’t really get exposed to as many ideas that have the potential for that thrill of revelation. When you’re first starting out engaging in political ideas, you get those feelings of revelation over and over again. And it’s an interesting feeling, it feels like you’re learning. And so once you find something like Reddit, once you get a good grasp on say, if you go on r/gaming, like if you’re on the default gaming subreddit, it’s like okay, I get what these people are saying now. This is boring to me. What’s next? Oh, let’s find more and more specific, niche things. A platform like Reddit, is, I think, eventually not enough for someone who’s looking for that kind of discussion. There’s almost no alternative but 4chan to go to consistently have those provocative feelings. You don’t really see that on Reddit once you go through it.

I think that that is what that’s indicative of. Not that I’m saying that people are using 4chan as a substitute for Reddit. I just think that that is a general trend, where 4chan is interesting because it’s constantly presenting you with new ideas.

AT: You bring up a good point which is that it’s popular because it’s not one of these big platforms. It isn’t owned. I don’t even know who runs it. Who maintains the 4chan servers? I don’t know who the people are behind it. I think that there’s an appeal to that.

I’ve also been considering what Reddit is. Is it good, is it bad, what’s good, what’s bad, and so on. Reddit has basically subsumed all message boards at this point. You don’t go to message boards anymore. You go on different kinds of social media, and Reddit is the closest form of social media we have to a message board. But it doesn’t mimic message boards a lot. 4chan feels more like an old forum to me, it’s more Web 1.0 than something like Reddit is. I think that there’s no other places off these platforms to go, really. What are the other non-alt-right message boards that aren’t owned by venture capitalists?

Wherever you spend your time, the more time you spend there, the more you just absorb the ideas you’re surrounded by. I find myself absorbing ideas even when I’m approaching them from a distance. Even when researching things, I can feel them trying to work on me in someway.

EY: I use the word “Chad” in conversation sometimes. The language seeps into your brain, and you start to think of things in that same framework. It’s really ridiculous.

AT: The YouTuber ContraPoints did that incels video, and she actually said that just in the course of researching her video, she started using the words like Chad and Stacy. I think the reason she did that, and the reason you do that, and the reason I do it, is because the word Chad is funny and is a great word for a man of bulletproof fuckability.

It’s also indicative of more pernicious and more destructive ideas that can seep in just by sheer proximity. The way that there’s research indicating that if you force yourself to smile, you feel happier. Who knows, it’s pop psychology bullshit, I don’t know if it’s real or not. But I do think it’s real in the sort of digital-political realm, where just by touching these ideas, you are susceptible to them in some way.

This is data from r/Braincels and r/TheRedPill. These are the most popular subreddits for both people. The one that really stuck out to me in the r/Braincels results was the subreddit NEET, which stands for “Not in Employment, Education or Training”, and I have kind of a long thought I want to launch into for a minute.

This overlap between the sexual and economic outcasts is I think brought up really well in Nagle’s book. She’s talking about this guy Roger Devlin in this passage:

His essay “Sexual Utopia and Power” argues against “today’s sexual dystopia with its loose morals and confused sexual roles. It explores “ female hypergamy”, mating up, narcissism, infidelity, deceptiveness, and masochism.” It also argues that “the breakdown of monogamy results in promiscuity for the few, loneliness for the majority.”

On this last point, I think he’s getting to the central issue driving this kind of reactionary sexual politics, perhaps even the central personal motivation behind the entire turn to the far right among young men. The sexual revolution that started the decline of lifelong marriage has produced great freedom from the shackles of loveless marriage and selfless duty to the family for both men and women, but this ever-extended adolescence has also brought with it the rise of adult childlessness and a steep sexual hierarchy. Sexual patterns that have emerged as a result of the decline of monogamy have seen a greater level of sexual toys for an elite of men and a growing celibacy among the large male population at the bottom of the pecking order. Their own anxiety and anger about their lower ranking status in this hierarchy is precisely what it’s produced that are hard line rhetoric about asserting hierarchy in the world politically when it comes to women and non-whites. The pain of relentless rejection has festered in these forums and allowed them to be the masters of the cruel natural hierarchies that bring them so much humiliation.

dataclysm attractiveness okcupid

From Dataclysm by Christian Rudder

I thought of two things when I read this passage. The first was a graph from this book Dataclysm by Christian Rudder, who founded OkCupid. Rudder ultimately published this book that drew on a lot of different datasets but also used the OkCupid dataset. This is one of the analyses that was published in Dataclysm. OkCupid doesn’t work like this anymore as I understand, but for a long time when you came across another user, you would rate them from one to five stars. It’s probably good we don’t do that anymore. But that was how the platform operated. And I remember that if you were in a certain echelon of people, if you were in the top 10 percent or whatever—and I wasn’t—you would get this email that congratulated you on being the creme de la creme of attractiveness.

