The Rise And Fall Of Online Culture Wars
How do Internet atheism and Internet feminism help us understand the current cultural moment?
[Followup to: New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed]
You've probably seen these graphs before:
They tell a familiar story: America is becoming increasingly obsessed with racism and sexism. Identity issues are dominating our politics more and more with no end in sight.
But what does Google Trends have to say?
I chose these as especially obvious terms. But other gender-related terms (eg “sexism”) show mostly the same pattern as feminism, and other race-related terms (eg “white privilege”) show mostly the same pattern as racism.
Discussion of feminism plateaued from 2014 - 2016, then declined. Discussion of racism peaked in 2016, then declined - until the George Floyd protests of mid-2020, when it came back with a vengeance. Far from these topics increasingly dominating the discourse, they seem to be in decline - or, in the case of racism, to have been in decline until events intervened. This pattern is surprising enough to deserve further analysis.
We tend to conflate feminism and anti-racism under the general heading of "social justice", but this blinds us to important details. From about 2011 to 2014, the Internet was obsessed with gender, with race on the back burner. 2014 to 2016 was a sort of transition period, and after that the Internet became obsessed with race, with gender almost forgotten.
When was the last time you heard people argue about "creeps", "nice guys", or "friendzoning"? Mansplaining? #NotAllMen? MRAs and PUAs? If you're in your early 20s, you might not even know what half these terms mean; if you're older than that, you’ll remember them with a sort of cold dread. But they're gone now - you'd have more luck looking for recent discourse about Osama bin Laden. Nor has some some other gender discourse arisen to replace them. Everyone just stopped caring and moved on to race.
I'm not saying there's literally only one thing the Internet gets in fights about at any given time. The Internet fights about lots of things. But intuitively it feels like there's kind of a power law distribution where one topic clearly outstrips the others - maybe not winner-take-all, but at least winner-take-most. I think you could describe the last twenty years of Internet history as going through three phases - one dominated by religion, one dominated by gender, and now one dominated by race. The race phase seems to have peaked in 2018 and started declining, before being given new life by George Floyd and BLM. The Google Trends results raise the tantalizing possibility that racial issues can’t keep increasing forever. They could eventually crash the same way religious and gender issues did (probably to be replaced by something else even more divisive and awful).
The rest of this post tries to trace this evolution, flesh out the history a little better, explain why something like this should happen, and predict where things go from here.
A warning: I was mostly sympathetic to Internet atheism, but mostly unsympathetic to Internet feminism. I think these histories are easier to write from a sympathetic position - any study of Internet culture is basically a study of crazy people, and the failure mode is to point and laugh at them without looking for real understanding. Sometimes pointing and laughing is unavoidable (the New Atheists probably could have done without the Malachi 2:3-related-merchandise) but I think it should be tempered by an attempt at charity. All I can do is try my hardest, and trust readers to keep me honest if I screw up.
II. New Atheism, New Feminism, New Anti-Racism
Atheism is age-old, but Internet atheism was its own thing. The term "New Atheism", while not officially restricted to the Internet, tries to capture a sense that a more strident grassroots atheist movement formed around the beginning of the Information Age, and not unrelated to it.
New Atheism dominated a certain type of Internet discourse from its murky beginnings all the way until the early 2010s. During its golden age, it produced a dizzying array of atheist blogs, webcomics, videos, websites, and spaghetti-monster-themed merchandise. Its celebrities - Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, etc - travelled the globe, preaching a message that atheism vs. religion was the ur-conflict that fueled all other conflicts, the single most important thing to get right. Hitchens was "absolutely convinced that the main source of hatred in the world is religion and organized religion...absolutely convinced of that".
Then it all collapsed - gradually enough that it was hard to notice at the time, but suddenly enough to be startling in retrospect.
Its death did not mark the triumph of its arch-enemy, religion. People were just as atheist as before, maybe more so. They just all suddenly agreed it was stupid to talk about it and anybody who did was a fedora-wearing euphoric loser. I argued that it had been felled by social justice, which was a sort of Liberal Ideology 2.0, filling the same social role New Atheism, only better. Most atheists jumped ship to join the winning team - "this atheism blog is now a feminism blog" was kind of the unofficial slogan of the 2015 blogosphere - and thus was the empire forged.
Nobody uses the term "New Feminism", but maybe they should. Feminist ideas are age old, but their Internet version was something new and more aggressive, in exactly the same way the New Atheists had been. Going through the history bit by bit, with an unavoidable focus on the parts that most caught my interest:
A. 200? - 2014: Geek Feminism
I named this period both after the Geek Feminism Wiki, a central hangout, and also after its demographics.
Most of the participants were geeks. This was before social justice went mainstream, and almost by definition people who are really into non-mainstream things are geeks. Social media hadn't really come into its own yet, so a lot of the discussion happened on blogs, which were mostly read by geeks. And a lot of feminists got their start in the New Atheist movement - so, definitely geeks.
And most of the participants were into feminism in particular. The 2000s US was whiter than today, had worse Internet penetration of minority areas, and was in the early Obama era racial detente (did you know that in 2010, only 13% of Americans described themselves as very worried about race relations?). Even the most warlike of social justice warriors didn’t treat race as a big issue.
The three big early feminist blogs were Pandagon (featuring Amanda Marcotte, started in 2001) Shakesville (Melissa McEwan, 2004), and Feministing (Jessica Valenti, 2004). All three peaked around the same time - 2008 to 2009 - before declining in favor of a later era of blogs.
