Reading Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right reminds me of high school. Specifically, one day I was told by a friend about a particularly scandalous story involving a number of classmates. What shocked me beyond the particular details was the fact that it had all happened months earlier. I knew all the people involved, yet I had no idea about any of it.
That’s how I feel after reading this book, like I suddenly know something incredible that has been happening all around me.
Except in this case, the thing I now know about is the nature and chilling details of the online culture wars. And while it isn’t pretty, I’m deeply grateful to Nagle for writing this book, because much of the political and cultural fights that dominate our society makes so much more sense now.
Where did the Alt-Right come from? How did its ideas begin to enter mainstream culture? Where is all the heated rhetoric and increasingly partisan, divisive culture wars in which we are all involuntary soldiers leading us? And how can we save ourselves from the damage yet to come?
This is an important book that will make you feel like you’re escaping the confines of your specific circumstances and looking with fresh and objective eyes at the present historical moment.
This is an extremely balanced, intelligent, and insightful book. And here are just a few reasons why:
- Nagle’s subject concerns all of us. Truly, it does. Because the online culture wars she examines and analyzes aren’t just fought in forums anymore. Now, the influence of the most extreme corners of the Internet affect politicians, public policy, the mainstream media, and more. In fact, one of the most bracing ideas Nagle puts forth is that we’ve long since reached that point where non-mainstream media – via online subcultures, forums, threads, etc. – has surpassed the mainstream media, which is struggling to catch up. But far from the digital utopia Nagle says many of the Internet’s earliest evangelists proclaimed would arise, what we’ve ended up with is something much, much darker…which brings me to point 2.
- Reading this book often made me feel like Dante taking a tour through the Inferno, with Nagle as my Virgil-guide. That might sound hyperbolic, but only if you haven’t read the book. If you do, you’ll see – as I have – just how vile, racist, sexist, and all around hateful some parts of the Internet are. That might not sound like the kind of thing you’d want to read about, but again, the ideas and ideologies that fester here affect our lives every day. Ignore them if you want, but that won’t make them go away. Personally, I’d rather have someone like Nagle give me a guided tour, which is certainly preferable to venturing into these swamps directly alone.
- The alt-right – it’s a terrible thing that we must reckon with. I don’t profess to be an expert on the subject by any means, but I certainly feel like I understand where the alt-right (as well as the slightly different, but distinct, alt-light) came from. More than that, I understand better the psychology of its…proponents, for lack of a better word. The racism, the misogyny, the bitterness, the nihilism, the ferocious rage – all of it comes from somewhere, and it’s important to know that, even if it makes any even moderately humane person uncomfortable.
- I hate to simplify the overall historical narrative Nagle lays out, but it’s so fascinating and I want you to read this book so badly that I’m going to briefly outline it – Nagle essentially demonstrates how previous culture wars and the advent of social media/the Internet more generally led to the proliferation of increasingly conservative and liberal sections of the Internet (two of her most prominent examples are 4Chan and Tumblr, respectively). The excesses of both – whatever the original intentions – pushed each to become more extreme, widening a cultural gulf now reflected in our politics (which Nagle says has almost become one and the same with culture). As a result, the most disgusting ideas and misguided passions have found an opportunity to thrive and spread, and their conflict has only widened the chasm between these communities. That’s quite broad, but trust me, the details are where it becomes riveting.
- This is not a book for liberals or conservatives or any other particular political-type. True, the majority of this book talks about the rise of the alt-right, but Nagle is frankly just as critical of liberals as she is of conservatives. The types of communities and their effects in real life might be different, but there are underlying similarities in their development and methods. That is part of Nagle’s achievement – she seems to view the situation with crystal clear clarity, free from the influence of any worldview. Nagle admits at times to belonging to a particular “camp” now and then, but I never got the impression that her political or cultural ties were negatively influencing her analysis.
- It packs an enormous amount of information into a mere 120 pages.
Kill All Normies gave me an education I sorely needed. I may have grown up during the maturation of social media, but I was completely oblivious to much of the things happening around me, which have influenced the very way we have conversations today, let alone the subjects of those conversations.
So c’mon – become a cool kid who knows what’s really going on. Or, in other words, don’t be like poor old clueless high school me, which I think is safe advice in any context, really…but anyway, like I said, it’s a great, great book.
So go read it. Now.