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How pop culture “conlangs” like Dothraki and Klingon get made

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“I amar prestar aen, han mathon ne nen, han mathon ne chae a han noston ned ’wilith.”

“The world has changed; I can feel it in the water, I can feel it in the earth; I can smell it in the air.”

—Galadriel, opening narration of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (film), Sindarin Elvish

Time was, if you were creating a fantasy or sci-fi world in film or TV, you could simply make up some lines using sounds that English speakers didn’t hear much and get away with few people noticing or caring.

Now, if you want a truly immersive story, you need to hire someone to create not just one but several languages for your project, thoughtfully consider which scenes will and won’t use those languages, and make sure the actors you hire can sound convincing when they deliver lines in those languages.

The bigger shows and movies that use these constructed languages, or conlangs — your Game of Throneses, your Star Treks — may not seem like much of a trend in and of themselves. But there are also shows like The CW’s The 100, AMC’s Into the Badlands, and likely Amazon’s upcoming Lord of the Rings series; movies like Netflix’s Bright; and dozens of other productions in both the recent past and near future that feature at least a few lines spoken in a language created solely for their specific characters and worlds.

Conlangs are officially a Pop Culture Thing. Part of the deluge seems to stem from audiences’ never-ending quest for “authenticity,” the desire for meticulous televisual world building. And film and TV creators have adopted a similar mindset — a yearning for verisimilitude that extends all the way to shelling out to have new languages written, even as natural languages are disappearing at the rate of one every two weeks.

But when, and how, did we get here?

Conlang creation in Hollywood has exploded over the past decade


Zac Freeland/Vox; New Line Productions Inc.

While most people’s minds race to Star Trek’s Klingon when thinking of pop culture conlangs, the modern roots lie in J.R.R. Tolkien’s world of Middle-earth — specifically, the two different kinds of Elvish he began creating in the 1910s, and the histories he wrote to explain why there were two of them.

Still, conlangs had a long way to go before reaching their current level of permeation. Klingon, created in the 1980s by Star Trek producer Marc Okrand, was for a long time treated as a punchline, despite a devoted fan base and speakers.

Then the Lord of the Rings movies made billions of dollars and won Oscars in the early 2000s, showing that a nerdy element like a fictional tongue wasn’t exactly a turn-off for audiences — that a fully realized invented language, with a real grammar, syntax, and a vocabulary of thousands of words, could be an asset. The opening lines of the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, were spoken in a conlang — as the royal elf Galadriel delivered a monologue partly in Sindarin Elvish — marking an important turning point.

David J. Peterson, who created Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones and has written two books on conlangs, also credits the box office success of 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, a movie entirely in Aramaic — not a conlang but a dead language unrecognizable to its audience.

Peterson’s theory is that The Passion, which grossed around $610 million worldwide, convinced Hollywood that audiences were more willing to sit through stretches of dialogue in unfamiliar languages than previously thought. “There was a sense of, not only will people tolerate this, but they will pay for it and enjoy it,” Peterson says.

Then came Avatar in 2009, with its fully realized Na’vi language, and Game of Thrones in 2011 with its khals and Valyrian-speaking priestesses. Suddenly, conlangs were a vital storytelling tool, judging by the 60 productions that have contacted Peterson to inquire about him creating one since Game of Thrones put him on the professional conlanging map.

But getting from “We should have a language made” to Khal Drogo’s blood-stirring Dothraki speeches is not simple.

Conlangs are key to building fictional worlds that feel real

Rockne S. O’Bannon was developing a show about aliens on Earth called Defiance when he realized that his series, which ran for three seasons on Syfy between in 2013 and 2015, needed a conlang. Actually, more than one: There were a few kinds of aliens in the world of Defiance, which required the creation of two languages right from the start, with more to follow.

”Verisimilitude was important to us,” O’Bannon says. “But I didn’t know anything about glottal stops or nasal consonants.”


Zac Freeland/Vox; Syfy

So he turned to Peterson — who definitely knows about glottal stops and nasal consonants — to create the languages needed for not just the show but also the massively multiplayer online game that took place in the same universe.

It’s an investment that O’Bannon doesn’t question at all. “You can’t leave it up to the actors to make up nonsense, because it also has to match what other people say,” he says. And it would wreck the show’s credibility to have aliens, even those who have been on Earth for decades, speak only English.

“A language never gets more real than when we speak it,” Peterson said in a 2013 TED talk. “If it’s used in a television show or a film, anybody can sit there, write down what’s said, and analyze it to see if it’s systematic, or if it’s just gibberish. … There is no ‘stage’ version of a language. To create an authentic-sounding language, one needs to employ an authentic methodology.”

How to create a conlang


Zac Freeland/Vox; 20th Century Fox

Peterson’s background was in linguistics; he has a master’s degree in the subject from UC San Diego. His path to conlanging for film and TV was paved in part by co-founding the Language Creation Society, a nonprofit organization composed of thousands of members that runs the world’s only international conference devoted solely to conlanging. Through this group, Peterson met Arika Okrent, author of the revered conlang tome In the Land of Invented Languages, who pointed the Game of Thrones showrunners in Peterson’s direction.

According to Peterson, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss originally had Dothraki characters speaking gibberish during the casting process; George R.R. Martin’s book series contained a few snippets of Dothraki, but Benioff and Weiss quickly realized there wasn’t enough to fill out entire scenes onscreen, and they couldn’t just make things up as they went along. They needed someone who could build off the books to create a real language.

From there, Peterson’s career was born. Today, he breathes the rarified air of conlangers with some fame, alongside Paul Frommer, the creator of Na’vi, and Okrent, creator of Klingon.

Peterson says he has a more or less standard language starter pack he charges for, then works with the production for as-needed translations. His rate can range from $500 for simple work to six figures for a fully developed language. (Creating a writing system is extra, but it’s also Peterson’s favorite thing to do.)

”If you just have some place names, you don’t need a whole language,” he says. “But if you’ve got so much as one whole clause? You need a whole language.”

That’s because a whole clause implies the existence of some kind of grammar. Writers need to know how the words should be ordered, and why. They need to know, at the very least, how the verbs are conjugated, whether the nouns change depending on their function in the sentence, and what the sound system is.

To create the Dothraki language, Peterson started by looking at the Dothraki culture as it’s presented in the Game of Thrones books, then began to “shape a lexicon that would represent it.”

The Dothraki are nomadic warriors who travel on horseback; the imagery is woven into the way they talk about all sorts of things. In the scene below, as Khal Drogo prepares for a fight, he calls his unborn child “the stallion who will mount the world” and refers to ships as “wooden horses” that ride across water:

Peterson has also drawn from the Dothraki culture to give the language its unique characteristics. Because the Dothraki language is oral, with no writing system, there’s no native word for “book.” They also lack a word for “thank you.”

