On September 13, 2018, The Verge published a video guide for building a PC. Hosted by writer Stefan Etienne, the video was only 10 minutes long, and included a shocking amount of errors in that short time, some of which could ruin a computer.
The video instructed viewers to install components in the wrong order. When laying out his tools, Etienne referred to two zip ties as "tweezers." He applied way too much thermal paste to the CPU.
The response from the PC building and gaming community was immediate and ruthless. People started pointing out the numerous errors in the video on forums and social media. PC-oriented YouTubers and Twitch streamers made reaction videos, analyzing and mocking Etienne's many errors. While the written version of the guide is still up on the Verge, the publication eventually took down the video.
Today, Etienne will readily admit every error in the video, and has recently gone on the massively popular PC YouTube channel Linus Tech Tips to talk about the ordeal, and build a new PC with the eponymous Linus in an attempt at redemption.
The video aims to be a capstone for the whole affair. With Linus's blessing, Etienne has served his sentence of terrible internet virality. He made a mistake online, was run out of the PC community he considered himself a part of, and now that he's been thoroughly punished, he is ready to continue making the kind of content he'd been making for years before the infamous video derailed him.
It's a familiar cycle for online infamy, but allowing the Verge video debacle to simply end there ignores that the PC gaming community remains a largely unchecked haven for assholes. The clearest example of the worst aspects of this community is that, in addition to being mocked for his mistakes, Etienne said that he also received threats of violence, and that some people used racist slurs against him and the Verge editor in chief Nilay Patel.
"You put a couple screws in wrong, and you're a [n-word] now?" Etienne told me in an interview. "Nah, no, no, no, that's not how it works, bro."
That racial slurs would come out of a community that still jokingly defines itself with a reference to Nazi ideology—on Reddit the "PC Master Race" community has more than 5 million members—is not a surprise. In 2015, PC Gamer, a publication that caters to this community, encouraged readers to reject this term because of its racist connotations.
In 2016, I had my own brush with this side of the PC gaming community, after I published an article saying that getting into PC gaming is still way too hard. I've spent almost 20 years writing and editing online, sometimes covering criminals and actual neo-Nazis, and have seen plenty of readers respond with very angry, sometimes antisemitic comments. But the only time an editor ever checked in with me to see if I was doing okay because of the fallout of an article was after I said that installing an all-in-one CPU water cooler is not super easy. That's how big and vicious the response was.
My argument was and remains that while a PC is the best way to play games, it can be quite difficult to get into because of a high upfront cost; difficulties in shopping for the right build for the right budget; and the actual process of building the PC, which requires significant time and effort if it goes well, and can be frustrating and costly if anything goes wrong.
I've recently upgraded my GPU to an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080, and, after months of diagnosing a recurring problem, upgraded my failing CPU to an AMD Ryzen 9 5900X, which required a new motherboard. While I was at it, I also replaced (on Linus's recommendation) my all-in-one water cooler with a Noctua heatsink and fan CPU cooler.
The size of these new components made installing them even harder. My Gigabyte-manufactured 3080 is over a foot long, and the Noctua cooler is so large it almost touches the far end of my large PC case. I had to move my SSD and remove an HDD tray rack entirely to make room for the GPU, which barely fits in the case. The CPU cooler is now so large that, as far as I can tell, I have to remove it in order to reach the RAM in case I want to upgrade it, which would mean reapplying the thermal paste and reinstalling the cooler. If I make a mistake during this process and damage a part, it could cost hundreds of dollars, and I might not even be able to get a replacement because there's a global shortage of parts.
It all worked out, but building a PC can be stressful depending on your budget and level of experience, and as Linus pointed out in his video with Etienne, doing any of this in the context of a video shoot, where there's limited time and things have to be performed for the camera, makes it much more difficult. According to Etienne, this is a big reason why the Verge video went so wrong.
Etienne told me the video shoot started at noon on a Friday, but that the shoot began with around three hours of photographing every single component, inside and outside the box. At around 3 p.m., he began the actual building process by unboxing the components on camera. As the process went on, prolonged by the fact that the camera had to capture it from several angles, Etienne and the video crew were getting close to 5 p.m. on a Friday, and the crew was itching to start the weekend.
