How Sad Boys Get Angry
In the summer of 2007, a friend of mine introduced me to Pick Up Artistry. He had a whole stack of books and bookmarkedwebsites about it; and I’m sure you could guess why a couple of dumb 16-year-olds about to enter senior year in high school were entranced by the idea of being able to seduce any and all women. There was a whole method to it; if you just followed their simple steps you were guaranteed to get laid. Not even “get a girl”, just to have success in your sexual prowess.
They had all sorts of strategies: have a gimmick, like magic tricks, or carrying guitars around, or walking your dog. “Neg” women by subtly insulting their appearance or intelligence. Be mysterious, and never give out your own number, but leave with theirs. The most important piece of advice: be persistent, be adamant, and never, ever, ever, ever give up. You may be rejected by the first 100 women you ask, but if number 101 was a success, it was worth it in the end.
It was, to put it simply, a crock of dumb ass bullshit. I never bought into it, not just because it was never successful for my friend (despite all his claims to the contrary), but also because the idea of indulging in such a masochistic endeavor sounded exhausting and humiliating. Who wants to be with the guy who just literally asks everyone out constantly until they get worn down? But that was the entire strategy. Pick Up Artists teach men to treat women as as reward. Her own thoughts and feelings are irrelevant, all that matters is if she’s vaguely woman-shaped and would have sex with you. Who cares about a genuine human connection? The entire concept made me sick.
But then, I was single and shy and nerdy, and I’d never had too much luck with women. What if they were right? What if that really was how it worked? Like many other teenage boys, I took my questions to the internet.
Around this time on my life, I started visiting the now-notorious online forum 4chan, on a variety of boards. In a real way I felt like 4chan was a community. These were other single and shy and nerdy guys like me who could commiserate in our loneliness. Sure, some parts of the site boldly expressed the kind of casual racism and misogyny that would eventually fuel the place into the nightmare boogeyman it became. But before it became the headquarters for the alt-right, 4chan was the headquarters for lonely nerds who just wanted someone to talk to. At least, that’s the story its users kept telling about themselves.
Even outside of the alt-right sphere, the cultural influence of that space is pretty vast. Whole musical, artistic, and fashion movements like vaporwave and sadboy aesthetics sprung up to define 2010s culture. The vast prevalence of memes largely started from the incubator of 4chan, which also created many well-known memes and meme formats. I even have a working theory that Drake, the first truly Mainstream Sadboy™, might not have nearly resonated with our generation to become one of the biggest pop sensations in the world, had it not been for the influence of sad boys.
There is, of course, a flip side to the space where sad boys became sad men. The history of 4chan’s insidious web is well-documented. But watching it happen in real time, in the late ’00s and early ’10s, I saw what had once been a space full of people sad that their crush didn’t like them back, or that they hadn’t spoken to a woman in years turn into a space full of people angrily demanding that women who didn’t return their affections were whores, or that women were going through life on “easy mode” because they get drinks paid for.
But it wasn’t that the community was changing. It was never really a “community” at all, more of an unfiltered id lashing out in a thousand directions at once. Everyone was fully anonymous, so therefore completely malleable in an ultimate void of meaning. Especially on certain boards like /r9k/ or /pol/, you could never be sure if you were speaking to one person back and forth, or twenty people, or five hundred people. Nothing was really getting better or getting worse, it was the same as it always had been.
Everything meant nothing, so it could mean whatever you wanted to infer to it. Identity and context were stripped from every single post, and anyone with enough time or effort could conduct elaborate trolling schemes designed to strengthen their network. If all these other people out there who were just like you were peddling misogynist conspiracy theories, why not follow along for yourself?
Incidentally, that’s exactly how 4chan is responsible for so much radicalization. The very format of the site, and its use by bad actors, is the exact reason why it has become a hotbed for extremist groups to radicalize disaffected young men.
The story continues: the whirlpool of Gamergate, a movement later revealed to be frothed by actual white supremacists, started to consume the entire site. And as we’ve seen in even more recent years, that bold rhetoric emboldened the worst instincts of the kind of people who enjoy inflicting cruelty for fun. There would be posts detailing the latest tips and tricks from the Pick Up Artists, still trying their negging and scams to trick women into bed. Any women who dared to show their face or mention that they were women were either immediately shunned and bullied from the site, or presented with so much unsolicited attention and stalking that they would leave anyway.
It wasn’t just 4chan, either. It was other New Internet spaces like Reddit, which seems in retrospect to have been designed to embolden young men’s worst opinions. It was the gore-splattered and sexual violence-filled videos of Newgrounds or Happy Tree Friends, it was SomethingAwful and YTMND. It was the mega-popular New Atheism movement and its offshoots. The expletive-riddled rants of early “internet personalities” like Maddox or Tucker Max, soaking in their exaggerated “hateful douchebag” personas. The “manosphere”, an entire network of sites of ultra-insecure men loudly declaring how aggressively masculine they were. Anywhere you went on the internet, from the time span of about 2006 to 2012, there were similar movements of lonely white male nerds, all of them angry about something. It’s only in recent years that the internet has become mainstream enough to prop up a more representative demographic.