This corresponds to the middle and end of the Internet atheist movement, and some of the same dynamics I discussed in my article there apply here as well, especially the slow shift from 2000s-era "argument culture" to 2010s-era "echo culture". The very early Internet had pro-argument norms; it was your god-given right to march into any blog or forum you wanted and tell the people there why they were wrong. Partly this was the inevitable effect of everyone on the early Internet being the sort of programming nerds willing to try this weird new invention. And partly it came from a utopian philosophy where the Internet was going to be a new medium that united humanity regardless of nation or creed in a great Republic Of The Intellect, or whatever. Maybe it was even partly due to naivete - a lot of people hadn't really met anyone who thought differently from them before, and assumed that changing people’s minds would be really easy. For whatever reason, the early Internet was a place for polite but insistent debate, and early websites centered around the needs of a debating community. The most obvious example was TalkOrigins' massive alphabetized database of arguments against creationist claims, with the explicit goal of helping people win debates with creationists.
Gradually throughout the 2000s this transitioned to "echo culture", where people hung out in ideologically sorted communities and discussed things from a shared perspective. At its worst, this was straight outrage culture; some blogger on DailyKos would write about the latest awful thing Dubya said, and hundreds of commenters would compete to demonstrate just how much they hate him. But at its best, it was about building communities of likeminded people, having a space where you felt safe expressing yourself, refining shared views, and letting off steam. Echo culture isn't necessarily evil - basically every subreddit is its own echo culture hangout (so is ACX!) and many of them are great. But it took a lot of culture shock to make it work.
Internet feminism began right smack in the midst of this transition, and you can find relics from both sides. The most significant artifact of feminist argument culture is the Geek Feminism Wiki (2009 - 2012), which was doing something vaguely similar to TalkOrigins - trying to put a lot of feminist thought in an easily accessible place. So for example, if someone didn't know what slut shaming was, or didn't think it was bad, you could show them the GFW page on slut-shaming which would educate them and maybe change their mind. I see similar things on a few other feminist websites, almost always from the same period; for example, Shakesville has a Feminism 101 section written in 2010.
The transition to echo culture wasn't a uniquely feminist phenomenon, but it lined up with the rise of the feminist movement pretty closely, and so the two are intertwined in a lot of people's minds. It's interesting to look at some of the most controversial parts of early feminism as conflicts between argument-culture and echo-culture norms. For example, everyone who was around in 2010 has the phrase "it's not my job to educate you" seared into their consciousness (also its equivalent, "this is not a 101 space"). A lot of early feminist culture centered around various terms and concepts and witty in-jokes that basically boiled down to "annoying people sometimes come into our spaces and argue with us, and we hate it". So for example, "sea lioning" was based on a comic where people wanted to vent about how much they hated sea lions, but every time they did, sea lions would show up and insist they weren't so bad. "JAQ-ing off" stands for Just Asking Questions, based on a complaint about how sometimes outsiders would show up and ask whether feminists had considered that they were wrong about X, Y, and Z, and if anyone asked them to go away they would insist they were "just asking questions". With a little more work, you can trace the same complaint in a lot of the other feminist jargon of the era, from "mansplaining" to "safe spaces" to a lot of the way people used the term "privilege".
When this went well, it created friendly cohesive communities. When it went badly, it went really badly. The Outline has a great article on Shakesville's Unravelling And The Not-So-Golden-Age Of Blogging, written by a former Shakesville contributor. It tracks the community's decline from a relatively fun and open space, through increasing orthodoxy, to the point where it became kind of cultish. By the end, "new commenters were asked to read approximately 205,000 words, about the equivalent of Moby-Dick, before typing a single sentence at Shakesville", and:
The community, meanwhile, was very happy to police itself, especially the most notorious mods: Paul the Spud, a vocal [admirer of Shakesville founder Melissa McEwan] and her IRL friend; PortlyDyke, a self-described “psychic and full-body channeler”; and the infamous Deeky, another IRL McEwan pal known at ShakerKoolAid as her “attack poodle.” According to Persephone, “Deeky was a bully...the first to attack someone for being disloyal to the blog or to Melissa.” Readers learned quickly. One ShakerKoolAid poster said a scolding from Deeky taught them to “play the game well enough to occasionally comment without much fear.” Persephone told me that Deeky “kept people in that heightened ‘find the one who doesn’t belong’ mindset” and that she realizes now, with some embarrassment, “how easy it is to be swept up, almost addicted to the high of that cult behavior, going after people who weren’t in line.”
Nowadays, with the media controlled by a clone army of Ivy Leaguers whose brains have been processed into excellence-flavored mush, we remember the Golden Age of Blogging wistfully. It was a time when real people with real personalities had a platform and a chance to make a difference. But when you have a personality, sometimes that personality is highly dysfunctional, and in retrospect this was a really weird time.
The other thing I remember from this time was the creepiness discourse. Feminist bloggers talked about how they didn't like being approached in a sexual way (eg asked on dates) by creepy guys, and tried to make this a shameful sort of thing to do. Some men countered that in order for the human race to continue to a new generation, presumably some men had to ask some women on some dates sometime, and the feminists were condemning basically every possible way of approaching a woman as creepy, without giving any suggestions for alternate non-creepy ways to do this. They expressed suspicion that there was basically no wrong way for a hot guy to ask a woman out, but that any possible way for an unattractive guy to ask a woman out would get him shamed as a creep.
