man wedding ring

The boys of the Internet need to start looking at the man in the mirror.

I first ventured to 4chan when I was 15 years old. It was a place you’d hear rumors about, and it was the nexus of the White Boy Internet as I knew it. 

4chan wasn’t hidden away behind a paywall, did not force any registration or real names, and there was no cap on content—except for drastically illegal posts. It’s a place where my fellow White Boys and I could share our favorite cartoon porn and gristly gore. A place where Mom and Dad weren’t looking. A place where you could say the “N-word” over and over again, in all caps. You weren’t racist, you were just having fun.

That’s how the White Boy Internet works. For all the horrifically racist, sexist things that happen, for every 12-page thread dedicated to hatred, for every collection of stolen nude photos, it was only happening because it was safe. It was part of the joke. 

4chan and the rest of the White Boy Internet was—and still is—a place where dejected teens could escape societal expectations and use the Internet to have fun in the most primal way possible. We were nerds, we had low self-esteem, we took it out as loudly as possible in a place where we knew the only people that could hear us were each other. Our fellow White Boys were ready and waiting across the void, always managing to find a convenient target for our exploits. 

A couple days ago, a friend of mine became one such target. Meaghan Garvey, a contributing editor at Pitchfork, was confronted with a screenshot of folders claiming to contain her nude photos and family pictures. The alleged hackers came from KanyeToThe, a music forum known for its frequent troglodyte White Boy behavior. 

Garvey has done an excellent job steeling herself, but it goes without saying that blackmail like this can really ruin your day—even your life. In her case, the vitriol is rooted in a critical piece she wrote about Drake after he emerged victorious from the highly publicized feud with Meek Mill. That’s right, the vengeful boys of KTT were fighting back a pop music op-ed with hacking and doxing.

Honestly, when I heard the news, I couldn’t help but laugh. How has this become so commonplace? What’s so surprising about a bunch of boys starting a turf war over a Drake article? From Gamergate and the Fappening to a music editor, this is how the task force responds. Despite pleas for civility, the trolls refuse to cease their openly, cheerfully sexist maliciousness. 

These incidents have grave implications for our culture as a whole, given similar attacks aimed at silencing women on the Internet. But unless you’ve been a target for trolls and hackers, you might not understand why it’s such an issue. It’s even worse when you’re willfully part of the problem in the first place.

The boys on the Internet who are threatening Meaghan Garvey with nudes aren’t empowered. … What they are, in their own pathetic way, is deeply, deeply scared.

When you’re 15 years old and confronted with total sensory overload for the first time, it’s easy to think the place you’ve found is a utopia. I spent time on 4chan every day for a couple years, taking in every decadence the Internet could offer. It was indoctrinating. When confronted with rhetoric that didn’t fit my privileged, fixed worldview, plenty of White Boys were there ready to reassure me that I was right. That sort of environment can build a very special brand of animosity.

The boys on the Internet who are threatening Meaghan Garvey with nudes aren’t empowered. They aren’t necessarily angry, they might not even be that wicked on a deeper level. What they are, in their own pathetic way, is deeply, deeply scared. They and their fellow White Boys have wound themselves up so much that they’re convinced Meaghan is out to permanently ruin Drake. And goddamnit, the way they see it, Drake is all they have.

It’s a similar pattern of behavior seen from the boys who helped orchestrate Gamergate. Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, and all those other so-called social justice warrior women are out to permanently ruin video games and goddamnit, video games are all they have. 

Along with many misinformed, bigoted worldviews, there’s a palpable fear factor at play for the White Boy Internet—one I once had. Because it made me feel free from my awkward early high school years, from sexual frustration, and from being mediocre, I could not let women destroy a place I’d come to love—even if it needed to be dismantled.

I have a certain pitied empathy for these boys. It’s weird to say, but 4chan and other sectors of the White Boy Internet are a safe space for privileged animosity. It’s the only place an ignorant white boy can go and be right, even when they’re wrong. They can live out the fantasy, embrace the rage, and pool their frightened bitterness into something that feels righteous.

I think about how my friend is having her personal information threatened, and how I would’ve been right there 10 years ago, actively trying to make her life a living hell.

But that’s the problem. For the longest time, whenever 4chan did something awful—from the minor day-to-day hatred to big breaking stuff like The Fappening—I just kinda laughed it off. “Oh those boys, getting into trouble again. That’s 4chan for you,” I thought. But now I realize that every time I laughed it off, I was actually helping protect the twisted sanctity of the White Boy Internet. Instead of facing the problem head on, I enabled it by considering their behavior as “just part of growing up.” It’s my heritage, so as gross as it is, it has to have a place right? But what was I really protecting? 

The White Boy Internet made me a more angry, less curious teenager. It all felt like a joke, but I enjoyed the emotional highs, using racist language, and saving photos that weren’t intended for me. I shouldn’t ever have felt comfortable doing anything like that, but it’s easy to get desensitized when you regularly frequent a forum where hate has no repercussions. 

I think about how my friend is having her personal information threatened, and how I would’ve been right there 10 years ago, actively trying to make her life a living hell. When I consider that very real probability, I have a hard time living with myself. This was who I used to be. It’s not funny. It’s not a rite of passage. It’s just deeply, deeply sad.

Sometimes when I run into old high school buddies, we’ll rehash our days on 4chan. It’s our own digital nostalgia. Sometimes I’d go visit those old haunts, see the next generation of terrified doxers get primed. I used to feel pride about my time on the White Boy Internet, and I know I’m not the only one. I don’t do that anymore. 

Now, when I catch a glimpse of 4chan and communities like it, I sigh in disappointment. Is this really the legacy we’ve left behind?

Luke Winkie is a freelance writer whose work has appeared at the Austin Chronicle, Sports Illustrated, Vice, Kotaku, BuzzFeed, the Verge, and more. Luke tweets at @luke_winkie.

Photo by andrewrennie/flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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