Wednesday, October 8 2008, 17:25
Anonymous: final boss of the Internet?
4chan (NSFW: not safe for work) is what is usually called an image-board, a particular type of forum that occidentals barely know. Image-boards are the evolution of BBS (bulletin board systems) that were extremely popular in Japan before the Internet really took of. As such, most image-boards tend to be centered around japanese pop-culture and art like
animu and mango anime and manga and video games. The most prominent board of this kind is Futaba Channel (2chan) which is exclusively intended to a japanese-speaking audience, and 5 years ago, 4chan was born, aiming to the english-spoken counterpart of Futaba Channel.
The board is divided into several distinct categories relevant to the others interests, each sub-forum being named after the first one or two letters of the section name. As such /a/ is the forum for discussing anime and manga, /c/, /v/ the forum for video games, /jp/ for japan, or even more unusual matters such as papercraft and origami or food and cooking. Then there is /b/, the random sub-forum, which is rather particular as we will see a bit later.
Who is Anonymous?
One of the particularities of this message board system is that unlike the vast majority of forums running over the Internet, the user may post anonymously. Actually, this fact is even strongly encouraged, and the name for people posting with no name is Anonymous by default. The first consequence of this is that the notion of identity is almost non-existent in 4chan, which prevents many issues related to the oversized ego of some posters that can be seen in other forums.
The downside of this, is, however, that the notion of responsibility for the content or assertions posted is gone with the notion of identity as well. Along these lines, there is strictly no login facility in 4chan and no user accounts either except those of the moderators but that are not visible to the mere anonymous. This particularity causes anonymous to be an individual (any active user of the website) but also everyone using it as a whole, hence some recurring sayings (also known as memes) such as “We are Anonymous, we are one, we are legion” or “Because none of us is as cruel as all of us”.
Anonymous’ culture and customs
That said, Anonymous is anonymous only to other users and there isn’t any kind of mechanism used to protect the IP addresses of the posters and individual anonymous can still get banned (b& in their jargon) or prosecuted by legal authorities (like the FBI, also nicknamed “Party Van”) based on that. 4chan and the other image-boards who follow the ways of Anonymous are rather libertarian and there are not many things forbidden to post or discuss, except piracy and Child Pornography, nicknamed CP by the regulars, the term being often mentioned alongside a picture of Star Trek’s Captain Picard when the term is mentioned).
On the other hand, racist or comments towards religions aren’t strictly forbidden: one of the main anonymous’ belief being that nothing is sacred and that the site should only be visited by people who accept this as a fact when entering the website. While 4chan is definitely not for the faint of heart, anything posted on 4chan is not supposed to be taken seriously as much by the authors as by the readers, Anonymous liking 4 things above anything else: irony, cynicism, provocation and lulz… with an occasional dash of self-derision as seen below.
4chan’s demographics: at the intersection between trolls, racists, and pedophiles, but strictly composed of wapanese and retards.
Lulz, a corruption of Lol: Anonymous has its own languages and codes that make no sense to the people not familiar with them. Hence, new users of the forum are encouraged to lurk moar (more) before trying to post or reply to topics as they need to get impregnated by the anonymous’ customs to understand what’s going on and participate actively.
Most of these customs are based on memes: memes are sayings, pictures (called image macros), or concepts that are going to be declined in various flavors and used by others anonymous. Some of them are based on more or less incidental inputs from other users. For example, a popular one is: “loli haet pizza”, a loli (derived from Lolita) in the japanese subculture being a character with child-like characteristics. It is originally thought to have taken off with an user who wanted to express his own dislike of pizza (“lol I hate pizza”), but the presence of several typos and poor grammar changed the meaning of the sentence and derived into a popular meme. They can also be based on fictional works: another example being the “Do not want!” one, originating from a badly translated scene from a chinese bootleg DVD release Star Wars: Episode 3 where Darth Vader screams “Nooooo!” at the end of the movie: The subtitles badly transcripted the scream to “DO NOT WANT!”. This meme is used mostly when an anonymous is not interested or disgusted by the input of one of his fellows. By extension, the opposite “DO WANT!”. also exists. Most memes exist under the form of images macro or text in the post’s body.