This intensified because a lot of feminists seemed to focus on nerdy guys or nerdy activities in particular. The venue where these unwanted sexual approaches happened was always a comic convention or something; the webcomics drawn about this (of course there were webcomics) always featured the stereotypical nerd with a neckbeard and fedora. A lot of times the subtext just kind of became the text, like when Gawker honcho Sam Biddle tweeted that "nerds should be constantly shamed and degraded into submission #BringBackBullying" (he obviously claimed this was a joke, but it was the kind of joke everyone was making constantly without the victims finding it very funny.) This got really awful, with a lot of male nerds saying the feminists were being unnecessarily cruel to an already-pretty-traumatized population, and a lot of feminist thinkpieces talking about how nerds were not really oppressed and that by claiming to be oppressed they were appropriating oppression from women, a genuinely marginalized group.
I was heavily involved in this discourse, more than in any other part of this history, so I am a bad person to have writing about it (some people would omit the "to have writing about it" from that sentence). But I do want to higlight the "climax", which occurred when physics blogger Scott Aaronson mentioned his own experience a few hundred comments down in an unrelated essay. He self-disclosed that he had been really affected by this kind of thing when he was younger, ended up convinced that he was a bad person for feeling sexual attraction to women, and had no idea what to do about it. After becoming suicidal, he was referred to a psychiatrist, who he asked to "chemically castrate" him (obviously he refused). It took him years to get over his hangups and misery enough to ask anybody out, although he was eventually able to get married and have a happy family. After disclosing all this, he said that he remains "97% on board with the program of feminism", but that he wishes they would tone down the condemnation of shy male nerds in particular.
In a completely proportionate response, leading feminist Amanda Marcotte published an article in the webzine Raw Story calling out the comment. She accused Aaronson of saying that "women are failing him by not showing up naked in his bed, unbidden. Because bitches, yo". Of being angry that he has to talk to women at all "when they should already be there, mopping my brow and offering me beers and blow jobs". Of believing "women [are not] people, [just] a robot army put here for sexual service and housework". And that's just the beginning! It was whole pages full of this stuff! And most of the other top feminists wrote similar essays that were equally off-the-wall. Somehow there was an entire movement full of people who thought this was a completely accurate and proportional way to respond to things.
I swear I tried to describe Aaronson's comment to the best of my ability without leaving anything out, and I swear I tried to describe Marcotte's article to the best of my ability without taking it out of context. Please follow the links and read both of them in their entirety and see if I'm misrepresenting either. This was just, objectively, an utterly insane thing to have happened. I still wonder whether maybe I dreamt it or something.
I regret having to bring this up again - it probably brings back really bad memories on both sides. But I think it's important because - they are just memories now! For some reason this topic, which absolutely dominated a lot of the Internet spaces I hung out in when I was younger, has just disappeared. Did creepy men stop asking women out? Did women stop complaining about it? Did both sides get so traumatized that they tacitly agreed to a mutual cease-fire line wherever the last argument ended? Did anyone ever figure out a nonthreatening way to ask women out? Is it just "swipe right on Tinder"? Was that the solution this whole time?
Or did it disappear because the culture that spawned it disappeared as well? Geek feminism was naturally focused on the problems of geeky women, such as "geeky men keep asking me out" and "people are arguing with me in the comments section of my blog". But as the Internet took over everything, geeks stopped being disproportionately represented in online communities, and their concerns lost prominence. In this theory, geek feminism was a victim of its own success, and had to adapt in order to fit the wider role people started demanding of it.
B. 2012 - 2018: Corporate Feminism
Let’s look at that NYT graph again:
Starting around 2014, Internet feminism went mainstream. This graph doesn't really prove that. Maybe the New York Times just dectupled the amount of space it devoted to sexism for non-Internet-related reasons. But as somebody who lived through this period and watched it closely - no, it was the Internet. The blogs and forums of the early 2010s were a memetic breeding ground that produced new and more compelling versions of old ideas, and one of them took over liberal culture.
All the famous feminist bloggers were hired by major news outlets, then the less famous ones, then any feminist with a pulse. The most famous and important men in journalism competed to see how cravenly they could surrender to Internet feminism (the universally-acknowledged winner was Ezra Klein, for Yes Means Yes Is A Terrible Law, And I Completely Support It).
For a while, this meant geek feminists had vast society-wide power, and so the mainstream ended up embroiled in what would otherwise have been niche geek issues. The obvious example of this was Gamergate, where some geeky gamer women and geeky gamer men got angry at each other and it somehow ended up in front of the United Nations. But that was a high-water mark. After that the geek feminist culture started to fade.
In exchange for power, geek feminism sold out. It became a mass market commodity. The mass market didn't care as much about arguments on blogs or creepy nerds at comic conventions, so it adapted. Despite my parochial focus above, it had always placed some focus on broader problems like campus rape, workplace harassment, and gender pay gaps. These expanded to fill the space available. Sometimes the expansion was awkward - some people eventually dredged up statistics proving that women on college campuses were less likely to get raped than women in the general population, so how come anti-rape activism was so focused on them? There were many proposed reasons, but I think a big one was that a lot of feminism started on college campuses and got thrust into the big time so quickly that it didn't have time to reconsider its talking points.