According to the data on OkCupid, women find men less attractive than men find women. And I think you can synthesize what Nagle is saying with this graph and just see this swelling discontent on incels.co and Braincels and TheRedPill as essentially the casualties of this new sexual system we’ve been developing since the 1970s where relations are reduced to this sexual marketplace.

The second thing I thought of was basically the entire worldview of Michel Houellebecq, whose ideas I see throughout Kill All Normies. His first big book deals with the sexual revolution, which in his telling, despite being associated with the left, was really the beginning of a cultural neoliberalism. Just as institutions under neoliberalism have dissolved and been taken over by market forces, our social relations are unmediated by anything other than sheer desire and you end up with nothing but a bazaar of flesh. One result of that is that you end up with a sexual underclass, the sexual counterpart to the NEET subreddit. Just as people are cast away from the job market through automation and are no longer able to adapt to the world necessary to survive economically, it’s more difficult for people to survive in this new sexual reality, especially one that provides a method of meeting people on digital platforms that optimize for quick, weak interactions that give little opportunity for anything other than physicality to dominate the selection process.

I think the bearing that reality has on people differs on geography. I don’t know how much Tinder is used in Laramie, Wyoming, where I used to live, but I can tell you that it is the dominant method by which people meet each other in places like New York City. And I have watched people move here and thrive or die in that system. I have seen people go in completely opposite directions. I can think of two people off the top of my head where this happened. One of them was a very attractive girl who moved to Brooklyn from Philadelphia, and I think Philadelphia is less dictated by this ruthless superficiality than New York, which makes a lot of sense when you think about New York as a neoliberal center, both economically and in this cultural sense we’re talking about. She moved here and became this #bestself member of this culture’s sexual elite who saw her own sexual activity as basically the extent of her politics.

The other friend also moved here from Philadelphia and I guess he split with his girlfriend or something, and I found these Red Pill leanings creeping into his personality. He believed women’s brains were hackable. He would call women ugly to me. It was really weird. And I would tell him not to do it and he would laugh and find it funny. To him, that was his own brand of 4chan offensiveness, he was upsetting these feminist sensibilities of the left. And what was so fucking bizarre was that he was kind of a leftist. He worked as an environmental organizer for years and lived in Brooklyn and had a bookshelf of Chuck Klosterman and whatever you would find on a Brooklyn bookshelf. But I think the longer he went without sex, the more hateful he became. He actually referred to himself as celibate. He would say, “Well I’m celibate now.” He never said incel. I had never heard that term actually until 2018, but he was the first person I ever knew who referred to himself as celibate.

My friendships with both these people reached their conclusions for these very reasons, which sucks because in New York City friendships don’t abound. But it was bizarre to see both of them sort of convert to this worldview.

EY: It seems like that worldview is being forced upon her, not her reinforcing the assumptions of that ideology.

AT: Absolutely, and that that’s my whole point. Even if incels engage in toxic behavior, they exist in a macro historical moment in which that behavior is cultivated. That absolutely goes for her, and it goes from my other friend as well. It goes for all of us, not to completely dismiss any kind of agency. And I think that this is an environment that I’m always relieved when people acknowledge, whether it be Houellebecq or Nagle.

EY: But then I think that things like the Amazon documentary The Red Pill and places like Rolling Stone and all of them almost never investigate this, the moment that we find ourselves in that is creating this kind of hyper-sexual frustration.

AT: And I will say as well, so not only have things been replaced by this sexual marketplace but we are daily inundated with images establishing what sort of conventional existence looks like. There’s a fascinating paper written by Jonah Peretti, who founded Buzzfeed, wrote when he was at MIT. It’s one of the most interesting papers I think I’ve ever read. His whole idea was that in this current stage of capitalism, we cycle through identities more quickly.

Lacan had this idea in his psychoanalysis of the Mirror Stage where the child develops a sense of itself when it looks at the mirror and it recognizes itself. But this phenomenon is extended past the mirror and into images. So we don’t just identify with the reflection of ourselves in the mirror. We then identify with the image on the movie screen or the TV screen or phone screen or whatever sort of picture is looking back at us. And that sort of becomes our sense of self as well.

Because we are so inundated with these images and these narratives, we find ways to reconcile our own sense of identity with this identity that is projected back at us from the screen. You can think of a child after they watch The Avengers, they go and they play Avengers with their friends and they think of themselves as Captain America and Black Widow and whatever. That’s kind of a very rudimentary, basic example of this idea of the child taking on the identify of the screen.

But we do this all the time as adults. So extrapolate that behavior to an adult looking at an image in a Chanel advertisement or watching The Social Network, and they see in the mirror a model or a machinating startup CEO. The adult takes on the identity of what is projected at them by the image and then reconciles their own sense of self with what they see projected at them.