There is a lot of memes and describing them to people not knowing them isn’t funny as them encountering them, but the quantity and complexity of some is such that some sites are dedicated to explaining their use and their origins: some sort of etymology to a dialect only spoken in a little part of the Internet… or not so small as these memes are starting to infiltrate the “self-righteous” Internet…
I assume a lot of you already familiar with lolcats and other ICanHasCheezBurger. If not, these are pictures of cats in cute or amusing situations alongside with an humorous caption. The said lolcats are actually a derivation of a 4chan tradition named Caturday, which happens every Saturday and where users are invited to post some cats pictures. These now make the subject of buzz e-mails between colleagues and friends. Not later than yesterday, when working on the system of a colleague, I incidentally discovered one of those cat pictures in a directory. If they knew that what amuses them so much originally came from a website having integrated forums for pornography or other things of questionable taste or decency, they certainly would think twice before forwarding them to everyone they know. The paroxysm of this is people using and abusing of the sentences “a cat is fine too” which actually come from an erotic manga parody…
Other sightings of Anonymous’ memes are in blogs, particularly those aimed at the Japanese subculture and computers in general. It certainly wasn’t the case a year ago, and I feel myself thinking more and more that I wouldn’t have understood the funniness of some articles leveraging these memes, had I not known some of them.
Anonymous’ (wrong)doings and achievements
Some Anonymous obviously do much more than simply staying on their website discussing the popular culture and posting pictures with their peers. Anonymous is responsible of several more or less aggressive actions towards other Internet websites or users. An anonymous assembled an intervention group made of other fellows to invade the Habbo Hotel service (a virtual hang-out for teens). Each anonymous created accounts and all customized their avatars the same way: a black man, wearing a gray suit and with an afro hair-cut. This story has become one of the many Anonymous’ legends which is told and retold in the forms of memes, copypasta, and even 3D videos. They first started to block the pools, claiming these were now closed due to AIDS, hence imprisoning users swimming in the virtual pool before the /b/lockade. Habbo’s moderators tried to ban the invaders (sometimes even using racist comments towards the black avatars), but were overwhelmed by the sheer number and steady arrival of new /b/rothas. It is one of the key powers of Anonymous: one and legion at the same time. A legion of roughly 3 millions monthly users according to moot, the 4chan’s founder and owner.
Anonymous there managed to achieve something I’ve been interested in for a long time: “distributed online humanity”. Most people already know that distributed computing through projects like Seti@Home or Folding@Home which uses the computational power of their machines to analysis quantity of data over the Internet which would be almost impossible to process otherwise. Considering how an human is much more versatile than a machine (just by his ability to decipher CAPTCHAs but also by each individual’s set of abilities), Anonymous certainly could be considered like the closest thing to an army of the Internet. While the Habbo Hotel invasion is arguably little more than childish terrorism/vandalism, there probably is no other site in the World who could have organized this, which is an achievement in itself.
It should be noted however that even though Anonymous is powerful enough to be considered as some sort of Internet army, the ways of Anonymous state clearly that they are not your personal one. People attempting to summon this power for personal gains, like for example winning a contest where the winner is decided on the number of online votes are likely to get very undesired results. Not only Anonymous wouldn’t vote for the summoner but they would even do their best to make him lose any chance to win the contest and even manage to cause the victory of the worst contestant.
All these acts made Fox News make and broadcast a short reportage on Anonymous painting them as dangerous terrorists, with footage of vans blowing up, which is clearly over-exaggerated as it is something that Anonymous obviously never has done: Anonymous’ attacks aim some areas of the Internet or moral symbols, but no case of physical or structural damage have ever been reported. The reportage contains many inaccuracies as 4chan is a public website while Fox presented it as a secret one. One of the reporters is also shown with an impressive list of passwords, claiming to have downloaded from the secret yet public web-site 4chan, but zooming on the images reveals that he is actually holding blank sheets. Nevertheless, Anonymous lol’d and turned many parts of this reportage to various memes such as “Internet Hate Machine” or “Hackers on Steroids”.
On the brighter side, Anonymous sometimes do things for the benefit of everyone like translating/fansubbing japanese media. Anonymous is also a fervent opponent of the Church of Scientology which they regularly oppose both online and in-real-life with their Project Chanology. They also proven themselves able to make careers such as Tay Zonday’s and his song “Chocolate Rain”, published on Youtube at that time. The (un?)intentional buzz on 4chan quickly made Tay’s song gain in popularity, enough to allow him to enter the professional music business.
4chan’s creator: moot
moot (alleged real name: Christopher Poole) is the founder and owner of 4chan, which he created on 1st October 2003 when he was 15 years old (which makes him in his twenties today). 4chan’s spirit has been partly inspired by the SomethingAwful website, which moot was a regular at that time. While moot is indeed running a very successful website in terms of number of visits, it doesn’t make him the next Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook). The very nature of 4chan, which includes several pornography-oriented message boards causes a lot of sponsors to think twice before advertising on 4chan, due its colored contents. Even worse for him, some other people pop up out from nowhere and start making money, capitalizing on the memes spawned by his own website.