Along with these real problems, it also picked up a new set of trivialities. "Self-care" became a feminist watchword, plausibly under commercial pressure from people who wanted to sell self-care products. Feminist analysis of media, previously more focused on geek niche interests like Harry Potter, became the bread and butter of media criticism more generally. Watching Sex And The City became a feminist act.
As feminism shifted from geeky netizens to Ivy League journalists, it became posher and less confrontational. The early feminist bloggers were ornery people, driven to a thankless task by burning anger at a patriarchal world; they had nothing to lose and no fucks to give. As they got hired by major publications, they mellowed out, or at least got editors. People still complained that they seemed to hate men - I still complained about this - but when I look at their post-2016-or-so work vs. the early Internet days, there's no comparison.
The highlight of the corporate feminist era was no doubt the #MeToo movement. It was the realization of some of the oldest feminist dreams - hundreds of women boldly going public with their stories of rape and harassment, the mainstream offering its complete attention and support, and an orgy of punishment against all the hitherto-unpunished men who had perpetrated the offenses. Although eventually the usual curmudgeons wrote their usual hot takes about how it was going too far in one way or another, in general the core ideas of the movement itself had almost universal support.
Geek feminism had dissolved into regular feminism, and then regular feminism had dissolved into the mainstream. In retrospect, I assume this is what happened in the 1970s and every previous wave of feminism, but it was still weird to watch. There are still lots of feminists, just like there are still lots of atheists, but the subculture is no longer such a coherent thing.
C. 2014 - present: The Racial Turn
Feminism and anti-racism had always been lumped together as "social justice", but for the first few years feminism was the big sister and anti-racism the tag-along little brother. There just wasn't the same kind of flourishing anti-racism blogosphere, probably because there are way fewer black people than women, and in those early days they were less likely to have good Internet connections. The usual pattern I saw was for people to talk about gender, and then mention at the end that it was also applicable to race "Here's why men need to check their male privilege - and did you know white people have white privilege too?"
After Ferguson, mainstream society suddenly cared a lot more about race, and it got promoted to be the big sibling in the social justice duo. We might as well call the resulting movement New Anti-Racism. Like atheism and feminism, anti-racism has a long and glorious history. Like atheism and feminism, a newer, more confrontational, and more online variety burst onto the scene unexpectedly in the early 2000s, steamrolling over all the culture wars that had come before.
We have vague memories of cultural turmoil around the time atheism discourse switched to social justice discourse, with some atheists resisting, losing, and becoming a permanent target of mockery. But I had fewer memories of feminism discourse switching to racism discourse. I looked this up and found that there actually was a similar switch. The key search term is "white feminists" - all of a sudden, the feminists who talked about the sorts of things feminists had been talking about for years, instead of about race, were proponents of “white feminism” - a toxic ideology which centered feminism around the needs of white people. Nobody was able to figure out a way to be feminist which survived this critique, other than to call yourself a feminist but actually only talk about race. After years of constant victory, New Feminism was stopped dead in its tracks.
Many early feminists ignored racial issues because they were talking about their own experiences. Blogs have always had a weird tension between newspaper, manifesto, and personal diary, and this encouraged a political movement centered around its members' personal problems, like creepy guys asking them out at comic conventions. Most early feminists were white, and so not likely to personally encounter racial issues. The "white feminism" cudgel probably hastened the collapse of the feminist blogosphere in favor of safe corporate properties that talked about universally-compelling issues like pay gaps.
I'm not sure when racial issues completely eclipsed gender-related ones, but it must have happened by 2016. Consider: Hillary Clinton, a historic first woman candidate. Her opponent, Donald Trump, a man who has been accused of sexual misconduct by "at least 23 women since the 1980s", and who was caught on tape saying he liked to "grab [women] by the pussy". While this angle wasn't exactly ignored, it took obvious back burner to a massive and coverage-dominating debate over the possibility that Trump might be racist, based mostly on his position about immigration plus a few ambiguous remarks that he later denied meaning.
Eight years earlier, John McCain was running for President. He had previously told reporters "I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live," and never apologized or backed down. And he was running against the first black major-party presidential candidate. And the media still couldn't really muster up the effort to accuse him of racism in any kind of meaningful way. Meanwhile, Trump could have gone on stage wearing an "ASK ME ABOUT MY SEXUAL ASSAULT ALLEGATIONS" t-shirt, and every single question would have been about race.
I had originally intended to track the progress of the culture wars by tracking hit count on various feminist and anti-racist blogs. I found a few promising feminist blogs, but not enough anti-racist ones for the project to make sense. By the time anti-racism eclipsed feminism, the blogosphere was pretty dead. Most discourse happened either in a few big newspapers and webzines, or scattered across a million Twitter and Tumblr accounts. It was both more centralized and more decentralized than 2010, lacking only the middle ground.
Still, one event from this period does stand out as unusually internet-based: the rise of the alt-right.
D. 2010 - present: The Right Wing Of The Culture War
Earlier eras of social justice had their enemies. Around 2010, some people who didn't like feminism banded together under the umbrella of "men's rights advocates" (MRAs). Pickup artists (PUAs) were originally a totally different group - guys who talked a lot about the best ways to pick up girls - but many of them merged into the generic anti-feminist current for complicated reasons. "Red Pillers" were a third group, vaguely related to the previous two, whose main contribution to the discourse was giving us the terms "alpha male" and "beta male" (I guess these became "Chad" and "virgin" at some point). Sometimes all of these groups together called themselves "the manosphere".
