The Dark Hollows of the Internet?

Today I learned that I am even more ignorant than I thought when it comes to the Internet. Just a few hours ago, I discovered a whole new realm, one that is shocking and bewildering in my opinion, that I had absolutely no idea existed. I learned that I am not only limited in my knowledge of Internet content and forums but also that I have been embarrassingly naive. Before today, I had never visited Reddit (yes, it’s true) and had never even heard of or been on 4chan. I’m not sure where I have been or how I could have avoided these platforms for so long, but I have now been exposed to something I cannot forget.

For someone who has never been immersed in or participated in this sort of Internet culture, platforms like Reddit and 4chan are truly fascinating. The article on the Daily Dot, Now 10 Years Old, 4Chan is the Most Important Site you Never Visit, was a total eye opener for me. I found it intriguing to read because it discusses a topic that I previously knew nothing about. 4chan is an anonymous, uncensored image board website founded in 2003 by Christopher Poole who was only 15 years old at the time. Poole’s inspiration was Japanese anime forums like ADTRW (Animal Death Tentacle Rape Whorehouse) and Raspberry Haven. Upon launching the website, Poole described the purpose of 4chan as “merely bringing to the table what English speaking people have lacked for a while; a diverse community united around the simple thousand line piece of PHP code that we call tagboard.”

4chan is known for its humor and for the popularization of Internet memes, such as LOLcat and duckroll. However, it is also notorious for its vulgar content, crude comments, and various pranks. In The Case for Anonymity Online, a TED Talk with Poole, the young creator speaks about his following of 4chan’s users and their crass humor. For example, Poole admits that while the site does have rules, the community more or less ignores them and has created their own set of guidelines, three of which Pool points out in his discussion:

1) You do not talk about /b/
2) You DO NOT talk about /b/
3) If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions.

/b/, I’ve learned, is the first board that Poole created on 4chan and is a place to post anime and random content. To this day, it remains one of the most active boards on the site. Poole, as well as the Daily Dot article, also discussed various pranks and controversial issues involving 4chan. The trending swastika on Google’s Hot Trends in 2008 caused by 4chan users searching the symbol as a shortcut build into operating systems, the gaming of the Time 100 poll in 2009 to award Poole the winning spot at the top, and also the hacking of Sarah Palin’s email account in 2008 are only a few controversial circumstances revealing 4chan at the root of the cause. 4chan’s most recent scandal is the August 31st leaking of private celebrity photos to its platform. More than 200 explicit photos of various celebrities were hacked and stolen from the Apple iCloud and posted to the imageboard. The photos were later shared on other forums such as Reddit, Imgur, and Tumblr.

While I understand and respect Poole’s case for anonymity online, I’m not sure whether I agree that it brings more good than it does bad. Poole admits in his TED Talk that plenty of bad comes out of the environment but affirms that the greater good is being served because people can say and post virtually whatever they want. Does this truly serve the greater good though? People are able to hide behind their anonymous user names which seem to make it easier and more justified to act in a way that is inappropriate, offensive, and uncensored. What comes to mind is 4chan’s aggressive nature, all the celebrities who were recently humiliated, and Palin and others who have been hacked. Anonymity in this sense is not for the greater good. Performing on behalf of the greater good is typically considered an act of altruism that will benefit the majority of people who will be affected. The intention behind the kind of behavior and pranks that anonymity on 4chan has initiated is anything but altruistic. Hacking and posting provocative content might be funny to many people, but it defeats the purpose to do something for the greater good if what you do is unnecessary, inappropriate and at the expense of others. I do realize and acknowledge the advantages of online anonymity, as it allows people to feel more comfortable in their right to freedom of speech and has led to many acts of kindness. For example, the 4chan community does often use its power for good (such as in the case of Dusty the cat and the arrest of his owner who posted videos of himself abusing Dusty); however, at what point are users taking advantage of their rights?

I do not know enough about 4chan or Reddit or any other anonymous forums to take a credible stance on whether or not the bad associated with them outweighs the good. I can only pose questions. At what point does free speech become hate speech? If people take advantage of the right to say what they please, is this an abuse of power or an exploitation of privilege? What I can conclude is this: Anonymity can be used for good, but it is also easy to get caught up in your hidden identity and use it for bad.

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