Charlie Fang is an internet person. The first time we met, Charlie was sitting at the bar at a sushi spot in Noho—he stuck out like a cartoon character against its muted gray walls, and his orthopedic sneakers couldn’t touch the floor from the barstool. He was wearing an oversized black suit and a bright blue baseball cap that he had purchased from the Grift Shop, a Twitter store that sells politically incorrect streetwear. Later, he would tell me that “suits are good for autists.”
Charlie was visiting New York from Portugal. He had watery red eyes either from jet lag or too much time spent staring at a screen.
Under his online alias Charlotte Fang, Charlie is cool on a certain corner of the internet. In person, he hunched at the bar and avoided eye contact with the crowd of business diners. He is real-life friends with other moderately successful internet people—schizo-philosophy Substack writer Angelicism01, digital health influencer Sol Brah and the boys of Seed Oil Capital. I never asked whether Charlie is his real name, or just a gender-appropriate shorthand for his online moniker.
We were here for a meeting of extremely online people that my friend had organized. At dinner, Charlie spoke, as most internet people do, in loops of online references—to defunct meme pages, his internet friends, and words you would never hear outside of Twitter. Like most online culture, it all feels so profound until you realize that he hasn’t said anything at all.
I work hard to not be online. But I am always drawn back to internet culture because it moves so much faster than real life. In the best moments, people are so much more honest on the internet; a meme can capture a feeling it would take hundreds of words to explain. Being online is the surest way to feel relevant, even if you lose yourself in the process. Sometimes, I slip up and get “Twitter-brain”—using online words and reciting facts from tweets I don’t really understand. Then I have to delete all my accounts again.
You hear it all the time—“the internet is horrible, but.” But I can learn so much. I need it for work. All my friends are online. Will people forget about me if I am not on the internet?
Internet culture used to be something you engaged with in private. You have your public self, your real self, and then the part of your brain that scrolls mindlessly at the end of the day. But the fixations and personalities of digital-native communities are increasingly spilling out into the real world. Extremely online people are running for Congress. You can raise millions of real American dollars by posting memes. Or, as is the case for most people, you can go online to acquire a set of digitally-tinged delusions which, regardless of their content, feel like the most profound, true thing in the world at the same time they are incomprehensible to someone in regular society.
Trying to stay off the internet feels like pushing back against a wave.
Charlie Fang is part of a new group of people who are cool on the internet. Charlie is known for creating a series of projectsand digital personas that cater, almost exclusively, to the extremely online. His cache is honed from years of monitoring 4chan and analyzing digital norms. When I asked him why he thought he was so good at the internet, he said that “it’s an IQ thing.”
The content of his work would repel, or simply confuse, a traditional viewer:
Among Charlie’s followers, he is known for constantly forming and reforming his online presence. Scrolling through one of his accounts—mostly female-presenting, with names like Miya or Sonya—one gets the sense of engaging with a diffuse digital entity rather than a real person. And Charlie likes it that way. He says that when he’s online, he treats himself as a digital spirit, a tool for an algorithm which is far more powerful than him. He posts what the algorithm wants him to say, unlike the unenlightened normal people who simply use the internet to mirror their flesh-and-blood selves.
To 99.9 percent of the population, Charlie is nobody. But to a small group of people on the right side of Twitter, Charlie is a legend, even if they don’t know his real name.
Charlie does well on the same part of Twitter that posts about the Unabomber manifesto and how the powers that be want us to eat bugs. Which is to say that his work is niche, but controls an increasingly notable share of discourse. But there are hundreds of online communities with their own rules, their own norms, their own Charlies—extremely online people buzzing behind the screen.
Normal people are more online than ever. Regardless of your natural proclivities, there is a path towards digital immersion for you: you can become an extremely online leftist, a QAnon boomer, a spoonie, or a femcel. Many “serious” journalists have, in the past four years, devolved into the same habit of self-reflexive online looping as the digital-first reactionaries who follow Charlie.
