As the calendar ticked down to Election Day on Nov. 3rd, I found myself absorbed in a fascinating book with an irresistible title that took me back to the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“It Came From Something Awful: How a Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump into Office” is a mesmerizing account of so many things that I was vaguely aware of, but not fully informed about, relating to such topics as ’90s nihilism, misogynistic meme culture, and Pepe the Frog, a comic book cartoon figure that evolved into a symbol of hate.
If you’re a Boomer like me and baffled by one or more of those references, join the club. “Something Awful” explores the way culture and counterculture, the internet and reality, and politics and entertainment reflect one another in sometimes confusing, sometimes illuminating ways.
It’s an absorbing book, well-written and meticulously researched. I dog-eared at least two dozen pages, and found myself constantly saying, “Oh, I didn’t know that” or “Ah, now I see how this connects to that.”
Now that I’ve finished the book, I feel so much better able to understand so many things: the origin of 4chan, the alt-right website that became an internet cesspool for young, disenfranchised males; the toxic stew of despair, resentment, hate and irony expressed by so many of these trolls; and the intersection of this bubbling-below-the-surface culture with national politics, including the 2016 presidential election and the white nationalist march in Charlottesville.
The book was published in 2019 by Dale Beran, a Baltimore-based writer who comes at his subject with a certain expertise. As an East Coast college graduate with a liberal arts degree, he, too, was once aimless, broke, and interested in webcomics, like so many other underemployed, internet-savvy young men during the late 1990s and 2000s.
From this insider perspective, and building on a magazine piece he wrote in 2017 about these same issues, Beran writes with authority about the mindset of these jaded computer geeks — known as “otaku,” super-fans of Japanese anime and manga — and their attraction to the anonymous message board known as 4chan. He explains how this website started by a 15-year-old American who was “bored and in need of porno” began as a place to trade pictures of anime girls with friends and ended up churning out pro-Trump propaganda.
The first section of the book traces the history of countercultures from the 1960s to 4chan, and how they all eventually got swallowed up by mainstream marketing campaigns that celebrated “rebellion.”
The second section details how chan4, founded in 2003, won a race to the bottom to see “who could be more screwed up, offensive and grotesque,” as its devotees used internet tools to post “sliced-up, digitized chunks” that skewered pop culture, entertainment, advertising, and video games through a culture of jokes — memes.
The third and final section details how 4chan spawned the alt-right, as a new generation of young people immersed in screen worlds flooded onto the site and older Gen-X users found themselves flailing after the 2008 economic crash.
Many of them were unemployed or stuck in dead-end jobs, were socially awkward, and living in their mom’s basement with few real-life connections — a sad group of isolated, powerless individuals so lacking in identity that they began to obsess over it, Beran said. Finding each other on 4chan, these self-proclaimed losers clung to race as a means of self-definition and turned to white supremacy and fascism.
By 2015, Beran explained, they would team up with Steve Bannon and others to back the candidacy of Trump, “who promised America’s losers that he would make them win so much they would set sick of winning.”
(Yes, that Steve Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News and of Trump’s 2016 campaign who became senior counselor to the president, and who was arrested this summer on charges of defrauding donors to a private fund-raising effort intended to build new sections of wall on the Mexican border.)
Plenty of others associated with the alt-right and acts of violence are mentioned here, their roles explained and connections to recent headlines knitted into a coherent whole. They include the Proud Boys, the disgraced blogger Milo Yiannopoulos, the neo-Nazi leader Richard Spencer, the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the Charleston gunman Dylann Roof, the “incel” (involuntary celibate) Elliot Rodger, who killed seven people and wounded 14 others in a murderous rampage near Santa Barbara, and James Alex Fields, the 19-year-old who drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville and killed a 32-year-old woman.
In the case of the three young men — Roof, Rodger and Fields — I can see how their young minds may have been influenced by nihilism, the viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs have no value, and that life itself is senseless and useless.
What’s most fascinating — and scary and repulsive at the same time — is Beran’s explanation of what drew so many aimless teenagers and young male betas (as opposed to alphas) to 4chan and its predecessor, the website known as Something Awful.
Because 4chan permitted anonymous posts, the anything-goes content quickly turned into a sewer of weird fantasies including sexualized anime girls, My Little Pony fetishes, and an infamous 2010 thread in which a man posted photos of creepy dolls that filled the house he shared with his wife and children.
Beran writes that these dolls were human size, svelte and female, and had different animal faces with snouts resembling a cross between Miss Piggy and an old-fashioned teddy bear. Some were dressed in skimpy underwear, others in cheerleading outfits. “The images were so weird that even 4chan, den of freaks, freaked out,” Beran writes.
But what about Pepe the Frog and Donald Trump?
Back in 2005, a California artist named Matt Lurie created a comic strip with a frog character named Pepe that became an internet sensation. At some point, harmless and funny representations of Pepe became political, and far-right groups began to use the cartoon frog’s image in hateful memes — for instance, dressing him up as Hitler or a Klansman.
In October 2015, none other than Trump retweeted an image of himself as Pepe, along with a link to a YouTube video of his performance at the most recent Republican debate, and called it to the attention of Breitbart News and the Drudge Report, another right-wing site.
Trump’s 4chan fans celebrated. But it wasn’t until a few months later, January 2016, that Pepe went from innocent cartoon character to white supremacist symbol. A Twitter exchange between a conservative cable news pundit and young Trump supporters resulted in a flood of racist, pro-Trump memes featuring Trump-loving Pepes gripping assault rifles and wearing swastikas on their foreheads.
Later that year, the Anti-Defamation League officially declared Pepe to be a hate symbol.
With all the tension leading up to this month’s election, reading “Something Awful” was something of a diversion, a time-traveling experience that recalled the Clinton vs. Trump campaign and the disgusting Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville.
The book came to my attention in the fall of 2019, thanks to a Portland State University librarian who knew I was interested in the topic of Media Literacy. I wish I’d had time to read it while I was still teaching; I certainly would have incorporated some of Beran’s material into my classes.
Nevertheless, I gained so much from this book. It not only gave this Boomer a broader context for understanding internet memes and their role in pop culture and politics. It also gave me a better understanding of the worldview of a troubled demographic: impressionable young men with low esteem, lousy employment prospects and poor social relationships who turned to 4chan to escape, to commiserate, to vent, to hate.
Four stars for Dale Beran and “Socially Awkward.”
Bonus: An excellent review of the book in Wired is here.