Inside Anne Helen Petersen’s Community of Anonymous Nerds

Written by Jessica Goodman
Photography by Tim Gibson

In 2021, writer Anne Helen Petersen made a bold decision: She and her partner decided to move from Montana to Lummi Island, a nine-square-mile piece of land off the coast of Washington State only accessible by ferry. Sure, the location was pretty remote, and the closest big-box grocery store was a boat ride away. But the reason for her move was what raised a few eyebrows: Petersen relocated so she could live near her best friend. Two additional friends followed suit and bought homes nearby soon after. “I am the least lonely I’ve been in a long time in my adult life, which is an interesting thing to say when you live on an island of 900 full-time residents,” she says now.

Because of that move, the topic of friendship has begun to pop up more and more in her uber-popular Substack newsletter, Culture Study, which has more than 200,000 subscribers, plus a related podcast. It covers topics that mirror Petersen’s interests and daily life, including pop-culture analysis, productivity, and anything that might fall under the umbrella of “culture.” A former academic with a PhD in media studies, Petersen became known online for her multi-thousand-word features on topics like millennial burnout and the cool-girl phenomenon, and has also written books covering the power of remote work and the “can’t even” generation.

But as Petersen began to prioritize friendship more and more in her real life, she couldn’t stop thinking about what we lose by not making those relationships a pivotal part of our lives. “I'm a personal essayist at heart, and what's going on in my own life always influences what I'm writing and thinking about in the newsletter,” she says.

In November 2023, Petersen published a piece called “The Friendship Dip,” discussing a new survey1 that found people in their 30s and 40s have fewer close friends than people in their 60s. “The way our society is organized, we have a prolonged stretch of adulthood that is not conducive to forging or sustaining friendship or community,” Petersen wrote. “In many cases, I’d say it’s actually hostile to it.” The Friendship Dip, as she calls it, is the stage in life where family and professional obligations take priority over social calendars, ultimately contributing to deep and pervasive loneliness.

There’s a willingness to be vulnerable [online] that is a lot harder in real life.

—Anne Helen Petersen

Petersen went through her own dip when she lived in New York City, away from her close friends, in the 2010s. “People already had their friend groups, so I retreated to the idea of, ‘I’ll work all the time,’” she says. But as she found out, “work is not a fulfilling best friend.” After moving to Montana, Petersen found some good friends, but not “the feelings of home” she now feels on Lummi Island near her old friends. At the time, she found herself thinking, “I already have these incredibly strong friendships, so what if I—a person who didn't have kids—just moved to where my friends were?”

Of course, living near your friends isn’t an automatic cure for loneliness, as Petersen is quick to acknowledge; the feeling can take hold even when you’re surrounded by people. “Feelings of loneliness happen because you don’t like yourself, or you haven’t done the work of trying to really care for or nourish yourself,” she says. “It’s a combination of therapy and giving yourself time to be with yourself and figure out what you like to do and how to cultivate solitude.” Also, she admits, finding connection with yourself can be hard. “You have to feel uncomfortable,” she says. “You have to override the part of you that wants to take the path of least resistance.”

As a result of her interest in friend support systems, Petersen recently announced she’s working on a new book, Friend Group: A Survival Guide for the Loneliest Century, which will aim to rethink friendship in today’s world. Tapping into her reader base, she’s begun to ask subscribers for their own stories of loneliness, connection, and friendship, from “cultivating intergenerational community” with people outside of your family, to moving back to your hometown and figuring out “what community looks like now.”

For many, an online community may be their only community.

What might seem like a scream into the Internet void has actually been a siren song for Petersen, who has developed deeply loyal subscribers who regularly leave hundreds—if not thousands—of long, in-depth comments on each of her Culture Study posts. “The readership is a lot of nerds who have some nostalgia for a different sort of Internet, like The Hairpin or The Toast era,” Petersen says, referencing now-shuttered news, culture, and humor websites of the 2010s, where the comments sections had their own devoted followings.

As with Culture Study, these women-led websites allowed for niche communities to flourish with anonymity and, often, vulnerability. Think full-on conversations, debates, and inside jokes with people you’ve never met before, but would grow to interact with on a near-daily basis. “People like talking about esoteric stuff in a way that's empathetic, nerdy, and inquisitive,” says Petersen, noting that her subscribers—or “nerds”—are typically “commenting in good faith.” Which is vital, considering those subscribers leave not only hundreds of comments on her posts, but also replies to those comments, and replies to the replies of those comments, resulting in disagreement, fervor, support, and debate.

“There’s a hunger for witty engagement with strangers,” Petersen says. “My tagline is ‘don’t be butts about this.’ We want this to be a place where people are in conversation, and you are participating. Your engagement, your willingness to ask questions, to self-interrogate, to acknowledge how you might’ve hurt or misinterpreted someone—that’s all part of it.” Essentially, the same guidelines you’re expected to follow within your real-life circles, since for many, an online community may be their only community.

It’s in these conversations that readers find support and camaraderie to talk about topics that are harder to broach in everyday life, like conversations about money, or how to make friends in adulthood. On most Fridays, Petersen will also pose questions and let readers sound off. Prompts like “What’s keeping us out of others’ business?” and “Tell other people about your work” get north of 500 comments. Book, clothing, TV, and cooking “concierge” threads asking for recommendations get more than 1,000. “There’s a willingness to be vulnerable that is a lot harder in real life,” Petersen says.

In a recent Culture Study post titled “Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center,” commenters left email addresses for one another to connect off-thread, shared advice for cultivating friendships (“Friend anniversary trips is such a brilliant idea!”), and even debated how important friendship really is, despite it being the entire topic of the post. In response to someone who described themselves as not being a “friend person,” Petersen wrote, “Just want to say I really appreciate your willingness to approach something that doesn't mirror your own experience as an object of curiosity, [rather than] something that's weird or offensive. Comments like yours help make these comments sections really, well, interesting.”

As a result of the vulnerability, honesty, and good-faith discourse, real-life connections have come from the group, just like they might in any other online forum. “Someone emailed me the other day to say that they had asked for Paris travel recommendations in a Culture Study thread. They emailed back and forth, and then ended up hanging out with the person who gave them the recommendations when they went to Paris,” says Petersen. “They sent me a picture.”

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  1. Parker, Kim, and Rachel Minkin. “Public Has Mixed Views on the Modern American Family.” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, 14 Sept. 2023,