Prior to a few weeks ago, I had never heard of the site 4chan. Since, the leaking of the graphic images of a number of celebrities, 4chan has become a standard pop-up in my cultural development when investigating the Internet, and this investigation has unravelled that where there is an online controversy 4chan is often somehow involved. I am not sure if this means that it takes a naked Jennifer Lawrence for me to notice such a significant online community or my digital footprint is just stepping deeper into the darker corners of the Internet? 4chan.org is a website which has been recently under scrutiny due to the leaked images, it is an example of a site that eschews attribution and promotes consequence-less anonymity. It allows contributions from users with no registration process, which has led to a user base operating anonymously to disseminate content, which has been found problematic.
Sites like 4chan are what Davison (2012) calls, ‘unrestricted’, and have a key focus around removal of authorship. Contrastingly, popular online platforms (such as Facebook, Google…etc.) continue a historical priority of attribution and authorship, concepts which are central to the ‘restricted web’. According to Davison, a removal of attribution allows for a more exploratory collaboration; but the anonymity attached to it also aligns itself to negative online behaviour, such as trolling. For Mandiberg (2012) the collaboration element of the unrestricted web allows users to create a personal media, that they are not just ‘“eyeballs” that can be owned’, but are rather charging their own creative desire. This agency combined with anonymity creates an uneasy coexistence within new media convergence.
4chan has also been described as ‘Pandora’s Box of the Internet’, where the ability of anonymity allows for gruesome and offensive content that can lead to offline mayhem (most notoriously via the /b/ forum, as explained in Mashable video above). With events such as the leaking of Jennifer Lawrence’s private images, hacking of Trayvon Martin’s email account, #CuttingForBieber twitter hoax (and more in this list); it’s easy to see the problems with 4chan, its anonymity and consequence-less attitude that fosters negative flak. However, with some morally awful actions, 4chan has also bestowed opportunities for moral gratification, such as the catching of animal abusers. 4chan’s founder, Christopher Poole, defends the anonymity aspect of this site as it fosters creativity and this can be seen through 4chan’s significant contribution to the Internet meme culture and online entertainment, such as: LOLcats (and Caturday); vocal talents of Tay Zonday; and Rickrolling.
Davison defines Internet memes as:
“a piece of culture, typically a joke, which gains influence through online transmission”
And that is the intent of the primarily visual culture on 4chan. It is a joke, it is intended to entertain. The site’s FAQs encourage positive contribution rather than ‘shitposting’, its aim is to create a humorous environment. For example in this screen grab below from a section of a transcript between Poole and a prosecuting lawyer, where the unique behaviour of 4chan users is discussed, we see that it needs to be made clear that certain online trends derived from 4chan are intended as a joke.
In this instance the cultural meme discussed also developed to become a form of social commentary, such as the public’s rickrolling of MTV Europe and the Anonymous movement first making headlines as it rickrolled the Church of Scientology.
The Anonymous vigilante (hacktivist) group that is now an internet institution in its own right was fostered out of 4chan’s message boards, where everyone who doesn’t choose to be identified is ‘anonymous’; and a large majority choose to be ‘anonymous’ (the nature of this anonymous culture that revels in their anonymity makes it difficult to get any concrete statistics around usage). This idea of everyone being unanimously anonymous starkly contrasts with the rising culture around selfies and digital narcissism. These contrasting ideas of online anonymity versus vanity, is explored by Palmer (2012) in his discussion on social space and our voluntary self-surveillance through the smart phone, which is intertwined with social anxieties around privacy. On one hand, we’re documenting and publishing our ‘performative self-representation’ and turning voyeurism into an entertainment form, but we’re also demanding the right to be forgotten and to be left digitally anonymous. In relation to 4chan this duality comes together under the idea of being an Anon — a publicly neutral identity. By posting anonymously you are not hiding, you are rather identifying yourself publicly as an Anon (this concept is best explained in this Tumblr post, “Faceless Together“).
For Davison, the key success of Internet memes and its cultural commentary (entertainment) is presented via the removal of attribution and authorship, which he calls the ‘nonattribution meme’. It is the ‘uncivilised’ wilderness of the Internet, the unrestricted web platforms, such as 4chan, which unmask cultural commentary that question human behaviour, nature and identity. And the divergence of this questioning has led to another institution – Anonymous – and the dynamic nature of the Internet will generate further. What do you think could spawn next?