4chan: Collaboration Out of Chaos
4chan.org is an undeniably infamous website. It has been referred to as “the worst place on the Internet” (source), “the Internet’s Teenager” (source), and “simultaneously the best and the worst of the Internet” (source). However, the average Internet user has never engaged with the website or learned anything about how it looks, feels, operates, and—most importantly—the aspects of its culture.
What is 4chan?
From their homepage, “4chan is a simple image-based bulletin board where anyone can post comments and share images.” The website is divided into boards based on topics, interests, or hobbies. If one wants to discuss the latest jacket they bought and if it goes with their black jeans, they can go to the fashion board, /fa/. If one wants to talk about the progress which they have been making on their bench press, they can make a thread in the fitness board, /fit/. Within each board, there are threads—sequences of The main, defining aspects of the culture of the website are the complete anonymity and near absolute free speech. These two properties of 4chan are what make it so unique when compared to most modern social media: usually, a registered account is required to comment, post, and sometimes even view a social media application.
A Brief History of the Website
4chan was created by Christopher Poole—known online as “moot”—on October 1, 2003. moot was 15 years old at the time, and he was inspired by a different website, 2channel. 2channel is another bulletin board website based on the BBS’s of the 1980s and 1990s. It was text-based only and was one of the most popular websites in Japan in the early 2000s, garnering millions of daily users at its height. moot liked the idea of 2channel, so he created 4chan as an English language recreation of the original.
At first, the website started with only two boards: /a/, the anime and manga board, and /b/, the random board. He got the first few viewers by manually spreading the word of his image board on the Something Awful forums, which he frequented.
Over the following years, moot frequently encountered problems funding his website. He tried to turn to advertisements, but the free-for-all aspect of the website’s content prevented him from attaining much revenue from advertisers. However, the website stayed afloat, gradually expanding to its current size of 74 boards, 20 million unique monthly visitors, and 900,000 posts daily.
moot left the website in 2015 without any warning, and the community of the website was devastated. Poole justified his actions, stating that “4chan has given [him] some amount of notoriety… but it certainly hasn’t provided [him] wealth” in an interview with The Rolling Stone. He passed ownership of the website over to Hiroyuki Nishimoto, the original creator of 2channel. A year later, in 2016, news broke that moot began working for Google’s Google Maps division. The website has continued to be operated under Nishimoto ever since he received control of the site.
4chan’s Circuit of Culture
There are three levels to the regulation of 4chan: the administration, the moderation team, and the users themselves. The website, known for its lawlessness, actually has a small handful of global rules which boil down to advising the community to only post what is within local or US law. Each specific board has its own set of rules, usually set to keep conversations in the realm of the topic of the board. The administration handles the creation of the rules of the website, and occasionally step in to ban users or delete posts. However, most of the rule enforcement is done by an anonymous group of moderators commonly referred to as the janitors or “jannies”. If something is outside of the laws governing free speech in the United States, then it will be removed from the website, with the poster’s IP usually being banned. This is very similar to how most online forums work. However, it becomes interesting once we see how users regulate the content of the site, too.
When a thread is created on a board, another thread currently on the board is removed to make room for the newly created thread. Over time, each live thread gets closer and closer to being the thread to next get removed. All threads march on like this till their eventual death. For smaller, less popular boards, threads may stay up for dozens of hours, but on more populated boards with much more interaction and thread creations, threads only last a few hours at most.
By engaging with a thread, a user helps promote the thread, and it appears higher up on the list of active threads on the board. Thus, come people will intentionally try to “bump” a thread to the top of the board by just saying “bump” without contributing anything to the conversation. If a user is dissatisfied with the content of a thread, they can “sage” a thread by including the word in at least one of the data fields of their own reply, causing the reply to not bump the thread. By either saging or bumping a thread, a user can regulate the content of the website.
Overall, there are relatively few rules which govern the whole website, which is what makes it so unique. Free speech is a large aspect of the culture, and that can be plainly seen through its regulation.
The most interesting aspect of the culture of 4chan is that everyone is anonymous, and therefore no one has an identity. However, individual users often identify with certain types of posts or certain boards. On the random board, /b/, there frequently are Draw Threads, in which users draw sketches and just talk with each other. Some users heavily associate with these threads and appear in nearly all of them. On the other hand, there are very hateful, racist, and anti-Semitic posts created in the /pol/ board, which numerous members of the alt-right identify with.
There are nicknames for all people who go on certain boards, and this also fits in with the identity of each one. For example, people who go on /r9k/ are called robots, and people who go on /fit/ are called /fit/izens. Users frequently refer to each other with nicknames revolving around the homophobic slur “fag”; for example, a new user who does not know much about the website is referred to as a “newfag”.
In general, those who use 4chan do not identify with it in public because of the connotation it has. In the Rules of the Internet, a joke site from the early 2000s, the first two rules are to never talk about /b/.
4chan is viewed in the browser, but there are a few 4chan viewer apps which exist on mobile app stores. 4chan threads are viewed in a linear fashion normally, with more active threads being bumped to the top of the page. Threads can also be found through the catalog, which is a grid of the first image and title of each thread currently alive on the board. If a user wants to browse only the safe-for-work boards on the website, they can go to 4channel.org and see only those specific boards.
One interesting aspect of the consumption of 4chan is that it is often not even consumed on the website. “Greentexts” are the word to describe stories posted on 4chan in which every line is preceded with a “>” character, which makes that line’s text appear green. These greentexts are commonly distributed around the Internet through other websites, such as iFunny, Twitter, or Reddit. On Reddit, there are multiple communities which have formed around sharing the best 4chan posts or greentexts so that individuals do not need to sift through the vast number of low quality posts to find the most hilarious ones.
