Nobody Resembles Their Internet Caricature

I've seen a bunch of re-shares of this Vox profile of a "Men's Rights Activist" on various social media channels, with reactions varying from "This is fascinating" to "Boooo-ring." I thought it was sort of interesting, but not really in the way it was intended to be. The thing I found most striking the way the author, Emmett Rensin, introduces "Max":

In the popular imagination, Men's Rights Activists are "neckbeards": morbidly obese basement-dwellers with a suspect affection for My Little Pony. But Max is remarkably unassuming in appearance, handsome enough and normally tall; equally imaginable in board shorts and a snapback as he is in the sort of graduation suit one wears to a first post-collegiate interview downtown. [...]

Max fits in with the crowd at the faux-Mexican bar where we spend several nights in August. Eight-dollar tequila shots; polo shirts tucked in or dress shirts tucked out of pre-faded jeans; groups of guests emitting an oscillating screech from every booth.[...]

Some section of men have always jealously guarded their privilege, but we are for the first time seeing what happens when that same section begins to lose the assumption of its divine right. It isn't that they're monsters. Max is this kind of man, and he is not some fountain of malevolence. He is the mildest kind. I spent August with a well-adjusted man in a polo shirt who would never think to hurt someone except in self-defense, but he comes from a pot where new anger is boiling.

I was a little surprised that they would so openly lead with such a blatant caricature. I mean, if somebody wrote "In the popular imagination, feminists are man-hating harpies, but I had dinner with Anita Sarkeesian, and she's really quite nice..." it would rightly be ridiculed as preposterously regressive. I'm not sure leading off this profile with "neckbeards" is a huge improvement.

Of course, I'm at a disadvantage reading this, because "Max" is anonymized enough that I don't have any idea what he wrote on social media that prompted this profile. Maybe he was, contrary to what he says, much more of a "fountain of malevolence" in his online persona. But Rensin lets those assertions go by unchallenged, so it's hard to believe he was a real hard case.

Beyond that, you know, it's 2015. The Internet has been around for decades, and I've been reading pith-helmeted anthropological reporting about how people who hang out online aren't really the lowest sort of geek stereotype for over twenty years, now. Shouldn't we be past being amazed that people don't actually resemble the Internet caricatures of their behavior? Particularly in journalism outlets that exist only on-line, founded by some of those not-actually-a-cartoon-nerd blogger kids from the early 2000s?

(I'm a little sensitive to this, as Kate and I met through a Usenet newsgroup back in the 90's. So I've spent 15-odd years biting back snide replies to people hearing that story and saying "But you guys seem so normal...")

With the exception of a handful of genuinely mentally disturbed individuals, pretty much everybody you run into on-line is pretty normal in person. Even political activists with over-the-top online personae. I met PZ Myers at a ScienceBlogs thing mumble years ago, and he's pretty much what you would guess from his day job-- a Midwestern college professor. He wasn't badgering the waitstaff about their religious beliefs, or anything, and I didn't expect he would be, because I'm not an asshole. (Not that kind of asshole, anyway.)

Don't get me wrong-- "Max" sounds like a bit of a douchebag, and his political views are unappealing when they're not incoherent. But it's not remotely surprising that he comes off as "well-adjusted," or particularly "curious" that he has a girlfriend (a later bit that made me roll my eyes). Rensin's whole approach to the article, starting with that introduction, is sufficiently condescending that given the choice, I'd probably rather have a beer with "Max" than spend an evening with the guy whose political views are nominally more congenial.

What ought to be interesting in this piece is why an apparently well-adjusted guy would end up thinking and behaving this way, but while there are attempts to get at this, they don't have much depth, both because "Max" is too anonymous to establish any real tension and because Rensin is too determined to establish his superiority to the people he's interviewing. The piece ends with a hint that "Max" is maturing somewhat-- the last conversation reported suggests that he's backing away from his earlier actions-- and that evolution could've been genuinely interesting to explore, but it's too perfunctory.

So, in the end, not a terrible idea for an article, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

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Of course it's easy to stereotype a culture to which you don't have direct exposure. You and I, being scientist types, have been living among nerds for most if not all of our adult lives, so we know them as mostly normal people (there are a few kooks, but you will always find a few kooks in a sufficiently large population) with a bit more fondness for science and technology than average. People of our generation who never lived among nerds tend to view them as socially inept basement dwellers. They think that Revenge of the Nerds represents the culture, when we know that Real Genius is more realistic (not that the latter movie is problem-free, but at least the characters care about things non-academic).

There is no excuse for the persistence of that stereotype among the millennial generation. Internet access became widely available (and not just among academic and certain corporate types) in the mid 1990s, so kids now in college have never known a world without it. But they aren't writing such articles for mass consumption yet.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 06 Feb 2015 #permalink

Yeah, I saw that, too. Elam's a nasty piece of work. I'm sure the pick-up-artist leader is also much sketchier than he comes off in the Vox piece.