Book Reviews

Documentary Offers Respectful Insight Into a Sad But Thoughtful Online World

“TFW No GF” is shorthand for “The feeling when you have no girlfriend,” and the search for community and identity among these young men left behind by American society is worth understanding and exploring.

Amazon is hosting a hot button film on its streaming platform about a subculture of disaffected young men in America who have formed their identities through an internet subculture called, “TFW No GF.” This is shorthand for “The feeling when you have no girlfriend.”

The project of up-and-coming documentarian, Alex Lee Moyer, originally was to be highlighted at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, until COVID-19 shut everything down. In an interview with Justin Murphy on Youtube, Moyer claims that what interested her in the world of incels and Frog Twitter was the reality that there is something more to explain the phenomenon than the dismissive buzzwords like racism and misogyny. In giving a fair shake to the infamous “Pepe the Frog” crowd, Moyer shows a great deal of courage as well as genuine curiosity.

Initially rejected by the Hollywood establishment, her project was dismissed because of claims that she had created a “cool” and “ironic” documentary about incels. In fact, it is primarily a documentary about sad men living in the interior of America with no outlet to vent their frustrations other than internet forums and Twitter. They are represented by the melancholy, Wojack meme. These young men, often adopting anonymous internet personas, have much in common with the opioid-addicted young men in middle America though instead of drugs, they use the internet to cope with their detached sense of reality.

Their online personas act as diaries that offer a window into their worldview. These are intelligent, young white men in their 20s and 30s often still living at home with their parents. Colloquially they are referred to as NEETS, meaning “not in education, employed, or training.” The most prominent of the NEETS featured in the film is KANTBOT, his Twitter account has just short of 40,000 followers and serves as a philosophical home to the world of online dissident thinkers. He’s also been questioned by the FBI and hosts a popular podcast called TEKWARS.

The “Kant” part of KANTBOT’s avatar is owed to the famed German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, and is supposed to give credence to the high level of thought taking place in these circles. There are varying levels of public discourse going on between these individuals, effectively blending cringe humor with high brow philosophical critiques of modern life.

Because these men have found community by venting their frustrations online, the mainstream media has associated them with the likes of the Isla Vista and Charleston church shooters. Of course, in response to such charges, these young men create ironic memes that reinforce the association—mainly for the sake of competition to see which of them can cause the most controversy in the real world.

This is where the purpose of the documentary comes in because, in highlighting individuals like KANTBOT who acknowledge that the frustrations these young men are experiencing are real, the film explores ways to deal with these frustrations and prevent harm to others and further harm to the participants. A lot of people will watch this and feel like they’re watching potential mass shooters, but the sad truth is that these are regular guys our society has left behind.

To put it bluntly, the young men in “TFW NO GF” are dealing with a penetrating sadness they attribute to their inability to build a deep connection with a woman. The mainstream bent of our culture toward feminism leaves little room for these men to express their frustrations in the larger society. Moreover, there is little sympathy for them on the mainstream right as a popular clip of political commentator Kimberly Guilfoyle chastising an audience at UCLA demonstrates. For a number of reasons, these young men only feel at home in their online bubble. This particular bubble though may perhaps have an outsized influence on reality.

It is probably something lost on Guilfoyle, but the reality is that a large portion of millenials (in general, and not just in these circles) are largely limited to meeting potential partners online. It doesn’t add to the conversation or help the problem, frankly, to knock those who aren’t doing well with online dating, despite its growing ubiquity.

The problem these young men confront can be summed up by the fact that they are lacking in solid identity. The psychosocial benefits of having a purpose beyond yourself in life are crucial to the actualization of young men in every society. Modern American society has atomized these young men and many of them still find themselves dissatisfied even after they’ve addressed the superficial issues that were keeping them from being able to find women. Though the documentary is not explicitly political, it does paint the picture that this innate feeling of something being amiss is the reason many of these men view President Trump in a positive light.

Rather than delving too deeply into politics, however, the documentary instead chooses to focus mainly on the individual lives of these young men and their shared struggles. Naturally, the sub-culture is anti-establishment. KANTBOT’s portions are the highlight of the documentary because he is able succinctly to contextualize the ability of this group to affect reality. His ability to connect many of these young men to some semblance of a greater purpose has helped many of them off the ledge.

These communities promote intimacy in a masculine way and create a sense of competition based around posting unique information, something at which these men excel. Chances are if you’ve interacted with someone who has an anime character for an avatar, it was probably one of these guys. The line between their online lives and their real lives is quite blurred because they experience little to no genuine engagement with the other humans around them. Growing up firmly in the unfiltered age of the internet has forced these young men to mature really fast in some ways, and prevented it in others.

They have a penchant for high level trolling and express a sort of proto masculinity that leaves little wonder as to why they are at present square pegs trying to fit in a round-hole society.

Although the documentary was filmed before the advent of COVID-19 and social distancing, it is safe to say those experiences should give all of us a window into the world of NEETs, as so many of us have been forced to live like them. Consider this as you consider them. And consider, too, that these young men may very well soon see their potential to play a leadership role in society come to fruition as the world changes to become a place where online personae thrive. The vulnerability expressed by these young men in going public with their identities is the best part of the documentary. We should hope they benefit from the exposure and find ways to contribute to the larger society in the wake of the pandemic.

Moyer does an excellent job in her second outing and “TFW NO GF” is both topical and entertaining. In a striking comment, one of the young men profiled described the group in the following way: “It’s just a bunch of dudes… killing time.”

Killing time until what? That, of course, is what remains to be seen.