As the Trump administration purges the senior staff at the Department of Homeland Security to lay the groundwork for a new round of sweeping and very possibly illegal restrictions on immigration, Axios reports that a top official behind the changes “described previous U.S. practice as ‘charity toward all, malice toward none.’”
The fact that the Trump administration is positioning themselves in opposition to one of the most famous turns of phrase of Abraham Lincoln, America’s greatest president, is a good indication that this approach is backward and wrongheaded. Lincoln, like George Washington before him, was a proponent of a strategic approach that made this country the wealthiest and most powerful country on the planet — immigration as a path to national greatness.
Washington embraced a vision for an open America that could almost be read today as a form of deep idealism or altruism. “America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions,” he told newly arrived Irishmen in 1783. He assured them they’d be “welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”
But Washington’s vision wasn’t primarily about charity or helping others. It was about building the kind of country that he wanted the United States to become. Greatness would require great people. America would need more than it had.
The contemporary debate around immigration is often framed around an axis of selfishness versus generosity, with Donald Trump talking about the need to put “America first” while opponents tell heartbreaking stories of deportations and communities torn apart. A debate about how to enforce the existing law tends to supersede discussion of what the law ought to say.
All of this misses the core point. Immigration to the United States has not, historically, been an act of kindness toward strangers. It’s been a strategy for national growth and national greatness.
Washington and his fellow founders could have established America as a kind of exclusive club. The present-day United States undoubtedly would still be a prosperous and pleasant nation. But our cities would be smaller, our global influence would be reduced, and many fewer of the world’s cutting-edge companies would be based here. We would suffer, as small countries tend to, from our talented and ambitious young people seeking their fortunes in bigger places abroad. With many fewer people, it wouldn’t be the great nation it is today.
While a lot has changed since Washington’s time, two fundamentals have not. The United States is still a country with a mission and a desire for greatness on the world stage. And America’s openness to people who want to move here and make a better life for themselves is fuel for that greatness.
Few of our problems can be solved by curtailing immigration. Many could be solved by welcoming more foreigners to our shores.
People are the fuel for growth and wages
The main sources of immigration — and the main occupations likely to employ immigrants — have changed over time, but the story has been the same from the beginning. A larger and more diverse population supports more intensive development of the resources available and a more complex division of labor, leading, over time, to a steadily more sophisticated and prosperous national economy.
A lone person on an island by himself will struggle to get by even if he is surrounded by natural abundance. A small band would live at a subsistence level. To achieve true affluence, people need to be able to specialize and trade with one another. To an extent in the modern world, that means access to global markets — grain can be shipped to Europe and timber to Japan. But for most people, it means direct access to other people, who serve as customers and co-workers and suppliers.
Lionel Fontagné and Gianluca Santoni find that heavily populated areas offer higher labor productivity and higher pay because “denser commuting zones seem to offer a better match between employers and employees.” The more people there are around, the more different kinds of businesses you can have and the more finely specialized they can be, meaning it’s more likely that any given person will be well-suited to work at someplace or other that’s in town. This is in some ways most obvious at the routine retail level — big cities have specialty shops and very focused restaurants rather than general stores and generic diners — but research by Jason Abel, Ishita Dey, and Todd Gabe finds that the positive impact on density on productivity is especially true in knowledge-intensive industries.
Those findings are not immigration-specific, but the beginning of wisdom on immigration policy is that immigrants are people.
And, indeed, when you take the foreigner element out of it, most people correctly grasp that depopulation is not an economic growth strategy. Texans — often especially the most conservative ones — brag about how many people move there from other states, fueling the growth of dynamic metropolitan economies. When people have children, it, of course, imposes a short-term cost on the local educational system. But it also builds the long-term future of the national community.