"They start talking about what they want to do that evening, because it's Friday, which, hey, like we're all human, it's a Friday, we want to leave work," Etienne told me. "But it's 3 p.m. Right? You're not leaving anytime soon, the shoot just started."
"The Verge has always had zero tolerance for vile, bad-faith harassment campaigns against reporters, and this situation is no different," Patel told Motherboard in a statement. "You can read the editors’ note that Verge leadership posted in support of Verge writer Sarah Jeong in August 2018, and my own tweet below denouncing internet harassment, specifically addressing the PC build video. In addition to public support from editorial, Vox Media provides security support to ensure the safety and well-being of any staff members experiencing harassment."
Patel and Vox Media, which owns the Verge, did not respond to a specific question about how long Etienne had for the shoot.
The kinds of pressures Etienne describes are entirely familiar to me from Motherboard's own video productions. We've published two similar videos, one about building an Ethereum mining rig, and another about upgrading RAM on a 2017 iMac. It involves much more than just turning a camera on and doing the thing. There's a studio space that is booked ahead for a specific period of time. There are lighting and sound considerations which are different for every angle. If you fumble, you have to do it over again. PC enthusiasts often say that building a PC is just like playing with Lego, but imagine installing a CPU heatsink backplate in a cramped PC case while it's facing away from you and towards a camera, and while the clock is ticking.
"Members of [the crew that shot the video] came back to me personally after to literally walk me outside and apologize to me and say 'I didn't know building a computer was so hard,'" Etienne said. "It's not a quantum computer, but it's not Lego."
"That's one of the reasons I didn't get personal about what went up in that video," Linus said in his video with Etienne. "To me it looked more like a systemic problem. Someone, especially who has never done something before on camera, should have an experienced supervisor making sure that they don't say or do anything dumb, because it happens. That's the role that I'm playing here that was clearly completely absent at the Verge. How the fuck did that video ever get uploaded?"
Etienne said that after the incident that having that kind of supervision during shoots did become policy at the Verge after the PC video.
“Any time we issue a correction or in rare cases take down published material we try to learn from it and prevent similar things from happening in the future," Patel said.
One mistake Etienne makes in the Verge video is using the wrong screws to mount the motherboard to the case. As Linus points out in the video with Etienne, when you're building a PC, you'll have multiple types of screws with the same threading that look similar, but have different purposes. Here, for example, is an M3 button head screw and an M3 countersunk screw, side-by-side. One would be used to mount the motherboard while the other would be used for installing an SSD into a tray:
This is the kind of minutiae a user has to internalize in order to build their own PC correctly, and it's a big reason why people cling to their game consoles and Macs even though a PC is so much better than both. It might not seem like a big difference, but using the wrong screw, especially a screw that is too long, can permanently damage the motherboard or other expensive components.
This is basically what I said in my 2016 article, and I still get angry emails about it today. My favorite reaction came from Gamers Nexus, a PC YouTube channel (that I like!), which made a response video to the article to "defend the PC building culture." In it, Gamers Nexus editor in chief Steve Burke (again, big fan!) opens by mocking me for saying that I cut myself while building the PC and joking that "I bled for this fucking thing." Ten minutes later into the same video, Burke proceeds to cut himself while building a PC.
That some people reacted to Etienne's Verge video with harassment doesn't just make PC building inaccessible because it requires a basic familiarity with the technology. It allows a minority of bigoted idiots to lay claim to a fine hobby, and alienate everyone else. That some of the harassment is racist and misogynistic also turns the hobby into a space that's difficult to enter if you're anything but a white man.
Etienne told me that so far, the reaction to his video with Linus has been positive. It's the reaction we should have had from the start. Rather than punish and harass someone for making a mistake, the community should have reached out to help and bring more people in. Etienne said the video with Linus has invigorated him to make content again. Some people, he said, have sent messages to him and his girlfriend, apologizing for using slurs against them when the Verge video came out.
"Sometimes people are phony, they'll say they were sorry, when they were never sorry," Etienne said. "Or they'll say sorry, because they feel bad, and they want you to like them again. There's all types of angles. My thing with it is, I don't care. As long as the right content got out there."