On the Creative Crucible of 4chan, Where "People Are Free to Be Horrible Assholes"
The Web site 4chan.org has been variously described as the repressed subconscious, the seedy underbelly, and the obscene cesspool of the Internet. Founded by Christopher Poole (aka "moot") at age 15, 4chan is an online community message board that is mainly focused on posting images, with different sections for different interests: there are separate boards for technology, for anime, for video games, and a host of others. Then there's /b/, or "random," the section for everything else. /b/ is the birthplace of Internet memes (including LOLcats), one of the earliest breeding grounds of Internet humor, and the original home base of hacker collectives Anonymous and Lulzsec.
Author Cole Stryker has risked online life and limb to explore /b/ and plumb the depths of 4chan in his new book "Epic Win For Anonymous: How 4chan's Army Conquered the Web" (Overlook Duckworth, $25.95). Though the book focuses on the history of Internet culture and the rise of online memes much more than the recent ascension of politically active hacker groups, Stryker succeeds in providing a coherent, comprehensible introduction to Internet creativity. This is a book that parents of the Internet generation can read without difficulty — they just might not want to, given the risqué nature of its contents. I spoke to Stryker about how the Internet enables innovation, 4chan's relationship to Anonymous and Lulzsec, and where Internet communities are going in the future.
The accessible nature of digital imaging tools and the public platform of the Web have given rise to an online vernacular of visual art. The Internet "provides people who wouldn't otherwise engage in artistic pursuits with the tools they need to create low-level, easily shared pieces of art," Stryker said. It's not just that the public has the tools to create, either — it's that the public forum of the Internet allows creators to get a response back about their work. "The Internet provides this community that provides instant feedback, motivating people to create where they otherwise wouldn't," the author explained.
This responsive environment has helped to flatten culture, making information and art immediately accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. In the rural town that Stryker grew up in, "there weren't a lot of cultural activities unless you were into Insane Clown Posse," he said. "The Internet was a real refuge for me in High School."
"ANONYMOUS" VERSUS ANONYMITY
In his book, Stryker uses the word "anonymous" with a lower-case a to refer to 4chan's massive body of users, who keep their identity hidden as a matter of course. "'Anonymous' was the default username on 4chan, so users of 4chan became known as anonymous," Stryker noted. But where does the 4chan's "anonymous" become the Anonymous of the hacker group? According to the author, "part of the game of 4chan is finding ways to shock and amuse fellow users. One way is to harass people outside 4chan communities." This provocateur spirit, motivated by the online group, provided the impetus for 4chan community's programmers to start making themselves known offline, first messing with other Web sites, then targeting individuals in the outside world as the activities "snowballed into larger and larger targets."
The largest of these early targets was Scientology. 4chan members coordinated anti-Scientology protests and online attacks that formed a "turning point" in the formation of the identity of Anonymous. "That's when you started seeing the "V for Vendetta" masks [which have since become associated with the group]. The 'Message for Scientology' video [which the group released to announce their targeting of the religion] also defined the aims of Anonymous in a way they hadn't before," Stryker says.
So has Anonymous completely separated from 4chan's anonymous? "Anonymous has gotten so popular that 4chan probably has more users, but Anonymous is definitely bigger in terms of press" than the Web site, the author notes in a telling comparison. "As Anon becomes more popular, I think 4chan will go back to being what it was before Anonymous," Stryker says. That is, less politics, more memes.
The growing infrastructure of social media has made it so that the anonymity of our online identities is harder and harder to maintain. We volunteer our real-life names and lives to Facebook, Twitter, and (maybe) Tumblr because we benefit from the transaction, gaining ways to interact with our friends and peers. 4chan's continuing anonymity leads to a different structure — Stryker told me that it privileges content over identity. No one cares who you are, they just care what you post. "You don't have people trying to build their personal brand. People are free to be horrible assholes," the author said. "It's a pure meritocracy."
Is that a good thing? Well, it depends on how much you want to sacrifice to Internet social media companies. The idea of abolishing online anonymity "freaks me out," Stryker said. "The promise of the Internet is that it allows people to do what they can't do in the real world, for better or worse. It's worth dealing with the antisocial side of that to have the freedom of the positive side of that."