By the same token, there is a fairly firm consensus that immigration raises incomes on average for native-born workers. When the University of Chicago’s Booth School surveyed a panel of well-known academic economists, for example, 52 percent agreed that admitting more low-skilled immigrants to the United States would make the average US citizen better off. Just 9 percent disagreed. The panel agreed that more highly skilled immigrants would be good by an even more overwhelming 89-0 margin.
This is not, incidentally, because an increase in the labor supply has no adverse effects for anyone. Rather, as Heidi Shierholz of the liberal Economic Policy Institute emphasizes in her overview of the literature, it’s that “earlier immigrants are the group that’s most adversely affected by immigration” because they are the people whose skill sets are most likely to put them in direct competition with new immigrants. Across a range of estimates, the effects on wages “tend to be very small, and on average, modestly positive.”
That’s because, as Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of the center-left Hamilton Project put it, “immigrants and U.S.-born workers generally do not compete for the same jobs; instead, many immigrants complement the work of U.S. employees and increase their productivity.”
If a bunch of new monolingual Spanish-speaking construction laborers move to town, in other words, that probably is bad news for the monolingual Spanish-speaking construction laborers — mostly immigrants — who are already there. But the presence of those laborers in town will create job opportunities for people to manage them, likely native-born workers who speak English. And by increasing the number of construction projects that are undertaken, they increase the demand for more skilled tradespeople — plumbers, electricians, and others whose work is complementary to that of more generic laborers.
Immigration bolsters the federal budget
Immigration skeptics often pivot from the basic terrain of labor market economics to the notion that immigrants — especially the dreaded illegal ones — are a drain on public resources. Donald Trump went so far as to repeatedly claim on the campaign trail that undocumented workers are actually receiving more generous public services than America’s veterans.
This idea plays a critical architectural role in holding together the political coalition of contemporary conservatism — selling the idea that tax cutting is compatible with financial support for the elderly because there will be plenty of money for everyone once we get rid of the foreign-born leeches.
But it’s completely false. Unauthorized workers receive few if any public services (they ride the bus, but they’re ineligible for social assistance programs) but contribute to the tax base. Indeed, since people living and working in the United States illegally are often paying Social Security taxes without collecting benefits, they are in some ways the great heroes of the US Treasury.
For the immigrant population at large, the best research on the fiscal impact of immigration comes from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which concluded that over the course of a 75-year time horizon, “the fiscal impacts of immigrants are generally positive at the federal level and generally negative at the state and local level.” Immigrants, in other words, pay more to the federal government in taxes than they receive in benefits, while the reverse is true for state and local governments.
This adverse impact on state and local governments is important, and derives largely from the fact that immigrants have kids who end up needing to go to school. The good news is that those kids grow up to be second-generation adults who “contribute the most of any generation to the bottom line of state balance sheets.”
The bigger picture is that the long-run structure of the American welfare state, which is heavily focused on providing health care and retirement security to the elderly, requires a growing population and economy. Immigrants contribute to both goals, directly through their presence in the country and indirectly by raising children. Indeed, it’s striking that even an immigration skeptic like George Borjas concedes that immigrants grow the economy and do not personally obtain 100 percent of the benefits of that growth — meaning their presence increases the overall level of resources available to the native population.
Immigrants commit crimes at a lower rate
Immigrants may build American prosperity, but there’s more to life than economics. For Trump, the central mode of anti-immigrant rhetoric has always been a more visceral fear of violence, from his initial warning of an incoming flood of Mexican rapists to the various efforts to limit Muslims’ ability to travel to the United States. He’s even issued an executive order mandating the creation of a new federal bureaucracy, VOICE, with the specific mission of publicizing crimes committed by immigrants.
“We are providing a voice to those who have been ignored by our media and silenced by special interests,” he told a joint session of Congress.
To the extent that you want to whip people into an anti-immigrant fervor, it’s a good idea. There are millions of foreign-born people in the United States, and naturally every day some of them are caught committing crimes. Indeed, because immigrants are younger on average than native-born Americans, they commit a somewhat disproportionate share of crime.
