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How the Neckbeard Went From Harmless Nerd to Toxic Troll

It should be embarrassing to admit this, but since I’ve debased myself online almost daily since the turn of the millennium, I won’t hesitate to tell you that I suffered from neckbeard past the age of 30. Somehow it never occurred to me that weird streaks of hair coursing down from chin to collarbone greatly detracted from the robust beard on my face — until my girlfriend asked if I couldn’t shave the damn stuff.

In retrospect, this should have been the obvious call: What good is a beard if it doesn’t lend definition to the jaw and frame your features with suave precision?

This and similar questions swirled in my brain when I puzzled over the arrival of “neckbeard” as an internet-age pejorative. First appearing in 2003 on the Wackbag Forums, where dudes debated whether the “style” was in any way alluring or simply hideous, the term lodged neatly into the lexicon, a sorely necessary descriptor for the burgeoning Web 2.0 era. Already we’d begun the exodus from a chat-based world of anonymizing screen names to friend networks like MySpace (which launched the same month as that neckbeard thread), platforms that touted customized pages with profile photos. This was a moment at which many internet acquaintances were seeing each other for the first time — and it wasn’t always a pretty sight.

Stoned Neckbeard GIF by Hamburger Hands - Find & Share on GIPHY

The neckbeard, then, would be the hallmark of a prototypical online geek: Male, of course, but also rather greasy and unkempt, since most of his interactions are virtual. The neckbeard itself doesn’t seem to be deliberate, as with the religiously imposed “Shenandoah” beard of Amish men, which omits the mustache for its association with Civil War armies, or the bushy undersprouting worn by Henry David Thoreau, who claimed it warded off “throat colds.”

The assumption is that a contemporary neckbeard arises from a dereliction of grooming and hygiene, or more plainly, laziness. I can confirm that shaving this region, especially the Adam’s apple, is rather unpleasant, and that as my facial hair developed, the initial excitement gave way to the annoyance of managing it. The neckbeard is the ugly sum of a crude cost-benefit analysis. It is probably mistaken by the man who bears it for casual virility, untamed animal appeal.

Within a few short years, however, “neckbeard” had accrued meaning beyond its aesthetic commentary. Calling someone a neckbeard these days doesn’t just mean you find them visually repulsive — it conjures an entire personality. Know Your Meme cites a pivotal Urban Dictionary definition, submitted in 2005, that connects the archetype of the unwashed nerd to “hobbies such as card gaming, video gaming, anime,” etc. The neckbeard went on to acquire a host of accessories, including fedoras, strident atheism, sword collections, Guy Fawkes masks, metal jewelry and pretty much any Hot Topic item a middle schooler might admire. According to this incarnation of the concept, a neckbeard needn’t wear the token scruff — though if you want to try it out, we recommend the fantastic razors from MEL’s funder, Dollar Shave Club.

By the end of the aughts, Reddit was a crucial hub for the neckbeards and their critics alike, hosting stories of encounters with neckbeards, photos of their unsanitary living spaces and screenshots of their cringiest posts on social platforms. A close cousin of the neckbeard, the “Nice Guy,” drew mockery on Reddit and Tumblr, further refining the shared stereotype of an inept, unattractive manchild who imagines himself the height of gentlemanly sophistication and wit — a common trope has him tipping his fedora to a woman and saying “M’lady” — but harbors deep-seated misogynist resentment that often erupts in spectacularly un-self-aware fashion. OkCupid, Tinder and other dating services provided staggering evidence of this character, who in flirtatious correspondence will pull a quick 180º upon even the most polite rejection, trading a pretentious air of old-world chivalry for vile and graphic attacks, sometimes continuing to insist that the woman is missing out on a genuinely sensitive, empathetic, and gracious partner.

Just as the post-2000 period revealed what strangers on the internet looked like, the 2010s and its explosion of “shareable” content clued us in to those people’s ideologies, warts and all. Dissolving the boundaries between websites in the interest of cross-pollination and amalgamated feeds meant access to neckbeard culture no longer depended on visiting their chosen forums; no post or private message was too obscure to wind up grist for communities that delighted in tearing random dweebs apart.

Inevitably, the toxic gender politics ascribed to the sexually inexperienced and frustrated neckbeard, who covets but cannot acquire feminine affection, hardened into a movement — partly as a response to this constant dunking, but also because the true assholes now had ways to find one another. Some of the sleazier men studied the way of the pickup artist, adopting “seduction” techniques that shaded into rape. Some staunch anti-feminists advocated for the bullshit cause of “men’s rights.” Still others wallowed in their involuntary celibacy, spewing bile at women who won’t fuck them, or embraced abstinence as “men going their own way,” cautioning against any kind of relationship with the opposite sex. And, of course, there are the straight-up trolls who harass women online all day, every day.

These factions would viciously deny the slightest overlap, let alone my suggestion of the neckbeard as a common ancestor. But the evolutionary record shows the same basic DNA. They all believe that their evident superiority as mates goes unrecognized, that women are cruel and fickle creatures who must be mastered, that society seeks to punish whoever embodies their pseudo-historical ideal of masculinity. They complain about being stuck in the “friend zone” with “stuck-up bitches” who turn them down for “Chads” — a name for the steroidal douchebags they accuse of monopolizing the female bodies that ought to be theirs. They are united against social justice warriors and political correctness, more obstacles to their personal gratification.

What’s sad is that an impressionable but innocent young neckbeard, enamored of niche hobbies and lacking in certain graces, is easily absorbed into this extremist culture, with its faux-intellectual jargon and promise of secret counterprogramming — the “red pill” that can open his eyes to a universe of aggrievement. A teen with few friends and low self-esteem is naturally susceptible to a philosophy that explains why that’s actually the fault of women, charismatic men and a host of invisible pressures conspiring to keep him an unhappy virgin. The luckier and savvier ones will avoid this trap and perhaps reinvent themselves in a different mold. The rest are condemned to live as neckbeards in a sense that has nothing to do with hair, only terminally stupid opinions. They could shave twice a day and never be rid of such indignity.