Leading up to the 2016 election, white nationalists posting online began using three parentheses around Jewish-sounding surnames. The anti-Semitic parentheses — also known as “echo brackets” — were meant to symbolize how the actions of Jews “echo” throughout history. Before being deemed an official form of hate speech, the brackets allowed members of the alt-right to target Jewish users on social media with relatively little detection.
Pretty much simultaneously, those same members of /pol/, the anti-Semitic 4chan “Politically Incorrect” board, also invented a similar typography to tangibly define themselves. “TRUMP,” wrote an anonymous 4chan user on August 7th, 2015, “IS /ourguy/.”
“The format functions similar to triple parentheses in that it’s a way to set boundaries and demarcate an in or out group,” explains Sal Hagen, a researcher at the University of Amsterdam who analyzed every iteration of 4chan’s use of /ourguy/ from its first mention above to May 2020. “The natural corollary to an articulation of a ‘them,’ is the construction of an ‘us.’”
While terms like “based” and “red-pilled” described the mindset of a typical /pol/ user, their values, beliefs and desires remained implied — they’re never explicitly published in the forum or established in any official capacity. To that end, as /ourguy/ posts grew in popularity, they became “a means to negotiate and make sense of what this larger collective holds dear,” Hagen says.
The typical format of an /ourguy/ post on /pol/ starts with a user posting a picture of a public figure along with the prompt, “Is he /ourguy/?” In response, users collectively debate whether or not that person shares the same values as the board’s assumed collective consciousness. “It should from the outset be noted that on /pol/, the nomination of /ourguy/ candidates often list racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist and generally bigoted traits and virtues,” writes Hagen in his research. In performing this exercise over and over again — roughly 92,480 times according to Hagen — /pol/ users slowly but surely solidified a sense of shared identity.
“It’s really a perpetual negotiation about group values,” Hagen tells me. “It never reaches a consensus of ‘We finally found our guy,’ but it became quite clear that far-right figures were very present.” According to Hagen’s analysis, Donald Trump, Richard Spencer and Hitler were deemed to be most in line with the board’s values.
But more than simply highlighting the board’s toxic beliefs, the debates also corralled individual users into a line. In his study, Hagen argues that a successful /ourguy/ post “simultaneously actualizes an individual user’s value judgement on a public figure, [and] renders explicit that individual’s idea of the core beliefs of the larger collective.” At the very least, he adds, /ourguy/ posts “reflect a sense of a larger ‘us’ since it still articulates why that /ourguy/ does or does not align with it.”
By 2018, the collective values held by the board crystallized enough that they turned the /ourguy/ format on its head. When neo-Nazi Patrick Little ran for a California senate seat, they didn’t need to debate whether or not he was /ourguy/. Instead, /pol/ was flooded with posts saying, “‘Patrick Little is /ourguy/ and anyone who says otherwise is a fucking shill,” Hagen writes in his research. “Such posts show how /ourguy/ acts as shorthand to conveniently signify leadership ‘fitting in’ with /pol/ without having to engage in elaborate debate.”
This was different from previous iterations of /ourguy/ posts, Hagen says, in that “this was overt political campaigning.” Mentions of Little weren’t posted with the intention to debate, they “really just promoted a specific politician as someone that people on 4chan should follow.”
After two years, the anonymous, disparate user base on 4chan was about to form a collective identity strong enough to swiftly mobilize behind a largely unknown political candidate.
“As with so many other terms like ‘based’ or ‘red-pilled’ that are born on /pol/ in order to collectivize the very dispersed group there,” Hagen explains, “it should come as no surprise [that] radical online groups use /ourguy/ as a dog whistle to collectivize themselves and gain a foothold on other platforms.”
Today, /ourguys/ has morphed into a reference to white supremacists as a collective whole:
With right-wing spaces being pushed further into anonymous, unmoderated places, Hagen emphasizes the importance in keeping track of /ourguys/ — or any meme that functions to organize and mobilize anonymous users. It’s often assumed that an environment like 4chan “that’s anonymous, ephemeral and seemingly unintelligible contradicts or prevents organized behavior,” Hagen concludes. “But /ourguys/ shows that’s not the case — and if it works there, it will work somewhere else as well.”