Joey’s studio apartment has one huge window with the blinds drawn, a bed with a mattress pad but no sheets, and a laptop. He almost never leaves. He spends all day chatting online, smoking Newports, sometimes going for two days straight. The blinds are drawn to cut down on the glare on the laptop. "Honestly I feel more real here, sitting in front of a computer. When I go outside I almost depersonalize a little bit and feel like I'm playing a video game,” Joey said. “I don't know why that is. It's just a state of mind. It's probably just a side effect of isolation.”
The internet world that keeps Joey in his apartment is “involuntary celibacy.” Joey is an incel, a 23-year-old virgin. Incels believe that they are doomed by society’s cruel rules to never have sex, because they are too ugly or socially awkward. On paper, Joey should not be one of them. He is attractive and smart and funny, and he has the social skills many incels believe they lack. But these are his people. “I'm addicted to it, because, like, I find the people I talk to online way more interesting than the celebrities that our society holds up,” Joey said. “I've just never met people this interesting, and you're willing to say things about yourself — that you would never tell anyone in real life — online.”
Most of the world was introduced to incels in 2014 when Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured 14 more at University of California - Santa Barbara. Rodger wrote a long manifesto blaming women for not having sex with him, and it made him a hero among some incels. On message boards and forums, they joke that they’re going to “go E.R.” In April, Alek Minassian, 25, drove a van into a crowd in Toronto, killing 10 people. He’d praised Rodger on Facebook. The attack made incels the subject of international news, a mysterious internet phenomenon to be feared and ridiculed.
We wanted to talk to an incel on camera, someone who could explain this subculture and where it came from. A source from the radical political internet world put me in touch with Joey. (They’d met in a chatroom.) After a few weeks of chatting on Discord, a text and voice app designed for gamers, Joey agreed to an interview, and a tour of his online world.
Joey doesn’t have a job, and he’s not in school. His mom pays for his apartment. He didn’t go to college, because he wasn’t mentally healthy when he graduated high school. He says he’s been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, agoraphobia, social anxiety, and social paranoia, the latter of which he says isn’t a thing. He’s been prescribed SSRIs, SSNIs, benzodiazepines, tricyclic antidepressants. “I’ve literally been to some of the best psychologists in the country, and not one of them hinted that my problem may be societal,” Joey explained on Discord. “They all acted as if it was specific, and drugs were all that helped. Then when I started going online, I realized there is literally an epidemic of men just like me.”
Incels believe that 20 percent of men are “Chads”—handsome and charming guys who have sex with about 80 percent of the women in the world. Because feminism has removed some of the stigma on female sexuality, the theory goes, women will sleep with countless Chads, leaving incels sexless. Some incels are “blackpilled,” meaning they think this is their lot in life, and it cannot be changed. Others try to “looksmax,” meaning make themselves more attractive by getting plastic surgery or doing exercises to make their necks thicker.
Joey scrolled through Lookism.net, a message board about “looksmaxing,” full of aspirational photos of handsome men, often models and soccer stars. Some members post photos of their faces, and others photoshop them to be more beautiful. One morphing GIF gave Elliot Rodger a bigger chin. On this site, the apex of male beauty is as if a Neanderthal modeled for Ralph Lauren—enormous jaw, big cheekbones, little eyes. Joey said he didn’t buy this stuff, before telling me about the flaws in the proportions of his own face.
"Then when I started going online, I realized there is literally an epidemic of men just like me.”
On Discord, Joey had explained he thought there were three types of men who were into looksmaxing. First, there were the normal guys who just wanted a few tips to look better. Second, the “Uggos” — “a lot of these men are terribly ugly. So ugly that I understand why they come here,” Joey said. “They are just there to cry about their ugliness and make sense of it. They are essentially masochists.” Third, Joey said, were the “delusional ones.” These guys were average looking, but they “usually think they’re much uglier than they are, and blame their failures on that. In reality the problem is they are too autistic,” Joey said. “But that’s the thing, imagine how hard it is to accept your personality sucks. Where do you go from there?”