But as Bianca Bersani of the University of Massachusetts has shown, on a year-by-year basis, young immigrants are much less likely to be involved in criminal activity. Indeed, the great trajectory of immigration and crime is that second-generation youth — kids whose parents were born abroad — largely assimilate to US behavior norms rather than maintaining the better behavior of their foreign-born parents.
“Born and socialized in the U.S. mainstream,” Bersani writes, “second-generation immigrants are simply native-born youth.”
There is a very real social problem of youth crime in the United States — especially because the widespread availability of guns makes American crime much deadlier than crime in Europe or Asia — but immigrants contribute to it only in the sense that they add to the overall population. On a per-person basis, immigrants are better-behaved than natives and immigrants’ kids are worse-behaved than their parents because they learn to act more like Americans.
Immigration-skeptical experts are rare and eccentric
No issue in economics is entirely unanimous, and because immigration is a contentious issue in partisan politics, it sometimes leads the media to overplay the extent of expert disagreement about the economics of immigration. Consequently, the work of George Borjas, a Harvard Kennedy School professor who has produced the bulk of the research dissenting from the optimistic consensus, tends to play an outsize role in the media landscape.
His work, summarized for an expert audience in his 2014 book Immigration Economics and for a popular audience in his 2016 book We Wanted Workers, is an outlier in both its conclusions and its methodology.
One big difference, as UC Berkeley’s David Card and UC Davis’s Giovanni Peri point out in their review of Immigration Economics, comes down to the annoying technical question of how you should measure the number of immigrants in a given labor market. A naive way to make the case for immigration would be to do something like note that the list of states with the smallest foreign-born population is led by West Virginia and also includes Mississippi, Kentucky, and Alabama in the bottom 10. Immigrant-heavy states such as California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Massachusetts are much more prosperous.
The problem here, of course, is that while it’s possible that West Virginia is so poor because no foreigners move there, it’s equally likely that no foreigners move to West Virginia precisely because it’s poor. A reasonable economic study needs to look at change over time, in both the number of immigrants and labor market outcomes for the native-born.
Most researchers do this by studying the correlation between the change in the number of immigrants and outcomes for the native-born. What Borjas studies, instead, is the change in the immigrant share of the labor force and outcomes for the native-born. Card and Peri argue that this essentially overcorrects for the West Virginia problem. If lots of immigrants move somewhere (to, say, Texas), and that increases the demand for native-born workers, thus inducing a lot of native-born Americans to also move there, Borjas would say that doesn’t count as an example of immigration boosting the economy, because the immigrant share of the local labor force didn’t rise. If you switch to measuring the raw number of immigrants, the bad labor market outcomes he finds disappears.
As Noah Smith writes, “the weight of evidence is against Borjas, and many of his methods also tend to look a bit shaky when subjected to careful scrutiny.” If you have some freestanding non-economic reason to want to limit immigration and want to convince yourself it’s also a good idea in economic terms, those ideas are out there. Similarly, if you’re a politician who’s convinced your constituents want you to vote for fewer immigrants and are casting around for a good reason, Borjas is there for you to cite. But his findings are outliers based on an unusual methodology.
Immigration enriches culture and expands options
Wages are easy to measure, so many studies focus on them for the sake of methodological simplicity. But there is more to life than cash wages, and studies show that immigration has significant indirect benefits.
One example is what Michael Clemens, Ethan Lewis, and Hannah Postel found when they looked at what happened in the 1960s when the United States decided to eliminate Mexican guest workers from America’s agricultural labor force. These guest workers, called braceros, were heavily present in some states, like Texas and California. Other states, such as Georgia and Wisconsin, had a few braceros. Some had no braceros whatsoever. By comparing wage trends in high-exposure, low-exposure, and no-exposure states, they were able to show that kicking out the guest workers had no real impact on farm wages.