Everyone knows someone who has lost a piece of themselves to the internet. They latch onto a digital community and start to think it’s the whole world.
Internet people, or people whose entire identities are wrapped up in their online presence, represent a new direction of culture. You don’t have to live in or know about the real world to be important. You can loop around and around in a tiny online world with its own values and characters, and that is enough.
The Will to Post
Everyone loves the idea of the internet. The live wire—touch it and watch the world flash before your eyes. In the late 1970s, home computers only had primitive internet precursors like phone-in BBS forums, but people bought them anyway because they liked the idea of being connected. Everyone together, all at once.
January 1, 1983 is widely recognized as the birthday of the Internet—small networks of interconnected computers had existed before, but they were mostly used for research and defense. In contrast to the constant social posturing of the physical space, early digital-native communities had a beautiful depersonalization. On early web forums, no one knew if you were “a dog, a kid, or Finnish.” Accessing the internet in any capacity required some technical skill, creating a distinct community with a high barrier to entry. The first internet users were engineers, researchers, and oddball hobbyists.
When Netscape launched 1995, the internet was suddenly open to everyone. And instead of acclimating to the existing culture, the flood of new web users overwhelmed the delicate ecosystem—one t-shirt from the period reads “The internet is full, go away!” The new, socially-conscious users had little use for the anonymous, text-based internet. To use Charlie’s phrasing, they brought with them “all the psychosexual drama of human socialization.”
The first social media platform, called SixDegrees, was launched only two years after Netspace brought non-engineers online. MySpace followed in 2003. Facebook launched in 2005. Twitter came a year later. The dream of a universal stream of consciousness became a series of carefully curated profiles, with real names and yearbook-style profile pictures.
Being online today mostly means constantly performing your personality—or whatever online schtick you develop. Liking is a personal endorsement. You post iPhone photography of yourself, or of your family and friends. You write mini-essays about your beliefs. Most of us go on and try to present the best version of ourselves. Because this is the future, whether we like it or not.
Charlie is a character from the other side of the internet, the anonymous networks that lurk below the cleaned-up surface easily observable to “normie” internet users.
Charlie’s accounts have a mythical quality—faded anime profile pictures mixed with an evocative “network spirituality”—and a rough, unhinged energy. In contrast to the hyper-documentation of most online personalities, Charlie’s older work can only be found on deliberately-labyrinthian websites and in scraps on archives that are regularly taken down. The mystique is partly intentional, and partly created by hosting platforms constantly suspending him for content violations. The spotty paper trail inspires a degree of fascination among the extremely online teenagers and right-wing influencers who follow him.
Charlie’s most infamous account was named “Miya Black Hearted Cyber Angel Baby” (@BPDGOD). He launched the character in 2017 as an experiment in depersonalized posting; his goal was to become the “most infamous thing on the network.” The Miya character was known for elaborately canceling itself with the help of partner accounts, as if to make an obtuse commentary on mid-2010s cancel culture. Often, Miya played with obscure online philosophies by taking them to their logical extremes, taking aim at digital subcultures such as “pro-ana” (pro-anorexia) communities and transgender accelerationism.
The effect was the internet encapsulated, the darkness of the deep web embodied by an eerie little girl.
At the time, Charlie’s distinctive posting style attracted a few dozen loyal followers, who would track his movements from account to account and post alongside him, reinforcing the mythology. Between 2018 and 2019, they operated in a swarm along with Miya, united by the #kaliacc hashtag. The hashtag was named for “Kali Yuga Accelerationism,” a reference to the Hindu Vedas and the work of British philosopher Nick Land. In addition to a number of decentralized Miya-esque troll accounts, they ran what appeared to be a pro-anorexia cult for young girls. The veracity of the cult remains contentious, even among close followers of the project. An Instagram account that preserves evidence for the cult is neutral on whether it’s actually real. Long Twitter threads exist that claim to both expose and debunk the cult’s existence.