To exist in these communities is the ultimate contradiction. You share your loneliness, but then to build it into anything other than anger is a sign of weakness. There’s a ritual to it. No real, flesh-and-blood human being can ever live up to the faceless automation of anonymity, so instead many of these young men decide to embrace the seductive void. It’s an arms race and a radicalization path at the same time. Nobody can ever complain, or whine, or ever falter, lest they be relentlessly mocked and exiled by the community for caring too much (after all, that’s for women anyway).
The system is built to reward the ones who posture the loudest and most aggressively against “PC Culture” or “SJWs” or whatever boogeyman they have decided is the reason for their misery. They view life as a zero-sum game stacked against them: the only reason they have not succeeded is because women or people of color or LGBTQ+ people are succeeding in their stead. Of course, this is completely ridiculous and completely devoid of any true historical or sociological understanding. But it speaks to that they can’t conceive of anything outside of themselves.
This is where the roots of the “involuntary celibate” movement began. They are so angry and sad at the same time, aggressively threatening and toxic, and completely shut off from self-reflection that they’ve invented entire political movements explaining why people don’t want to be associated with them. It couldn’t be something so simple as trying to be a good person, or to cultivate your own life and interests. While they exist as nearly polar opposites of the Pick Up Artist community, the result is the same: they view women’s thoughts and feelings as irrelevant. They just want a vaguely woman-shaped thing for them to use.
What these men want more than anything is two things. First, they want all of their dreams and desires to come true, up to and including possession of women’s bodies. It’s entitled to them simply because they want it. And second, they want to be free from the social, moral, and ethical guidelines in society that might ever question this entitlement. They want even to be free of their own conscience, free from any self-reflection. To be taken seriously, and to have all their dreams come true, without ever having to make any effort or change on their part to achieve them. To paraphrase Stan Lee broadly, they want all of the power, and none of the responsibility. Once again, it’s a bunch of dumb ass bullshit.
It’s toxic masculinity in overdrive, a self-imposed descent into utter emotional squalor, constantly policed by an ever-shifting panopticon of anonymous viewers, completely divorced of context or identity. You’re left with two options: either “man up” and fall into the void completely, or escape by the skin of your neck. By the time 4chan was done with you, you were no longer a sad boy, but a very angry man.
I quit 4chan for good sometime in 2013. My last holdout was the Comics and Cartoons board, and when it too was overrun by racists and misogynists, there was nothing left for me there anymore. After years of checking it as incessantly as some check Facebook or Twitter, I’ve only been back to the site maybe once or twice in the last five years. My mood has improved, my outlook on life has brightened, and I don’t feel the rapid undercurrent of social pressure constantly trying to push me to be the coldest and most callous person alive.
Mostly, though, I feel like I survived. Talk to anyone, particularly men of this generation, with any inkling of having spent time online in those years. They stared into that abyss, too, and not all of them made it out in one piece. I will admit, it made me a very unpleasant person to be around sometimes. Without the intercession of some very good friends, I don’t know where I’d have ended up.
But these are the politics and events shaping our world now. The internet has mostly moved on from those anonymous boards and instead focused on a new set of faces saying the same old things. It’s out of the shadows and now thrust into the light. Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro and Sam Harris and Alex Jones and Joe Rogan and Dave Rubin and Bill Maher and on and on and on. You know the names already. The InTeLLeCtuaL dArK weB. The new counterculture! But what they lack in intellect, they make up for in darkness. While their new and different and dangerous ideas, like misogyny and racism, wouldn’t be out of place in well over half of America (after all, look who holds all the levels of power in this country), they’ve somehow convinced their fans that they are an oppressed minority, a chosen people, a bunch of brave truth-tellers standing up to the evil liberal idea to treat people with fairness and compassion. Much like 4chan users, they’ve chosen to paint themselves as victims while simultaneously decrying victimhood anywhere else.
They have built from the older foundations of the early internet into a much more well-connected, influential network. Now their legions of followers are sharpening their knives, ready to strike.
Last week, a 17-year old boy in Santa Fe, Texas shot up his school because he felt so unjustly wronged by the fact that a woman stood up to his harassment. Not even a month before that, a man in Toronto killed 10 people in an explicit attempt to hurt women. Just before the shooting, he outed himself as a 4chan user, and also invoked the Santa Barbara shooter of 2014, who had declared a “War on Women” in his manifesto shortly before he, too, committed mass murder. The core motivation for all three incidents was their desire to punish women for their unwillingness to grant them sex or intimacy.
Intellectual Dark Web luminary Jordan Peterson and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat have gone a step even further by attempting to validate and mainstream these beliefs, in the name of “free speech” or whatever. Both hold vast swaths of influence, and both are using it for the same ends. Douthat recently posted an impassioned column about the necessity to redistribute sex — to literally strip the bodily autonomy of women away from them, so that boys won’t be sad anymore.
