There is an existential challenge that simmers just under the surface consciousnesses of my terminally online and politically Bambified generation-mates. It is a question of destiny; a symptom of Reagan-era personal responsibility; and a stark lesson in power, perception, and capital. It is a chilling, twisted chicken-and-egg problem that, like a maleficent deity, shows itself only in the thoughts of the families of the radicalized, of the professional speculative opinion-havers, of the culture warriors or, if you’re like me, of the foggy, stoned students — each tormented prophets of a technocratic age.
Are my algorithms a reflection of me, or am I a reflection of them?
I would ponder this in a cloud of marijuana smoke as I sat in my parents’ backyard one crisp May night. It was good weed, and I had allowed myself more than a few moments to furiously masturbate my brain’s pleasure centres as a procession of jankily edited YouTube Shorts danced, unhindered by critical thought, along my optic nerves.
I watch YouTube for very specific purposes: mainly sports highlights and clips of my favourite Dungeons and Dragons shows, with the occasional garnish of a random funny Twitch streamer. You can roast all you want, but I’d argue that my unironic use of YouTube Shorts is no worse than the mindless scrolling of any social media platform in which I know for a fact each of you partake daily.
(There’s a study where two rats are given a lever that dispenses food, only one of the rats’ levers dispenses food every time it’s pressed, and the other dispenses it after a random number of presses. The rat with the regular lever will press until it’s full. The other rat will press its lever until it dies. That’s the internet. It’s a rat casino, feeding you junk until you come across a good morsel — a funny meme or take to send to your friend — and then you keep scrolling, chasing the next high. The point is, sometimes you just need to sit down and funnel into your brain some nice, pure, unthinking content. Especially when you’re high.)
So there I was, thinking that here was a good opportunity to dispense some of the more pleasant hormones into my limbic system, when I started to notice something going wrong. I should clarify that this was the first time I had ever tried to use YouTube Shorts as intended — who the fuck asked for another Tik Tok clone? — but at this moment, perhaps as a result of the app’s asinine design, I had felt that actively searching for the content I wanted was a Herculean task.
Anyway, I clicked on a promising thumbnail of some pro DnD player appropriately pog-ing at a piece of assuredly game-changing information, and I was subsequently regaled with the condensed sights and sounds of friendship, nostalgia, and later some truly unbelievable home runs. And the evidence of algorithmic manipulation remained on the periphery of my attention. For a time.
The clues that showed something was off were subtle at first. The faces of famed dungeon masters Brennan Lee Mulligan and Matthew Mercer morphed into those of podcasting streamers like Ludwig and jschlatt. The roar of announcers and crowds was replaced by Nightshift TV’s “Drive Forever,” slowed and reverbed.” I didn’t mind — those guys are funny and that song is incredibly catchy.
Then came the TV show clips: almost exclusively scenes with Tony Soprano, Thomas Shelby of Peaky Blinders, and Jon Hamm in Mad Men. This was weird — I’ve never watched any of those shows, nor have I looked them up on YouTube. And that fucking song was back, soundtracking these men’s shitty behaviour like it was an epic slam dunk.
Before I had a chance to register this, the podcast floodgates burst open and old basketball players were suddenly telling interviewers about the time they’d gone down to a continental breakfast at 6:30 a.m. and encountered Kobe Bryant, fresh from his 4:30 workout. Joe Rogan had shown up as well, his pseudointellectual garble barely audible underneath more badly mixed “Drive Forever,” slowed and reverbed. And, I thought unrelated, there was now a disturbing amount of Patrick Bateman in the mix.
What the hell? I coaxed my thumb into performing an action perpendicular to the rhythm into which it had settled and swiftly navigated back to my homepage. Everyone knows that the algorithms can sometimes get into a bad rut, and that the solution is a quick refresh. So I followed protocol, then selected a fresh but similar thumbnail, scanned the horizon out of ancient instinct, and dove back into the miasma.
But the same thing happened: A brief and blissful barrage of agreeable content, which rapidly devolved into more weird Kobe anecdotes, more fucking Peaky Blinders clips, and still more “Drive Forever,” slowed and reverbed. It was bewildering. I couldn’t fathom what about my search history could have led YouTube to believe that I was somehow deeply and equally invested in dead athletes’ routines, TV gangsters, and a Tik Tok sound usually reserved for sick snowboard tricks.
Desperate for context clues, I ventured into the comments and found a horrifying common denominator. The interactions on these Shorts were a one to one mixture of overshared, attention-seeking depression stories ending with “and this show saved my life,” and Sigma male keywords. Everything snapped into focus. I had blundered my way into the heart of Sigma culture. The Mad Men clips, Kobe talking about getting up at 3 a.m. to work out, Joe Rogan… it all made sense. The only reason I now know the name of that song is that I googled “Sigma Male Theme,” and it was the first result.