These elements mimic the quirks of natural languages: Finnish has one genderless pronoun for the singular third person (whereas in English, we have “he” and “she”); Russian uses the same word for both “please” and “you’re welcome.” That doesn’t mean Finns are gender-blind, or that Russians can’t distinguish between asking for something and receiving it — but such differences can be indicative of what a culture emphasizes (or doesn’t).

Similarly, not having a native Dothraki word for “book” doesn’t mean that the Dothraki don’t understand books or the concept of reading. So Peterson had Dothraki “borrow” these words from another of Game of Thrones’ languages, High Valyrian, in keeping with the way natural languages borrow words all the time.

Peterson expands on that concept in this video, explaining how the culture behind a language can determine everything from the presence of specific words to how insults are conceived:

Once the language has been created, translation of a project’s script can begin. Typically, writers will write entirely in English and send the scenes requiring translation to Peterson — which sounds straightforward, but even that process can be hindered by writers who are looking for an exact, one-to-one rendering of the lines they’ve written.

“In English, we pack so much into each syllable,” Peterson says. “English speakers don’t understand this. So much is inferred or dropped.” Sentence lengths are going to be different, and there just isn’t going to be a word-to-word correlation, which can disrupt the rhythm and timing of a scene. Note the differences in length and rhythm between the English subtitles and the dialogue being spoken in this video:

For actors, learning to speak a conlang is like learning to speak any other language

Acting in a different language — particularly if you’re supposed to sound like a native speaker — can take some getting used to.

Adina Porter, who plays a leader of a group of people left on Earth after a nuclear apocalypse in The CW’s The 100, recalls panicking when being given a script in which her character speaks in Trigedasleng, the native language of her people. (Trig, as it’s often referred to, is another Peterson creation.)

”I didn’t know when I was cast that they were going to be creating another language,” she says. “I remember being quite shocked when I was up in Vancouver and being told, ‘We’re going to send you some words in the Grounder language.’”

A dialect coach can help a tongue-tied actor, though having one on hand is not a particularly common practice. Game of Thrones has one, but many other productions, including The 100, don’t. Dialect coach Erik Singer considers it essential, however — particularly in genres with fans whom we might call heavily engaged (i.e., quick to voice outrage over the smallest perceived error).

For Singer, while the bar for speaking a conlang correctly is perhaps slightly lower than, say, successfully faking a posh British accent, the goal is the same: to give an actor the ability to perform without consciously worrying about whether they’re getting the basic sounds right. Getting to that place can take months of work.

To help ease Defiance’s actors into their conlangs, O’Bannon would generally start off their characters with what he calls “handholds” — simple cultural terms, slang, insults — before dumping a bunch of conlang lines on them.


Zac Freeland/Vox; Paramount Pictures Corporation

“The other thing that made things maybe a little easier was making the dialogue in the language more emotional,” he adds. “The more emotionally charged or heightened, the easier it is to get an actor out of their own head. It’s easier to get the rhythm with real emotion or energy.”

Porter laughs, thinking of her initial panic: “It’s already kind of a scary thing, reading phonetics. And then to have to act with that?” But after she mastered the sound system and the particular musicality of Trig, Porter says she felt a deeper connection to her character.

”It did affect how I spoke English [while in character],” Porter says. “It became more formal” — the classroom, by-the-book kind of English you’d learn as a second language. Porter has even suggested, in certain scenes, that she say certain lines in Trig rather than English, as they’ve been written. That generally involves a phone call or frantic email to Peterson for a translation. Sometimes, Porter says, there just isn’t time, or the producer says it needs to be in English.

But in one case, she got her wish. “It was a banquet scene and we were under attack,” Porter recalls. “My character was calling out commands in English, and that just didn’t feel right. Trig is her birth language; her instinct would be to use that.” So producers pulled in Peterson and got the translation, and the scene ended up feeling a lot more natural — like an actual attack on unprepared characters.

Conlangs are a living, breathing art form that continue to evolve offscreen

The motivation behind any pop culture conlang comes down to wanting to tell the best version possible of a story. A conlang can also tie fans to the story more tightly, and offer a form of life and legacy beyond books or sequels.

But what happens when a conlang starts to find a foothold in the real world? Once a conlang is spoken by a dozen or more people, can its creator tell those speakers that the new words they’re adding are wrong?

Peterson does feel a sense of ownership over his creations, but he doesn’t take a prescriptivist approach. “Let’s say, for whatever reason, I was fired from Game of Thrones before the last season and they had a fan do the translation, and that fan added a bunch of words and maybe used the grammar differently,” he says. “Obviously, I would be upset for the lost income and respect, but in terms of the language, it would be up to fans who use the language to decide if the new material ‘counted’ as Valyrian or not.”


Zac Freeland/Vox; HBO

In other words: A language, more than any book or film or painting, is meant to be a living thing, a shared method of communication. Much of the beauty of language lies in how individual speakers bend its rules and make their own contributions, and all of these conlangs have shown they have lives outside their onscreen worlds. High Valyrian is now available on Duolingo. Star Trek fans have translated Hamlet into Klingon and staged productions. Na’vi speakers congregate at Avatar conventions. And Peterson is constantly fielding requests for translations from fans who want tattoos in Trigedasleng (from The 100) or Irathient (from Defiance).

It’s easy for fans to take conlangs for granted, too — Peterson often hears grumbling from Game of Thrones fans, in particular, who are irked by translations of certain prophecies from the books. But beneath every conlang lie complex layers of decision-making and craft. All so that you can mutter, “Zaldrīzes buzdari iksos daor,” when your boss asks you to work over the weekend (“A dragon is not a slave,” in Valyrian), and feel less like a put-upon cog and just a bit more like a khaleesi.

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Incels: a definition and investigation of a dark internet corners

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In the late 1990s, a lonely teenager on the West Coast fired up his dial-up modem to find someone to talk to. He was a shy kid, too introverted to feel fully comfortable in the real world, and he logged on to the early internet’s bare-bones web forums for a sense of connection. There he found friends: other people who were awkward in real life, particularly when it came to sex and dating.

The group eventually became a community, one that began using a phrase to describe their romantic troubles — “involuntary celibacy.” Later the term would get shortened: “incel.”

The teenager, now a man who uses the handle “ReformedIncel” to keep his internet history out of his offline life, recalls the online incel world of the 1990s and 2000s fondly. It was a welcoming place, one where men who didn’t know how to talk to women could ask the community’s female members for advice (and vice versa). It was, he told me, “kind of an SJW [social justice warrior] community.”

In April 2018, about 20 years after the early incel community coalesced, a college student in Toronto named Sohe Chung decided to walk to the library. It wasn’t a short walk — the subway would have been faster — but Chung and her roommate, So Ra, wanted to enjoy the sunshine.

Chung and So never made it to the library. On the way there, a van hopped the curb onto the sidewalk and slammed into pedestrians. Chung was one of 10 killed; So was one of 16 wounded.

