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MRAs and WTFs: A Context for "Nice Guys of OKCupid"

By Tom McCormack

''We're not psychologists. We're math guys,” remarked Sam Yagan, the chief executive of OKCupid. He wasn’t being self-deprecating.  

OKC suggests romantic pairings based on information gathered from a sprawling, seemingly endless questionnaire. When filling out the questionnaire, users are also asked to rank the relative importance of each question and to say which answer or answers they would prefer in a partner. Users, in other words, describe to the OKCupid database their ideal “match” as a set of data points.

Because users are generally able to intuit the basic parameters of how the system works, they upvote the questions most likely to be useful in narrowing down a pool of millions of strangers—that is, the questions most likely to be incredibly divisive. A good OKCupid question is like a good question in a game of “Guess Who?”--one that eliminates the most candidates.  

The questionnaire asks users to provide their own definitive standards for in-group and out-group belonging. Then, in their profiles, users are expected to distinguish themselves within their chosen group or groups through a combination of photographs and prompted text.

OKCupid profiles are sort of like really long pick-up lines pitched at an imaginary “perfect match.” In general, they show humanity in a humiliating light, and various OKCupid users have taken it upon themselves to liberate the profiles of others, condensing them into image macros and sharing them outside the context of the site. The ethics of this are out of focus, because the culture has not yet decided where sites like OKCupid fall in terms of public vs. private space, and what reasonable expectations people can have when they join these sites. 

The found OKCupid profile has become one of the Internet’s most unsettling genres. Part Cindy Sherman film still, part Robert Browning monologue, the best found profiles match the uncanny visual embodiment of a cultural type with an elliptically unraveling text of unconscious self-revelation.

For example:

The Tumblr “Nice Guys of OKCupid[1]develops a specific variation of the found OKCupid profile. NGOKC doesn’t just expose the strange. Rather, it proposes to chart a demonstrable connection between a kind of rhetoric found in the romantic self-advertising of OKCupid’s profile pages and a pattern of data logged in its semi-hidden underworld of fascinating soft science.

The connection is that male users who go on at length in their profiles about being a “Nice Guy” who is perpetually “Friendzoned” because women prefer “Assholes”—these people often express, through their questionnaire, profoundly hostile and confused notions about female sexual and psychological autonomy.

For example:

The term “friend zone” is traceable to a 1994 episode of Friends in which the hopeless nebbish Ross is referred to as “Mayor of the Friendzone,” for his pattern of being romantically rejected and platonically embraced. The term mostly disappeared from popular culture in the last half of the 1990s, but it’s been revived online in the past 10 or so years.

Look at the recent Internet meme “Women Logic.” Nominally intended to expose the distorted thinking patterns of females everywhere, it has, in its crowdsourced form, been given over hugely to complaints about nice guys, assholes, and friend-zones:

The desire to rearticulate this complaint in as many forms as possible means that it’s bled across Internet genres and communities.

Among Internet “Rage Comics”—miniature narratives in which people complain about daily life using a combination of text and stock characters—there is a whole sub-genre dedicated to the topoi of The Friend Zone:

I admire this one on a formal level, for its nearly wordless visual grammar and shocking parataxis:

The friend zone mythos has spawned a whole pantheon that contains not just the Nice Guy and the Asshole, but lesser Olympians, such as Friend Zone Fiona, Friend Zoned Phil, and Friendzone Johnny.




Reddit—“the front page of the Internet”—is rich with debate about the zone. Recently, for example, some lost and frightened Candide began a thread by asking, “Why does the friend zone happen?”

The section of Reddit with the most zone-talk is r/MensRights, a sub-Reddit dedicated to self-described “Men’s Rights Activists,” or MRAs. One of the regularly linked-to sites on r/MensRights, for example, is “A Voice for Men,” which features articles such as, “Nice Guys Are Emotional Toilet Paper” and “Mr. Nice Guy doesn’t live here anymore.”

MRA culture grew out of various masculine revivalist movements of the 90s and early 2000s: the right-wing moralism of the Promise Keepers; the revenge-fantasy sociopathy of the “seduction community” cataloged by Neil Strauss in The Game; Nu Metal.

MRAs distinguish themselves from these predecessors through their ability to mock-impersonate and invert the specialized language of the very progressive advocacy groups whom they exist to oppose. These men are “activists,” and they are advocating “rights.”

MRAs adopt a peculiar tone of wounded self-righteousness, one that’s bled into popular culture on certain issues, as is the case with nice guys, assholes, and friend zones—terms MRA message boards have been instrumental in popularizing.

Indeed, a landmark in the MRA movement was the launch, in 2001, of the-niceguy.com, which currently greets readers:

"Let's just be friends." If you're here, you've probably heard this phrase a thousand times from many different women, all of whom you were romantically interested in at one point or another.

