“4chan is the single most broadly offensive artifact in the history of human media,” anthropologist Gabriella Coleman reads, quoting one of her colleagues. Despite its often crude nature, 4chan is simply a website that hosts 40-some image-based bulletin boards where anyone can anonymously post pictures and comments. The boards are dedicated to a variety of topics, “from Japanese animation and culture to videogames, music, and photography”. Christopher Poole, known by his moniker, m00t, launched 4chan on October 1st of 2003 at fifteen years old. He originally intended 4chan to be the English counterpart to the Japanese image board sites that focused primarily on anime and comics, however 4chan has evidently grown to encompass much more.
The Random board known as “/b/” is undoubtedly the most frequented of all the boards, and is typically where the most “newsworthy”, chaotic, and overtly random activity occurs. Although regulated by monitors, who supposedly remove racist, inappropriate, and illegal content like child pornography, the Random board realistically has no filters. The lack of filters allows the Random board to generate some of most obscene and
hilarious content, but it’s the anonymity that defines 4chan, that undoubtedly allows the underground community known as “/b/tards” to have an outlet to say whatever they’d like. One of the most outstanding characteristics about the 4chan boards is their lack of an archive. Once content is posted to the board, the power to keep it visible on the board remains in the hands of the millions of anonymous users. With thousands of people posting at time, specifically to the /b/ board, a post that does not receive attention or grant any responses, “vanishes”. I tested out this function of 4chan by making a seemingly innocent post to the /b/ board, one that wouldn’t attract much attention, and I could only track my post after one
refresh of the page. Those posts containing young girl’s breasts and gore undoubtedly overshadowed my post.
Some consider 4chan to be a meme generator with “meme” being defined as content that is passed from one individual to another (nongenetically) through an entire society and culture of people. The /b/ board is also where most of this viral content originates, however memes created on 4chan extend far beyond the constructs of the /b/ board, and appear all over the Internet. One of the most well known memes that reportedly began on 4chan in 2006 is “lolcats”. Lolcats are simply photographs of cats that have a caption written on them that “generally acts as a speech balloon
encompassing a comment from the cat, or as a description of the depicted scene” (Wikipedia). In her talk, “Old and New Battles over Free Speech and Secrecy”, Gabriella Coleman discusses lolcats, describing them as one of “the most famous, recognizable, and least offensive” memes. Coleman also points out that as this viral content travels from one individual to another, it is being transformed and modified, citing the example of “Ceiling Cat”, a more famous lolcat that has lead to the creation of many “Ceiling Cat” parodies and its arch rival, “Basement Cat”.
Aside from the seemingly innocent Internet memes that 4chan produces, the most alluring aspect of 4chan is the amount of anonymity it allows its posters to retain. 4chan is the antithesis of all of the new media that has arose in the past decade, and while the folks at Google and Facebook are collecting as many cookies as they can about its users, and tracking their every click, 4chan does none of the sorts. In Christopher Poole’s talk at TED (a nonprofit organization devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading”), he describes how he created 4chan to be a space that does not require log-ins or registration, as he feels it’s important to have a raw, unfiltered space on the Internet. As all the other leading sites move in the polar opposite direction, where identities persist and commerciality reigns, 4chan strives to use its anonymous nature as its strength. As society becomes more and more obsessed with social networking and manipulating our online identity, we give up our privacy, something m00t feels is extremely valuable and something 4chan tries to retain. 4chan allows people’s inner animal to emerge, as they can post their raw emotions, and receive no social or political consequence for doing so. In Poole’s talk, he also makes an interesting remark about 4chan saying that although it allows people to say whatever they want, it does not allow them to do whatever they want, which is obviously dangerous.
I thought it would be interesting to interview someone, who actively uses both 4chan and Facebook. The use of both sites interestingly enough exemplifies a person’s desire to both achieve anonymity and deny it. I chose to interview one of the boys that I sit near in my Computers and Society class, who participated heavily in the discussion concerning 4chan, when m00t came to speak to my class. My interview was simple; precisely asking him, “What do you value about each site and what causes you to utilize both?” He replied:
I use Facebook because I can’t not use Facebook. It allows me to communicate with my friends and family, it links me to the rest of society. I’m not crazy about it [Facebook] though, I’m not one of those Facebook stalkers who looks at pictures of people I’ve never even had a conversation with and I’m also aware, unlike some people, that Facebook isn’t really me. On 4chan though, which I also don’t go on everyday, I can say and post whatever I want. I don’t need to censor my opinions because no one knows they’re mine.
It seems as though people who use Facebook, or any of the other social networking sites, assume a politically correct persona (to whatever degree they deem fit) because their online actions are traceable and can create consequences in their real lives. People flock to websites like 4chan because they can remove their “social networking mask”, abandon their profile pictures, and post or comment whatever they want, whether it’s pornographic, offensive, racist, or hilarious. This anonymity makes 4chan a unique space, a space that can seemingly only exist in cyber space.