That doesn’t mean the laws of supply and demand were magically repealed. It means that landowners changed their strategy. For some crops, like tomatoes and sugar beets, producers were able to switch to more mechanical harvesting techniques — compromising on quality in the case of tomatoes.
For other crops — including asparagus, fresh strawberries, lettuce, celery, and cucumbers, for example — mechanization techniques were not available, and production simply fell. Wages did not rise; instead, Americans learned to live with reduced produce variety.
This same variety impact exists on the retail and service side of the economy as well. If you visit a place with few immigrants from Mexico — France or Fargo or what have you — you don’t find that taqueria workers are earning vastly more money than their counterparts in Texas. You find that there are few good places to buy tacos.
This isn’t the end of the world, any more than an asparagus shortage would be an acute social crisis, but that’s exactly why eliminating foreign-born workers doesn’t boost wages. People simply make do without the variety that immigrants provide.
Peri and co-author Gianmarco Ottaviano find that the value of increased cultural diversity of this sort can be partially measured through higher housing values in more diverse cities — people are willing to pay more for the amenity value of ethnic food — but will miss the extent to which a nationally rising tide lifts all boats.
The debate is about immigrants, not skills
A common rhetorical move in the United States is to argue that the problem with the current American system is that green card issuance depends too heavily on having relatives in the United States, rather than on having a job offer or labor market skills. The Trump administration has taken to calling the alternative, which they feel to be in place in Canada and Australia, a “merit-based” system.
Nick Adams new book, Green Card Warrior, is a must read. The merit-based system is the way to go. Canada, Australia! @foxandfriends
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 3, 2017
This “merit” language is, for starters, an incredibly offensive and reductive way to think about human beings. Indeed, one suspects that Trumpniks would be the first to object if I were to refer to the Republican Party’s base of whites without college degrees as lacking “merit.”
What is true is that since people with more degrees — and especially people with degrees in technical subjects — earn above-average incomes, highly educated immigrants have a more positive budgetary impact than less educated ones. Altering American immigration policy to put more weight on in-demand skills, educational credentials, and ability to either attract above-market salaries or work in a field where expanding the size of the workforce is deemed socially desirable is a perfectly reasonable proposal.
At the same time, it would be a mistake to see this as the genuine core of the contemporary immigration debate.
Back in 2013, for example, Rep. Darryl Issa (R-CA) introduced the SKILLS Act, which would have limited the existing “diversity visa” program and replaced it with a skills-based program that would have increased the total number of immigrants in the United States. The Congressional Budget Office score confirms that shifting policy in this direction is a fiscal winner, but no Democrats would support SKILLS, viewing it as a poison bill designed to undermine the then-ongoing quest for comprehensive immigration reform. More tellingly, it only had 22 co-sponsors in the House, and even though it passed the Judiciary Committee, it was never brought to the floor for a vote. It was not reintroduced in the next Congress, nor has it been reintroduced this Congress.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, is already acting to curtail guest worker visas for skilled technical workers. Steve Bannon, who appears to be the administration’s point man on immigration issues, has long been suspicious of economically successful immigrants.
What’s more, whether or not you see a strong case for switching to a more skills-oriented system, America’s current immigration laws already make it so that newly arrived immigrants are better-educated than the native-born population.
Last but by no means least, even “unskilled” immigrants serve to increase the supply of skilled labor through their work in the household sector. Patricia Cortes and Jose Tessada find that cities with larger numbers of less skilled immigrants see higher labor force participation and more hours worked by highly skilled women, who hire more hours per week of maids, nannies, and cooks, allowing them to shift their labor efforts out of unpaid home production and into market work. Immigrants who do work mowing lawns, cleaning pools, and other household activities likely have a similar impact.
Immigration’s enormous benefits to immigrants is relevant
It bears mentioning, even in an “America first” mood, that immigration carries extremely large benefits for immigrants themselves.
