Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How 4Chan Conquered the World

For our readers who have spent enough time on the internet to become involved in its politics, or just long enough to chuckle at the funny pictures, news of the upcoming title Epic Win: How 4chan Conquered the World will be a mixed shock.  Cole Stryker’s book, to be published by The Overlook Press this summer, details one of the most controversial sites on the internet, a place which has grown from a simple image board to the hub of meme culture, internet politics and social movements.  While has often earned a reputation for silly, provocative, or downright disgusting content, there’s no debating that something powerful and important is going on inside their member base.  

Though it is now the world’s second largest BBS, comes from humble roots.  In 2003 it was created by owner Christopher Poole, known on the boards as ‘moot’, as a place to discuss Japanese anime and manga.  Users on the site interact mainly by posting images and comments either as new threads or comments to older posts.  

Perhaps the visual nature of this interaction is what led to some of the internet’s most successful memes, rapidly spreading ideas (think movie quotes that everyone repeats after seeing a film) which commonly take the form of an image overlaid with text, known as an image macro.  These memes replicate throughout the internet, grabbing the kind of popular attention to which the image board’s success might well be attributed.  4chan’s most successful macro, lolcats, has spread so widely that it began to spawn merchandise, including a book of its own.

While many know of 4chan through its hilarious cultural exports, far more are familiar with the site through recent news coverage of its tangential connection to controversial movements such as Project Chanology or the recent activities of internet goliath Anonymous.  It’s no surprise that an image board based on the concept of anonymity was destined to be the one of the birthplaces of internet activism.  However the effectiveness of these organizations, their leaderless, anonymous structure has made quite a splash, eliciting attention by many popular media outlets.  

Rumors and opinions fill the digital crevices.  Some consider 4chan a fun place to hang out.  Others claim it is a leftist site dedicated to swapping child pornography.   “You don’t mess with 4chan/Anonymous” is repeated endlessly with implied shakes of many a virtual head.  But what is 4chan really about?  We contacted one member of Anonymous to give us an insider’s perspective.

“It encompasses a ton of photo media as well as discussion,” says our contact, who prefers to remain anonymous in holding with the spirit of free speech and conventions of the image board.  Our Anon says most of the members, “are people who just enjoy sharing pictures.  There are boards for specific things.  There is /wg/ for those people who enjoy wallpapers.  There is a board for fitness hobbyists.  You have /o/ for the automotive enthusiasts and /hr/ for the high-resolution religious.  I mean /b/,” referring to the site’s most popular board, a mishmash of random images and talk, “is the spirit of 4chan, but it’s not the alpha or the omega.”

Our Anon says that most people are grossly misinformed about 4chan.

“People see 4chan and just assume it’s this cave full of internet bad guys plotting their next heist.  It’s far from that.  Are there people who call for raids on everything and everyone else?  Yes.  Are they doing it all the time?  God no.  The raids and gatherings are few and far between.”

We asked our contact to illuminate the organization which in recent memory has shut down the Westboro Baptist Church, crushed an attempted infiltration by cybersecurity company HBGary, and is tentatively linked by some to the anti-Scientology campaign, Project Chanology.

“Anonymous can't be bought, cannot be reasoned with, nor negociated with,” says our Anon.  “There is no power structure.  Nobody leads.  I would say that the collective gets an idea and it builds.  Sometimes it builds and goes nowhere.  Other times it builds into a glorious crescendo and when it goes off, man, it’s a sight to behold.  It’s thousands working together to accomplish an end.”

Some find the idea of a headless legion wielding so much influence disturbing.  Without a central figure to direct that power, without someone to take responsibility for the group’s actions, what is to stop that faceless council from going beyond activism and retaliation toward chaotic or recklessly behavior?  But our Anon dismisses the idea.

“The only time I ever had reservations about something they’ve done was the Jessi Slaughter thing,” our contact says, referencing an incident where an 11-year-old girl was harassed and had her real name, number, and address spread around on the internet.  “None of it was funny to me really.  I thought the whole thing was kind of stupid. I didn’t want to be a part of that.  Even some of the people who make up Anonymous don’t agree to some of the ends they work for.  But…that’s the good thing about Anonymus, if you don’t agree, you can walk away without having to be pressured into anything you don’t want to be a part of.
“Would they become misguided in the future ? I don't think so. I don't think they'd ever move against anything that I believed in.  I believe in Anonymous.  They're a force for a betterment of our world.”

But 4chan is more than Anonymous, or the controversy or political attention the website garners.  At its heart, 4chan is a board where people with similar interests can gather and exchange images with as much or as little attachment as they desire.

“It's not just evil doers, child pornographers, or boogeymen,” our Anon says in response to claims made in several media outlets.  “It’s everyone and everything.  At any given moment, any given time it’s something everyone can contribute to.”  

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