Thursday, November 11, 2010

And I didn't break rules 1&2.


Ethnographic Essay

You’re Not So Bad for Such an Insensitive Prick:

An Ethnographic Look at 4chan Image Boarders

It’s very awkward trying to hide your computer screen in a Starbucks so people don’t ask why you’re looking at pornography. They’ll always find it odd, even when you point out that you’re studiously doing research and observation, not at all looking at pornography. Yes, you’re definitely not looking at porn, and most certainly not at a page replete with not only porn, but also racist and sexist remarks, confusing and nonsensical inside “memes”, and the occasional thought-provoking philosophical discussion.

4chan is an image-board website, containing a simple format where users can post anonymously both text and uploaded photos. It has a complicated social structure and very dedicated members. It is also known as a place where trolls go to plan out and revel in their next greatest prank and others go to exercise either their hip, “underground” knowledge or else their sexual deviancy. Moderation is minimal and content often passes into grotesque and illegal. It’s known all around as “the Asshole of the Internet.”

Some would question what could possibly qualify it as a topic of study. Well, 4chan is becoming very influential and is already infamous. Memes are popping up everywhere, and the language of 4chan is becoming part of everyday lingo. Many of the sources at which I’ve looked, however, view 4chan as a whole, but don’t look past the Guy Fawkes masks for which the users are known. I wanted to look at the person. What kind of person would post such content? I wanted to take a look at 4chan because I wanted to discover what psychological vice, or what role being a member played in these people’s lives. I learned that despite the brash exterior of 4chan as a whole, the average member is an intelligent, interesting person who is there to use the anonymous image board as a medium by which to express their innermost thoughts in an area in which it is acceptable and free from judgment. “Chantards”, as they’re known by some, are jaded with the pressings of an overbearing society and want a place to truly be themselves, a place to allow the more deprave parts of being a human be exercised without being judged.

The mask isn’t fooling anyone.

Through extensive research surfing the website over a period of a month and lengthy interviews with some of the “anon” (a moniker placed on them for their anonymous status), I unearthed that the average chantard is usually nerdy, intelligent, with a wide variety of interests. But even though they’re usually cynical or jaded with the world in some form or another, they didn’t strike me in any way as disturbed or “fucked up.” So, I had to ask myself, why the discrepancy between the words on the page and person behind them?

My first interview I met on a thread asking anyone if they would like to be interviewed. (My third such thread, with very few coming to the bait.) He chose to be known as John G. Winhest. We chatted over Gmail. He was articulate, and struck me as cordial and very outgoing, if not somewhat I asked him what was being fulfilled by being a member of 4chan. “My need to be an asshole,” he stated plainly. “Also, witty pictures. I need them witty pictures.” He went on to say that if he didn’t get to go there and be an asshole, he would be aggravated throughout the rest of his day.

My second interview was President Gerald Ford, or so he asked me to call him. He struck me as a “troll”, someone known for posting inflammatory or upsetting remarks purely for the purposes of causing problems. Sometimes trolling can be very elaborate and even lasts for months. 4chan is replete with all different kinds of instances of this. We chatted on Skype. He leaned in intently and spoke with fervor when he wanted to illuminate a point. He gesticulated more than was necessary and stared at me suspiciously when I stopped during our video interview to type notes on my computer. In “Radical Opacity” Julian Dibbell refers to 4chan as “the id of the internet”, because it reflects the inner mind, the subconscious of humans. This made me curious on how the members viewed 4chan. When I asked what 4chan was a medium for, Ford simply said, “Yourself.” He said he, and most others on there, were naturally introverted in that they didn’t like the way average others were. But they let themselves go because if you’re anonymous, there’s no reason not to.

So does that make them bad people?

In both interviews, neither participant said anything about the morality of posts that occurred there. “Morality” on 4chan is muddled. The words nigger and faggot are thrown about so often it’s desensitizing. The word “fag” is used as a suffix to denote different types of people, as opposed to a slur. “Oldfags” have been there for a long time, while “newfags” have not. In “4chan’s Curious Moral Code” Cole Stryker talks about how 4chan will give death threats to an 11 year old girl, as in the case of Jessi Slaughter, a girl who received said death threats after several controversial Youtube videos were posted earlier this year, but will go to extreme lengths to expose and turn in anyone who does damage to an “innocent” animal.

