The internet started as bulletin boards. You dialed into them on an individual basis to chat with others, one post at a time, your identity backed only by a handle. Those bulletin boards later became the dial-up ISPs we knew as Compuserve and AOL. Then we didn’t need them anymore. We had raw access to the internet, we didn’t need those walled gardens. But for many communities – from web forums to IRC chats – the need for anonymity is still strong. That last bastion of anonymous hope? 4chan. But in an era where presenting yourself exactly as you are, with your identity exposed for all to see, makes a lot of economic and social sense, where does 4chan fit in the grand scheme of things?
Well, it is 4chan…
Call them pranksters or heroes, hilarious or cruel, the people who post by the thousands at the chaotic web entity we all love (or despise) at 4chan exist on their own wavelength. Their content is completely unfiltered and virtually anything goes. They’re responsible for much of the popularly-branded ‘internet humor’ of the past five years, including Rickrolling and the rise of feline shenanigans and demotivational posters. Did I mention lots of pictures of cats? Founder ‘moot’ (real name: Christopher Poole) got a lot of attention for a TED talk last year in which he described a particular poster who had abused his cat with a series of images posted on the boards. The hivemind of anonymous 4chan posters were able to track him down and within 48 hours, he was arrested.
Having been a web board regular for the past thirteen years, 4chan crept into my scope by not only being the primary source for our forum’s ‘funny pictures’ thread, but also their exploits around Project Chanology. There, a more organized group – appropriately named Anonymous – organized nationwide protests against the Church of Scientology, a template that serves the Occupy Wall Street protests well. We all had a good laugh at Scientology’s expense and ultimately nothing was harmed, aside from a few bruised egos, and we all got lulz from a bunch of Rick Astley impersonators in Guy Fawkes masks dancing in front of the Church’s facilities.
…but when does the roof come down?
But Anonymous wasn’t intent on stopping there, in fact speeding up its attacks against other organizations it disagreed with. The faceless mob began to form an agenda and this year, a splinter group called LulzSec began knocking sites offline in a ’50 days of lulz’ campaign, designed in part to expose weaknesses, but partially for the lulz. Arrests are still being made even after the campaign has long ended, but there’s no doubt that there’s been some disrupted faith in 4chan’s ability to keep things civil amongst its posters. As a first stop for several of these people, does 4chan get named as a ‘state sponsor’ of these events? No one’s pointing fingers, but these attacks have one clear origin: the unfiltered halls of moot’s creation.
But let’s get away from the grim for a bit and face facts: you don’t need to be on a web board to enjoy candid pictures of felines or ‘Forever Alone’ mimetic images. In a way that wouldn’t have been possible before your parents, grandparents, and other extended family got on Facebook, Ben Huh has turned ICanHasCheezburger into a media empire, making millions along the way. He has (and will continue to) take every meme that gains traction at 4chan and multiply it times a thousand in a format that’s infinitely more friendly for your motherly co-worker to digest.
Or can it?
But 4chan is far more than the sum of its products. Like any forum, it’s a hangout spot with no social obligation. 4chan can’t completely disappear, in much the same way a puddle can’t be stomped out in the rain. There will always be a need for places to post anonymously, to become someone else, to simply disappear. Whether those intentions are fruitful or malicious is something a place like 4chan can’t be held responsible for – or so far hasn’t. It seems that in the long run, their stature may erode because of attacks on both ends: hackers making them look bad and a growing social empire that has better use for their lulz than they do. At the end of the day, 4chan will probably be the last great forum, but by then, we will have forgotten what that means.