“The scale of the Internet is something not yet fully grasped by philosophy: websites like 4Chan are like the cities of the Internet.”1
4chan is a user-driven, image-sharing website, with an anything-goes policy and a variety of themed boards. Launched in 2003, it was originally used for Manga and Anime discussion, it’s founder Chris ‘moot’ Poole based the coding and the structure on Japanese image boards he’d been trying to use despite speaking very little of the language.
You can go there and discuss more or less anything you wish. Categories include Japanese Culture, Interests, Creative, Adult and Other. Within these you will find themed boards such as Anime & Manga, Video Games, Technology, Toys, Music, Fashion, Literature, Food & Cooking, Handsome Men, LGBT, Paranormal, Travel, the list goes on. And then there is the miscellaneous section, here you find a board called ‘Random’ better known as /b/. /b/ is the everything else board, the anything goes board, and it is the heart of what 4chan does and what it represents.
4chan is structured to be free and open and, most importantly, it is anonymous and unarchived.2 For the new user (or newfag3) the speed is dizzying and the rules, modes of interaction, and language can be confusing.
You must post an image. You can attach a little text to it. You cannot post an image that you have already posted. That’s about it (aside from the local rules governing some particular boards which are largely ignored anyway). These simple protocols, coupled with the fact that people interact at incredible speed, lead to bizarre and new ways of interacting and socialising that originate here and spiral out across the web and into real life.
A simple example is keystroke errors that are left in to facilitate speed at first and then getting imitated, and later taking on meanings of their own (‘an hero’) or simply becoming inflected or hyperbolised versions of the words first intended (‘pwned’, or ‘zOMG’).
It is fairly common to see a randomly chosen image with an attached text posing a question or making a statement with a closing disclaimer: image unrelated. These images are often incongruous, inflammatory, or offensive and demonstrate a taste for non-sequiturs and uncanny humour. Text/image combinations (Image Macros) are popular. Images are displayed as small thumbnails and so bold text overlaid on an image is common to make it readable at a glance. Recognisable characters become shorthand as images are reworked and reused over and over with just the overlaid text changing. 4chan is also a notoriously merciless place – the natural home of the Internet Troll. It is here that the Internet meme – the imitated trope or repeated and reworked joke – originates, and where many specific memes individually originate.4
While /b/ may be – and indeed frequently is – belligerent, obscene, vulgar, tasteless, puerile and disrespectful it also has a curious way of managing itself and a strange ethics. Many things that may be beyond the pale for the regular net-user are fine on 4chan, and yet there are still boundaries or areas that will see the wrath of the Internet poured upon a user; the figure of Pedobear may appear if a user seems to be edging too close to paedophilic content for example, or there is the case of the Internet coming down upon the young man who posted a video of himself being cruel to his cat. 4chan users made it their mission to find out who he was and where he lived and reported him to the police.5
And here we begin these web-specific activities and agglomerations influencing behaviour IRL. 6
One of the ’net’s best known memes is the practice of Rickrolling – tricking someone into watching the video for Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up instead of some promised impressive video content. Astley himself appeared unexpectedly on a float during the 2009 Macy’s Day Parade and personally Rickrolled the whole crowd. And there are large-scale orchestrated pranks: Also in 2009, 4chan decided its founder should win Time Magazine’s Top 100 poll. They managed this easily, and followed it up by making an acrostic of the top 21 that spelled “marblecake also the game” – a in-joke refering to the IRC channel used by members of Anonymous.
And it’s these slippages into with the real world that provide us with a chance to consider the wider implications of a web-place like 4chan. While the above may be funny instances, there is a more serious political side to all this and it seems to be that when the real world gets a bit too close to the virtual world, the virtual world bites back.
Perhaps the best-known example of this is Anonymous, the so-called ‘hacktivist’ collective, identifiable by their Alan Moore-inspired Guy Fawkes masks. Often acting in areas that involve web-freedom, censorship or against what they view as abuses of the Internet, Anonymous take threats from real-world entities imposing upon their territory – the virtual terrain of the web – very seriously, standing up against online practices that are likely to lead to further regulation or defending what made the Internet great in the first place: a right to remain anonymous.
After several years of online activism Anonymous came to widespread public attention in 2008 when the Church of Scientology tried to get an embarrassing video of Tom Cruise that had leaked online removed. An obvious threat to freedom of speech and a dangerous precedent to set, this finally brought members of Anonymous away from their computer screens and onto the streets. Thousands of self-proclaimed members showed up outside Scientologist headquarters in cities across the world, carrying signs whose slogans ranged from ‘Scientology Kills’ and ‘Obviously a cult’ to ‘Honk if you are driving a car’ and ‘Don’t Worry We’re From The Internet.’This revelling in silliness alongside a head-on tackling of the issue at hand really captures the spirit of this type of activism, a refusal to take the issue seriously can be as subversive, if not more so, than a direct critique.
And how better to protect freedom of speech that to exercise it and find its limits?
At the heart of all this is a desire to be allowed to remain anonymous and to have the freedom to say whatever one wants to say without fear of retribution. Anonymity on the web used to be a given; the idea that you could be whoever you wanted to be was touted as a fundamental building block of its revolutionary potential.
As journalist Gia Milinovich noted, in the early days of the Internet you could be a woman online and your body didn’t matter – your mind did, what you said mattered and it was disconnected from your real life identity. The Internet was anonymous and free and now that’s just not the case.7 Law suits against Twitter users abound, social networking pushes the notion of maintaining a persistent online identity, we’re obliged to trade our personal data in for ease of communication, and the Google empire expands linking your email account to your blog, to your YouTube account and so on.
Perhaps in order to protect our own anonymity we need to protect the sometimes-insane behaviour of those who wish to remain anonymous.
1 Harry Halpin, The Philosophy of Anonymous, Radical Philosophy 176, Nov/Dec 2012
2 There have been attempts to archive it, particularly when it gets good (when a thread becomes an ‘Epic Thread’), see https://encyclopediadramatica.se
3 Note ‘On 4chan, EVERYONE is a faggot (regardless of sexuality), and a need came up to differentiate between types of faggotry. A homosexual would be a gay fag, and a fan of Japanese cartoons would be an anime fag.’ A straight fag is a straight person, a new fag, a newbie, noob or new user.
4 See http://knowyourmeme.com/
5 Christopher “moot” Poole, The Case for Anonymity Online (TED.com) http://blog.ted.com/2010/06/02/the_case_for_an/
6 IRL – In Real Life
7 ‘Which Way to Techno Utopia?’ Little Atoms, Resonance FM, May 2011
Presented alongside Hannah Perry, George Barber, Marialaura Ghidini, Thomas Yeomans, David Raymond Conroy and Jon Rafman, this writing addresses themes of appropriation, digital, distribution, essay, quote, repetition, social space, technology, the internet and virtual space. Shown as part of ‘Rickroll’, Spike Island, Bristol.