In Issue Six of Kill Your Darlings, Gillian Terzis examined the decentralised collective of activists known as Anonymous. Here, Gillian takes us further into the place from which these hacktivists are spawned – the strange, often pornographic world of 4chan.
I learned about 4chan the hard way. Many moons ago, a friend of mine emailed me while on vacation in Tripoli, saying that he’d attached a photo that I might enjoy. And lo and behold: the photo, innocuously titled maindrag.jpg, was not of a bustling street, but of an elderly man coming to grips with his distended anus. I had just been Goatse’d. In a follow-up email, my friend explained that he’d been spending time on an internet imageboard called 4chan that had fanned the flames of his desire for casual trolling, as the reactions from unwitting suspects tended to be hilarious. On 4chan’s /b/ forum, he said, the ‘bait and switch’ routine is a common trolling mechanism. ‘Rickrolling’ (sending people links of Rick Astley singing ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’) is probably the best known (and most benign) example.
Self-proclaimed moral compass of the magazine world, Time, called 4chan – particularly the ‘random’ (/b/) forum – a ‘wretched hive of scum and villainy’. Personally, I prefer Encyclopedia Dramatica’s description of ‘asshole of the internet’, for reasons that may already be obvious. Other media outlets have tended to steer towards hysterical proclamations, unsure what to make of a site that encourages one’s social filter to be switched off and social mores transgressed to the point of absurdity. But if you strip away any predictable moral conceit, 4chan seems like a constantly unfurling guide to the young white male hive-mind mentality, updated in real-time.
For that reason, it is unsurprising to note that much of the /b/ forum is dominated by crude sexual innuendo, free porn, homophobic and misogynistic sentiment, posts promising photos of personal degradation in exchange for porn and posters sarcastically asking for advice on romance. Offensiveness is encouraged; leave your inhibitions for Twitter. On 4chan – particularly /b/ – there’s no shame or accountability for the unabashed dick-fussing or offensive remarks because each poster is anonymous. The site certainly has an undesirable element to it, yet this also functions as its primary appeal.
Like all online narratives, 4chan can be mentally exhausting. As with Facebook’s aggregated news feed, one is constantly and arbitrarily bombarded with visual stimuli. If you’re looking for a linear, expository narrative among 4chan’s assortment of jewels and junk, it can be difficult. Some of the posts seem utterly nonsensical, even anachronistic – I suppose that’s to be expected on the ‘random’ imageboard – but the most rewarding aspect is seeing memes generated and regenerated, with numerous forum members adding to the dialogue with images and text, trying to garner the most laughs and appreciation from their peers. As such, the results can often be brilliant, shocking, intelligent, absurd and/or chronically inappropriate – much like the male youth which make up the majority of its audience.
Indeed, the instantaneous pace of any social networking site means that the hardest part is keeping up. And to keep on top of memes in 4chan – which has no archives of past posts – can be tiring. The endeavour requires constant visits, in the same way that any social networking site trades off and depends upon repeated stimulation for its success.
But 4chan sits well outside of this social networking war, despite that fact that its influence on culture is as broad as the mainstream players’. 4chan and Canvas (as well as new imageboard sites like dump.fm) are unique in that they thrive on the anonymity of their members. Anonymity ensures that it is the content, not the creators, that reigns supreme. The act of collaboration between members trumps the efforts of the individual every time.
One may be reluctant to declare 4chan an arbiter of taste, but there’s no denying its indelible imprint on internet and popular culture. It has a mythology, a culture and an argot that is distinctly and uniquely its own. Of course, some of the most memorable and vibrant cultural produce is spawned from the ghettos, which are often antagonised by or actively antagonise the mainstream. 4chan has been untouched by the gentrification process – the imageboards are as wildly inappropriate as they ever were – but markers of its cultural legacy can be found everywhere. Liberated from the meticulous posturing that bedevils other social networking sites, 4chan is able to achieve cultural resonance by titillating those impulses that are often left unspoken. Sometimes, the illicit thrill of the forbidden is just too tempting.