The van’s driver was a self-described incel — but the community today would not be recognizable to those who built it decades earlier. Today’s incels are almost entirely men and boys who pollute their online forums with posts blaming women for their sexless lives. Some posters even celebrated Chung’s killer the day of the attack, calling for other incels to follow up with “acid attacks” and “mass rape.” What was once an open-minded support group had degenerated into a place where praise for mass killers was tolerated, even normalized.

“Rage,” ReformedIncel says, “has completely taken over.”

In the year since Toronto, I’ve followed the incel movement closely, reading its websites and subreddits regularly. I’ve spoken with more than a dozen current and former incel forum posters, including two site administrators, and acquired logs of an incel chat room from around the time of the Toronto attack.

What I’ve found is more than just a community twisted into a grotesque parody of its original shape. I’ve found a story of how the deepest prejudices in a society can take purchase in new settings due to technology — transforming not only online spaces but real lives and potentially even the trajectory of our politics.

Over the past two decades, the incel community, which numbers somewhere in the tens of thousands, has fallen under the sway of a profoundly sexist ideology that they call “the blackpill.” It amounts to a fundamental rejection of women’s sexual emancipation, labeling women shallow, cruel creatures who will choose only the most attractive men if given the choice.

Taken to its logical extreme, the blackpill can lead to violence. The mass media has focused on the risk of more mass killings like Toronto and others before it, and that is indeed a serious concern. But the focus on incels as potential killers risks missing a more subtle threat: that they will commit acts of everyday violence ranging from harassment to violent assault, or simply make the women in their lives miserable.

Yet incels are not merely an isolated subculture, disconnected from the outside world. They are a dark reflection of a set of social values about women that is common, if not dominant, in broader Western society. The intersection between this age-old misogyny and new information technologies is reshaping our politics and culture in a way we may only dimly understand — and may not be prepared to confront.

Who are the incels?

Abe (not his real name) has dealt with loneliness for a long time. Nineteen today, he still recalls a ninth birthday at Chuck E. Cheese’s where none of the classmates he invited showed up. His mom cried while he distracted himself with arcade games.

In young adulthood, Abe developed a crush on his female best friend. When he finally got the nerve to ask her out, she said yes, and they dated for a month. But during that time, she cheated on Abe with her ex and eventually got engaged to him.

It was a crushing blow, and Abe turned to the internet for support. He found incel communities on Reddit, ones that helped reaffirm his belief that his looks were responsible for his terrible dating experience. The subreddits, he tells me, showed him “how manipulative some women can be when seeking validation” — that they are, in his words, “emotional tampons.”

Abe still wishes he had a girlfriend. He writes about wanting simple things, like baking at home with a partner or holding hands while watching a movie. But he doesn’t have much hope that’ll happen to him anytime soon. He spends his time posting near daily on Reddit, frequenting subreddits like r/Braincels (currently one of two main incel forums) and r/ForeverAlone.

“Of course, nobody knows what will happen in the future,” he tells me. “But it looks pretty bleak for me romantically.”

Abe’s experiences seem to be relatively typical for incels. They are overwhelmingly young men and boys with a history of isolation and rejection; they turn to the internet to make sense of their pain.


Javier Zarracina/Vox

While there is no rigorous scientific study on incel demographics — the community is deeply hostile to outsiders, particularly researchers and journalists — their forums have conducted informal surveys on the demographics of their users. Combining this data with my interviews of incels like Abe (all of whom I’ve quoted under pseudonyms) has helped me put together a rough picture of your ordinary incel.

An informal poll of 1,267 Braincels users found that about 90 percent of forum participants were under the age of 30. The users are almost all men — women are banned on sight, but a handful do sneak in — and roughly 80 percent live in Europe or North America.

Despite drawing users largely from majority-white countries, Braincels has an ethnically diverse set of contributors; 55 percent of the site’s user base is white, with significant percentages of posters who self-identify as East Asian, South Asian, black, and Latino. A poll that ran on incels.co, the largest incel site outside of Reddit, came out with similar numbers on their user base’s age, race, and geographic distribution.

Incels seem drawn to Braincels and incels.co based on a sense that their looks or other personal traits — many users say they have autism — have ruined their romantic chances. They commonly share stories of personal trauma.

Miguel, who’s roughly 20 years old, described a childhood that destroyed his confidence with women.

“I was bullied heavily, which led me to develop severe anxiety and self-hatred. Because of my anxiety, I lack confidence, something women pick up on and [that] labels me a loser,” he tells me. “Most of the incels I know are around 16 to 30 years old. They have either been bullied, have autism, or just conventionally unattractive faces.”

John, a 30-year-old incel from New Jersey, tried pretty much everything he could think of to help himself succeed in the dating market. He works out regularly, eats vegetarian, and spends time reading up on fashion so he can try to dress well. He’s tried online dating for years and let some of his female friends set him up on dates.

But very few women have responded to his messages on dating apps. And when his female friends described him to their girlfriends, they would never describe him as “attractive” or even “cute.” Eventually, John concluded, he was just ugly — and there was nothing that he could do, no way he could eat or dress to fix that.

Like many incels, he was drawn to the community because he felt they were the only people who understood his experience. Other forum users were people he could commiserate with, virtual friends who swapped jokes and memes that helped everyone get through the day.

“Most people will not be in my situation, so they can’t relate. They can’t comprehend someone being so ugly that they can’t get a girlfriend,” John tells me. “What I noticed was how similar my situation was to the other guys. I thought I was the only one in the world so inept at dating.”

It’s hard not to feel for people like Abe or John. All of us have, at one point, experienced our share of rejection or loneliness. What makes the incel world scary is that it takes these universal experiences and transmutes the pain they cause into unbridled, misogynistic rage.

How the incel community became toxic

The founding irony of the incel community is that it was created by a woman — and a politically progressive queer one at that. Her real name is Alana (she asked to keep her last name private), and she’s an artist and consultant based in Toronto.

For much of her young adult life, she found dating terrifying: The rules were confusing, and she wasn’t even sure what to think of her own sexuality. When she was in college in the early 1990s, she began identifying as bisexual; she got into her first real relationship (with a woman) at age 24.

The experience of finally entering the dating pool made Alana want to help others with her difficulties. So she launched a website called Alana’s Involuntary Celibacy Project, one of the earliest online havens for people who wanted to have romantic relationships but couldn’t. She spent a few years monitoring her creation but came to realize that she couldn’t be an authority for these people and wasn’t fixing their problems. Feeling both futile and a bit like she’d grown out of the incel world, she ceased her involvement in the forums around 2000.


Javier Zarracina/Vox

Though she’s horrified at what the group she started has evolved into, she has managed to build a happy and romantically fulfilling life — a future she hopes the young, lonely men of today can envision for themselves.

“People who haven’t had much luck with dating by their mid-20s, you could be a late bloomer like me,” she says. “Catching up to the romantic world is a mysterious, indirect process. Romantic connection seems to happen when you find joy in other aspects of life, then share that happiness with other people.”

