It all started with a site called SomethingAwful. Created in the late 90s as a comedy site, it would give birth to many core aspects of internet culture later propagated on 4chan. There were forums where users could post jokes but rules were enforced and a membership fee was eventually charged for access. The community leaned heavily toward techy nerds and as such, somewhat resembled those early communities of the BBS.
The Birth of Internet Culture
In October of 2003, a teenager in New York, known only as “moot” released an imageboard called “4Chan”. A frequenter of SomethingAwful, moot took the open-source software from “2Channel”, a Japanese-based imageboard for sharing anime created by Hiroyuki Nishimura, and converted it to English. He set it up under the domain “4chan.org” and soon much of SomethingAwful’s audience migrated to the new site.
Initially it was comprised of only one board “/b/” for Anime or random content. Soon new boards were added, creating several unique, dedicated communities but through it all /b/ remained the heart and soul and on /b/ anything goes.
Buckle up because it gets messy. That’s the point. Either you get it or you’re the target. Be in on it or you risk feeling the wrath of the collective mob.
4Chan is somewhat unique in how it operates. Everything is anonymous. Initially, this was true in the absolute as every post was stored absent any indication of the person posting. Later, identifiers were added then tripcodes whereby a user could enter a tripcode that would identify them across sessions. Additionally, nothing lasts; threads are permanently pruned once they no longer receive new replies.
One user starts a thread then other users reply to it. The person creating the thread is “OP”, Original Poster, and everyone else is an “anon”. Like most communities there are unstated rules anons are expected to know, they change over time but many remain constant. There’s rule 34, the ubiquitous sharpie, “tits or GTFO” and many more. If you’re on the site, you’re beta. Unless you’re alpha. Little was steadfast, except moot-adoration, the constant cycling of memes and the desire for betas to become alphas, even accidentally.
There were special codes to create things like green-text or the tri-force (a relic from the game Legend of Zelda). Virtually everything was about being in on the joke and knowing the unstated rules. It was eerily like grade-school and knowing the meaning of various cuss words or sexual positions.
Each post or reply has a number assigned to it and for a time, anons would go crazy for “dubz” or “trips” in which the last digits of the number matched. This occasionally led to threads of users “rolling the dice” in hopes of one-upping the thread. Sometimes you’d see thread after thread of this, with thousands upon thousands of anons hidden away at home playing this meaningless, juvenile game, all craving the “bump” for the lulz.
It‘s all disposable, ridiculous and meaningless, what would later be referred to as “shit-posts”. And yet in the same way a rat learns what buttons to press to get its dopamine so did an enormous number of young men on 4chan.
Screaming Through a Straw
Once a user starts a thread, it takes the top position on the list of open threads. As new threads or posts are made, it moves down the list until someone replies, “bumping” it back up to the top position. As long as users keep a thread active with replies it continues to appear for other users to find. If no one replies to a thread, it falls until it hits the bottom and is permanently pruned. No record of it kept, it disappears into obscurity.
“To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.” -Thomas Paine
This leads to an odd hyperactive, hyperbolic effect whereby threads with a small but engaged group promoting it, especially with outrageous, colorful, attention-grabbing language or images, will draw in more users who then parrot the same behavior. Occasionally, some singular thing, particularly if it’s irreverent and offensive, will take over the whole board with multiple people creating separate threads dedicated to it. Thousands of anons may post pictures of Cheese Pizza (a snarky allusion to “CP” or Child Porn) with a constant stream of group-think (“Everybody post CP”) replying in social-solidarity with more and more pictures of Cheese Pizzas. To the outsider, it makes no sense. Why do all these people even have so many pictures of cheese pizza? To the insider, that’s the point; they get it and you don’t. It’s the embodiment of the angst-riddled, misunderstood teen, even if he’s now thirty or more years old, hidden behind his screen.
For a while, people associated 4chan with a mythical hacker or hack-group named “Anonymous” but that misunderstood the nature of 4chan. The individuals who purported “membership” in Anonymous, sometimes wearing Guy Fawkes masks, were usually indicating subscription to the broader idea, a belief in anonymous free-speech, not membership in a group. Nonetheless, it reinforced an abstract belief of righteousness. You knew on 4chan that there were thousands of people hidden behind screens but you didn’t know who they were, only that if they bumped the same threads you did, you shared something that others didn’t; you were members of a club others may not even know about. And though you may know next to nothing about hacking, on 4chan, you imagined you knew someone who did.