As Miya’s infamy grew, the proliferation of helpers—as well as copycat accounts—contributed to the mystery around the network. Who was Miya? Was anyone Miya? What did this band of deep-web occultists want? Through it all, Charlie and his affiliates played up the mystery, going on internet-native podcasts with voice distorters and refusing to answer straight questions. The project lent itself to enigma.
After Miya shut down in late 2019, Charlie took a brief digital hiatus. His posting burst out into the relative mainstream a year later with Milady Maker, an NFT collection of ten thousand anime profile pictures.
Milady was notable for being one of the most memeable and digitally-native NFT collections. The images themselves are relatively standard–3D anime girls with randomized accessories like hair bows and baby tees. But you didn’t buy Milady for the art. You bought in for the vibe.
Posing as digital cult leader “Charlotte Fang,” Charlie encouraged Milady holders to break the staid, mid-2010s rules of social media use, and use the internet as an egoless digital entity. He taught users to slap on the creepy little girl profile picture and release themselves on the timeline. The energy among Milady users was, as Charlie put it, was “a little kid with a hello kitty sticker glock.” You can make statements that don’t represent yourself. You can like every post. You can post two hundred times a day, as many of the members of the Milady community did at the project’s peak. They called their new philosophy network spirituality. Right-click-save a Milady and join the swarm.
With a Milady, you could inscribe yourself on the internet with a swarm of other pink Miladys and I imagine it felt, a little bit, like that internet from 1995.
Milady launched in September 2021 at the height of the NFT boom. But the project only gained traction a few months later, after crypto Twitter noticed that Milady holders appeared to be sincerely enjoying themselves.
I was introduced to Milady as “the last interesting thing on the internet.” From the safety of a Twitter feed, the project felt mysterious and fresh. It felt like a new way to be online. At Milady’s peak in Spring 2021, the project had the energy of a cult. If you followed the right accounts, a barrage of “Milady posters” would quickly take over your feed posting about Glocks and ketamine. There was no self-consciousness, just the swarm. Venture capitalists had Miladys. Normal crypto investors had Miladys. Girls had Miladys—a striking achievement in the NFT community. Online teenagers with no prior interest in crypto were using the profile picture.
The innovation of Milady was reminding people that you can technically say anything you want online, if you just embrace that none of it matters. There is nothing physically stopping any of us from logging onto Twitter right now and typing pages and pages of literally anything. We decided to make the internet boring. We decided to care. You could inscribe yourself on every wall on the internet and no one can tell you “no.”
Last April, the Milady network hosted a rave at 145 Mulberry Street in New York City’s Chinatown. I had to go. I wanted to see what was behind the bubbling energy online.
Content, Clout, and Ketamine
The venue looked like a proper rave. It was dark and dingy. The basement was lit with strobe lights and the floor was slick with something. The first thing that I noticed was the girls, a rarity for NFT events. There were dozens of them, but they looked somehow inhuman, any individual characteristics hidden under thick layers of foundation and neon tennis skirts. Most wore the kind of flimsy, borderline pornographic clothes that do well on social media in polished photographs but read as artificial in real life. These were e-girls, taking pictures of their breasts spilling out of undersized white tank tops.
For a community so vocally supportive of beauty, it felt like a display of run-of-the-mill vulgarity. In person, you notice the details you can’t see online—tattoos and clumpy mascara.
Under the strobe lights, a man was flat on his back on the ground and appeared to be having a seizure. A crowd had gathered around him to watch. I wondered if the rave-throwers would be proud that someone had taken it so far.
I started asking around: how did you hear about Milady? In the dark, people shrugged and yelled that their friend brought them here. A few of them actually owned a Milady. Most of the attendees barely knew what Milady was. Given the fanatical atmosphere online, I had expected more enthusiasm. The few attendees who were familiar with the project were mostly speculating.
Outside, I ran into a curly-haired finance bro who had been flipping NFTs for over a year. He announced proudly that he had just bought fifteen Miladys. He had been thrilled when the floor price, the minimum price to buy into the project, jumped to six thousand dollars, before dropping rapidly a few weeks prior.