This supportive spirit is part of what drew ReformedIncel to the early incel forums. In the beginning, it was neither exclusively male nor dedicated to a fatalistic anti-woman ideology. “We created our own little community,” he says. “We weren’t angry, and we certainly weren’t going to allow any violent rhetoric.”

Since the rise of incel terrorism in the past few years, ReformedIncel has become a kind of historian of the movement, documenting the nature of the incel community and how it changed over time. He emailed me a nearly 100-page, meticulously footnoted document on the degeneration of the movement he once identified with.

Incels in the late ’90s, ReformedIncel explains, didn’t see themselves as victims of female cruelty in the way today’s incels do. Many of them were in a rut, a sexual dry spell, and like current incels were seeking support from others with similar experiences. If men like Abe or John had encountered this version of the community, they would have been exposed to very different ideas about how the world worked.

But things changed in the 2000s. The nascent incel community became divided between two online forums: one called IncelSupport and another called LoveShy. IncelSupport adhered to something like Alana’s inclusive vision — it was open to men and women, and moderators banned misogynistic posts. That’s where ReformedIncel spent his time.

LoveShy, by contrast, had a less stringent moderation policy. Its male users were free to vent about women, blaming them for the incels’ lack of sex. The forum tilted overwhelmingly male; one of its administrators openly praised mass killers and encouraged another forum member to commit murder.

The degeneration of LoveShy reflects the rage that many men express offline. Angry, entitled misogyny is a fact of the world, and it was inevitable that this reality would shape virtual spaces as much as real ones. A forum for young, dateless men was always a prime candidate for where misogynist ideas would come to dominate. All it took was the opening of a venue uninterested in heavily policing its users for this real-world anger to become a defining feature of the virtual incel world — and that’s what LoveShy provided.

Nor was it the only such toxic space on the internet. During the 2000s and early 2010s, the LoveShy community cross-pollinated with members of other, similar online subcultures. One major forum was 4chan, the anything-goes prankster and alt-right site. Its r9k section contains incel-like ideas in addition to the site’s generalized ethos of racism and trolling, and remains an active source of incel recruitment. Two incels I spoke to say they found the community from browsing r9k.

The “manosphere,” a loose group of websites united by their belief in various male-dominant ideologies, was even more important in reshaping inceldom. It includes “men’s rights” activists and pickup artists, or PUAs, men who teach other men that they can sleep with women by insulting them and manipulating their psychology.

These overlaps produced a fairly large and networked group of sexually frustrated men, united in blaming their situation on women. These men appropriated the term “incel” for themselves and their idea, outcompeting the IncelSupport community for ownership of the term.

Then in 2014, a self-identified incel went on a killing spree in Isla Vista, California.

Elliot Rodger began his attack by stabbing two male roommates and a visiting friend: Cheng Yuan Hong, Weihan Wang, and George Chen. He then drove to the Alpha Phi sorority at the UC Santa Barbara campus, opening fire outside and in other nearby locations. He killed three more people — Katherine Cooper, Christopher Michaels-Martinez, and Veronika Weiss — and wounded 14 more before turning his gun on himself. All of the dead were UCSB students.

The attacks were a turning point for the incel community. The killer’s posts on PUAHate, a popular online forum among incels frustrated that pickup artist techniques weren’t working for them, rendered the term “incel” toxic. It was the final blow in the war for inceldom’s soul — the moment when ReformedIncel knew his side had lost.

“The thing about Elliot Rodger is that he used that word. And that pretty much devastated the original incel community,” ReformedIncel tells me.

He describes a loss of hope among the community, a belief that “the only future we could foresee” for incels was one darkened by Rodger’s shadow. So, as he says, “we just gave up.”

But Rodger more than redefined the term “incel”: He helped reshape the ideas that the community would come to stand for, pushing its angriest and most nihilistic impulses to the fore.

This posthumous influence stems from a series of YouTube videos and a 137-page manifesto, both of which make the motivation for his attack clear. The manifesto is a biography of sorts, describing Rodger’s life from birth till the attack. His grievances are laid out in excruciating detail.

“All I had ever wanted was to love women, but their behavior has only earned my hatred,” he writes. “I want to have sex with them, and make them feel good, but they would be disgusted at the prospect. They have no sexual attraction towards me.”

The manifesto at once repulsive and difficult to put down. The undeniable violence that suffuses the words seems to resonate with angry young men looking for someone to blame for their dating problems.

This is why Rodger, more than any of the other killers who targeted women, became the inspiration for the radical turn in the incel community. He is the primary incel “saint”; forums are full of memes with his face photoshopped onto old paintings of Christian icons. The phrase “going ER” is the term of choice among incels for committing mass violence.

Not all incels condone his actions; many seem to actively blame him for their group’s bad reputation. But he has come to entirely overshadow Alana and be considered the true founder of modern inceldom.

“ER was a real hero,” one incels.co poster writes. “Without him the incel community would have never existed.”

What today’s incels really believe

In the years since the Isla Vista attack, incels have hammered out their own distinctive ideology, a pseudoscientific sociology of sex with its own complex jargon that they refer to as “the blackpill.”


Javier Zarracina/Vox

The blackpill’s origins derive from the broader manosphere’s concept of the “redpill,” a name referring to a scene in The Matrix where Laurence Fishburne’s Morpheus offers Keanu Reeves’s Neo a choice between a red pill (which reveals the true nature of reality) and a blue pill (which would allow him to live in comfortable ignorance). Being “redpilled” in the manosphere means waking up to what’s seen as the truth of male-female relations, a key part of which is the idea that women are attracted to the highest-status men they can find.

The incel “blackpill” takes this even further. Incels believe a man’s sexual success is almost entirely determined by unalterable biological traits: things like his jawline, cheekbones, or eye socket shape. The result, in their view, is that modern Western society is defined by a kind of sexual class system.

At the top of the incel hierarchy are the most attractive men, “Chads.” Incels believe that roughly 20 percent of the population is made up of Chads but about 80 percent of women are only interested in men of this class. “Stacy,” the incel term for the most attractive women, will only consent to sex with Chad, Tyrone (the incel word for a black Chad), Chang (East Asian Chad), Chadpreet (South Asian Chad), or Chaddam (Arab Chad). Incels, in case you can’t tell, have serious racial hang-ups.

The bottom 20 percent of women will consent to sex with the vast majority of men who fall somewhere in the middle of the attractiveness tier, alternatively called “betas,” “cucks,” or “normies.” And at the bottom, of course, are incels: men who are so innately unappealing that they can never convince a woman to sleep with them.

Everywhere you turn on an incel forum, there’s an expression of rage or hatred, typically but not exclusively directed at women. Some it is built into their slang, like the ubiquitous use of the alienating term “femoids” (“foids” for short) to refer to women. Much of it is just raw, naked rage.

