Shining lights on the dark corners of the internet

The word that set most of the Reading Through It Book Club on edge last night was "transgressive." That word shows up a lot in Angela Nagle's book Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right. She quotes Milo Yiannopolous and other alt-right figures who call themselves "transgressive," and she seems to buy into the word a fair amount.

But are the men who call themselves men's rights activists and gamergaters and white separatists online really "transgressive?" If you take them at their word, in fact, they're regressive: they want to return to what they imagine to be the glory days in America, when white men were at the top of the pyramid and everybody else was considered to be a second- or third-class citizen.

But really, it's hard to believe that most of these online trolls actually believe they can turn back the clock to the bad old days. And they don't care about the social norms that they're shattering. They're not transgressive. They're not regressive. The truth is, they just want to blow everything up, just to see if they can.

Kill All Normies is not a very well-constructed book. It's in dire need of some strong editorial thrashing. Nagle inserts her own glib opinions in awkward moments. Her description of the birth of Gamergate contains some serious inaccuracies. One whole misbegotten chapter is devoted to comparing Yiannopolous to Pat Buchanan. A member of the book club bought an edition of Kill All Normies that misspells Barack Obama's first name in the very first sentence of the book. The thing reeks of a rush to publication in an effort to seem relevant.

But here's the thing: one day, someone will write the essential history of men in online culture. The book will cover the birth of 4Chan and Reddit, it will uncover anonymous identities, it will examine the actual real-world percentage of men who take part in these subcultures, and it will chronicle their transition from harmless trolls to gamergaters to MAGA-heads. That book is undoubtedly being written right now, and it will take time to get it right.

For now, I'm happy that Nagle is elbowing her way into the conversation, even if her arguments are sloppy and her thesis is weak. The thing is, many people still don't fully understand or care what online cultures are doing to our men. Average Americans see the words "trolls" or "normies" and they think of harmless nerds sitting in their basements. Nagle's book is at least the beginning of a discussion of how that online hatred - hatred which starts as ironic joking and ends with very real rage - is activating an entire generation of young men, weaponizing their language, and pointing them at any target they can find.

We had a great discussion about Normies last night at Third Place Books Seward Park. We discussed the limits of free speech, the perils of anonymity, the heartbreak of the whole ugly situation. Normies is a hard book to love, but it stirs up some important conversations in the moment.

The Reading Through It Book Club meets next at Third Place Books Seward Park at 7 pm on Wednesday, May 2nd. We'll be discussing The Line Becomes a River, which Donna Miscolta beautifully reviewed on this site yesterday. The book is 20 percent off right now at Third Place. I hope you'll join us.