“Don’t worry though,” he said. “After the rave, it’s going back up.”
I put my coat on one of the benches while I went to the bathroom. When I came back, someone had thrown up on it. Despite Milady’s reputation as a Gen Z project, the median attendee appeared to be a thirty-five-year-old man spaced out on some sort of drug. The couches by the stairs were crowded with mostly male attendees in various states of oblivion. One, bleary-eyed and wearing a red varsity jacket, watched me as I climbed the stairs.
Online, I had watched potential attendees bragging about the various drugs they were going to do at the Milady rave. In person, the display was less bacchanalian than sad. I had a sudden feeling that I wanted to go home.Upstairs, I met a representative from Seed Oil Capital, one of the anonymous Twitter accounts pumping Milady, who was selling Milady t-shirts for $20 a pop. He had clear skin and dead, vacant eyes. I told him that I had seen Seed Oil on Twitter and he grunted in response. “Everybody loves me.” After a few one-word exchanges, he asked for my Twitter handle so that he could “pump me as an e-girl.” He slouched in his chair and told me, unprompted, that he doesn’t have many friends.
I told him I was interested in Miladys and he shot back: “How many Miladys do you have?”
“One.” I had purchased one in anticipation of the rave and was now regretting my decision.
“I’m a student.” I thought the deadpan might break his posture.
The e-girl girl sitting across from us slurred “I have twenty-seven Miladys.” She wore a Milady t-shirt and a dog collar as a necklace. Her legs spilled out of her fishnet tights. A few minutes later, her boyfriend came to the table wearing a hat that said “Please be patient, I have autism.”
The girl actually seemed quite nice, so I gave her my pitch of why I had thought Miladys were cool: using an anonymous profile picture allows you to freely express yourself on the internet and reclaim posting as a medium for connection. Technically, you can actually post anything you want on the internet; the only thing holding you back is reputational cost. Miladys are about supporting the old internet, the free internet.
“You get it, I love that you get it.” I didn’t sense that she cared very much. Five minutes later she was sitting on the “I have autism” guy’s lap, shaking her black tennis skirt into his jeans.
After the party cleared out, I walked to the afterparty with a representative from Remilia Corporation, the self-described “Avant Net Art Extremist” collective that runs Milady. He explained that the afterparty was at “somebody’s dad’s house,” in a voice that said you know what that means.
What he did not explain was that the house is somebody’s dad’s rental event space, a massive, drafty room without enough furniture. There was one low glass table stacked with ketamine and a quarter-eaten packet of Oreos. A few members of the Milady team were lounging nearby, propped up on body pillows on the floor.
Otherwise, the party was populated with about twenty men of the same type: tall, sharp-jawed, clear-skinned. Except the effect was more disconcerting than attractive, colored by the prevalence of bubble-gum pink hats and “Fortnite Balenciaga” sweatshirts. I talked to a few of them. They wanted to know if I had Twitter.
When you meet extremely online people, you would expect them to at least talk. The best internet personalities come off as sharp and funny online and possess a natural digital fluency that conveys a degree of social skill. Even if they are not necessarily normal, you might expect that the strongest posters would be anti-social geniuses—brilliant minds trapped in tortured bodies, released onto the timeline. But in person, they stare straight ahead, pull out their phones, and show you their sharp, funny comments from the internet, then find a way to end the conversation quickly if you don’t have enough mutual followers.
My friends wanted to go home. It was strange there and it was getting late. The antisocial schtick felt like a put-on. “I’m so weird that I must be funny on the internet. Can I follow you on Twitter?”
Filled with internet people, the big rented house may as well have been empty. Their real lives, their better lives, were somewhere online. Seeing them in person felt like an intrusion.
When you scroll long enough, it is easy to believe that the content you consume is just a fragment of real life, a peek at something greater behind the screen. But behind most online content is a kid with a bad case of Twitter-brain, sacrificing a piece of their humanity for digital clout.