“Our whole lives we’ve had to endure the pain of being so physically repulsive to females that they’d never even consider giving us a chance. We are actually so genetically inferior that they HATE us. They need to suffer,” writes another incels.co poster. “Their hypocrisy is a crime [punishable by] torture for the rest of their slutty lives.”

The crossover between incels and fringe-right forums like 4chan lends the misogyny a racist and anti-Semitic tone. Incels refer to Asian women as “noodlewhores” and sometimes blame the rise of feminism on a Jewish conspiracy to weaken the West from within. Even forum users who identify as nonwhite — South Asian incels, for example, call themselves “currycels” — can be found arguing that whites are more attractive or expressing admiration for Hitler.

When I ask Sarge, the administrator of incels.co, about the anti-Semitism, racism, and misogyny on his site, he insisted that it was mostly trolling — trying to be provocative for the sake of being provocative.

“The fact we don’t mind politically incorrect speech is always shocking to outsiders,” he tells me. “A minority seems to have some anger toward women, yes. For the vast majority, there is no hatred.”

I’m not sure if Sarge actually believes the incels on his site don’t hate women or if he was just trying to spin me. But what he said simply isn’t true.

A recent paper by six scholars studied a random selection of threads on Sarge’s forum, finding that more than 50 percent used overtly misogynistic language (e.g., the word “bitch” or the phrase “dumb girl”). While 10 percent of users were responsible for most of the hateful content directed at women and other minority groups, “about half of the users in our dataset posted hateful messages at one time or another.”

One day in February, I looked at the profiles of the five most prolific posters on incels.co at the time. Each of them had posted something inflammatory or misogynistic within the past several weeks, and more frequently in the past few days, with no indication that what they were saying wasn’t truly how they felt.

One of the most frequent posters uses a GIF of Rodger as his profile image. He wrote that women were “trashy whores” and labeled feminism “a plot devised by females to escape from undesirable men and only get fucked by the high tier men.” Another one started a thread titled “why is ever ‘single’ woman a total fucking bitch,” in which he concluded “every ‘single’ foid over the age of ~19 should be fed to an industrial wood chipper.” I’ll spare you the other examples, but they are legion.

The problem is not that men who don’t have sex are intrinsically hateful. ReformedIncel, who still has trouble dating, is a testament to that. He channels his passion into other pursuits (he is, among other things, a big film buff).

Incel forums, ReformedIncel believes, necessarily tend in a toxic direction. Definitionally, a group of people who are “involuntarily celibate” are people who are not getting something they want, and the shared experiences they bond over are negative ones. “That’s in the nature of incel communities: It’s a community you don’t want to be a part of,” he tells me.

The early incels tried to counter this tendency by fostering a healthy commenting culture: maintaining a mixed-gender user base, banning misogynistic content, and giving one another advice on how to overcome shyness in the real world. But the dominance of the blackpill ideology in the current incel community has the opposite effect: It takes the intrinsic negativity of an incel community and turns it up to 11.

“Incel boards tend to be so toxic [now] because they’re basically venting and posting all of their frustrations online,” he says.

Andreas, a 17-year-old living in Denmark, is a testament to what this negativity can do to young minds.

A bullying victim who’s always had trouble with romantic relationships, he got dumped by the only girl he’d managed to date just as he was starting high school. He fell into a funk, a dark period during which he came across incel forums. The more time he spent there became, the more his feelings toward women darkened.

“I hated them,” he tells me. “I wholeheartedly hated them.”

Initially, Andreas saw the forums as a lifeline — a place to find other people who understood his pain. But as time went on, he noticed that the angry hopelessness of the other incels was making his depression worse, not better. He was staying up late at night, seething and not sleeping.

“Getting a dose of blackpill every time you go on there didn’t feel good in the long run,” Andreas says. “Having that in my head all the time made me go fucking nuts.”

So he quit reading incel forums. He still harbors some resentment toward women but says he doesn’t hate them anymore. In late March, he contacted me just to chat, saying that he was feeling better and working on more positive hobbies like playing the guitar.

Now that he’s logged off, he’s clearly happier and healthier. But I wonder what would have happened to him if he hadn’t.

Just how dangerous are incels?

The man who killed Sohe Chung last April, a mid-20s Canadian Armed Forces washout named Alek Minassian, left no doubt as to what his motivation was. In a Facebook post written shortly before the attack, he described himself as a foot soldier in a broader incel war on society.

“Private (Recruit) Minassian Infantry 00010, wishing to speak to Sgt 4Chan please,” he wrote. “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!”

When news of the van attack broke, incel forums barely spared a thought for the victims. Even while readership of incel sites surged, as “normies” trying to figure out what could have sparked such senseless violence went to the sites, some users were celebrating the killing spree.

But perhaps the most telling conversations were happening away from the main forum. A researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch group provided me with logs from an incels.co Discord server, an online chat platform favored by gamers, from the day after the Toronto attack. In the exchange, screenshots of which are displayed below, site administrator Sarge discusses with two other users how to respond to a massive surge in traffic to the forum.

Sarge dismisses the complaints that the site is too tolerant of violent rhetoric, claims that he and the other moderators delete violent content, and yet appears unconcerned when another user points out that they don’t come close to getting it all. He casts the Toronto attack as a PR problem that will blow over. (Note: In 2018, the forum’s domain name was incels.me, which changed after its previous server host dropped them for violating its anti-abuse policy.)






The very username “St. Marcc Lepine,” the forum member mentioned as a risk by one of the others, should have been a red flag. In 1989, the real-life Marc Lépine went into a classroom in Montreal’s École Polytechnique university and ordered the men to leave, then shot all nine women who remained. He continued his attack outside the classroom before shooting himself in the head. In a letter, he claimed the attack was “fighting feminism”; he killed a total of 14 women during the assault, which remains the deadliest mass shooting in modern Canadian history.

This kind of mass killer praise — referring to Lépine as a “saint” in one’s username — is part of the culture of incels.co. Yet in the immediate wake of another mass killing, advocacy for violence isn’t treated as a serious concern by the forum’s administrator.

You’d think there should have been some kind of reckoning in the incel community since then. ReformedIncel certainly believes so: The Toronto van attack is what caused him to start documenting incel history, to try to figure out what went wrong.

But there’s scant evidence of similar introspection in current incel forums. During my time scanning incels.co, I found dozens of examples of posters celebrating mass killers or even outright justifying violence as a legitimate response to the incel predicament. A popular incel YouTube personality, who’s trying to become the first incel rapper, wrote a song glorifying Minassian’s attack.

While incel communities do vary — the posters on incels.co are far more likely to praise mass killers than those on Braincels, who tend to see them as giving incels a bad name — it’s clear from both research and my own observations that the community writ large has a problem with the normalization of mass violence.

The real question is how likely this is to spur copycats.