Fuck. I knew enough about what these comments hailed as the Sigma “grindset” — a truly cursed portmanteau of grind and mindset adopted as a one word mantra by Sigma males — to know that I wanted no part of it. I quickly switched off of the app and tried scrolling Instagram, but I couldn’t stop thinking about why YouTube had selected me for this hastened indoctrination into a very toxic masculine subculture.
For the uninitiated, the Sigma male is a descendant of the infamous Alpha male, the key difference being that the former focuses on physical and fiscal, rather than social and sexual, dominance. Here’s how the magazine Dazed paints the Sigma aesthetic:
"Wake up, 2:00am. Take a cold shower. Eat breakfast: 12 eggs and a side of raw milk. Workout, no warmup. Check crypto wallet for Bitcoin stocks. Listen to an audiobook rendition of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. “I am the ubermensch,” you utter, between gulps of fermented fish guts.”
The ideal Sigma, Dazed goes on, is a supposed “paragon of masculinity.” “He is successful and popular, but also silent and rebellious. He has a near-fundamentalist approach to self-improvement and is well-tuned in the ways of hustle culture. He makes regular gains at the gym and invests in crypto – sometimes simultaneously.”
The term was coined, unsurprisingly, on a far-right blog from 2010. It was initially intended to apply to a breed of introverted Alphas who felt disenfranchised by that category’s perceived superficial code of conduct. Nowadays, after the definition was diffused through 4Chan and Reddit, those who freely accept the mantle of Sigma can be found earnestly typing the words “this is so motivational” under videos by bald-face grifters and morons like GaryVee and Rogan, or pasting platitudes about “the grind” on top of pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio and Keanu Reeves — other paragons, I guess — in dedicated meme groups.
Screenshot, YouTube.com. Comments under “Nightshift TV - Drive Forever (Official Audio)”
But out in the wilderness of YouTube Shorts, Sigma grindset videos can be seen appealing almost exclusively to very lonely men, often, in my experience, those with mental health or confidence issues. I know this because these men do not feel awkward about sharing these facts in the comments. And according to the YouTube algorithm, this is the demographic I belong to.
So what am I supposed to do with that information? I suppose that, objectively, someone with my YouTube history could be sucked into the Sigma male pipeline without even noticing what was happening. It’s not like the act of watching videos of other friend groups playing a tabletop role playing game exudes confidence. But the question is, what would have happened if I had let myself keep going? If I had found a sense of community in the sad, desperate grasps for motivation I found in the comments? If I had sought out better produced content of this nature? Would I, in an alternate universe, have made it all the way to the infernal clutches of Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, or to the incels? Where does the rabbit hole end?
Are my algorithms a reflection of me, or am I a reflection of them?
My Sigma male dalliance has complicated this question for me. I don’t want the algorithm that shows me grindset content to be a reflection of me, and I certainly don’t want to be transformed by it. That subculture is toxic and cringe and regularly parodies itself, but then again, I did end up watching a hell of a lot of its content that night in May, before I figured out what was happening, didn’t I?
The answer in this case could be that I’m over complicating this. That the YouTube algorithm is shit and there aren’t enough Shorts to sustain a prolonged scrolling sesh. Plus, there are those who maintain that the algorithm is designed to radicalize, to show you increasingly extremist permutations of the content you like until you pass the event horizon of radicalization. Until you end up on the page of a guy who says it’s gay to have a girlfriend or that it’s weak to jerk off. Maybe that’s what was happening to me, except that the Shorts accelerated this process. It would be comforting if these were true, but I don’t buy it, and the data doesn’t really bear that last theory out, anyway.
It’s not as simple as all that. An existential challenge requires an existential response. However, the fact is, I don’t have a good one. Maybe we’re all doomed to wonder for eternity whether we’d be the same without the content we consume. Whether we bear a greater or lesser responsibility for the content we consume. Whether we’d be different if we consumed differently.
I’ll say this, though: my generation grew up on algorithms. For many of us, they exposed the flaws in our societies and the scams behind the “meritocratic” North American Dream. In others of us, they induced an atavistic response to the death of a foundational mythology of gender, sexuality, justice, and equality and they preyed on those that felt lost without those myths. Studies say that American men are getting significantly lonelier. And what is a Sigma but a lonely dude, hopelessly clinging to any narrative, in the absence of that Dream, that can position his idealized pursuit of uncompromising financial and physical self-improvement as morally good — just like the days of old.
Farewell Sigmas. Though I will never be one of you, and though your memes suck, I think I get it. Just, you know, get help.
(Title Photo Credits: Screenshot, Lionsgate, via E online)