Threads and posts on 4chan can be created by anyone, completely anonymously, without the need for registration. The only barrier to creating or posting in a thread is the Google CAPTCHA, which keeps the website (relatively) free from bots. Combine this with the extent to which free speech is allowed on the website and the result is posts and comments that can vary from helpful or wholesome to racist or misogynistic.
4chan is often seen by outsiders as a Wild West of the modern Internet, with users being able to see and post nearly anything. This has created a generally negative public opinion of the website. However, 4chan does absolutely nothing to try to help how it is represented in media. The libertarian ideals of the platform are too strong to ever be compromised for the sake of how outsiders view the platform, especially since profits are not on the mind of anyone involved.
Collaboration Out of Chaos
Raids and Trolling
With the near absolute free speech on the website and the anonymity of all posters, one might believe that the website is a completely chaotic experience, and they were right most of the time. However, it also creates an environment where thousands of people can all see one person’s idea, and if asked, execute an action. Thus, a culture of collective actions began on 4chan.
It all started with the “raids” of early 4chan. A user would create a thread asking others to join some website, play some game, or otherwise do some large collective action on the Internet, and hundreds of users would comply. The earliest version of this were raids of Habbo Hotel, a Finnish game intended for teenagers. 4channers would all make similar characters and stand around in a swastika or tell other players that the pool was “closed due to fail and AIDS [sic]” to “troll” other players. Trolling is the idea of doing something that is deliberately shocking or upsetting to others, all because the person trolling finds it funny to shock or anger others.
As time went on, the trolling coming out of 4chan became more and more culturally relevant. Here is a quick timeline on the largest major trolling efforts which occurred on behalf of 4chan:
- On July 10, 2008, 4chan users caused “F— Google” and the swastika unicode character to rise to the top of Google’s search results for a few hours before Google noticed and quickly changed how their top search results feature worked.
- In October 2008, 4channers started a hoax about the death of Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, causing a significant fall in the price of Apple’s stock.
- In 2009, 4chan users mass voted in—and may have even hacked—the Time 100, the list of the 100 most influential people of that year. The winner was moot himself, and the first letters of the names of the top winners spell out “mARBLECAKE ALSO THE GAME”, a reference to two popular 4chan memes at the time.
- In July 2010, 4channers mass voted in a poll of which country Justin Bieber would next perform at. They made North Korea the number one answer.
- They did another mass vote in 2012 for a Taylor Swift concert and ended up sending her to a school for the deaf.
- In August 2012, they mass voted in the poll for Mountain Dew’s Dub the Dew event, which was a vote for what the new green apple flavor of Mountain Dew would be. They filled the top ten responses with things like “Diabeetus” and “Hitler did nothing wrong”.
- 4channers created a fake promotional poster in 2014 that falsely stated that the new iPhone update, iOS 8, would allow their iPhone to be charged by placing it in a microwave and turning it on. A handful of people did this, and subsequently destroyed their phones. Multiple news outlets had to warn people that the microwave charging was just a hoax.
- And many more…
However, what happens when this same energy is channeled towards something more constructive?
Hacktivism and Anonymous
“Hacktivism” is defined as “the act of hacking… for politically or socially motivated purposes” (source). It is a form of online activism characterized by illegal hacking techniques such as distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, which is when a high volume of requests is sent to a website to overload it and temporarily shut it down, and SQL injection, which is a way to exploit a website to retrieve information from its database tables.
Several different hacktivist groups have appeared throughout the past two decades of the Internet, but the most renowned is Anonymous. Anonymous began on 4chan in the mid 2000s as the name to attribute to the group conducting the early raids of 4chan. The name “Anonymous” comes from the website itself; all posts contain the name of the poster, but since nearly all users do not include a name, “Anonymous” is placed there instead.
The first event which gained Anonymous some notoriety was Project Chanology in 2008. Project Chanology was a series of pranks, hacks, and protests of the Church of Scientology, which they felt was spreading misinformation and abusing its church status for the purpose of tax evasion. They even made a video directed at the Church.
Later, in 2011, they started moving towards even higher profile targets for their activism. At the start of the year, the Arab Spring movements began throughout the Middle East, and the members of 4chan’s Anonymous used their hacking skills and large number of people to hack oppressive governments and corrupt government officials in support of the protests. One user even created a script to help Tunisians get around the online surveillance of the Tunisian government to allow more information to spread out from the protests.
Around the same time, the Occupy Wall Street movement started in New York City, and Anonymous aided the cause by spreading the movement to other cities, such as Boston and London. Here is a list of other important actions by Anonymous:
- Following the shootings of Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, Anonymous hacked various city government and police websites.
- They hacked the KKK’s Twitter account, DDoS’ed KKK websites, and released personal information about KKK members.
- After the killing of George Floyd, they attacked the computer systems of Minneapolis’ Police Department.
- Anonymous shut down the websites of the RIAA, MPAA, and the FBI with DDoS attacks after the U.S. Department of Justice shut down the file-sharing site Megaupload for copyright infringement.
- They hacked the website of the United Nations and added a page for Taiwan, a former member of the UN which was ejected in 1971 when China passed a vote to make itself the only legal China.
- Anonymous released the usernames, emails, and IP addresses of accounts connected to child pornography websites on the Dark Web, and they even took down a few image-swapping pedophile websites.
Are these online activists, or Internet terrorists? Some have referred to them as freedom fighters or digital Robin Hoods, while others have called Anonymous “a cyber lynch mob” or “cyber terrorists”. I think that they are providing a net positive to the Internet by trying to uphold libertarian and anti-tyrannical ideals, which I generally support. Anonymous believes the Internet should be a resource for information, for communication, and for all, and not for government surveillance, racism, pedophilia, or tyranny.