Javier Zarracina/Vox

Like a lot of online subcultures, incel communities are steeped in irony and trolling. Posters frequently say provocative things just to vent or to get a rise out of people. But despite that, experts on mass violence are deeply concerned by what they see from the incel community.

“It’s great that a lot of these guys aren’t violent,” says Stephanie Carvin, a political scientist who studies terrorism at Canada’s Carleton University. “But if they’re glorifying someone who was violent … a very small percentage of these individuals may feel more justified in acting.”

We know that Rodger, in particular, has had at least some influence on subsequent mass shooters, several of whom have referenced him in their writings. A man who killed two women at a yoga class in Tallahassee, Florida, last year released videos raging against women and comparing himself to Rodger and incels. Some incels today affectionately refer to the Tallahassee shooter as “St. YogaCel,” the kind of glorification that Carvin and other experts worry could inspire forum users to become copycats.

But focusing too much on mass killings obscures the other ways incels harm the people around them.

Take Sheldon Bentley, a Canadian security guard in his late 30s. In 2016, Bentley found a homeless man named Donald Doucette in an alley in Edmonton and stomped him to death. In a pre-sentencing filing last summer, Bentley described himself as an “involuntary celibate”; both a forensic psychologist and Bentley’s probation officer testified during the trial that anger at this status led to his violent outburst.

Bentley is one of the clearest examples of an incel taking out his rage on another individual. But if you listen to incels themselves, there are many more examples that happen with no documentation or criminal trial. Every now and again, forum users brag openly about how they hurt people — most frequently the women in their lives. I’ve seen posters boast about yelling at women, catfishing them, and even redirecting research funds away from work on cervical and ovarian cancer.

“Mass shooting, or death, is not the only thing in public health that worries us,” says Emily Rothman, an expert on intimate partner violence at Boston University. “There are multiple kinds of harms — and sometimes psychological aggression can have really severe, long-lasting impact on victims.”

The most chilling incel stories are about outright sexual assault.

One user claims to serially assault women on public transit. “I do it all the time, rub my dick on their back/ass until I cum,” he writes. A second says that he injected his semen into chocolate bars at his office to “punish” a woman who he thought was flirting with him but actually had a boyfriend. A third claims to have “groped so many women,” estimating his total at between 50 and 70 — and claimed he wanted to escalate to violent rape.

There’s no way to know how true any of this is. But even assuming a fraction of it is, what you’ve got is a community where men who target women are celebrated and incentivized to escalate.

One response to the comment about assault on public transit praised the user for getting “more action” than other incels. Another poster praised his fellow incels who assaulted women as “low-inhib legends,” suggesting it’s impressive if an incel can overcome inhibitions that warn him against hurting women. I’m not sure I can recall any posts condemning sex crimes as a violation of women’s rights, while I’ve seen dozens arguing women deserve no rights at all. That kind of socialization, a network of people egging each other on, really matters.

“If they’ve joined an online forum and they’re seeing other people inciting them toward violence, [then that’s] a risk factor,” says Rothman. “It has been known for many decades that it matters who you affiliate with, and that shapes your behavior in all kinds of ways.”

A smaller group of incels, numbering somewhere in the hundreds, takes this a step further. They are self-consciously working to convince other incels that raping women is a justified response to sexual rejection.

These extremists are clustered around a network of sites run by Nathan Larson, a Virginia-based advocate for rape who was convicted of a felony for threatening to kill President George W. Bush in 2008. He also ran for Congress as an independent in 2018 but withdrew from the race before Election Day.

Larson does not see himself as an incel — he claims to have raped his ex-wife — but has nonetheless been a well-known presence in the incel community. He managed to get himself banned from incels.co, though not before he built up a small following among the site’s more radical users. Some of the same people still post on incels.co and Larson forums.

The Larson network encourages incels to take “the rapepill” — defined as “the understanding that for civilization to survive, femoids need to be treated as subhuman objects whose purpose is to obey, and bear the children of, supreme gentlemen such as ourselves.” (The term “supreme gentleman” is one Rodger used to describe himself.) One of Larson’s sites, called Raping Girls Is Fun, currently has nearly 500 forum members; I’ve seen its users swap stories about the women they say they’ve assaulted and tips on how to commit rape most effectively.

It’s quite possible that the men who write on these sites were violent misogynists before they ever logged on to Larson’s forums. But it’s also entirely possible that Larson’s sites have radicalized some members of the incel community, men who may have started off like Abe or John or Andreas but went all the way down the rabbit hole.

Incels themselves do say that spending time on the forums — even the less extreme ones like Braincels — has shaped their worldview, and even their willingness to hurt women in their lives.

“If you look in my old posts you can see me say shit like ‘I don’t actually hate women’ and call me a cuck but at the time I believed that … but yeah I hate women now,” one Braincels user writes. “I wish only for a painful death for as many of them as possible and I will go out of my way from now on to make women feel uncomfortable and make their lives harder in general.”

What incels tell us about our politics

Survivors of the Toronto attack like So Ra are still healing; friends and loved ones of Sohe Chung and the other dead are still grieving. Minassian, apprehended by Canadian police during the attack, is awaiting a trial scheduled to begin in February 2020.

And the ideas and forces that motivated Minassian — and Rodger, and others before him — are still out there.

Kate Manne, a philosopher at Cornell University, has spent much of her career exploring the subtleties of gendered oppression. The first chapter of her 2017 book on misogyny, Down Girl, begins with a discussion of Rodger and the Isla Vista shooting.

“The reason why I open my book with Elliot Rodger [is that] to me, it exhibits this logic of male entitlement and perceived female obligation that runs through the culture,” she tells me.

By this logic, thinking about incels purely as a criminal or terroristic threat is a mistake. They are also a political threat: a symptom of a broader radicalizing trend across the West.

Rodger and the incels who follow him aren’t just angry at individual women. Their critique is more systemic, extending to the basic structure of Western society itself. In their view, there would not be incels if women weren’t given the freedom to choose who they want to have sex with. The logical conclusion of the blackpill is, as one incels.co user writes, that “women should have never been given any rights.”

The blackpill bundles the incel sense of personal failure with a sense of social entitlement: the notion that the world owes them sex, and that there is something wrong with a society in which women don’t have to give it to them.

This line of thinking is a radical version of much more commonly accepted ideas about women’s proper social role. Incels are, as Manne puts it, one of several “forms of social protest to women not being unofficial service and care-industry denizens from birth — which has been the case for most of human history.”

To see an example of how mainstream some of the ideas animating incels are, look at a 2018 New York Times piece discussing incels by social conservative columnist Ross Douthat. In the piece, Douthat levels a critique of modern sexual mores that wouldn’t sound entirely out of place in a blackpilled web forum.

“The sexual revolution created new winners and losers, new hierarchies to replace the old ones, privileging the beautiful and rich and socially adept in new ways and relegating others to new forms of loneliness and frustration,” he writes. “Our widespread isolation and unhappiness and sterility might be dealt with by reviving or adapting older ideas about the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and the special respect owed to the celibate.”