4chan was the birthplace and driver of many internet memes, serving as the engine to originate new ones and allow creators to achieve some kind of meme-lord status. They tended to be crude and, reflective of the audience, frequently dealt with male, adolescent or young adult issues.
The First Rule of Fight Club
It was also a hotbed of trolling activity where anons might try to enlist the ire of other anons to send hateful messages to some target of their rage. Facebook photos or profiles would occasionally be posted with phone numbers, even addresses. The act of “Swatting” gained credence on /b/ , whereby someone calls 911 with a cloaked number and manages to get a Swat team to bust into a target’s home, potentially even killing them.
Red-pillers became common and 4chan served as a very successful recruiting ground to grow the belief. Betas wanted to be alphas and needed answers as to why they weren’t. Pepe, a cartoon frog that originally embodied betas was eventually rebranded, metamorphosing into an alpha.
Along with the Matrix, many males galvanized around the movie Fight Club as both movies described an outsider fighting an unjust system. Fight Club tells the story of a beta trying to become alpha, realizing in the end, he’d been the alpha all along, leading a secretive group that would tear down the established order. Likewise, many anons tended to identify with or respond to the red-pill ethos, fashioning themselves to be Tyler Durden or Neo fighting against something, they just didn’t know what it was yet.
Posts might become “Epic” if a new meme went viral or the thread seeped into real-life such as when /b/ raided Habbo Hotel, a social networking game, or manipulated the results of a Mountain Dew poll causing the phrase “Hitler did nothing wrong” to be the top name for a new beverage. If a thread made the news, it was like being at Studio 54 when some legendary event occurred. It could happen at any time so people kept coming back.
It would often turn truly dark, such as when a sustained effort of collective harassment would lead to someone “an heroing” (killing themselves). Or someone would post that they were about to kill someone shortly before they did. Or the live-streaming of mass-murder. Or the posting of a manifesto before committing mass-murder. All of which happened more than once. All of which were considered epic. Racist, aggressively violent, homophobic material was posted often, gore and death as well.
Occasionally, school shooters and shootings were celebrated. While many of the participants were only ironically trolling, many anons, hidden in the fog of the internet, couldn’t discern the truth from the troll.
Nihilism and Politics
In the years between 2005–2015, and even still, legions of young males, particularly American, grew up with some relationship to 4chan and the nihilistic group-think it fostered. We defend it on First amendment grounds and yet its existence makes any discussion about the Fairness Doctrine absurd.
Politics had long been a vague undercurrent on 4chan, with a strong presence of Ron Paul supporters through the mid/late 2000s. In 2011, the /news/ board got banned due to excessive racism and a new board /pol/ was created. Intended to be a politics-for-all discussion board, it was quickly taken over by racists and other members of the far-right and rebranded as “politically incorrect”. It gave birth to a new political group, the “alt-right”.
Despite its absurd popularity, the highest ranking imageboard and once the 56th most popular website on the internet, profitability was always elusive and funding difficult. Given it’s offensive material, advertisers were scarce and moot resisted resorting to porn companies and the like that would overlook the offensive content. This would be a perennial problem for anything that attempted to emulate 4chan’s anonymous, anything goes ethos. Bandwidth costs money and if the content on it scares advertisers or investors, there’s little way to monetize it. Nihilists still have to eat.
“I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.” -Walter Sobchak
In 2013, as 4chan attempted to navigate this balance to secure funds without surrendering completely to moderation, Fredrick Brennan created 8chan, another anonymous imageboard. He believed 4chan had become too authoritarian and heavily moderated. It worked the same as 4chan only with less moderation. He too would soon discover the same financial difficulties.
In 2014 the bubbling cauldron of red-pillers erupted into what would come to be known as “gamergate”. By this point the video game industry had exploded to around 140 billion annual revenue. It had expanded considerably in the preceding years to include men and women of all ages. While gamergate initiated from specific events, it quickly meta-sized into a large scale, concerted campaign of harassment against females in the industry, spreading to other previously male-dominated fields with rising female representation. The campaign, like so many before it, was organized largely on 4chan. