/r/antiwork: A Tragedy of Sanewashing and Social Gentrification
The moment /r/antiwork died was tailor-made for infamy. Head moderator Doreen Ford went on with Fox host Jesse Watters for an interview that would demonstrate every stereotype about the group and then some: a self-identified autistic nonbinary dog walker with disheveled hair in a messy room, swiveling back and forth in her chair and looking away from the camera as she explained to a bemused Watters why laziness is a virtue. When Watters took pity on her* and pitched a softball about future plans, she opined in a monotone that she might want to teach philosophy one day. It was an unmitigated disaster that set off a chain of events that would lead to the amused attention of the internet writ large, the formation of a splinter group closing in on 500,000 users, and the unceremonious banishment of Doreen and every other moderator in her orbit from the space as it worked desperately to restore a semblance of dignity.
*(Doreen describes herself as nonbinary and preferring female pronouns, so that will be the standard in this article.)
It’s hard to overstate the fury directed towards Doreen immediately following the interview. A petition to shut the whole sub down sprang to the top almost immediately, followed by furious claims that sorry wouldn’t cut it and waves of direct messages urging her to step away if she had any self-respect left. How dare she, people asked, think she could represent the sub? What gave her the right to speak for them in front of millions? Didn’t she know they were a Movement, a growing force set on transforming the landscape of modern work? She had outlived her usefulness, and the user base, in no uncertain terms, told her to move along and quit embarrassing them.
So how did it all happen? Why was Doreen Ford, of all people, able to appoint herself as representative of a self-proclaimed movement 1.7 million strong? Why, after hagiographies from the New York Times, Vice, the Washington Post, and others, was a lazy anarchist dog walker able to irreparably shatter the image of the space in a single interview?
The start of the answer lies in the simple truth of who Doreen Ford was: the person who almost single-handedly built the space, indisputably the single most accurate representative and the one most qualified to understand it.
The users of /r/antiwork want to frame its story as one of mod hubris and righteous user revolt, one in which delusional wannabe leaders without a clue about their own movement carelessly ignored the will of the movement for their own glorification. It’s a tidy, gratifying framing.
Unfortunately, it’s also false. A broader look finds a more compelling story, one in which a subreddit grew faster and further than it was ever supposed to, and in doing so caused millions to wholly misunderstand the very movement they were joining. Users first sanewashed its ideas to suit their preferences, then gentrified the space to rid it of the rough edges left by its founding crew.
A Brief History of /r/antiwork
/r/antiwork was originally a home for lazy anarcho-communists (hereafter: anarchists) who literally wanted to abolish work. Its core user base has always understood this. It was evident from the moment it began, when founder /u/andreasw shared his vision for the abolition of money and property as he advertised it. It was evident from its sidebar and FAQ, and from every explainer they put up. And it was evident from conversation after conversation in which they made their preferences clear.
Ideological anarchism and a strict anti-work streak were not unique to the founder of the sub or to Doreen Ford, who became the second moderator of the sub back when it had some 1300 users in 2015. Each new mod who joined the team, from /u/onedayitwillbedaisy in 2018 to seven moderators in 2019, was an open, proud anarchist with similar goals (save /u/Whitepirate15, who we’ll return to later). They had their variations: some were eager about violent approaches, others were stricter about peaceful methods. But there was no confusion among them about what they wanted to do.
What exactly did they mean by abolishing work? The answer they’d most eagerly endorse was: overthrow capitalism in favor of an anarcho-communism in which nobody would labor for others’ profit. Practically speaking, they suggest that people would naturally gravitate towards what needed to be done of their own accord. From my own less sympathetic view, the image that always comes to mind is the classic thread “whats your job on the leftist commune??”, in which everyone plans to lead discussion on theory and make lattes and there’s nary a Coal Mining Enjoyer to be found. But abolishing work, not reforming or reducing it, was always the vision.
They benefited from a bit of a double meaning in this, allowing them to differentiate themselves a bit from other explicitly anarchist spaces. The name /r/antiwork invites people to frame their experience in terms of opposing productivity in general. Ultimately, their explanations for the sort of productivity they support look to fit into the pattern common to most anarchist spaces, with calls for sweeping revolution and only loose handwaving as to how what comes after will function — that is, after all, a job for after the revolution.
For the bulk of /r/antiwork’s history, it was primarily a space for text-heavy threads lambasting the very concept of work. Topics included: looking for easy jobs, lamenting how others were brainwashed into being happy working, sharing tips for slacking, and so forth. Click around a bit, and you’ll find all kinds of users lamenting the very idea of a strong work ethic. This one, criticizing his father for hard work while focusing his own energies on drugs and chats about anarchism, is one such example. Any time you care to look at it from its founding to its rise to prominence starting in 2019, the tone is consistent: conversations between Doreen Ford, her friends, and their fellow-travelers about a world without work.
Doreen Ford was present for the whole of it. She oversaw its shift from a tiny dead space with a handful of posts across years at a time (mostly from her), to the hottest spot on reddit. Select a thread more than a couple of years old at random and you’ll likely find her in it. She lived and breathed the space for years. The more you examine its history, the less ambiguity there is around the fact that if anybody could be said to represent or understand the space, it was Doreen Ford. The dog walker Jesse Watters raised to infamy was no interloper. She was /r/antiwork.
So how did /r/antiwork shift so far that the user base was shocked to find Ford representing them? Put simply, it was gentrified.
The Gentrification of /r/antiwork
You’ve come across the gentrifiers before, I’m sure. They browse the front page of reddit and the trending tab of YouTube, buy Ruth Bader Ginsberg figurines and wear Che Guevara T-shirts. They vote for Bernie in the primaries and Biden in the general, first outraged that anyone could want Biden and then outraged that anyone could not. They share articles about how the 2020 BLM protests were overwhelmingly peaceful and then hop online to cheer “ACAB” and “F — — capitalism” graffiti and pictures of burning police precincts. They shout “Defund the Police” while angrily asserting that nobody wants to abolish the police. They manage to boldly stand at once for every fashionable cause and against every unfashionable cause, embracing the aesthetics of radicalism while denying complicity or knowledge whenever that radicalism gets too real. And /r/antiwork was the perfect community for them to turn into a cause celebre.
Two groups of people are intimately familiar with, and adept at describing, this dynamic of gentrification. The first group is that of self-described anarchists. Take a look:
The other group, self-identified neoliberals, has grown weary of the trend from the opposite side. One of them coined the brilliant term sanewashing in the wake of 2020’s “Defund the Police” movement, the last major item to move up the gentrification pipeline. Neoliberals tend to be in the unenviable position of noticing and opposing trends from the far left, then having to argue against progressives who adopt these trends without really understanding them and who are eager to assert less radicalism than is actually present. The article explains:
So, now say you’re someone who exists in a left-adjacent social space, who’s taken up specific positions that have arrived to you through an “SJW” space, and now has to defend them to people who don’t exist in any of your usual social spaces. These are ideas that you don’t understand completely, because you absorbed them through social dynamics and not by detailed convincing arguments, but they’re ones you’re confident are right because you were assured, in essence, that there’s a mass consensus behind them. When people are correctly pointing out that the arguments behind the position people around your space are advancing fail, but you’re not going to give up the position because you’re certain it’s right, what are you going to do? I’m arguing you’re going to “sanewash” it. And by that I mean, what you do is go “Well, obviously the arguments that people are obviously making are insane, and not what people actually believe or mean. What you can think of it as is [more reasonable argument or position than people are actually making]”.
How exactly did it happen in /r/antiwork? Casuals found it. You know — the people who use the internet to laugh at funny memes rather than treating every post as a blow in a grand ideological struggle. People like this guy:
The shift became pronounced when text exchanges with bad bosses started going viral:
The online crowd just there to have fun started noticing a new fun place popping into their feeds, one where dumb bosses said dumb things that made righteous workers rise up. They started hopping on en masse, and inevitably, some people started taking the whole thing terribly seriously.
Soon after /r/antiwork leapt into the reddit mainstream, journalists who proudly occupy that “reasonable progressive” space eagerly amplified the subreddit, breathlessly reporting each new development from a whiffed attempt to boycott Black Friday to the time the sub managed to send some fake job applications into Kelloggs during a worker’s strike. It feels often as if liberal progressives yearn to be anarchists but can’t quite shake off the call of respectability, so every time anarchists lift a finger there are a handful of journalists eager to treat it as the next grand social movement. So it was here, and so the sub went from a few thousand, to a few tens of thousands, to a few hundred thousand, to over a million, before anyone really realized what had happened.
In many ways, the radicals want this dynamic. They are eager to court liberal progressives, to share their ideas and bring them into their fold. They dream of sweeping through broader culture. But, inevitably, broader culture sweeps back through them. That happened here, as users flooded in who were eager both to oppose work and reluctant to look crazy while doing so. Us? the new would say when challenged. No, we know people need to work. We’re just pushing for better work conditions and calling out abusive bosses. This was a regular pattern of conversation, a perfect example of sanewashing in action.
You can spend hours diving through the bickering between /r/antiwork’s old guard of anarchists and its gentrifiers. Some are hilarious, as when people start calling those who say they don’t want to work at all are infiltrators meant to discredit the sub.
But what I want to focus on most is the single image most relevant to the impact of the Jesse Watters interview:
While liberal progressives may yearn to be anarcho-communists, those online anarchists yearn to be Cool. If you want to understand what an anarchist will advocate in any given situation, look for the most extreme stance someone can take and wield as a demonstration of purity against the less extreme. Cops? Get rid of ’em. Prisons? They’re gone too. Progressives are calling for a $15 minimum wage? Make it $25. Elections? Don’t even think about it. It’s revolution or bust. People are protesting police? Better declare an anarchist zone in the middle of Seattle. It’s an aesthetic as much as a philosophy, angled at — in the language of that meme — being the chad to progressivism’s sobbing wojak. Every time, liberal progressives hop on these movements and attempt to sanewash them; every time, the radicals proudly push towards extremes.
The trouble for these radical movements comes, often, when their vision meets reality. Mass protests fail to materialize. Workers of the world fail to unite. Autonomous zones collapse into violence and murder.
For /r/antiwork, their vision failed the moment a cheerful Fox News host interviewed a moderator who reflected exactly the image they did not want.
The Crimes of Doreen Ford
YouTube videographer Contrapoints has a thoughtful video discussing the nature of cringe. Every group has an idealistic self-image they’ll eagerly present paired with an unflattering stereotype loved by their opponents. In any public-facing situation, there’s a sort of game of tug-o-war, as they aim to present evidence of their idealistic self-image while their opponents aim to present the contrary.
There is no image closer to the unflattering stereotype of /r/antiwork than poor Doreen Ford. If you were not personally one of those gentrifying /r/antiwork, imagine what it must have felt like in that moment: you asserted time and again that it’s all about wanting better working conditions, it’s not about being lazy, it’s the most exciting labor movement in years! …and then you watch the interview with Doreen and you groan in the depths of your gut as you see precisely what you don’t want to be seen as, having the audacity to speak for you.
Awkward, sad, embarrassing cringe.
Soon, easily enough, enraging cringe.
Her visible reaction to the whole thing really kicked the whole thing into overdrive: settling into a defensive crouch, emphasizing that she goes by female pronouns and banning users who refused to use them, a stubborn insistence that she did her best in the interview, a series of terse replies to challenges. Not the most surprising reaction to facing universal scorn from your own community, but it didn’t help. People eagerly outed a defender as an alternate account of hers and added it to the list of crimes; it turned out that they had fallen for an obvious troll, but that made hardly a dent in the atmosphere (if it was noticed at all).
As a result of this massive wave of increased scrutiny, people started to take their first serious look at the movement they had joined, some noticing for the first time that the core user base really did want to destroy work, others looking for dirt on Doreen. They were already mad at her, already horrified and cringing to realize she was their representative. What most didn’t expect is just how much dirt they could find.
As the rage rose towards a boiling point, new users dug up information that had been available, unremarked, for years: Years before /r/antiwork rose to prominence, Doreen Ford, facing accusations of serial rape from a prior sexual partner, confessed to inebriated sex that the partner later stated was non-consensual. Soon after, Ford confessed to masturbating while lying next to “a person with whom [she] had an ongoing sexual relationship and living arrangement” against the individual’s will, placing their hand over her boxers nonconsensually while in bed, and shutting off alarms the individual had set to avoid falling asleep together.
This is clear abusive behavior, more than enough reason to merit creating distance from someone. I’m glad people reacted with strong opposition to finding it out. But don’t fool yourself for a moment into thinking that this whole thing is about that behavior. She was visible. That information was knowable. People didn’t care beforehand. They had no reason to care, because she hadn’t embarrassed them.
Want to know the true crime of Doreen Ford?
She didn’t know her place as the unflattering shadow of her community. She didn’t realize the game everyone was playing and dared to claim the role of main character. She thought she could fill the role merited by her actual activity in the community rather than her position on the totem pole of cool. The crime, in other words, is not that Ford represented them, but that she did it and it wasn’t cool.
And that was unforgivable.
Suddenly, the sanewashing didn’t quite cut it. People had no interest in understanding the background of the group they were joining or its long-time leader while the whole thing felt cool and exciting. Newcomers were eager to present themselves as the true heart of the aspirant movement, to sanewash it into one of reformism led by the force of the working class. Only when Ford turned out to be, well, cringe, did they bother to notice a sordid history and incompatible goals.
The Reality of Niche Online Communities
Speaking of unflattering stereotypes, let’s be blunt for a moment: Most of what you read on the internet is written by insane people. Writer /u/DinoInNameOnly provides some sobering reminders:
If you consume any content on the Internet, you’re mostly consuming content created by people who for some reason spend most of their time and energy creating content on the Internet. And those people clearly differ from the general population in important ways. […]
Reddit consists of 97–99% of users rarely contributing to the discussion, just passively consuming the content generated by the other 1–3%. […]
Wikipedia’s most active 1,000 people — 0.003% of its users — contribute about two-thirds of the site’s edits. Wikipedia is thus even more skewed than blogs, with a 99.8–0.2–0.003 rule. […]
YouTube power-user Justin Y. had a top comment on pretty much every video you clicked on for like a year.
In my own experience as a certifiably insane veteran of far too many niche forums: a lot of people in niche online subcultures are really freaking weird, political ones perhaps more so. Not just because they write disproportionately more than the average internet user. Many members of these subcultures are Weird in very particular ways. Many are socially awkward with peculiar obsessions and few pursuits in the offline world. Many, in short, have more in common with Doreen Ford than it’s often polite to acknowledge.
But these devoted members of online subcultures also generate the ideas and the online structures that more casual users end up enjoying. Those spaces have a whole lot of rough edges and a whole lot of rough personalities, but this is paired with a sort of creativity and ingenuity that keeps active users engaged while slowly drawing the attention of casuals. Social gentrification, then, is the process by which these new users slowly raise the status of the community as a whole in a way that pushes out and shuns those who were there through the sketchier beginnings. It’s a net good for the gentrified spaces. But it happens by taking spaces built by and for people rejected by the mainstream, moving the mainstream in, and shoving those people out.
As described in the article that coined the term social gentrification, casual users can eventually overwhelm the devoted minority. These casual users sand off the rough edges in a community in the process of gentrification, allowing it to grow and to be incorporated as a trend into broader culture. The article details one side effect of that process:
‘Nerd’ is cool now, but nerds are still losers.
This is a dynamic very much present in just about every anarchist space online, no different from hubs for any other niche extremist ideology. There are a lot of awkward, depressed people with limited real-world prospects who find a sense of camaraderie as they dream of utopia with like-minded peers. Sometimes, people take them seriously enough that something enters the mainstream. That’s when this dynamic hits.
Antiwork is cool now, but Doreen Ford is still Doreen Ford.
And do you know what happens when antiwork becomes cool?
Forbes writes thinkpieces about how “all they are asking for is a fair chance to find a decent job with the potential of advancing. They’d also like to be paid fairly and treated with dignity and respect”. The radicals who devoted years of effort to unpopular, extreme, often insane ideas are unceremoniously put out to pasture, and the millions who hopped on board to laugh at funny texts from mean bosses feel a shot of glorious vindication and move on with their lives. The concept is sanewashed away and the users gentrified out, creating a sort of Ship of Theseus effect where every bit of the group changes until it fits whatever more mainstream culture wants it to be.
There are many who hopped onto the antiwork train Doreen and friends built as the latest progressive fad without ever thinking to examine its origin more closely, mocking those who claimed it was a collection of lazy anarchists who didn’t want to work. When those people noticed just what they had signed onto, they eagerly participated in ostracizing the founders of the movement they hopped on board. To those people, I have one minor request:
Have a single ounce of empathy, you shallow, crowd-following jackals.
On 25 January 2022, Doreen Ford went onto Fox News and set in motion the final step of the gentrification of her subreddit: unable to make eye contact, calling laziness a virtue, and describing her work as a part-time j̶o̶b̶ ̶w̶a̶l̶k̶e̶r̶ dog walker and her idle dreams for an idle future — doing, in short, exactly what she had done without incident for seven years. But her community had shifted underneath her, and by demonstrating who she had been all along, she convinced them all it was time to complete that shift.
Doreen wasn’t the only one to face the fallout of the fall of /r/antiwork. She took everyone tainted by association out with her. Two of the most visible casualties were her friend and longtime fellow mod /u/WinterTrabax, who spent years in various pro-social pursuits like telling people to knock it off with their fantasies of violence, and fellow moderator /u/WhitePirate15, who had the joy of having a set of bizarre and unsettling fetishes noticed.
Perhaps most amusing, if unfortunate, was the fate of poor naive /u/Kimezukae. He had a glorious rise in which he conducted several media interviews, then executed the will of the people by announcing the removal of Doreen. Unfortunately, that came paired with an ignominious and immediate fall as community members realized he had elected to represent them as a 21-year-old self-described “long-term unemployed” NEET (not in education, employment, or training) who didn’t even have the excuse of long-term involvement with the space. Keep an eye out for the upcoming release of his New York Times interview.
Reddit powermods /u/EphraelStern and /u/Merari01 were brought in to realign the sub with the will of its new user base and with their own priorities so that the sub could continue its vision of being the next grand worker’s revolution.
Splinter subreddit /r/WorkReform had a moment of glorious revolt against /r/antiwork, drawing 150k members in a day as part of a healthy and long-overdue schism. This is the sort of schism that tends to infuriate online leftists, who push against the sanewashing of their movements and perpetually wish both to become mainstream and to remain pure. So they went on the offensive, documenting the founder’s employment at a bank (2) (which the founder had an amused response to), decrying the idea of reform, and expressing fury at the space’s desire to avoid racial identity politics.
After a bit of time, the /r/WorkReform founder decided running the space was a bit too much work and headed out without properly vetting his replacement. After realizing his replacement was another reddit powermod on a bit of a power trip, he jumped to another schism over at /r/Workers_Revolt. Most users seemed to support his anti-mod message, but few seemed keen to push too far against inertia and join him in the new space. /r/WorkReform continues to chug along under new management in its progressive-ish, socialist-ish way.
Authoritarian communists, as they are wont to do, are decrying the lack of central planning that led to the collapse.
Neoliberals, as they are wont to do, are chuckling at the whole thing.
And what about the crowd of misfits that used to slum it in /r/antiwork back before everyone knew what /r/antiwork was?
They’re over at /r/destroywork, having decided they had too subtle a name the previous time. They’re happy they can use /r/antiwork to radicalize progressives against liberalism, capitalism, and government, but they’re not built for the kiddie pool. No reformism for them, no sir.
And Doreen Ford, having gotten her requisite 15 minutes of public shaming, returns to life as a dog walker and perhaps a future philosophy teacher, a reviled exile from the house she built.
So it goes.
Special thanks to those from rdrama.net and elsewhere who provided research help, suggestions, and editing to ensure an accurate story.