Emma Grey Ellis
Any page of It Came From Something Awful would be the most shocking page of most books. Reading Dale Beran’s chronicle of 4chan, the anonymous imageboard where some of the internet’s worst scandals have been fomented, feels like scrolling through the forum itself. Each page turn sucks you ever deeper into chan culture, from emoticon cats telling you to “Please die” to harassment campaigns levied at adolescent girls to a man describing how he murdered his girlfriend. “Turns out it’s way harder to strangle someone to death than it looks in the movies,” that man said, alongside images of the woman’s dead body. Eventually, in Beran’s aggrandizing telling, 4chan’s crescendo of furious nihilism delivers President Trump to America.
In 2017, Beran, a writer and cartoonist, published a Medium post titled “4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump,” which explained how a website started by a 15-year-old who was “bored and in need of porn” ended up churning out pro-Trump propaganda. The piece was unusual for its deep familiarity with and empathy for the desires of 4chan’s anonymous users. Beran used to be one of them. He was once young, aimless, broke, and interested in webcomics, which, during the late 1990s and 2000s, before 4chan was consumed by fascism and white supremacy, were the primary prerequisites to participation. Still, he felt “a little too old,” he writes in Awful, a book-length enlargement of the Medium piece, and seems to have been more sympathetic voyeur than active participant. He attended Anonymous’ anti-Scientology protest in Time Square in 2008—perhaps the first time 4chan came together offline en masse—but as a wannabe reporter rather than as a Guy Fawkes-masked agitator.
His voyeurism means he knew the right questions to ask, then and now. When a masked anon told him the protest was “serious business,” he saw layers most would miss. “‘The internet is serious business’ was a meme, a joke on 4chan,” he writes. “One that weev [a notorious neo-Nazi-aligned hacker] claimed he had invented. And so it went down the line: Anonymous protesters, all following Rule 1, trying to conceal 4chan from me, and obscure the source of the joke, just like a raid into a chat room, each hiding their motivations behind a mirrored chamber of repeated memes.” The amount of lurking required to see through this funhouse of references is prodigious—and rare among those who have not fallen through the looking glass themselves.
Naturally, Beran explores the psychology of young, disenfranchised masculinity that 4chan represents and the sociopolitical context that molded its minds, which is the book’s greatest strength. As Beran explains, many Gen Xers and millennials, raised to expect boomer-era prosperity, instead found themselves scuttled by the Great Recession: jobless or doomed to 1099-R subcontracting gigs, drowning in debt, unable to make real-world romantic attachments, slowly realizing that the future they’d been promised was canceled. At first, they escaped into the internet, into ’80s and ’90s references. The nostalgia drifted further back, becoming more twisted. Anons yearned for the 1950s, not just for its unionized jobs and for the “greatness of America” but for the ability to call the cops on a black man and “watch as they beat him into a coma while sipping a Gimlet” and to “fuck my wife in the missionary position with no concern for her pleasure.” Prosperity and fascism, understood as one. The rise of the so-called alt-right in America, explained. It’s a more satisfying and complete answer than many others.
Beran understands the grotesqueries of 4chan as a kind of modern monument to disconsolate male heartbreak. Other eras have gotten yearning sonnets or the Taj Mahal; our time has given us misogynistic meme culture and boxes of My Little Pony figurines covered in lonely teenagers’ ejaculate. The joke with that latter example is that prospects are so grim fictional characters are likelier romantic partners. The trouble, Beran argues, is that it’s not a joke anyone else gets. Or even a joke at all. “There’s no word for a farce of a farce. The story of anime to anime Nazi. Internet utopia to dystopia. Reality TV to reality. America to Trump,” Beran writes. “Time to pick up the pieces. I hope you laugh too.”