In “The Trolls Among Us” Mattathias Schwartz discovered that many of the trolls see it as an equalizing effort. Jessi Slaughter “had it coming” because she was an ignorant 11 year old trying to look like a badass in obnoxious videos on the internet, not a misguided youth. President Gerald Ford echoed the equalizing sentiment when he said that the protests carried out en masse against the Church of Scientology several years back were justified. He said it was a cult and needed to be exposed.

So for some, 4chan can be a banner for social change. For others they troll even the most innocent, and when asked why, they do it “for teh lulz”, meaning just for kicks.

Both Winhest and Ford said they had been desensitized to the human plight after having been online and seeing such terrible things posted as gore, and in some unfortunate cases, even child pornography. Ford told me a story for several minutes about a gif of a politician blowing their brains out on live television that circled around the web. He didn’t seem particularly disgusted. For him, such things had become old hat.

With the two conflicting sides, some using 4chan as an outlet for their vices, others indulging in the anonymity to troll without care, it’s hard to know whether or not they’re “sociopaths” as Winhest describes them. However, looking at the premise of it being the “id” of the internet, as previously described, that means it reflects the subconscious of the minds of its progenitors.

Going with this premise, while a lot of the content is undoubtedly unsavory, 4chan isn’t a terrible vice or anything disgusting. If it mirrors all of the parts of the human brain, it’s going to mimic the less savory ones as well. Does this make it disgusting? Only if all parts of a mind are disgusting. People maybe have violent or disgusting thoughts at all points of the day, but the vast majority doesn’t act on them. This doesn’t make them grotesque; just human.

People go there to unabashedly express and exercise all of the parts of their brain, even ones that are taboo, free from judgement. 4chan, collectively, is therefore just a collective glimpse at the human psyche, composed of individual momentary reflections of whatever each poster was seeking to express at that time. 4chan isn’t disgusting; 4chan is human.

If this is so normal, why haven’t I heard of it before?

While many of these themes have been covered at one point or another, never have they been present in such a way and in so large of a quantity. I therefore was curious as to whether a situation like “4chan” could have existed only with its unique format along with the advent of the internet, or whether it had existed in some form or another before.

“They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well if that’s the case, 4chan makes communicating ideas a lot easier,” Winhest expressed to me. Ford also stated that the medium and the message were inseparable In “Radical Opacity” Dibbell states how important the anonymity was to 4chan’s success, despite previous websites failing in similar regards. In posting on 4chan, having a name is not necessary. If one post fails, you can merely try again.

What I’ve discerned is this is true. The medium is both fluid yet simple enough that virtually any idea can be expressed within about two seconds. While there is an archive source, most threads expire within hours or minutes. This is unlike most boards in that it keeps content fresh. This allows for the ideas to be ever-changing. This does in one way mirror the human psyche in that thoughts are ever-changing and turning.

Both of my interviewees said that the community and the cohesion that 4chan members feel could not have existed in such large numbers without the internet. While many different groups service similar needs, not without the internet could people from all over the world (4chan is English-based, but has visitors from dozens to hundreds of different countries) come together and find those similar to them so quickly. In essence, the medium of expression found on 4chan is unique and such expression wouldn’t exist without the format. It’s like saying if the medium of oil and canvas is integral to the development or setup of oil paintings. They’re inseparable. So such a society was not possible until this time in human history.

What does any of this even mean?

This means that 4chan is more than just a reflection of society or a cause of its problems. Chantards use it as a medium through which they can express the innermost parts of themselves free from judgement, and be empowered by that anonymity.

They’re not screwed up. They might have racist or sexist sentiments or even what others consider deviant fetishes, but everyone is capable of such unsavory desires. Since they’re all free to be whoever they wish, judgment is pointless. It’s a way of saying, “I’m going to be and act however I wish, and you try and stop me.”

Most of the people on there have unique interests, but not unique urges. There is a difference between how a person thinks and how they act. The expressions made on 4chan, and the people behind those expressions, is perfect evidence of this. People on 4chan are just people.


Dibbell, Julian. “Radical Opacity.” Technology Review. Online pdf. September/October 2010.

October 2010

Schwartz, Mattathias. “The Trolls Among Us.”New York times. New York Times Online. August 3, 2008. October 2010

Stryker, Cole. “4chan’s Curious Moral Code.” Urlesque. Urlesque Online. October 12, 2010.

October 2010.