Friday night at the Show Palace Gentlemen’s Club in Long Island City, Queens, a high school senior named Dieter wearing a striped blue button-down tucked into creased khakis slumped in a plush red chair, underwhelmed by his first-ever strip club experience. “I’m not as aroused as I expected. I pretty much had a woman shove a vagina in my face and it did nothing,” he said. “I guess all the porn got to me.”
A dancer in a pink bodice and lace panties made her way over the LED-bedazzled floor carrying a cake, pierced by a single lit sparkler, which read “Happy 1st Birthday 8chan!” She placed the cake on a table in front of Frederick “Hotwheels” Brennan, prompting Dieter and a circle of other onlookers to begin shout-singing “Happy Birthday” over the club’s pounding techno soundtrack. Another dancer watched the celebration in amazement. “He’s only one year old?” she exclaimed, pointing to Brennan. Brennan does physically resemble a child, if not an infant. He was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a disorder characterized by brittle and deformed bones. He has a startlingly tiny body and a high-pitched voice. At first glance, you see only a torso perched on an electric wheelchair, since his shriveled legs rest tucked underneath his body. But as the sharp features of his normal-size face reveal, he is in fact a 20-year-old man.
“No, 8chan is his website,” said a tall guy in jeans and a T-shirt named Raj. “It’s an imageboard.” Raj leaned close to the dancer and explained that 8chan is a place for people to share images online. The great thing about 8chan, he told the smiling stripper, is that everyone on it is anonymous, freeing them from the limits of their real identities. On 8chan — the site most responsible for the online Gamergate movement — you are what you post.
Dieter, Raj, and the roughly 30 other hardcore 8channers here tonight had collectively spent hundreds of hours posting anonymously on 8chan and now they wanted to learn who else was behind the screen. The birthday party, which had been announced via a post on 8chan a few days before, doubled as Brennan’s send-off: The next day he was moving from Brooklyn to the Philippines to start a partnership with a Japanese message board. Until recently, 8chan was known only to a small group internet nerds as a more free-wheeling clone of the message board 4chan, the infamous online cesspool that gave birth to the hacktivist collective Anonymous, whose signature Guy Fawkes mask has become an international symbol of virtual dissent. 8chan boasts roughly the same gut-wrenching mix of casual bigotry, nerd obsession, shock photos, and hardcore pornography as its progenitor. But 8chan has now emerged from 4chan’s shadow as the main staging ground for supporters of the Gamergate movement. Gamergate escapes quick summary but at its core is a loose-knit group of proudly reactionary gamers who maintain that censorious “social justice warriors” — i.e. feminists and progressives — are conspiring with professional journalists to destroy their hobby by painting it as steeped in misogyny. As a result, a number of high-profile female journalists, developers, and critics have received death threats and harassment from gamergaters. Even 4chan banned the movement’s supporters. But 8chan welcomed gamergaters with open arms, hosting a dedicated board for them. As a result, 8chan traffic has surged.
“I’m not much of a gamer, but it’s really amazing how they’ve used the platform to really go after these fuckers,” said Brennan as he sat in his wheelchair in a parking lot before the party, between trips to raid a liquor stash in the trunk of a nearby vintage Mercedes. “Like, I encourage it. They try to make me take down the board, but I’m not going to do it.” Publicly, Brennan has been adamant that 8chan users aren’t behind the threats and harassment. To Brennan, the party — to which people had traveled from all over the country — demonstrated the true spirit of 8chan. He pointed at the Mercedes. Earlier that night two 8chan members he’d never met had picked him up at his apartment, bungee-corded his wheelchair into the trunk, and driven him to the club. “That’s how we do it!” he told me.
Inside the club, the 8channers sat around tables eating cake under elaborate rotating chandeliers. They traded the kind of rationalist locker room banter familiar to anyone who has spent much time browsing geek message boards, the dankest murmurations of the male id dressed up as pure logic. Dieter and Raj were deep in conversation about the nature of sexual attraction. Dieter believed it was an uncontrollable force of nature. He posited that it was only natural for a man to find women of one race more attractive than another. “It’s not racist,” he said. “I think evolutionary psychology plays into what you find attractive. It’s not up to you; it’s up to your dick. Your dick choses.”
The 8channers gathered at the club moved their chairs into a ragged line and gawked for a few obligatory minutes as a compact Asian dancer extricated herself acrobatically from a fishnet body suit, before forming into tight-knit clusters around small round tables. They were overwhelmingly young white men in their early to mid 20s. An enormous bald man named Hans, an 8channer who had flown from Texas for the party, pointed out three women in attendance, two bona-fide female 8channers, and one girlfriend, a model and actress with a neat Suicide Girl look who was the only partygoer dressed more for the club than Comic Con. “Naturally, accusations of misogyny are thrown around, but as evidenced by the presence of women, of which there are a few, it is a diverse group.” Hans paused, then winked. “By the way, table dances are $10 and lap dances are $75, if you’re interested. May I recommend Ms. Rain?”