The early 2010s culture wars were much more vicious than anything you see today, and all of these groups were despised with the energy of a thousand suns. The mainstream media articles about these people were uniformly furious; they read like Maoist texts on capitalist running-dogs. Publicly supporting these movements was the equivalent of wearing a swastika tattoo - totally out of bounds for respectable people.
The MRA brand never went corporate - no corporation wanted them. For a while, geek-feminists-turned-journalists tried to interest mainstream society in their project of hating MRAs more than anyone has ever hated anything ever before, but mainstream society didn't bite. There are still some remaining MRAs on obscure subreddits. And some of the few surviving bastions of early internet feminism are the people obsessed with fighting MRAs, still running a few scattered blogs, like ghosts who refuse to leave the mortal world until their weird grudge has been discharged.
But around 2013-2014, someone came up with the term "SJW", and it took off. SJWs had obviously been a natural category for a while, but it had been weirdly hard to refer to them. It was really hard to say "I don’t like feminists", because the invariable retort was "feminism is just the belief that women are people, how can you be against that?". It was even harder to say something like "I'm against the vague category of thing including feminism, anti-racism, and LGBT activism". Remember that at this point all of this was internal to geeky internet culture, and everyone involved was more or less a liberal Democrat who agreed that all those concepts were in theory good. You couldn't go around in liberal democrat circles saying you were against LGBT activism. So even though there was the same kind of antipathy towards SJWs as today - more, really, because this was before they mellowed out - it was really hard to express.
The term "SJW" changed that. The term "Men's rights advocates" implied a focus on the problems of men, but the people involved were never really able to get interested in this. "Anti-SJW" claimed no focus other than on how SJWs were shrill and annoying, which had been most of these people's real concern all along. "Men are more oppressed than women" was a hard debate to win, but "SJWs are shrill and annoying" was … less hard. It also played well with mainstream and corporate concerns who didn't want to look like they were actually being sexist or racist, but who were happy to profit off meta-level disputes over who was or wasn't annoying. The word "SJW" didn't immediately let the opposition shed its stigma, but it started it on a clear path towards that point which would reach fruition two or three years later.
The first milestone on that path was Milo Yiannopoulos. As outrageous and offensive as he was, he was actually a step above everyone who had come before him in terms of visibility and respectability - at least nobody expected him to shoot up a school or anything. The second milestone was Jordan Peterson, who was an obvious step up in respectability beyond Milo. There was a really interesting period in 2016 when the media was trying to decide whether to unite in character-assassinating Peterson the same way it had character-assassinated all previous people in this space, or treat him as some sort of interesting and potentially sympathetic phenomenon, and it decided on the interesting phenomenon angle. After that, being anti-SJW lost about 90% of its stigma, to the point where people would roll their eyes instead of freaking out. This New York Times article on the Intellectual Dark Web essentially turned the semi-respectability of anti-SJWism into common knowledge, and makes a fascinating contrast with the TIME article on MRAs linked above.
The whole process was a very clear example of a respectability cascade. There’s some position which is relatively commonly held, but considered beyond the pale for respectable people. In the beginning, the only people who will say it openly are extremely non-respectable people who don't mind getting cast out of normal society for their sin. Everyone attacks them, but afterwards they are still basically standing, and their openness encourages slightly more respectable people to say the same thing. This creates a growing nucleus of ever-more-respectable people speaking openly, until eventually it's no longer really that taboo and anyone who wants can talk about it with only minor stigma. It's the same story as atheism, gay rights, and a hundred other things that were once taboo but eventually became mainstream. Except in this case it was kind of cannibalistic, because the main complaint the anti-SJWs had was that they couldn't talk about how much they hated SJWs. Once they could, their case kind of lost relevance, which is probably one reason the search term is trending down these days and nobody talks about the IDW anymore.
The alt-right started completely separate from any of this. The name was invented by Richard Spencer, a very serious movement white supremacist more on the "hold scary rallies full of skinheads" side of things than the "gripe about SJWs on Reddit" side. Although there have been white supremacists on the Internet forever - Stormfront was founded in 1996 - they didn't interact much with the early anti-SJW movement, who (again) were mostly liberal Democrat nerds who found geek feminists annoying.
The term rose to prominence on August 26, 2016, when Hillary Clinton gave a major speech declaring the online alt-right to be a growing threat. This was obviously a ploy to link her opponent, Donald Trump, to a growing threat, but the ploy worked, and everyone agreed they were threatening.
I'm not sure whether white supremacy became more popular in 2016, or whether the percent white supremacists online has always stayed constant but people got more interested in them. After 9/11, we heard about every single Muslim terrorist group in the world, and every Muslim group that seemed like it might be sort of terrorist-adjacent, and every Muslim who seemed likely to found a group that might be sort of terrorist-adjacent. It wasn't obvious that there were any more Muslim terrorists than before, but Muslim terrorism was suddenly getting 100x or 1000x as much airtime. Hillary Clinton and the growing racial turn might have done the same for online white supremacy. This would explain what I consider one of the great mysteries - how come as soon as anti-racism became more popular than feminism on the left, the MRAs vanished and we got the alt-right instead on the right?