With people like incels you have something of an identity crisis. Because of this new sexual marketplace, they are no longer able to close the gap between their own identities and the identities projected back at them in the image. And because of the endless white noise of media, they are drowning in reminders of their very inability to close that gap.

Something the activist-turned-red-piller/black-piller I mentioned observed that I think is very true is that we don’t really have an outlet for men who don’t have sex or can’t have sex for whatever reason. There’s no monastery for them to join. We have created this system where you are either getting laid or you’re not. Those are your two options. And if you can’t reconcile your identity with that of the image, which is almost universally an image of someone having lots of sex, we don’t really give you any other options. There’s no image of, like, a monk.

I sent you that Oneohtrix Point Never video, I don’t know if you watched it or not.

EY: Yes, I watched it. I watched the shit out of it.

AT: To me it captures everything about what we’re saying in the span of four minutes, for the most part. Mostly what it captures is that alienation and ostracization and totally unfulfillable desire among these people. That there’s just no way to satiate these urges, and the urges become ever more extreme the more time you spend feeding them and dwelling within them. Nagle’s quote about the unsatiated desire being the fundament of everything is captured in that OPN video better than anything I’ve seen.

EY: Yeah, I think so. And something interesting that stood out to me about that video is that there are no “real women” in that video, it’s all furries or hentai. It makes me wonder whether the phenomenon of incels loving hentai is almost self-fulfilling—they pine after these girls and they have these waifus and they love these things just because part of them knows that this isn’t an obtainable, real thing. It’s another form of comfort and safety for them. Like, “I can fall in love with a fictional character, and some part of me knows that will never happen, so committing to that is safe.”

AT: I also think that it’s a sign of just how alien an actual woman is to this culture. It is so distant and abstract that it becomes unreal. In a way, the furries and the hentai girls are both literal depictions of what these people end up desiring, but also these non literal representations of what women are to them.

I looked up “red pill” and I looked up “black pill” on /pol. People say “red pill” more, but it’s interesting to see the climb of “black pill” relative to “red pill” and I’m wondering in your research if you’ve gotten the sense that the use of term is becoming more pervasive. Do you think that it indicates a deeping nihilism among these people, or is this just kind of a coincidence?

EY: To me it just feels like “red pill” is becoming a normie concept now. It’s mainstream. So they’re kind of getting backed into a corner and I don’t know where you can go past the black pill. There’s no darker black pill.

AT: The jet black pill.

EY: Seeing this makes me feel like there is this kind of, “I’m trying to reconcile this rejection of the mainstream with all the other things you’re talking to me about.” Because the mainstream idea is the sexual marketplace. And then there’s the belief that the sexual marketplace can’t benefit you. And so I feel like those ideas kind of intertwined like the wires get crossed or something. Where once an idea starts to become part of a more mainstream cultural consciousness it becomes almost, yuck, you’re deterred from it.

It reminds that I was talking to this guy who went viral talking about his alt-right journey and one word that he kept using I actually had never used before was “boomer”. He was saying like, “Oh they’re just a bunch of Boomers. That’s just Boomer talk.” And so that really had me thinking about the way all of this stuff is situated in their minds. And so once Red Pill ideas are hitting mainstream and if let’s say Chads start posting in TheRedPill, which they can do, TheRedPill isn’t an exclusively incel thing, then where do you go? You have to start moving into this space where it’s like, Okay this ideology is now not somewhere that I feel safe. I have to take it further. And that just gets encouraged by everyone else who feels the same way and feels like you have to be edgy. You have to be on the edge, you have to be on the fringe.

AT: I feel like that pertains to this other result here. I looked at all three-word combinations used in any /pol post with the words “red pill” and the one that stuck out to me was any terms that include the word “ultimate”. This idea of the ultimate red pill, and how commonly that factors into these discussions, this idea of like taking the final red pill. Nick Land’s decision to title his manifesto the “Dark Enlightenment” bears on this as well, I think, which implies a forbidden knowledge.

It makes me think of something Mark Fisher said in this essay he wrote about Joy Division. “The depressive is always confident of one thing: that he is without illusions.” There’s this idea that the more nihilistic the idea is, the truer is must be. And I wonder if that becomes its own reinforcement to people who traffic in the language of the red pill and the black pill and the dark enlightenment. That because it’s so nihilistic, it is this form of realism.

EY: It reminds me of how incels will go and they’ll post pictures of themselves to be rated on, fully expecting and knowing for a fact that all they’re going to get is criticism and reaffirmation that their worldview, that they’re never going to be able to fuck, is true. It’s almost comforting in the most depressing sense: Everything I’m thinking is right, I am worthless, I am terrible, any hope is illusion.