- Online Culture Wars
136 Pages; Print, $16.95
Since Barack Obama’s 2008 election, the influence that both the mainstream social web and digital networked media hold over political elections has become undeniable. In 2008, we saw the rise of a “millennial president,” as Obama demonstrated his social media savvy, using Facebook, Twitter, and similar sites to connect with his voters. Obama’s own use of these, young, “hip” technologies was bolstered by the vitality of his iconic “HOPE” poster that, originally designed by street artist Shepard Fairey, was soon distributed all over the web as an internet meme. As with any meme, the poster was parodied with a wide range of subjects: from figures like the Pope and Hillary Clinton promoting HOPE, to Star Wars’s R2D2 promoting NEW HOPE, Batman’s The Joker (as portrayed by Heath Ledger) promoting JOKE, and the web’s own Trollface promoting TROLL. In 2016, we saw much of this play out again, as a presidential candidate rose to prominence through the shared power of his own social media savvy, and a viral media army of internet memes. This time, however, the drama played out in distortion. Where Obama impressed with his engaging, humanizing use of Facebook, Donald Trump shocked with his crass, inflammatory use of Twitter. Where the 2008–9’s social web was earnestly peppered with the HOPE poster, the 2016 web was awash with Pepe the Frog memes that featured the character transformed from his original role as an “everyman” into a white nationalist decked out with Nazi insignia and unapologetically promoting inflammatory, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and misogynist ideas.
So what happened? “How did we get from those earnest hopeful days broadcast across the media mainstream to where we are now?”
Having spent eight years closely watching rightist forums on the web, and in 2015 earning a PhD from Dublin City College following the successful completion of her thesis, “An Investigation into Contemporary Online Anti-Feminist Movements,” Angela Nagle is acutely well-positioned to answer this question. In Kill All Normies, she aims to do just this by “map[ping] the online cultural wars that formed the political sensibilities of a generation,” while providing “understand[ing] and [keeping] an account of the online battles that may otherwise be forgotten but have nevertheless shaped culture and ideas in a profound way.” Finally, in what may be its most ambitious goal, the text “place[s] contemporary culture wars in some historical context and attempts to untangle the real from the performance, the material from the abstract and the ironic from the faux-ironic.” This account ultimately offers a short, critical history of the ways the overt misogyny, unchecked harassment, and anti-feminism of the rightist social web—illustrated in the text through the anonymous forum, 4chan—became normalized and entered mainstream culture as the alt-right. As Nagle chronicles, the alt-right will rise in direct opposition to the sensitivity and identity politics of the leftist, mainstream social web—illustrated in the text through the microblogging network, Tumblr.
As it provides a critical history of the online culture wars from 2008 to 2016, Kill All Normies makes an important contribution to two growing bodies of work: that which attempts to understand the 2016 election, and that which focuses on the rising toxicity, harassment, and anti-feminism of online and other media spheres. To the first area, Nagle’s text provides a necessary divergence from a preoccupation with the role that back-end algorithms and data-manipulation played in the election, as it focuses instead on the role played by user-generated content and user communities at the web’s front-end. Through this focus, her text offers an important alternative to the idea that the entire 2016 election was the result of web-based media running rampant, uncontrolled, and beyond its people. To the second area, Nagle’s history of the anti-feminism and misogyny of the alt-right...