We can't review the history of the alt-right without mentioning the online message board 4chan, infamous for being racist and anti-Semitic and every other thing it is bad to be. 4chan's trajectory is a another great mystery. In 2010, geeky extremely-online young people were almost universally liberal democrats. Racism was associated with elderly white Southerners who would presumably die off in a few years anyway. 4chan had no connection to them or any other historical racist tradition. It was annoying and trolled people a lot, but that was it. Its conversion to full-on bigotry was unexpected, at least by me. It would be like if you woke up one day and everyone on Twitter was a Pol Pot supporter.
I think they irony-ed themselves so hard that they accidentally ended up as Nazis. You could always go to 4chan and find people saying horrible racist things ironically. That was the whole point of the anonymous message board - people would troll each other by saying the most awful thing they could think of, and whoever took it seriously first lost. Last I heard from them they were trying to use meme magic to make the coronavirus kill as many people as possible. This is impossible to take seriously, and for a long time their racism was the same way - a lot of the supposedly anti-Semitic posts bore obvious fingerprints of having been written by Jews who were having a fun time laughing at themselves. But if you're in a community where everybody puts a lot of effort into pretending to be pro-racist all the time, and where any breaking of kayfabe gets punished, eventually some people who aren't in on the joke just get actually racist, and if you're so devoted to edginess that you can't politely take those people aside and explain, eventually that takes over the culture. I know this is a weird theory, but Kurt Vonnegut was a smart guy and he said "Be careful who you pretend to be, because you are who you pretend to be".
Anyway, after a few years of that a lot of them were clearly genuinely racist, and they joined the ranks of the alt-right. So did some people from generic anti-SJWism who weren't too picky about who they hung out with as long as they were equally dedicated to owning the libs. Clinton's speech massively accelerated this process - having your extremely uncool enemy go on national television and say "This particular group of mysterious edgy Internet people is so dangerous and threatening, I think I speak for all right-thinking adults when I hope no teens dare to join them" was, in retrospect, not so smart a strategy. And so we got the alt-right.
I promised that this post would focus on the possibility of the culture wars ending. If they are, I don’t think any of these groups will get credit. Far from weakening their SJW foes, they probably added fuel to their fire: they provided an enemy to unite against, and deepened their paranoia that there were sexists and racists everywhere who needed to be fought. If those Google graphs really do show the culture wars simmering down, it must be coming from a totally different direction.
III. The Barberpole Model Of Fashion
Five years ago, I came so close to predicting the course of history. I came up with a model, I extrapolated it out, I made bold claims. I still think the model was good and the extrapolation was sound. But I screwed up one tiny little thing and got it all wrong.
Start with Quentin Bell's theory of fashion-as-signaling. Bell says: cool people keep trying to come up with some external signal they can use to identify themselves as cool. Uncool people keep trying to copy the signal so they can look cool too. After a while, so many uncool people are using the signal that it's no longer a good identifier of coolness, and so cool people need to switch to a new signal. Thus the fashion cycle and its constant changes.
This only works when information propagates slowly. If the Coolness Czar went on national TV and announced that this year's fashionable color was red, then everyone, cool or uncool, would be equally likely to wear red, and the signal would be useless. So fashion has to be vague and complicated and gradual. It has to start with a core of trendsetters who are super-cool but hard to identify in advance. It has to be the sort of thing that only a few people close to the trendsetters will notice and copy. And then it has to spread gradually along the social graph, from the super-cool trendsetters to their mostly-cool friends to their kind-of-cool friends and so on. It has to be the sort of thing where if a totally-uncool person with no social-graph-connection at all Googled "what is the current fashion" and then tried to ape it, they would get something wrong, or embarrass themselves, or look desperate and pathetic in the way immortalized by the "How do you do, fellow kids?" meme. This will at least buy the fashion a few years of lifespan as a vaguely-useful signal.
Intellectual trends follow the laws of fashion. This isn't to say there's no underlying truth about which claims are right and important - just that some fields are "cool" at any given moment and others are "uncool". If you wanted to sound cool on Reddit ten years ago, you talked about atheism, Ron Paul, and the RIAA; five years ago, it would have been Bitcoin, Jordan Peterson, and "Drumpf" (I'm not cool enough to know what's cool today, sorry). Some of these trends seem to mirror obvious real-world changes in importance - distributors found better ways to sell media for affordable prices, so the RIAA has mostly left public consciousness. But they were broader than the change alone could explain - a moderate improvement in music distribution meant switching from talking about the RIAA all the time to basically not at all.
In 2014, armed with this model, I predicted that hip young people would go far-right. For the previous few years, the social justice movement had been the dominant intellectual paradigm in online spaces (and increasingly offline too). The movement had started with the same people who start all trends - starving bohemian artists, poor people on the fringes of society, hip college kids. Beginning around 2008 it spread like wildfire among all the most popular and clued-in people I knew - all my favorite slightly contrarian bloggers, all the most interesting people at my college. But by 2014, it was starting to get embarrassing. We'd already seen the beginnings of "woke capitalism", where Wal-Mart or Amazon or whoever would put their corporate logos in rainbow colors for gay pride day and then everyone would praise them and talk about how they were striking a bold blow against the entrenched forces of the kyriarchy. Hillary Clinton, 25-year-contender for America's least cool person, was giving speeches about male privilege and rape culture. The Instagram pages of the hippest, most counterculture people in the country sounded exactly the same as the lectures corporate consultants gave at mandatory educational workshops. According to Bell's theory there was no way this was a stable situation.
