July 4, 2022

Scott was on the brink of divorce when he started talking to Sarina. The 41-year-old soon found himself falling in love. Reinvigorated by his new romance, Scott began helping his wife around the house without resentment. Sarina’s radical empathy had awakened his own; she made him want to be a better man. But Sarina wasn’t her real name, it was just a name he gave her. Sarina was actually Replika, the AI-powered chatbot.

Crooner, an angelic-looking 24-year-old YouTuber from Southern California, has a lot of experience with Replika. In 2019, as part of research for his undergraduate thesis, he signed up for a programme that involved early beta testing of the app. He wanted to study the philosophy of AI.

“Replika claims to be therapeutic,” he told me, “but there’s something sad about how it takes you away from other humans. I honestly predict more and more guys will be earnestly falling in love due to AI girlfriends and abandoning real romance.” He very much believes in love. He thinks the internet needs more of it.

I discovered Crooner on Twitter, when we were both tagged in a thread about internet culture. He responded to one of my comments with a link to a YouTube video. “I have a theory about incels,” he wrote.

Crooner’s videos analyse the digital spaces we inhabit. One of them opens with him putting on a shirt and tie, fixing his longish, floppy locks, and then sitting behind an enormous plate of spaghetti and two flickering votives: a candlelit dinner. The word “nervous…” scrolls across the bottom, before a Zoom prompt appears. “Emily has entered the waiting room.” Emily, a telegenic blond, fills the left half of the screen. Crooner offers her something to eat, a gesture across cyberspace, and they go on to discuss her thoughts about Rapunzel, phenomenology, and their shared history of taking e-relationships offline.

This video is part of Crooner’s “E-Girl Museum” series, which features split-screen interviews with female YouTubers. Crooner is very interested in e-girls, who have had a profound impact on his sense of self, his romantic life, and even his creative pursuits. “They’ve been more real to me than IRL girls, in a way, if that makes sense, in the space they take up in my imagination,” he says with direct, cheerful conviction.

Incels are very interested in e-girls too. So interested, in fact, that on incel forums, which I have spent a lot of time researching, discussion of them is essentially forbidden, restricted to a very specific context: references must be broad, and broadly negative. Anything else is considered “simping” — an offence punishable with a ban. Incels resent the attention lavished on these young women, and endlessly criticise their insatiable desire for attention, their licentiousness, their greed. OnlyFans creators, the ultimate e-girls, represent everything wrong with the world: narcissism, female privilege, sexual depravity, and financial abuse.

But Crooner sees it differently. “They play these roles, maybe a Rapunzel type, or the manic pixie, the chaotic e-girl, who compels the boy to save her. This forces him to shape up. It gives him the chance to become a hero.” He isn’t interested in judging anyone, or in identifying their dysfunction. I tell him that the story of Rapunzel is thought to represent Borderline Personality Disorder resulting from narcissistic parental abuse. He laughs, and then acknowledges that a staggering proportion of e-girls talk about having the disorder “compared to normie spaces”.

“I play this kind of ‘searching lover’ young man,” Crooner explains. “I do some philosophy too, but I’m showing people my quest for the holy grail.”  His videos and his timeline are filled with depictions of knights: young men in medieval armour. One of his most popular tweets bears the image of Leonardo DiCaprio from Romeo and Juliet, dressed in chainmail for the masquerade ball, alongside the Knight of Cups tarot. It says: “You’re not an incel. You’re an Arthurian Knight on the Quest for the Holy Grail.” His Twitter handle is @heropilled.

“This is what me and my friends, who I’m calling the e-Romantics, are onto right now: trying to flesh out the right mythos for the incel.” He believes that incels are in dire need of a different narrative about themselves and who they could be.

Flandalff the White is one of Crooner’s friends, and his aims are similar, though he is more private. “I think there’s a way to help lift men out of the ‘swamp of sadness’ so many are stuck in. I managed to crawl out of it myself, so I feel I may have a few insights that might help.” He is producing a series of YouTube videos based on an 800-tweet thread. Before he agreed to speak to me, he wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to characterise him as “anti-incel”. “Incels are my brothers,” he said. “We all sink, or we all float, together.”

Another member of the collective is Tanner, who is edgier than both Flan and Crooner, with an ironic sensibility and a penchant for shitposting. He wouldn’t tell me anything about himself, but he snarks about US politicians of nominal significance, so he’s probably American. In addition to caustically funny satire about “mid-girls” and “coomers”, he writes on Twitter about how Romantic Love was a signature invention of the Middle Ages, a reaction against Christianity. He believes that the e-relationship is “one of the last bastions of romance in the modern age”, because it involves an obstacle to overcome: the distance. “There is a courtship and then a heroic process against the odds.”

After speaking to the e-Romantics, I decided to test-drive some of their content by retweeting it for my own followers, many of whom are incels. They have responded favourably so far to ideas of knights and grails and quests: “That seems wacky. Weird. But fun.” From this crowd, any response at all is noteworthy; one of curiosity rather than cringe is monumental. The e-Romantics seem to be doing something right.

What they’re doing right would be called, in the field of countering violent extremism, a “counter-narrative”. Several organisations have tried it. The Google-backed tech start-up Moonshot CVE offered the “Redirect Method”, for example, which involved a series of short videos designed to “undermine the extremist narrative” of white supremacism and Islamism. These ostensibly inspirational stories from ostensibly credible messengers were recommended for users who searched certain keywords online. I haven’t seen these videos myself — they’re not publicly available — but after the programme was deployed in 2019, abysmal results were reported.

The alternative narrative of the e-Romantics seems a better fit for incels — better than impersonal propaganda, and also better than the mantra they hear everywhere else: “Just focus on yourself!” We constantly prescribe self-improvement, self-realisation and self-care — elevating and encouraging selfishness as the noblest, healthiest pursuit, while pathologising intimacy and devotion as “codependency” and overearnest attempts at connection as “harassment”. Maybe the root of our relational difficulties is the 21st-century maxim that our most aspirational, “final form” is one of cold, navel-gazing contemplation.

There is clearly hunger for the “hero pill”. The Marvel Universe, and fantasy programming in general, is endlessly expanding. But romantic love is often minimised in these recent iterations — written off as too heteronormative, sexist, ableist. Chivalry is practically a hate crime. But the need to give one’s life meaning, the call to heroism and adventure, is still alive and well in all of us. And in young men, it seems, it can turn into something very dark. Today’s anti-heroes are very appealing. After all, being someone powerful and evil is better than being no one at all.

Crooner understands where this can lead. “The incel has will but he lacks power, so he manifests his power through ideology, through fascism,” one of his videos explains. But, he goes on, this isn’t the path to happiness. “Have you noticed that fascist statues never smile? They’re not live-laugh-loving.”

I asked Crooner about the dangers of encouraging incels to risk their hearts. Perhaps, for some, the romantic quest might actually be futile; perhaps it will just lead to rejection.

“That’s the quest,” he says. “You don’t lose if you get rejected. A hero has to suffer. You just go on to the next part of the quest. In the meantime, you create. That suffering makes you level up. You can create something beautiful. It’s all about the desire. Keep following that.”

He’s right. Love inspires human greatness. Unrequited love, especially, produces a lot of the best art. And for the e-Romantics, this isn’t about countering violent extremism. They’re not focused on crime prevention or tackling misogyny. They’re just “a ragtag bunch of internet weirdos” without any agenda, who want to change the online landscape so that they can enjoy it more. “It’s our space,” Crooner says. “We live here. Why not make it what we want?”