Indian computer programmers who come to the United States on H-1B guest worker visas, for example, see their earnings increase by a factor of five or six. That’s an extraordinarily large benefit, and yet in the broader picture of immigration economics it’s a relatively small one. Computer programming work, after all, can in principle be done remotely. Clemens finds that less skilled workers can obtain wage gains of tenfold or more by moving from poor countries to rich ones.
These enormous benefits matter in part because foreigners are still human beings whose lives and interests ought to count for something in our calculus.
In other words, to the extent that there is reason to believe restricting the ability of some class of immigrants to enter the United States will have some benefits to some set of native-born workers, it’s worth considering that keeping a potential worker out of the United States is an extraordinarily costly measure to take. Something much milder, like making employers of foreign-born workers pay an extra payroll tax, with the money used to plug the Social Security funding gap or subsidize low-paid workers’ wages, would leave absolutely everyone better off.
The benefits to immigrants are also relevant because the economy is not a fixed pie. If an Indian-born computer programmer moves to the United States and quintuples his income, he is much more likely to buy an American-made car than if he were stuck in Asia earning a dramatically lower income. Growing exports of American manufactured goods has become an obsession, but increasing domestic sales has the exact same benefits. Bringing the customers to our shores makes them easier to reach, and massively increasing their incomes massively increases their ability to buy things.
Immigrants are integral to American greatness
Last but by no means least, while it’s certainly true that Americans care about the average well-being of American citizens, we also care about something else — greatness, for lack of a better word.
In per capita income terms, the United States has, by most measures, been overtaken by Switzerland. The Netherlands is relatively close behind, and when you consider inequality and quality of public services, the typical Dutch person may well enjoy a higher standard of living than the typical American. This kind of thing matters. But at the same time, there is a reason that when Americans feel anxiety about national decline, they tend to think of China and not Switzerland. The Netherlands is a great place to live, but it hasn’t been a great nation since the early 17th century.
Aggregates matter, in other words.
If Americans had listened to the counsel of the Know-Nothing movement in the 1850s and drastically curtailed immigration from outside of Protestant Europe, it would probably still be a rich country today. But it would be a very different kind of rich country from the one we know — one with fewer, smaller cities mainly focused on exporting agricultural goods and other natural resources to the wider world. A place more like Canada or a supersize version of New Zealand, rather than an industrial and technological powerhouse that intervened decisively in two world wars and anchored a coalition of liberal states to defeat communism.
Going forward, demographers forecast that immigration — both the people it provides directly and the children that immigrants bear and raise — is the only reason America’s working-age population isn’t declining. This is doubly true when you consider that immigrants’ work in the household and child care sectors likely serves to increase native-born Americans’ childbearing as well.
A declining working-age population, seen already in Japan and some southern European countries, poses some serious challenges to a national economy. It tends to push interest rates down to an incredibly low level, making it difficult for central banks to respond to a recession. It also makes it more difficult to sustain public sector retirement programs and elder care more generally.
There are some offsetting upsides (less strain on transportation infrastructure, for example), and, like anything else, the problems are solvable. Fundamentally, however, an America that is shrinking is a country that is going to be a lesser force in the world than an America that is growing. It’s true, of course, that an America that continues to be open to immigrants will be a progressively less white and less Christian country over time. That’s a threatening prospect to many white Christian Americans, who implicitly identify the country in ethnic and sectarian terms. But America’s formal self-definition has never been in those terms.
And for those who believe in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the value of America’s ideals, accepting a future of decline and retreat in the name of ethnic purity should be unacceptable. That the more homogeneous America will be not just smaller and weaker but also poorer on a per capita basis only underscores what folly it would be to embrace the narrow vision. That hundreds of millions of people around the world would like to move to our shores — and that America has a long tradition of assimilating foreigners and a political mythos and civil culture that is conducive to doing so — is an enormous source of national strength.
It’s time we started to see it that way.
Incels: a definition and investigation of a dark internet corners
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.”
“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.
“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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