Douthat’s arguments are far more careful and nuanced than those of an incels.co user would be. But both share the same core sense that something important was lost when women’s sexuality became less heavily regulated by social norm and law, that things were in some important ways better when women were more formally slotted into social roles focused on supporting men.

This is a common vein of nostalgic thinking that you can find in arguments from mainstream social conservatives ranging from Phyllis Schlafly to the Moral Majority up to modern anti-feminist populists like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. The blackpill is an extreme and crudely worked out version of this much more pervasive reactionary impulse.

You could say something similar about other internet-native ideologies that have inspired violence. In the past year, there have been two attacks on houses of worship — the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and the Christchurch mosque attacks — inspired by so-called “alt-right” ideas about the threat to Western culture from Jews and Muslim immigration.

The alt-right’s ideas are themselves twists on age-old anti-Semitic and xenophobic tropes, as well as radical variants of arguments about immigration and diversity you hear on the mainstream American and European right. Like incels, the alt-right takes advantage of the broader cultural well young men drink from to recruit them to their odious ideology.

And while the ideas of these online reactionaries may be crude, they’re no less effective because of it.

The incel focus on the modern sexual marketplace, in particular, speaks to the specific anxieties today’s young men feel. Their attacks on feminism and women’s sexual autonomy resonate with those anxious about recent developments in moves toward women’s equality, like the #MeToo movement. More broadly, the rise of the blackpill can be seen as a reaction to the broader feminist advances of the past decades in the same way that the alt-right can be seen as a reaction to the civil rights movement and mass nonwhite immigration.

“Progress predicts backlash. Patriarchal cultures tend to be self-reinforcing, have a tendency to try and reinstate the status quo when it’s disrupted,” Manne tells me. “You can see in incel behavior the desire to wreak revenge and lash out from when things are disrupted from their point of view, which is not that dissimilar from anti-feminist movements of many kinds that have emerged following feminist social progress at large.”

Manne isn’t just speculating here. A wide body of research has found that gender advances invariably generate resistance, in which men and (typically smaller numbers of) women organize to protect the hierarchies they believe in.

The 2014 Gamergate controversy is a very clear recent example of how this species of backlash plays out online. A group of male gamers, angry with the rise of feminist video game criticism and games centering on nonwhite male protagonists, harassed several prominent women in the gaming community.

Gamergate showed how old sexist ideas — in this case, the idea that the male perspective should dominate pop culture products — can be transplanted onto new, online forms of organizing. The main Gamergate subreddit, r/KotakuInAction, still has more than 100,000 members. What began as pure backlash evolved into a community that reinforced its users’ grievances in a similar fashion to incel sites.

It is those fringe communities preying on anxieties about social change that we have to contend with now — and for years to come.

The internet allows these ideas to spread to young men and mutate with unprecedented speed. Every day, boys are logging on to Reddit and 4chan and being introduced to extreme ideas in what is effectively a mass social experiment whose results simply aren’t in yet. But it probably isn’t too bold of a prediction that there will be more Torontos and more Santa Barbaras, more Pittsburghs and more Christchurches — to say nothing of the more ordinary forms of violence and harassment that arise from these ideas.

Internet radicalism can manifest in troubling political organizing as well, as we saw in Charlottesville in 2017. It can even seep into the mainstream — see Rep. Steve King (R-IA) praising internet white nationalists and using their rhetoric on national television, or President Trump retweeting a neo-Nazi and referring to the “United the Right” marchers in Charlottesville as “very fine people.” Developments on the political fringes have a way of influencing mainstream politics nowadays; we can’t assume that radical sexist ideas like the blackpill flourishing online will stay cordoned in the internet’s dark corners.


Javier Zarracina/Vox

There is no feasible solution to the human problem behind the technological nightmare of inceldom: the inherent loneliness and romantic failures of some young men. But providing a measure of comfort and support in more productive communities, one that channels this sadness into more productive directions, is not impossible.

That was the premise of Alana’s first incel forum. Currently, she’s is trying to resurrect the spirit of the early incel movement: She has founded a new project, called Love Not Anger, that tries to support young people struggling with the unhappiness that can arise from an unfulfilling sex life.

“The aim is to help people be less lonely, by researching why some people — of all genders and orientations — have difficulty with dating and creating effective support services,” she tells me. “The project doesn’t have ways to reduce violence directly. A lonely person who is not too far gone into their own hatred might benefit from whatever hope Love Not Anger can offer.”

She’s not alone in this. ReformedIncel and a few other veterans of the early incel forums are assisting with research, trying to recreate the spirit of the original boards and figure out some way to detoxify the internet for sad young men. It’s nice to get the band back together — even if, as ReformedIncel jokes, “we’re not the same teenagers we used to be.”

Can Alana and ReformedIncel succeed in what feels like a fundamentally broken online world? I honestly don’t know. But we all have to hope they have a shot.

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Amazon 2-day shipping: Why packages sometimes arrive later

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In less than two decades, Amazon single-handedly transformed the way we think about online shopping. Before Prime launched in 2005, two-day shipping was virtually unheard of — now more than 100 million people use the service, and they expect the things they order online to arrive at their doorsteps in 48 hours or fewer.

There’s just one problem: Amazon, which has focused on obtaining customers at all costs for decades, seems to be looking for ways to cut down on shipping costs. In some cases, that means weaning Prime users off the near-instantaneous shipping they’ve come to expect.

From the beginning, free two-day shipping was Prime’s biggest draw. Memberships were cheap — $79 a year in 2005 and $119 today — and users had the option of paying a small fee to get their orders delivered in just one day. Today, Prime is about much more than package delivery: Users can order everything, from groceries to a house cleaner, through Amazon. But as Amazon has expanded, the promise of free two-day shipping — the main draw of Prime — has begun to come with a lot of caveats.

That’s not to say Amazon is totally changing course. In 2014, Amazon launched Prime Now, a service designed to deliver products in an hour or less, for some New York City-based users. (It expanded to other major cities in 2016.) Amazon often makes headlines for the grueling work expected of its in-house delivery fleet — or, more accurately, the network of contractors that deliver packages to Prime users across the country — a sign that it continues to take its shipping promise seriously, often at the expense of workers. But even as Amazon has doubled down on ensuring speedy delivery, it has begun looking for ways to rein in customers’ desire for instant gratification, a phenomenon it arguably helped create, in an attempt to cut costs and streamline its supply chain.

The result? Prime orders don’t necessarily arrive in two days anymore, nor are they always delivered to customers’ homes. All of this makes sense from a financial perspective, but that may not be enough to win customers over.

Prime customers pay for — and expect — quick, free shipping. They aren’t always happy about Amazon’s cost-cutting efforts.

Two-day Prime shipping isn’t necessarily a thing of the past, but it’s undeniable that Amazon delivery isn’t as seamless as it used to be.