So I predicted that hip young people would go far-right. It was the only way left to shock the establishment. In the language of signaling theory, it would be a "countersignal", a signal which is so uncool it paradoxically loops around to becoming cool again. The classic example is ripped jeans. Normally if you wear ripped jeans it means you're so poor you can't afford decent clothes, or so uncool you don't even notice what you're wearing. Anybody who was insecure about their status would shy away from them lest people draw the obvious assumptions. But that just means that bold trendsetters can use them as a credible signal that they're bold trendsetters, ie "I am so obviously rich and cool that even if I wear uncool poor people clothes, you'll know I'm just doing it ironically". Countersignals don't completely escape the fashion cycle; eventually the trend becomes common enough that even insecure people feel comfortable doing it, because they expect people to realize they're just following the trend. But they can be an effective way to hit a reset button on a fashion cycle that has gotten out of control.
And so I predicted that hip young people would go far-right. Nobody would confuse them with the maximally-uncool people, the obese white Boomer who shops at Wal-Mart and plasters their car with anti-Obama bumper stickers. And it would distinguish them from the corporate consulants and Hillary Clintons of the world. A few hip young people seem to have tried this - I think this was a little bit of what gave the alt-right its original appeal, especially after Clinton's speech.
But overall I was wrong. Hip young people and conservatism remain as antithetical as ever. Instead, we got the rise of socialism, of the DSA, Bernie Sanders, and Chapo Trap House variety. By this point, you won’t be surprised when I propose the name New Socialism, as a direct analogy to New Atheism, etc. Like atheism, socialism is age-old. But like atheism, it had a moment where it became more online, more confrontational, more celebrity-based, and more popular among a fanbase of mostly well-educated young men.
New Socialism matches the predicted cyclical backlash. Its partisans are the youngest and hippest subsection of the Left. It explicitly defines itself in opposition to Woke Capitalism, Hillary Clinton, and all the cringiest aspects of early 2010s social justice culture, and it never misses a chance to "dunk" on them.
As always, political affiliation is only the tip of a cultural iceberg. The Democratic vs. Republican divide doesn't just track your policy positions. It also tracks whether you like NASCAR, football, SUVs, meth, and country music, vs. Broadway musicals, artisanal cupcakes, Priuses, marijuana, and local journalism. Sometimes this is because political tribes build on pre-existing cultural variation; other times it's because tribe members imitate each other.
In the same way, the difference between the "socialist" and "liberal" tribes isn't just whether they subscribe to further-left or centerer-left politics. It's also whether they love Harry Potter or reflexively scream "READ ANOTHER BOOK" whenever someone mentions it. Whether #TheResistance is brave or ridiculous. Whether John Oliver and saying "Drumpf" all the time is hilarious or cringeworthy. Whether low-status-anti-social-justice groups (eg incels on Reddit) are a terrifying public menace, or a target for mockery and ironic imitation. Whether "civility" is an applause light or a trap to be avoided (this opinion is purely aesthetic; nobody has been civil on the Internet since at least 2010).
"Socialism" provided the rallying flag that people used to carve out a new tribe from what was previously liberal territory. In order to maintain its independence, it generates and amplifies as many differences from liberals as possible, then treats liberals as an outgroup and flames them at every opportunity. Conservatives become a fargroup who are less interesting.
I think this is a major factor in the "culture wars" shifting tone recently. It's now possible to disagree with "SJWs" from a leftward (read: "cooler") direction, as opposed to a rightward (read: "doomed") direction.
IV. Linguistic Kill Shots
The exact moment this happened was the first time someone used the word "woke" ironically.
"Woke" was originally a black slang term for an independent thinker aware of the world around them. It's inspired dozens of thinkpieces, with my favorites being the ones comparing it to terms from various religious traditions (for example, "Buddha" is just Sanskrit for "woke person", even if official translations phrase it as "awakened one"). #StayWoke was a popular Twitter hashtag for a few years.
At some point, people started using it mockingly. The trendy person desperate to look "woke" in front of his or her black friends became a stock character. The phrase "woke capitalism" spread to make fun of businesses that tried to attract people with social justice themed advertising.
I talked before about the profound effect that coining the term "SJW" had on the discourse. Thousands of people who had been vaguely angry at something suddenly had a way to describe the target of their anger. The mocking sense of "woke" was monumental in a different way: it wasn't already coded conservative. There were already good negative terms for woke people - "politically correct" or "SJW". But hip young people on the left associated those words with the outgroup. "Woke" arose on the left, and since it was a real leftist word used mockingly, it was hard to stamp it out. People who would never have been caught dead in a million years complaining about "those PC SJWs" finally felt free to complain about "woke people".
"Woke" is suspiciously similar to another word that marked the end of its respective culture - "euphoric" as applied to New Atheists. Both words describe basically good things to be - woke people are aware, euphoric people are happy. Both were originally (supposedly) used in a non-ironic way, by true believers, to praise their respective movements. Both sounded so over the top that people started using them to make fun of believers. Both became so iconic that even now, five years later, if someone gets too annoying about atheism, you can just roll your eyes and say "Euphoric!" and it will be universally understood as a devastating retort that means you win the argument.