When I got back from New York, I logged out of my Twitter account on my computer and deleted the app from my phone. I sold my Milady and watched the price crash a few weeks later.
I don’t want to be anything like these people. I don’t want to be an internet person.
Our Cultural Mutation
After the rave, I vowed to move on from my dalliance with the underground internet. But when I had the opportunity to meet Charlie I took it, because I wanted to see if there was something deeper at the core, some mastermind behind the digital front. It all felt so mysterious online. It felt like something.
In person, Charlie has a crooked smile that reveals a row of nubby teeth. He wears an oversized rosary as a necklace. I asked him point blank how he feels about being so online. Isn’t dedicating your life to being the most relevant person on a small corner of the internet kind of… sad?
By this point in the evening, we had moved to the couch of my friend’s loft in Soho. Charlie sat across from me, his tiny frame perched a few feet away on an oversized leather chair. Someone brought us a High Noon. His shoes had velcro straps.
With the same blank, unmoving expression as his associates, Charlie told me that he made a logical decision to dedicate his life to the mastery of digital culture. Of course being chronically online is destructive. He admitted that he and his affiliates are weird. He described one former posting partner “Sunny” as having “part of his brain missing.” But to ignore the internet, he said, is to give up on making an impact in your own time. Cultural cycles move so fast online that being unplugged for a few years will render anyone culturally defunct, functionally a separate species from the digitally engaged. The internet is a superhighway. Step off and you might be safer, but you will also be quickly left behind.
Charlie sat eerily still while he talked. He said that “no artist of my generation will make important art.” They are not online enough.
Prior to becoming an internet person, Charlie was a relatively standard 4chan kid. He says that he wanted to be an artist and make internet art. He went to art school and studied architecture—with a specialty in furniture—then switched to a BFA. But he dropped out after realizing circa 2014 that the traditional art world had no interest in engaging with the anarchy of the internet. I asked him, somewhat seriously, about his favorite piece of furniture, and he showed me the Red and Blue chair by Gerrit Rietveld.
Once, the art world’s avant-garde was the pinnacle of culture. Now, the cultural frontier is on the internet.
As the night went on, he seemed to lose steam. Again and again, he described how Remilia was on the cutting edge of culture and how Milady was making the world a better place. He never clearly explains his earlier work—the supposed grooming cult, the esoteric extremism, and is indignant about his treatment at the hands of the insufficiently online. Isn’t it absurd they tried to cancel me? For an art project?
I stayed with Charlie until one in the morning. The drinks wore off. We had talked for six hours and I was starting to feel a bit sick. He is just some internet person.
Billionaires are Twitter people. Little kids are online. Your grandma is online. The internet is simply more powerful and more arresting than anything that can be arranged in the physical space. What is the alternative? The kids will go to online raves. Eventually, we will stop pretending that the internet is a sideshow and that our real culture, the better culture, is somewhere else.
Everyone knows, abstractly, that the internet is not real life. But you can’t picture it, not really, until you sit across from the real people behind the screen. Even the darkest online personalities are just people on their phones. It is oddly disappointing to meet the “worst person on the internet” and find that they are nothing at all.
Before I left, Charlie asked if I was planning to write a hit piece. He clarified that he would “welcome a good hit piece.” Most journalists who write hit pieces about Milady—of which there have been many—fail to understand why the project is scary; they just pull up screenshots from Miya’s old self-cancellations.
I am not afraid of Charlie because he writes extreme, offensive things online. I am afraid of him because I recognize so many of his proclivities in regular people—the shifting eyes, the formless references and mental absence. If you spend all of your time consuming internet culture, you are consuming stories and myths and personalities that only exist online. To curate your online presence is to give up a piece of your physical self, to live in a simulated universe of your own creation.
We are all more online than ever. And when you live online, the internet people are in charge. They make the memes and coin the neologisms that will become mainstream discourse in five years. To define the internet is to form the base layer upon which all culture is built. And in the long run, these people will win. Their culture will win. Or at least, that’s my fear.
You can close the computer, but the world will go on without you.