Aside from reviving Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” music video and making “Rickrolling” a viral phenomenon, 4chan has also provided a new space for cyber bullying to occur. Its interface is the perfect environment for this kind of behavior to fester. 4chan allows people to remain invisible and receive no ramifications for bullying or ganging up on an individual. A common bullying practice on 4chan, is for a user to post a picture of a real person, disclosing their name, and either phone number or email address, along with other negative comments about them (i.e. Jane Doe is slut), and request that other 4chan users attack this person with calls or emails. The most famous case of cyber bullying is the “Jessi Slaughter” case, in which the 11 year-old girl’s ridiculous YouTube rants made their way to 4chan and eventually went viral. At one point, the outspoken young girl, whose violent threats mirrored those of her aggressors exclaims, “I’m happy with my life okay? And if you can’t, like, realize that and stop hating you know what? I’ll pop a Glock in your mouth and make a brain slushy.” Comments like these caused the videos to get more and more hits, and angry commenters berated the girl. However, the constant cyber bullying only provoked her to produce more videos (like these)in response. The patterned continued until the bullying got so extreme, that the media caught wind, and Jessi appeared on Good Morning America to discuss the circumstance. M00t as well as the regular users of 4chan were expecting Good Morning America to out 4chan as the stomping ground for cyber bullying. GMA did not mention 4chan, however they did feature a cyber bullying expert, who the people of 4chan deemed as their next target. Gawker.com reports, “Lawyer, Parry Aftab, appeared on the show to discuss the case, [and] 4chan users targeted her for a harassment campaign… They shut down Aftab’s websites—wiredsafety.org and aftab.com—prank called her, vandalized her wikipedia entry and Google-bombed ‘Parry Aftab Arrested for Child Molestation’” (Gawker.com). 4chan enables mobs to form, mobs that specifically seek pleasure in anonymously pranking other individuals and laughing at their expense. The term “lulz” was coined, that pays tribute to the popular term, “LOL”, meaning laugh out loud. Gabriella Coleman explains that people on sites like 4chan, gather and attack individuals seeking “lulz”, and often exclaim the phrase, “I did it for the lulz”. Hilary Mason, a data scientist at “bit.ly”, concludes that 4channers strength resides in their anonymity, while everyone else’s known identity becomes their liability.
The groups of people that 4chan has helped to unite are often seen in a negative light, however, in my opinion the most important influence 4chan has had upon society is its impact on anonymous activism. On a smaller scale of activism, 4chan seems to have an affinity towards cats, and has aided in the justice of putting two cat abusers behind bars. In two separate instances, videos surfaced on 4chan of a boy abusing his cat and of an English woman placing a cat in a garbage pail. The outright animal abuse caused 4chan users to erupt in anger, track down the identity of the individuals, and notify law officials, all within 48 hours.
The most well known case of activism that has occurred because of 4chan is the creation of the group, “Anonymous”. Their website whyweprotest.net, helps clarify their existence stating, “Anonymous is a cultural phenomenon which began on Internet image boards… We are a collection of individuals united by ideas… Anonymous is everywhere, yet nowhere”. When THIS video of Tom Cruise preaching about The Church of Scientology (COS) surfaced on 4chan and eventually went viral, computer geeks especially, who Gabriella Coleman explains have an fundamental opposition to everything the COS stands for, went crazy. She goes on to explain that geeks and hackers typically tend to be atheist, with much of their beliefs stemming from evolution and “true” science, opposed to the science fiction basis of Scientology. In addition, hackers tend to value open source ethics and the ability to modify technology, which also differs greatly from that of Scientology, which has a more centralized and controlled view. Anonymous’ website clearly cites their objectives, “Anonymous originally chose Scientology as a campaign target…While the video itself was not enough to spark interest, the untamed aggression of the Church of Scientology to remove it did” (whyweprotest.net). Anonymous, which is also referred to as “Project Chanology”, directly referencing 4chan, has become a legitimate group of protestors who hold protests around the world specifically against the COS. They seek to dismantle the church and its cult-like practices, while exposing the lies they preach. Additionally, Coleman explains the concept of “trolls”, a term heavily used on 4chan, that essentially describes someone or a group of people who purposely cause controversary in hopes of provoking others. The people of Anonymous and/or Project Chanology (whoever they may be) often act as trolls, engaging in highly coordinated pranking of the COS. One of their favorite acts of trolling involves people ordering dozens of pizzas and having them delivered to the churches.
It has been quite overwhelming trying to understand the phenomenon of 4chan, as so much could be said about it. It is rather difficult to analyze a constantly evolving website, but I hope to have included some of the most pressing aspects of 4chan. I do wish that I could have interacted more with some of the die-hard 4chan users themselves, however, their anonymity obviously prevents this and protects them. The real life Anonymous protests allow society to see some of the real people behind the boards of 4chan, even if their faces are obstructed by Guy Fawke’s masks.
I will conclude with a mantra inscribed on Anonymous’ homepage.
We are Anonymous. You can be Anonymous, too. Together, we can shape society.