Peterson even uses his beliefs as nearly a threat: something must be done, he cryptically warns, and the status of gender relations must be forcibly imposed and strictly enforced in society, otherwise men will have no choice but to explode in violence and anger.
This rhetoric is culled straight from the extremist groups that have been plaguing all the new corners of the internet: there are the Gamergaters and Comicsgaters, who rail against the “SJWs” ruining their favorite media by shoehorning in too many female or LGBT characters. Or the Men Going Their Own Way, who advocate radical gender segregation, or Mens’ Rights Activists (MRAs), who insist feminism is the root of all societal ills, or Incels, who demand their personal sexual desires be satisfied regardless of who it hurts, or Pick Up Artists, who invariably view women as nothing more than conquests to be won.
These groups are not entirely the same as the alt-right, but when push comes to shove, they’re all happy brothers in arms. The unifying thread is their utter contempt for “feminism” and “SJWs”, their target is anyone who dares to take the stance that women deserve basic human rights and dignity, and just like the anonymous trolls of 4chan, their method is to completely break down the capacity for self-reflection until someone can only lash out in anger.
They become furious at their video games daring to have political statements in them, because otherwise they’d be forced to actually give a shit about something. But they don’t want to give a shit. They just want to exist completely unaware of everything while all their earthly desires are catered to. They want to just succeed as is their entitlement and to disregard the hard questions of what it means to live.
MRAs are the most puzzling of the bunch, too. They claim a civil rights framework for their ideals, and to their credit, there are too many unfair discriminatory practices harming men in society today. But instead of focusing on making positive changes and liberating themselves from this, they lay the blame squarely on women. It is not the crushing expectation of the patriarchy, it is not the world-sucking engine of capitalism, it is not the relentless rush of endless war that has caused these problems, they say.
No, it is the women who did this, because they dared to speak up about their mistreatment and spark movements like #MeToo. Rather than focus on the liberation of men from the yoke of the capitalist patriarchy, MRAs would rather spend their time making fun of feminists online. It betrays their true beliefs, which are, of course, dumb ass bullshit.
Every single one of these groups holds as a core principle that the rise of feminism has harmed men, and only by manipulating and harming women directly, and disrupting the success of women’s movements, can they truly restore men to the place in society they think they have lost.
The entire concept of masculinity falls apart for them: it can only exist as an already-created Other in relation to women. Their self-worth, their status in society, their emotional capacity, their entire core concept of self entirely revolves around women. And they believe that the only reason women even exist is not as functioning, thinking human beings, but merely as conduits to explore the emotional, physical, and sexual fulfillment of their own desires.
For each of these groups, gender roles are transactional. The only reason to even speak to a woman is to get what they want (most likely sex), and the only reason a woman would ever even speak to them is because, they have deluded themselves into thinking, that she would want to have sex with him. Or help with their math homework, or whatever. The idea of treating another person, god forbid one of a different gender, as a real human being with feelings is entirely anathema to them because they have chosen a worldview that insists that these genuine connections are impossible.
In crafting these ideologies, these men have shut themselves out from the very nature of being human. There is no such thing as genuine emotion or connection anymore, there is only their desire. Previous generations of men with these same emotional issues would have been solitary, confined to only their own thoughts. But modern technology has allowed them to feed on each other and build into frothing extremism. Combine this with the influence of hateful ideologues and you have a near-limitless supply of pissed-off men who will believe anything as long as it lets them not have to think about themselves for even one moment.
So is the problem with the internet, where this all started? Perhaps, but the internet is so many things to so many people that it can’t be the only answer. Is it maleness, then? Some sort of masculinity crisis can certainly be inferred here, if only as much as the general crisis of modern capitalism that every man and woman (and other) alike must slog through.
All this is crucial to understanding the way that current and future generations of men will move through the world. The sphere is expanding. An increasingly larger portion of younger generations will build from the foundations that we laid, and it’s our responsibility to make sure we aren’t destroying them in the process.
I don’t have an answer for how to stop this. We can be kind. We can try to raise our boys to respect women and to properly express their emotions. We can encourage young men to break out of their shell and pull down their emotional walls. But individual change won’t be enough, it needs to be systemic. And all our institutions and governments are woefully unprepared for that.
As I write this, news reports are coming in of another school shooting, this one in a middle school in Indiana. To be fair, I don’t know the shooter’s motive, or whether he was connected to or radicalized by any of these particular movements. But it almost doesn’t matter. A young boy tried to kill his classmates. He almost certainly got the idea from the 22 previous school shootings this year alone, and the hundreds of school shootings in recent years. This was not developed in a vacuum; the signs have been there for years, and we probably should have seen this coming. It may be bullshit, but it’s real, and it’s dangerous, and it will probably get worse before it gets better.