The Internet Loves an Extremophile
Online culture favors influencers who pinball from one enthusiasm to the next.
On YouTube, a British influencer named Tom Torero was once the master of “daygame”—a form of pick-up artistry in which men approach women on the street. “You’ll need to desensitise yourself to randomly chatting up hot girls sober during the day,” Torero wrote in his 2018 pamphlet, Beginner’s Guide to Daygame. “This takes a few months of going out 3-5 times a week and talking to 10 girls during each session.”
Torero promised that his London Daygame Model—its five stages were open, stack, vibe, invest, and close—could turn any nervous man into a prolific seducer. This made him a hero to thousands of young men, some of whom I interviewed when making my recent BBC podcast series, The New Gurus. One fan described him to me as “a free spirit who tried to help people,” and “a shy, anxious guy who reinvented himself as an adventurer.” To outsiders, though, daygame can seem unpleasantly clinical, with its references to “high-value girls,” and even coercive: It includes strategies for overcoming “LMR,” which stands for “last-minute resistance.” In November 2021, Newsweek revealed that Torero was secretly recording his dates—including the sex—and sharing the audio with paying subscribers to his website. Torero took down his YouTube channel, although he had already stopped posting regularly.
This was the narrative I had expected to unravel—how a quiet, nerdy schoolteacher from Wales had built a devoted following rooted in the backlash to feminism. Instead, I found a more surprising story: Tom Torero was what I’ve taken to calling an “extremophile,” after the organisms that carve out an ecological niche in deserts, deep-ocean trenches, or highly acidic lakes. He was attracted to extremes. Even while working in an elementary school, he was doing bungee jumps in Switzerland.
As churchgoing declines in the United States and Britain, people are turning instead to internet gurus, and some personality types are particularly suited to thriving in this attention economy. Look at the online preachers of seduction, productivity, wellness, cryptocurrency, and the rest, and you will find extremophiles everywhere, filling online spaces with a cacophony of certainty. Added to this, the algorithms governing social media reward strong views, provocative claims, and divisive rhetoric. The internet is built to enable extremophiles.
In his daygame videos and self-published books, Tom recounted a familiar manosphere backstory of being bullied by his male peers and friend-zoned by girls. But that wasn’t the whole picture. While doing my research, I received a message from Tom’s ex-wife. (In the podcast, we called her Elizabeth, a pseudonym, because she feared reprisals from his fans.) Elizabeth said she had been at university with Tom Ralis—his birth name—at the turn of the century. They’d met in the choir. He was “quite tall, and quite gawky … he had a kind of lopsided grin and he was sort of cheery and chirpy and wanted to make people laugh,” she told me. Elizabeth was a music student, and she was—unusual for Britain—a follower of the Greek Orthodox faith. How funny, Tom had said. He was interested in that religion too. But he didn’t expect to become her boyfriend. He was happy just to be friends.
When Elizabeth’s father had a car accident, though, Tom started love bombing her. He turned up at her room in college with tea bags and biscuits, and told her that he did in fact want to date her. This proposal came with an implicit threat: “If I wouldn’t be with him, he would disappear,” she told me. “And the way that he talked about it … there was a kind of threat of suicide, that he would kill himself if I wouldn’t be with him.”
Confused, worried, and under pressure, Elizabeth said she “let him take over.” She began to date Tom, and they got married while still at university. Then, she recounted, they moved to a Greek island, where Elizabeth taught English, and Tom, who had started dressing all in black, went on a pilgrimage to Mount Athos—an Orthodox monastery that bans women and even female animals to maintain its purity. When he returned, Elizabeth said, Tom announced that he wanted to become a monk.
I was surprised by this revelation: The man who became famous for teaching seduction had considered a vow of celibacy? But to Elizabeth, the announcement made perfect sense. When she first met Tom, he was a biology student who “hero-worshipped” the geneticist and atheist Richard Dawkins, she said, before he became “disillusioned with science and rationalism.” The common thread between all of these different Toms—Ralis and Torero; ardent atheist, wannabe monk, and YouTube pick-up artist—was a psychological need, a desire to be respected, to be listened to, to be a preacher. It was the role he wanted. The subject matter that he preached about came second.
Not every internet guru follows this pattern. Some influencers have developed a genuine interest in a single topic and decided to make it into a career. But many other corners of the internet are full of serial enthusiasts who have pinballed from one ideology to another, believing in each one deeply as they go. These flexible evangelists are perfectly suited to becoming online gurus. They believe, and they need to preach—and because of the lack of gatekeeping on social media, the most talented talkers can easily find an audience online.
Andrew Tate is another extremophile. The misogynist influencer, a former kickboxer and reality-show contestant, used to describe himself as an atheist, but he announced last year that he had converted to Islam because—as one interviewer, the British rapper Zuby, summarized Tate’s view—“Christianity is kinda cucked.” Once Tate decided that God exists—which he had deduced because evil exists, and therefore so must its opposite—it was important to him to find the religion he deemed the most hard-core. (After all, a man who keeps swords in his house could not have become a mild-mannered Episcopalian.) On the other side of the gender divide, Mikhaila Peterson, a second-generation influencer who became known for advocating a “lion diet” as a cure for immune conditions, revealed in 2021 that she had found God through taking psychedelics. She now talks about religion healing her soul with the same intensity that she speaks about her all-meat diet healing her body.