Chief among the topics of discussion was the righteousness of Gamergate, which was how many attendees had first discovered 8chan. A young man in his very early 20s with a bowl cut, crooked rectangular glasses, and braces from New Jersey declared himself a sworn enemy of social justice warriors. (Like other gamergaters, he refers to their opponents exclusively as “SJWs.”) “The SJWs want to remove sexism from gaming, and at first that seems nice. But what does that mean? It means changing the game to fit their needs.” He believes that if the SJWs have their way, gaming will become “watered down, like today’s pop music.” So he has spent the past weeks emailing about a half dozen corporations like Samsung and Intel that run advertisements on websites that have been critical of Gamergate, and tweeting pro-Gamergate propaganda from a Twitter account he created for the purpose.
With a few exceptions, the 8channers steadfastly ignored the naked women jiggling and spinning a few feet away. By the end of the night, the dancers had largely given up on the prospect of enticing them with a lap dance, simply bypassing them on their rounds. Two guys’ laps were preoccupied anyway with the laptops they had brought into the club, which apparently had free Wi-Fi. After an hour or so, one 8channer snuck out to nap in the backseat of the Mercedes. The presence of naked ladies appeared secondary in importance to the lack of SJWs in a city overrun with them.
Around 11 p.m., there was talk of an after-party at Brennan’s apartment. Suddenly a few people headed out the door, which turned into a wordless stampede as 8channers hurried to not be left behind. Outside, Sarah, an administrative assistant with the MTA, and one of those rare female 8channers, chatted with Mark, the big, bearded founder of 8chan’s main video game message board. “Can I shake your hand again?” she said. Sarah had initially been worried about showing up because even she, an 8chan fan, had the idea that most 8channers were misogynistic creeps. But so far, she’d found everyone “super, super nice.”
The group headed to Midwood, Brooklyn, where Brennan lives. He had to get off at a faraway subway stop that was handicap accessible, and as the 8channers waited for him in his small, nearly empty apartment, they continued to discuss the movement. A young woman named Brooke, a college student studying neuroscience and sporting a rose tattoo, glasses, and cheetah-print oxfords, complained that feminist critics of video games were on a power trip. “They’re just trying to make it what they want — ’you can’t have what you want in your little hobby!’” She argued the media focus on death threats from a handful of gamers actually played into the stereotype of the hysterical woman who overreacts at the slightest provocation. Meanwhile, she said, feminists hypocritically used the deplorable actions of a few Gamergaters to smear all gamers even while they complain about the stereotyping of women. Brooke listed her complaints calmly, as if explaining something obvious to an idiot, but a skinny guy named Mike, who had flown out to California to help Brennan with the move, became increasingly agitated. SJWs were trying to take away one of his last bastions of freedom and he felt personally under attack. “They think everything we have is shit, and they want to change it!” he shouted. “This is all we’ve had — for years!”
Suddenly Brennan zoomed into the apartment, sparking applause. Someone wheeled in a suitcase full of cheap booze to even more applause. A MacBook was set up to live-stream the party and Brennan posted a link from 8chan’s official Twitter account. He read a message from an 8chan user. “They said, ‘Where are the girls? You said there would be girls.’” Everyone laughed, and Sarah and Brooke waved at the camera.
A large man in his 40s with a beard and a ponytail mingled self-consciously with the 8channers, some of whom were less than half his age. He’d blended in well enough in the darkness of the strip club, but now stood out in the tiny apartment like a chaperone at a school dance. His name was Mo, and he was a programmer from New York. Mo was drawn to Gamergate and 8chan by a nostalgia for the time he spent trolling the first message boards during the early days of the internet
“Gamergate is the most fascinating flame war I’ve ever seen,” he said. With a sort of fatherly pride he predicted that Gamergate and 8chan would endure, no matter how vociferous the critics were. “We’re talking about gamers, who spend 15 hours a day chasing a gold coin,” he said. “As long as they don’t have to do any lifting, gamers aren’t going anywhere. If the U.S. government could channel the energy and tenacity of the gamers, they could win any war.” He paused and looked out at the living room, where Fredrick Brennan was now typing furiously at his desktop computer, zoned out to the 8channers chugging booze from Solo cups around him, trying to stamp out an urgent bug on 8chan. “They’re willing to bring a laptop into the club.”