Back in 2005—the oldest version of the site currently viewable—the landing page read:

I'm NiceGuy. Why did I make this site, if I'm Nice? Because: Ameriskanks (mostly) Suck. ("Ameriskanks" means "North American females" obviously.) And yes, they 're horrible beyond imagination. Don't shoot the messenger. It's actually a good thing for me to come out and say this- our biggest critics are our truest friends because they show us how to improve ourselves. In this case, I'm giving an entire gender the criticism it needs to improve itself.

This site is currently subtitled, “American Women (Mostly) Suck.” It’s become, since its launch, part of an entire community of sites, including americanwomenreallysuck.com and stayawayfromamericanwomen.flippertv.com.

All of these pages argue that women from certain other countries—mostly in Eastern Asia—make better sexual and/or romantic and/or conversational and/or life partners.

There is a logic linking “Nice Guys” and “Assholes” to MRAs and the historical recurrence of expatriated Orientalist fetishism, and this logic is what’s under analysis by “Nice Guys of OKCupid.”

On its surface, the “Nice Guy” meme appears merely to generalize a specific psychological condition.

This stereotyping would not be so terrible were it not usually married to a high-pitched tone of moral alarm and indignation. This tone transmits a large and important cultural meme: The idea that when women choose to have sex they should be meting out some sort of cosmic justice; ordering the universe by rules of honor that are essentially fair—instead of, say, procuring their own sexual satisfaction, or merely to ward off boredom.

No one expects this of men—whom everyone agrees are “dogs”—but calling that a double-standard would be a little like calling Google “a website.” True, but it’s also more a structure that gives lightning-quick access to a massive extended network of double-standards.

The Nice Guy complaint has become a primary and self-obscuring—primary because self-obscuring—way to argue that female sexuality carries an additional moral dimension, one that lies beyond the more straightforward matter of self-determination, and is, within this framework, clearly more significant.

The trick is to distract attention away from the moral prerogative being asserted in the conversation—the right of the male speaker to act as moral arbiter of the female subject’s sexual desires—and direct it toward a third-party, whose moral virtues, or lack thereof, then become the most immediate and most easily apprehensible topic of debate.

This rhetorical maneuver seems to have been around for as long as American women have been asserting expanded notions of sexual autonomy. In Sisterhood is Powerful, an influential anthology of feminist writings published in 1970, the Women’s Collective of the New York High School Student Union wrote about “some males within the Movement” telling them to not have sex with “guys who aren’t ‘good revolutionaries.’”  The very moral convictions that assert a right are used here to try to nullify it; a perfect match.

Strikingly, this rhetoric can easily shade into what is more simply just emotional abuse. Look at the text “Pop-Punk Pick-Up Line,” which was spread last year through Tumblr and other social media:

The brilliance of “Nice Guys of OKCupid” is that it helps illustrate a large, dispersed, systemic problem by pillaging a large, systemic database. NGOKC extends its analysis beyond the merely anecdotal. While not itself social science, it takes its findings from what is, essentially, one of the most enormous and bizarre social science experiments of all time.

We could call this cultural form—the form of NGOKC—the detournement of data. It occurs when a massive store of information created by corporate or government powers is used by individuals for purposes peripheral or counter to the reasons for its collection. The culture’s psychologists can steal from the findings of its math people.  

While not unique to the Internet, the detournement of data is one of its signal forms. It’s also a precarious one, as the large-scale privatization of information online continues unabated. We do not all conduct our lives in public online, but when we go online, all of us do conduct our lives for a select audience of corporate oligarchies—and as we do so, we’re comforted by the idea that most of our performance will be redescribed only as numbers and code.

[1] As of publication, this site has been taken down; in its place, a link to Google archive of the blog is provided.

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malaise69 2 years, 10 months agoReply


justaguy 2 years, 10 months agoReply

You're right when you say that this isn't social science. You seem to be saying that, while its not social science, its at least a lot more reliable than anecdotes, because you have a big database behind you. I'm not so sure. It doesn't matter how big a dataset you have, you can't get anywhere with fundamental misunderstandings about how to make generalizations about data.

Your argument seems to be similar to cultural psychology - where a study of 100 undergrads in Kobe and St. Paul are used to make conclusions about the Western and Asian minds. Or, at least, you make the same basic mistake of thinking sloppily about samples. You first need to assume that the group you are describing exists, is coherent and fungible, before you can take the samples you select as examples from which you can make generalizations about the whole. But, your conclusions are only as reliable as that initial assumption, which goes completely unquestioned. Like most tautological arguments, its pretty convincing as long as you manage not to notice that its premise presupposes its conclusion.