4Chan — From Internet Bathroom Stall to Political “Meme Magic”
Maybe you heard about it the first time you were rickrolled. Or maybe it was when you saw Anonymous protesters wearing those creepy white masks. Or maybe it was when you noticed Pepe the frog during the 2016 election and wondered: where did all this stuff come from?
By the time we got to Pizzagate (the conspiracy theory that drove a guy who read about it to bring an assault rifle to a family restaurant late last year), the internet message board 4chan — the place where all these things came from — had filtered up from the depths of the internet to become a part of our culture. It is, quite literally, the birthplace of memes. It’s gone from dregs of the internet to splashed across the pages of national media. It’s a place where anything goes and, more importantly, it’s a place where you can still be anonymous.
Earlier this year, an essay made the rounds that finally explained these connections to a broader audience, for “normies” like me. Dale Beran, an illustrator and author who first came across 4chan in 2005, wrote a personal history of 4chan, in part to explain what he saw as the site’s evolution from hilarious image board to the dark heart of the internet.
Dale Beran became my guide to 4chan, helping me understand how 4chan got here. Our conversation led me to endless YouTube videos that chronicled the rise of 4chan: footage of an anime conference where 4chan fans first gathered IRL, videos of robo-voiced threats from the early days of Anonymous, supercuts of Donald Trump lobbing insults at his fellow Republican presidential candidates.
It’s gone from dregs of the internet to splashed across the pages of national media. It’s a place where anything goes and, more importantly, it’s a place where you can still be anonymous.
My first interview with Dale led to three more and I tracked down other voices to add to this history of 4chan. To understand the birth of Anonymous, I sought out Gabriella Coleman. Her book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy chronicles the more politically motivated 4chan users who broke off to form the hacktivist group Anonymous. When Gamergate took over 4chan boards, Brianna Wu was among their targets. She told me about how terrifying it is to be trolled online, and how numbing the harassment can be. And, speaking of trolls, I interviewed internet bugaboo Chuck Johnson. He gave me some insight into how 4chan users have been excited, even thrilled, by the wild ride of the Trump campaign and the chaos surrounding the early part of his presidency.
From its humble start as a message board for anime and video games, 4chan has evolved into a meme factory that helped fuel the rise of Trump. This podcast mini-series gives us a history of 4chan, in four parts:
- Part 2: 4chan’s Day Out
- Part 3: The Revenge of the Trolls
- Part 4: 4chan Goes to Washington
I reported this mini-series with help from 60dB’s editorial team: Steve Henn, Liz Gannes, Brenda Salinas and Michael Simon Johnson. Artwork is by Dale Beran and Nina Gannes. With this four-part history of 4chan, I hope you learn something about the power of Internet, the power of community and the power of anonymity.