Joey believes the media’s coverage of incels was flawed in one major way: the suggestion that the incel community is the product of hypermasculinity. He felt they were the opposite. Just browse Lookism: “Once again feminized men, obsessed with looks and save hundreds of pictures of male models on their computer.” Incels were meek, their violence an outburst of repressed rage. “Real men find incels pathetic and effeminate,” Joey said.
Feminism and leftist political discourse had made all masculinity toxic, Joey said. “Ask a feminist what is one positive masculine trait? Any example of positive masculinity?” he said. “Traditionally it would be courage, honor. But no one wants to say that because they believe that implies that women can't be courageous or honorable.” He claimed media outlets like Vice are pushing “degeneracy” and demeaning masculinity. "You guys have males who look like me though, you know? You guys don't have masculine men, I don't think, on Vice.” As Joey pulled me further into the world of incels, it became clear this brand of misogyny was a circular expression of self-hatred: I am weak, like a woman. Women have made me weak.
Joey would type thousands of words to me over Discord, but was extremely nervous about an in-person interview, or even a phone call. Online, he explained the frustration with women as a function of broader social anxiety. “Women represent our way to enter the social hierarchy. Many of us have no peers outside of online,” he said.
“When I go outside I’m paralyzed with anxiety and fear,” Joey said. “I know the traditional psychological methods of addressing this, but the fact is I need that one person to help. That one person to validate me and make me feel ok in any situation. My partner, so I don’t have to spend the entire time worrying about what others think.” It was one of the many times I wanted to tell Joey he was not so different from anyone else, that I spend most parties talking only to my good friends, that it gets better, and had he ever tried running to regulate his mood? He generally dismisses these ideas. When I told him to be himself, he explained that was an incel meme—Chad thinks it’s not his muscles or money that let him glide through life, but his personality. Just be yourself, man.
In person, we walked to the grocery store together, and Joey felt comfortable enough in public, he said, because “I've got you with me.” As we walked, he explained his anxiety: “I feel alienated and it's like, it's like this competing -- It's like an inferiority complex that comes out as like arrogance. I think like, fuck it, I'm better than all these people. But then also wish I could just be a normal one of them.”
As we waited in line to buy a Coke, Joey admitted that being associated with incels was social suicide, but he had nothing to lose. We crossed a street, and, without really looking, he almost stepped in front of a car. When I shouted at him, he said he sometimes did careless things, as part of suicidal ideation. In the elevator, he told me about all the different ways to do it. He said blowing yourself up was just a 3 on a 1-to-100 pain scale. He’d thought about standing on the railroad tracks we’d crossed. But that was a much more painful way to die.
“When I go outside I’m paralyzed with anxiety and fear. I know the traditional psychological methods of addressing this, but the fact is I need that one person to help."
Once we left the menacing outside world, Joey opened his computer and showed me the place he truly lives, his Tinychat room, which he’s been running for three years. It’s a chatroom where people can participate by video, voice, or text. On the day we observed the chat, between four and 10 people were talking through their webcams, like a Brady Bunch box of incels, while a dozen more people were chatting just in text, making commentary on what the people “on cam” were saying.
Joey pointed to his friends on Tinychat and explained the circumstances that had doomed each to inceldom: the prematurely bald man, the pathological liar, etc. His friends knew our crew was coming, and they knew the media context that brought us there. A Scottish man began shouting: “In the next 3 months, I'm going to commit a domestic terror attack. … I'm going to firebomb multiple government buildings, Elle. My name is SPAFT. I live in the United Kingdom… And if you don't report me to the police, it's on your conscience, honey.” It was meant to be satirical, but menacing. He delivered the last line with perfect timing.
What I know about Spaft is his accent and his handle, and a summary of his character a friend wrote on Discord: “Spaft is always talking as though he is joking, but his insincerity is but a mask for his true state. A quivering mass of flesh, jesticulating on a rock flying through an empty space, burning up under the light of the sun.”
