NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE D uring the 2016 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton delivered a speech raising alarm about Donald Trump’s association with the “alt-right.” In Clinton’s telling, conspiracy theories and rank bigotry from “the dark, far reaches of the Internet” fueled Trump’s rise. But if Clinton correctly identified a new political movement growing on the fringes of the Web, she misidentified Breitbart and Alex Jones as its ringleaders. In the strange world of 4chan and “weird Twitter,” the anonymous posters who took credit for memeing Trump to the presidency call the shots.
Since 2016, academics and journalists have offered alternatives to Clinton’s simplistic characterization of these online communities. It’s no easy task: Cloaked in layers of irony and self-reference, they elude conventional analysis. The operating principle in the hodgepodge of gamers, anime fans, and reactionary ideologues that makes up the online far right is a love of chaos, as Angela Nagle points out in her book Kill All Normies. Some espouse explicitly racist and misogynistic views, others want to lash out at political correctness and identity politics, and others still do it just to get a rise out of people.
Alex Lee Moyer’s documentary TFW No GF is the latest attempt to explore the “dark, far reaches of the internet.” The film, featured in the 2020 SXSW lineup and released on Amazon Prime Video in late April, follows five members of the nebulous, overlapping subcultures labeled at various times “incels” (involuntary celibates), “NEETs” (not in employment, education or training), “edgelords,” “Pepes,” and the “alt-right.” Moyer borrows the lo-fi aesthetics of her subjects: The movie is a pastiche of memes, archival material, and heavily edited footage set to the music of John Maus and Ariel Pink. But while Moyer’s visual sensibilities evince an appreciation for her subjects, her film raises questions as to whether the online world these men inhabit offers them anything constructive — or whether it simply reproduces the dynamics that drove them to seek virtual refuge in the first place.
The confessional narratives of TFW No GF — translated from Internet slang, it means “that feeling when [you have] no girlfriend” — contrast with the brash and irreverent online personas of its subjects. Against a backdrop of bleak, postindustrial locales — “it’s almost like nobody’s here,” says one subject of his Washington exurb — the protagonists discuss their alienation, social maladjustment, and inability to attract women. They grew up in broken homes and see no entry point into conventional life. Instead of the white picket fence, they’ve exiled themselves to their childhood bedrooms.
Critics have called TFW No GF a film about incels, but it’s more a collage of various online subcultures. Sex, the be-all and end-all of the online “manosphere,” is an afterthought to the film’s protagonists. These characters seem to harbor little of the incel rage that has fueled mass shootings and online harassment campaigns. They’re mostly just depressed, and turn to the Internet as a substitute for community.
But there have always been lonely men. If TFW No GF simply documented depression, it wouldn’t be especially interesting. Gogol and Dostoevsky explored male disaffection before Moyers, and offered conclusions more incisive than “these guys are not happy” besides. The film momentarily moves beyond misery-wallowing 30 minutes in, when a man known on Twitter as “Kantbot” appears on the screen. Contrasting with the industrial debris and cluttered bedrooms that form most of the film’s backdrop, Kantbot’s world — Riverside Park, a Manhattan rooftop, and a Columbia University–adjacent bookstore — is sophisticated. He intermittently exhales cigarette smoke while expounding on German idealist philosophy. His urbanity and erudition, if an obvious put-on, set him apart from his fellow travelers: One of these edgelords is not like the others.
Kantbot first gained online notoriety from a viral clip in which he claimed that “Donald Trump will complete the system of German idealism” to a crowd of anti-Trump protesters in Manhattan. Such trolling has gained him a sizable audience and made him something of an online celebrity. And with his appearance, the film begins to explore the intellectual underpinnings of the online far right. Kantbot says his project is to solve the problem of modernity: the devolution of pure reason into nihilism, hedonism, and solipsism. He sees his tweets as aphorisms in the style of the German philosopher Friedrich Schelling. Kantbot’s relevance to the film stems not only from his fanbase of likeminded young men but also from his ostensible aim to provide an alternative to the disappointments of contemporary life. He is the bard to the rabble of online sh**posters.
Those edgelords who have attempted to fashion an intellectual project out of their alienation seem to have the most to say about the peculiar contours of online discourse. A more thorough sociology of Internet subcultures would have spent more time exploring these contours, through Kantbot and other pseudonymous “intellectuals.”
But Moyer’s ambitions are different. Though TFW No GF flirts with a phenomenology of edgelordism, it prioritizes the personal experiences of its subjects. And while it documents the alienation and resentment that has led some self-described incels to glorify or perpetrate murderous acts, most of the characters extricate themselves from edgelordism by the end of the film. One finds a girlfriend online, another takes to weightlifting and reading philosophy. A meme reading, “We’re all gonna make it” marks a break from the fatalism of the film’s early acts. Perhaps Jordan Peterson’s brand of self-help has more to offer young men than posting threats against women on Twitter. Or perhaps these men were never so damaged in the first place, but merely engaged in transgressive online discourse as a distraction.
Once again, Kantbot is the exception — he remains “extremely online,” ending the film in much the same position as when it started, except with 40,000 Twitter followers and a popular podcast. Like other self-styled gurus, Kantbot subsists on the attention of his thousands of anonymous fans, who spend more time vying for a retweet than emancipating themselves.
Thus has the attempt to create an unbounded intellectual space devolved into a replica of ordinary social spheres, with different codes and values but with the same competition for attention. The success of the online Right’s minor celebrities depends on a substratum of young men languishing. Vying with the ringleaders’ ideas might be fruitful, but fetishizing them is not. If there is a hopeful lesson from TFW No GF, it’s that their followers are starting to realize that.