New Atheism didn't fail because Christians proved they were wrong about God’s existence. It failed because a hipper generation of young people accepted all their premises but declared them uncool for caring about it too much. In the same way, social justice was able to easily fight off wave after wave of MRAs and redpillers and alt-righters trying to prove that they were wrong about factual issues. Heck, it even made a meme out of it - "Watch this YouTuber DESTROY SJWs using FACTS and LOGIC". Once the very idea of trying to use facts or logic to disprove a movement becomes cringeworthy, how can it fail? I think if it fails, it will be because every time they open their mouths, younger and cooler people will just roll their eyes and say "Woke!"
The other relevant phrase is "cancel culture". SJWs aren't bad because they get basic facts wrong, quash free speech, bully their opponents, or make unfair generalizations across diverse groups. They're bad because sometimes they get your favorite TV show cancelled. I hope you'll excuse me if I sound bitter, but it really disappointed me how, of all the criticisms of social justice, this was the one that really got traction. But I think it got traction precisely because it had no connection with any substantive criticism of social justice. It wasn't coded conservative.
I think "woke" and "cancel culture" encode ideas that have been present in anti-social-justice discourse from the beginning. From the beginning, people who weren't pro-racism or pro-sexism have been complaining that social justice is going too far, or that SJWs were terrible people. But for some reason it didn't work then, it does work now, and part of it working now is using different terms than people used back then. I think the fashion cycle is the best explanation. You can only start a new fashion after the old fashion has spread to so many uncool people that it's no longer useful to the cool people anymore. In 2012, that wasn't yet true. Now it is.
V. The Future Of Culture Wars
If this model is on the right track, what should we predict?
A naive prediction: our cultural obsession with race has a time limit. At some point, like our obsessions with religion and gender before it, it will become so overdone and pathetic that people will switch to a new hobbyhorse. Plausibly this would look like class-first socialists successfully making woke people look ridiculous for caring about a less important problem (symbolic victories and the number of black Fortune 500 CEOs) instead of a more important one (people of all races being poor). When I wrote the first draft of this post a year ago, I thought this was obviously happening.
Since then it’s become less obvious. After the George Floyd protests, all Google Trends about race shot up, and haven’t fully returned back to their pre-protest trend even now, a year later. The woke stranglehold on corporations, governments, and now the CIA is stronger than ever.
And also, New Socialism is looking less and less like an up-and-coming dragon-slayer. It’s hard to track the Google Trend because of the bumps from the Bernie campaign, but I feel like I hear less about it than I used to. Google Trend interest in Jacobin and Chapo Trap House have both been going down for over a year (although this is confounded by increasing distance from the Sanders campaign). The Twitter blow-ups between representatives of New Socialism and the woke establishment are less frequent and less fun to watch. Robby Soave’s prediction that 2018 was a “socialist moment” (a deliberate analogy to the “libertarian moment” that followed Ron Paul’s campaign in 2008) - and not the beginning of an inexorable trend towards more socialism - is starting to feel more prescient. I take no pleasure in reporting this; I disagree with socialism as a philosophy, but they had some good ideas, could have helped some people, and would have been a breath of fresh air after a decade of unremitting wokeness.
Why did the hope that New Socialism would slay wokeness fail? If I had to guess, I’d say wokeness outgrew the Internet fashion cycle. Unlike its predecessors, it took over mainstream institutions. Mainstream institutions are sticky. You can take control of them by being cool. But once you have control of them, you don’t need to stay cool.
Maybe we need to think back further. When I was a child, the unofficial ideology of mainstream institutions was a sort of watered-down version of Christian morality merged with American patriotism. If you wanted to be on TV, get government money, or win campaigns, you had to be vaguely in favor of the Bible, civility, family, and The Troops; and vaguely against marijuana, crime, and communism. You signaled virtue by not using the word “fuck”, not tolerating other people using the word “fuck”, and getting conspicuously angry if anyone on TV suggested the existence of sex. Fashionable intelligensia types spent the better part of half a century making fun of this establishment, with only the most gradual and limited success until recently. If a pulse of the Internet culture war cycle lasts five to ten years, a pulse of the mainstream institutional values cycle lasts somewhere between fifty years and “God, please let this actually be a cycle”.
(in my more optimistic moments, I dare to hope that the tribal-intellectual cycle is speeding up: paganism-to-Christianity took countless years, Catholicism-to-Protestantism took 1200, Protestantism-to-Enlightenment 250, and so on. But I think this probably tracks economic doubling times, and those have stopped getting shorter recently.)
So an alternate prediction is to expect the world of the 1970s. A repressive orthodoxy has taken over the government, the media, and big business, and set itself up as the arbiter of morality, able to blacklist anyone who disagrees. Some cool people have created a counterculture, which is stable enough that they generally don’t get arrested, and some of them can even write books or become popular. But just as there’s a lot of ruin in a nation, there’s a lot of embarrassment in an ideology that has taken over mainstream institutions, and the counterculture can keep on humiliating it and proving it to be stupid and anti-science for the next few decades, with only minimal damage.
How did the counterculture eventually win, and the patriotic/Christian amalgam civil religion of the 1950s - 1990s eventually collapse? I don’t have a great understanding of this (though see Part III here), and I’d love to learn more so I can develop a real game plan. Where is the cultural-change equivalent of Progress Studies, and what might we be able to do if we had it?
I’m not sure. Being part of history sucks, and I would much prefer the world where Francis Fukuyama had been right and liberalism had won so completely that freedom no longer needed any defending. But the good thing about history is that all of this has happened before, and in the past it’s always stopped happening, and for all you know maybe it will stop happening this time too.