Revealing oneself as a 4channer, one of the nicer names for a frequenter of 4chan.org, a popular anonymous message board, is a dangerous thing. If it happens in person, one is apt to get either confused looks or nervous laughter and a quick change-of-subject in response. If it happens online, one is often labeled one of the less-pleasant names for a 4channer and judged accordingly. People tend to think that 4chan is a hive of reprehensible behavior enabled by total anonymity – and they’re not entirely wrong. Sections of the site are frequented by “anons” posting shock images, as well as the crowd-mixed beginnings of some of the internet’s most enduring memes. As such, it’s a bit of a leap of faith to assume that the internet won’t judge me after I admit that I’m a longtime 4chan resident.
I can’t remember exactly which reddit link it was that pointed me to 4chan for the first time, but I do recall a moment of guilty-pleasure giddiness after realizing that 4chan was a part of the internet where I “wasn’t supposed to be”. Prior to that time, I’d heard of 4chan only tangentially (often in hushed voices), and mostly as a site onto which only the bravest of internetters would dare to surf. I was duly shocked by some of the content on /b/, the site’s most infamous message board, on which the only rule is “don’t break the law” (often broken). But beyond the thrill of using a site that popular culture deems off-limits, I was interested in the social constructions that had apparently arisen within a group of strictly-anonymous users.
4chan is ephemeral and anonymous, which means that no user’s name is known unless they choose to show it (a very rare occurrence) and posts are not saved longer than a few hours. These are often cited as the reasons for, to put it lightly, the site’s lack of family-friendly content. I’ve never been fully behind the idea that anonymity and ephemerality breed bad behavior, and last Wednesday when I had the chance to hear a talk by the site’s founder Chris Poole, I found myself even more convinced.
What I found most interesting about Chris’ talk were the insights he provided into the social dynamic of 4chan. He explained that when he was growing up online (admittedly only a few years before most hackNYers), the process of “finding one’s tribe” on the internet was a much more difficult undertaking than it is today. Before search, in the early days of message board communities, locating a group of people online who shared some of your interest was a painstaking process that involved a lot of manual link-clicking and personal investment. Chris contends that today, given the prevalence of both powerful search and communities that actively foster a “single self” online, the thrill of managing to finally find one’s own “tribe” on the web has become harder to find.
This apparent ease with which users can find communities is something that, according to Chris, has arisen in part due to the deliberate streamlining of user experience by companies that attempt to reduce as many barriers to entry for their app as possible. It’s common practice today to provide an app that offers the boilerplate signup/profile creation form, allows one to import their friends from Twitter/Facebook, and get started immediately experiencing the app to the fullest. This strategy, Poole suggests, leads users to feel less a part of a community and more a user of a service – a key difference between huge-scale apps like Twitter/Facebook and interest-based communities like 4chan, reddit, and digg.
Interestingly, while modern consumer web apps attempt to remove all barriers to entry, 4chan’s userbase has organically created its own, in the form of a prevalent cryptic slang and the use of shock content to keep newcomers out until they’ve become acclimated to the culture. It’s my belief that this process has actually been aided by the site’s total anonymity: users have felt the need to erect structure where none existed.
Chris’ talk was interesting on many levels beyond the social implications of the system he’s created, but these were the points that resonated most strongly with me. From a social anthropology perspective, I’ve been interested in 4chan for a while now – and no, I’m not afraid to admit it.