IcanHasCheezburger is the most obvious example (was bought by a team of investors at the price of USD 2 millions), but many t-shirts bearing 4chan’s memes on them are sold every month. While it is true that these memes were not created by moot himself but the various anonymous on 4chan and belong to the Internet folks as a whole, he still created the platform enabling their birth, and if I were him, I certainly wouldn’t be very happy to see people make money out of what I helped to create. The Guardian gave him the flattering yet as appropriate as cynical title of "the most influential web entrepreneur you've never heard of". That said, moot got interviewed by the Wall Street Journal and had a full article about him and his website on Time Magazine… still not that bad and there certainly are worse curriculums to make a career in the World Wide Web industry.
While I keep thinking it should be infuriating to have created such a successful website without being able to turn it into a really profitable business, moot has little other choice. The particular atmosphere and content is a large part of what made the website popular and even though moot tried removing several sections of questionable decency or taste, users kept posting them in other unrelated sub-forums and he quickly gave up. I think moot’s moral victory lies in not having tried too hard to change what is website is. 4chan is 4chan, with all its originality and excess. Changing the recipe to make it politically more correct and acceptable wouldn’t have worked. The only thing moot could have had the insight to do is to capitalize on the memes by himself by opening external sites like IcanHasCheezBurger, but the Anonymous’ community probably would have frowned upon this attempt to capitalize on them.
My own take on 4chan and Anonymous
My opinion is a lot like the one from The Guardian : “at once brilliant, ridiculous and alarming”: many of the concepts brought by 4chan are rather fascinating, not just the richness of the memes but also how Anonymous acts like a collective consciousness while being leaderless, so much that I think it wouldn’t make a bad subject for an anthropology student’s thesis regarding a social behavior close to the Crowd Psychology. That said, we can’t ignore the messages posted which are most of the time not very interesting to follow, if not shocking and offensive, especially on the /b/ random sub-forum, by far the most polluted. It is difficult to have serious conversations on 4chan and sooner or later any thread is bound to loose any seriousness. It is however a great source of various parodies and a place where everything is going to be turned into derision: if you like irony, cynicism and derision as a form of humor then you will definitely have some fun with some of the content generated by Anonymous.
However, as I was saying, various websites describe the various memes in a rather well-organized manner. As such, it is possible to enjoy the memes and Anonymous’ humor without wasting time on 4chan where the signal-to-noise ratio is rather low. Some anonymous compare posting in 4chan to "pissing in an ocean of piss", and it certainly sounds like an accurate description to me and is probably why I only posted 3 times in 4chan in my entire life. Some of the web sites indexing memes are Encyclopedia Dramatica (Anonymous’ version of Uncyclopedia) and Macrochan (an image macro gallery classified by subject). Please be still aware that, by archiving some of the content created by Anonymous, some articles and pictures are intended to a mature and prepared audience and are inherently NSFW (not safe for work).
The future of 4chan and Anonymous
One of biggest challenges for 4chan and Anonymous in the future is for them to find a way to preserve their culture and group identity. At the first glance, 4chan would look disgusting to most people, but I believe it was mostly done on purpose to automatically exclude people not sharing the same interests (japanese and geek subculture) but also the same kind of humor and state of mind: a natural selection of sorts. But with the 4chan memes exporting themselves very well to the “self-righteous Internet” and with constantly higher coverage in the media, including those as prestigious as TIME Magazine or the Wall Street Journal, the number of anonymous increases every month and the risk of the Anonymous’ culture getting progressively diluted is real. Many youngsters join the forum, attracted by the apparently anarchic structure of the forum (lack of identity and lax rules) and join, but most of them only generate noise and few content and inputs to the Anonymous’ collective culture: this has become to be called “the cancer killing /b/”, causing the random sub-forum, traditionally the most nonsensical and shocking one to become even worse in these aspects.
The memes can be seen as an exterior sign of adherence to a group sharing the same interests and beliefs. Anonymous by nature is a group aiming to be subversive (more than rebellious or anarchic in my opinion) but from the moment something becomes mainstream, it can not be considered subversive anymore and then loses a lot of its value as a symbol. A suiting analogy would be how wearing Che Guevara t-shirts was once regarded as a sign of rebellion or anarchy against the system and its rules but has now faded to a mere emblem of teenage crisis. These t-shirts are mass-produced and wore as massively by people fitting in the system much more than that symbol used to mean: this sign as an adherence to a group sharing the same beliefs and opinions has lost most of its value to eventually become a mere fashion object, to the point no one takes this seriously anymore. The memes, the spearhead of Anonymous’ culture partly voluntarily made unsightly as a repellant are now making of 4chan a victim of its own popularity, which in turns puts the website at the risk of becoming mainstream and a symbol without much value. Not as planned, wasn’t it? When I was saying Anonymous liked irony and cynicism…