Amazon will no longer deliver some small items, like razors or hair ties, individually. Instead, customers have to purchase $25 worth of these “add-on” items before Amazon will send the box out; the point, according to the company, is to give customers access to “low-cost items that would be cost-prohibitive to ship on their own.” Since 2011, Amazon has given users the option to have packages delivered to “lockers,” which are basically branded PO boxes, instead of to their homes or offices. Most recently, Amazon rolled out Amazon Day, a new delivery option that lets customers choose a specific day for all of their orders to arrive, is the company’s latest cost-cutting effort.

All of this makes sense from a financial perspective. Delivering packages to a single location instead of hundreds of individual homes cuts costs, and requiring customers to meet a delivery minimum for small orders helps Amazon consolidate deliveries, as does the Amazon Day program.

But the response to these new initiatives has been mixed at best.

Last December, Fast Company’s Mark Wilson wrote about how Amazon Prime is “getting worse,” claiming the company had all but abandoned its promise of two-day shipping for most products. “That little Prime logo used to mean something,” Wilson wrote. “Now it feels like a ruse that lulls shoppers into a false sense of security, until they go to checkout and see a shipping arrival date far later than anticipated.”

He continued:

“This cuts through the greatest promise of Prime. It’s not just the free, two-day shipping. It’s that it’s so reliable, you never have to think for more than a second about buying something. In this sense, Prime was constructed to be great for the consumer (so efficient) and great for businesses (mindless impulse shopping!). … It doesn’t help that we’ve seen a slow dilution of Prime itself over time, with the rise of Prime Pantry and Add-on Items. They force you to buy a minimum number of items to get the best deal, adding back the very psychic burden Prime had eliminated from the equation of online shopping in the first place.”

Wilson’s complaints about Prime suggest a bait-and-switch strategy. Amazon got 100 million people to become Prime users by guaranteeing frictionless service, but now that it’s gotten a sizable chunk of the market hooked on quick, free shipping, it’s trying to cut delivery costs by scaling back on the very thing that got customers interested in the first place. Put another way, Prime is built on the idea that shopping should be frictionless; Amazon has now introduced a degree of friction that wasn’t there before, and some customers aren’t happy about it.

https://twitter.com/esirof/status/1075426983104917504

“I can’t help but feel the frustration around how the false sense of shopping confidence is blown when Amazon simply uses the PRIME lockup as a gimmick,” one reader wrote in response to Wilson’s article. “The ‘prime’ benefit of getting your stuff when you expect it is gone, and it’s not just because of the holiday shipping crunch.

Amazon changed customer expectations regarding shipping. Now it’s changing them again.

One of Amazon’s core principles is “customer obsession,” a “vigorous” desire to “earn and keep customer trust.” (Amazon has, by the way, also been known to use customer obsession as an anti-union talking point.) Put simply, customer obsession means giving the customer what they want as cheaply and quickly as possible — e.g., within 48 hours or fewer — at the expense of profits.

Anne Goodchild, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington who focuses on supply chain transportation and logistics, told me that Amazon significantly altered customer expectations and shopping patterns.

“The status quo [has been] that we take ourselves to the store, pick up the goods, and go back to our homes. That’s actually a pretty inefficient way of doing the last mile: We all individually use our cars, and that kind of commuting creates a great travel burden,” she said. “Delivery services, to some extent, have the potential to be an improvement. [They consolidate] a lot of deliveries — hopefully — into one vehicle like a UPS truck. They have strong incentives, profit incentives, to do that in an efficient and cost-effective way.”

The problem, she said, occurs when delivery becomes too quick. “As we move toward faster delivery, it gets harder to consolidate.” The promise of instant delivery means that customers can buy virtually anything they want without thinking about it; they don’t always think to consolidate their purchases into a single order, because there’s no need to. (A 2018 survey by the optimization platform Feedvisor found that 46 percent of Prime members shop online more than twice a week.) “When we’re not paying some sort of personal cost for the trip, I think it’s easy to overlook how much travel we’re adding,” she said.

Other retailers have attempted to compete by offering similarly fast shipping. “After Amazon, we have things like ShopRunner and even Target [now] saying that if you order certain items, you can get two-day shipping,” Ambulkar said. “I don’t see two-day shipping going away. I think there’s definitely more and more businesses adopting it.”

Even as other retailers lower their shipping times to keep up, Amazon appears to be tweaking its two-day shipping promise. Prime may be cheap and easy for customers, but the cost of all those deliveries adds up quickly. Amazon spent $21.7 billion on shipping costs in 2017, according to its annual report. That’s nearly twice the amount it spent on shipping in 2015.

“Amazon has pursued a growth trajectory rather than a profit one,” Goodchild added. “I think everyone would agree that their strategy has been to please customers and, in doing so, grow their market share.”

But now that it has more than 100 million Prime customers, Amazon is looking for ways to make Prime more profitable — which could end up alienating some of the customers it has made an effort to court.

Justin Smith, the founder of TJI Research, an analytics firm that focuses on Amazon, told The Goods that Amazon is looking for ways to make Prime more efficient — and cost-effective. “Lockers or other pickup points, or encouraging customers to ship items in the fewest number of boxes possible, which might mean getting it a bit later than if you had shipped items separately,” are all part of that strategy.

“I also think that because of how big they are, they are able to become smarter about predicting what items people are going to order in different regions,” Smith added, “and I believe they’ve been able to put items in warehouses closer to where they expect people to order them from in order to reduce the distance that items have to be shipped when they’re ordered. If that can be done efficiently, I think you reduce the individual shipping volume as well as decrease the delivery time, which improves the customer experience.”

It’s also better for the environment. Transportation is one of the biggest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions in the US, and medium- and heavy-duty trucks — the kinds of freight vehicles that are often filled to the brim with Prime purchases and other online orders — are responsible for nearly one-quarter of the total transportation footprint. These trucks, which used to deliver the bulk of their loads to stores and other retail hubs, are now increasingly dropping packages off to individuals. All those one-off orders add up, both financially and environmentally — but, because this type of delivery is often more convenient for the consumer, this has become the new normal.

Not everyone agrees with the premise that more efficiency will result in greater customer satisfaction. Saurabh Ambulkar, a management professor at Northeastern University, said customers who have come to expect two-day — or even same-day — delivery might not readily accept more optimized, less customer-friendly options. “The whole [promise] was that Amazon can deliver the thing to my house, so why do I need to go to the central locker to get something? Why do I need to go to the store?” he said. “If I have to step out of my house to get something, they lose that competitive advantage that they have, but they have to do some of it [in order to] ease the pressure on the supply chain.”

“In bigger cities, maybe the central locker is closer to the place you work, but in other places, I think delivering to residents is what made Amazon more competitive than other players in the market,” Ambulkar added. “If I have to go to a central locker, I can just go to the store to get that product.”

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