One reason a girlfriend feels like a distant dream to Joey is that he doesn’t want to leave behind these friends. Men, he said, “get into these subcultures and they can't find a female who shares their interests, but they don't want to lose this subculture, you know? Because that's who they are.”
To observe a thing is to change it, and that’s particularly true if the observer is a woman and the thing is a woman haters club. Another friend in the Tinychat room went by Nux. “He’s gonna take his dick out,” Joey said of Nux. “That’s what he does. Gets his dick out, shits his pants.” And then, moments later, Nux did shit his pants. “On cam,” the blurry image showed feces oozing through white underwear. Joey cackled. I asked him to read out loud the accompanying text messages: “Smell it, Elle. Smell my poop.” It’s a thing Nux always did, a signature move.
A couple weeks later, Joey messaged me. Nux had died. His friends believed it was a suicide. (The county coroner has not yet determined a cause of death.) He was 28. Later, Joey told me four of his friends had died by suicide.
He sent an obituary, and fragments of Nux’s personality that he’d left behind online.
On 4chan, Nux’s friends posted a memorial thread. For a board known for dark and cruel humor, the comments were earnest and tender. “The greatest troll who ever lived, but also a very interesting and sensitive person and longtime r9k resident, has passed,” one said. Another detailed Nux’s trolling biography, like “weird stunts like pooping into his computer while on Tinychat or … where he peed in the corner of his room every day for a month just so that his parents would be frustrated and confused about how his room could smell when it was completely clean, stuff like that, but people who knew him better knew that he was also very funny, creative, and even poetic. … By the end he was living alone and tormented by his nostalgia, always trying to reconnect with friends he knew briefly a decade ago, people who had moved on and didn't even remember him or thought it was weird that he was contacting them.”
Nux’s DeviantArt account showed repeating images of a man with a computer monitor for a head. On Pastebin, Nux had written a kind of autobiography, beginning with his medical issues: “i do suffer from depression/stress/anxiety/autism/ibs/add/cerebral palsy/depersonalizion/advoident personality/chronic sneezing. i live off of memories.” In lower-case prose that mimicked a one-sided internet chat, he told his life story, about the nice school he went to, the girl he had a crush on, and the bad school, and the mean kids, and how his medical conditions caused him repeated humiliation. It’s well-written and haunting. At the end, he wrote he’d bought sodium azide, an explosive that helps airbags inflate and is extremely poisonous. The last line reads, “i am ready.”
Joey sent me a video Nux had made, in which he holds a gun and demands memes. Nux freaks out, puts the gun in his mouth, and stops. Here, it helps to understand the performance through Joey’s words:
“At this point he breaks character. Starts to look depressed. “FUCK FUCK …FUCK…. FUCK… Don’t think about penis……. FUCK….FUCK…don’t think about penis” etc. Then he starts criticizing the video. “I can’t stop looking at the screen….this isn’t even real… puts gun in mouth again…I’m too dumb to buy a real one… too dumb to die…too stupid to live…. I’m going to my therapist tomorrow….he will ask what I do all day………what do I do? I shitpost all day…shitposting has ruined my life. I can’t stop shitposting. …”
Joey saw it as commentary on the life Nux was given by the genetic lottery and the one he chose on the internet. “When he says shitposting he means in both the regular sense (ironic trolling online) and the more literal sense (him shitting himself for others amusement),” he said. “He understands being this meme guy is totally shameful and he hates himself for that, but he also loves it because it is all he has or cares about.”
I asked Joey what he thought of the video. He said it was pretty good. Then he said, “I think it’s like me.”
As we were getting our VICE News Tonight segment ready for air, I got Joey to call me, after days of negotiation, just to give him a heads up on what to expect. He told me about standing outside his apartment at night, and looking at the city lights. He thought it was beautiful, or that he thought he should think it was beautiful. But he realized it was just like when he went to the ocean and stared out at the waves: “I’d like this better if it were on my computer screen.”
This segment originally appeared on VICE News Tonight on HBO.