Shortly after Tom Ralis returned from Mount Athos, Elizabeth escaped the Greek island, and their marriage. When they divorced in 2006, YouTube was in its infancy. Throughout the 2010s, she would search for him online occasionally, and she watched him develop his daygame model. It was like the love-bombing technique he had used on her but condensed from several months into a single date. In December 2021, she discovered from a text message sent by a mutual friend that Tom had taken his own life. He had often spoken of his experience with depression, but his death still shocked her. In April last year, several of his online friends organized a tribute in London, and talked about Torero’s effect on their life. He had successfully become the secular online version of a preacher—a YouTube guru.
Tom Torero wanted to be an authority figure, and he found the cultural script that best fulfilled his needs. On my journey through the gurusphere, I encountered many stories like his. Take Maajid Nawaz, whom The New York Times anointed a member of the “Intellectual Dark Web” in 2018. Before becoming famous as a heterodox public intellectual, Nawaz had been jailed in Egypt for four years in the early 2000s for being a member of the Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. After renouncing that ideology, he became an antiextremism adviser to then-Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, and at the same time stood as a candidate for Britain’s centrist party, the Liberal Democrats. Having failed to succeed in politics, Nawaz became a talk-radio host and became radicalized again, this time into COVID denialism. He left the broadcaster LBC in January 2022 after claiming that mandatory vaccination was “a global palace coup” by “fascists who seek the New World Order.”
Nawaz is, I would argue, another extremophile. This 2015 description of him by The Guardian could just as easily apply to Tom Torero: “Nawaz’s powers of verbal persuasion are something even his detractors concede. There’s a strong line to take in every answer. But equally, there’s very little sense of being open to persuasion himself.” Unlike most of us, with our needling doubts and fumbling hesitation, extremophiles are fervent in whatever their current belief is. And they want to tell other people about it.
For this reason, extremophiles have always made particularly good op-ed columnists—and now podcasters and YouTubers. The Hitchens brothers are a traditional example: Christopher was a Trotskyist as a young man, yet he became a supporter of the ultimate establishment project, the Iraq War. Peter moved from socialism to social conservatism, and has used his Mail on Sunday column to oppose strict COVID policies. Their analogue in the social-media age is James Lindsay. He believes that America is under threat from a Marxist-pedophile alliance, and he frequently collaborates with the Christian Nationalist Michael O’Fallon. But Lindsay first entered public life in the 2010s, writing books in support of New Atheism. At that time, he saw himself on the left. Although his middle name is Stephen, he told me that he wrote his atheist books as “James A. Lindsay” to deflect any backlash from the conservative community where he lived. As far as he is concerned, he has always been a rebel against the prevailing political climate.
Not everyone with an internet following is an extremophile. Someone like Russell Brand, a left-wing British comedian and actor now dabbling in anti-vax rhetoric and conspiracy theories about shadowy elites “concretizing global power,” strikes me as having a different psychological makeup. He is merely a heat-seeking missile for attention. His mirror image on the right is Dave Rubin, a gay man who has built a fan base among social conservatives opposed to homosexuality, as well as a Trumpist who—sensing the wind changing—recently boasted about attending the inauguration of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Extremophiles are more like the sociologist Eric Hoffer’s “true believers,” the people who fuel mass movements. “The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a God or not,” Hoffer wrote in 1951. Hoffer’s formulation reminded me of a friend telling me about a mutual acquaintance who had been in two cults. I felt like Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell: To be in one cult may be regarded as a misfortune; to join two looks like carelessness. Or think about the Mitford sisters, the quintessential English aristocrats of the early 20th century. As children, Unity was a fascist, and Decca was a Communist. Their childhood sitting room was divided down the middle; one side had copies of Der Stürmer and Mein Kampf; the other had hammers and sickles. The only point of political agreement between the two girls was that the mere conservatives and liberals who visited the house were boring.
My journey reporting on the gurusphere has led me to confront my own extremophile tendencies. After being raised Catholic, I became interested in New Atheism in the 2000s, because it was a countercultural phenomenon. Like pretty much everyone else, I would argue that my political beliefs are all carefully derived from first principles. But the ones that I choose to write about publicly are clearly influenced by my own self-image as an outsider and a contrarian. Being self-aware about that helps me remember that my fear of normiedom has to be kept in check, because the conventional wisdom is often right.
Researchers of extremism are now studying its psychological causes as keenly as they are its political ones. “Psychological distress—defined as a sense of meaninglessness that stems from anxious uncertainty—stimulates adherence to extreme ideologies,” wrote the authors of a 2019 paper on the topic. Many people become radicalized through “a quest for significance—the need to feel important and respected by supporting a meaningful cause.” The COVID pandemic was so radicalizing because one single highly conspicuous issue presented itself at exactly the same time that many people were bored, lonely, and anxious. Cults usually try to isolate their followers from their social-support networks; during the pandemic, people did that all by themselves.
The extremophile model helps us make sense of political journeys that are otherwise baffling to us, like the monastery-to-pick-up-artist pipeline. We might be tempted to ask: Who was the real Tom Torero—atheist bro, aspirant monk, or master seducer? The answer is: all of them. He was a true believer, just not a monogamous one.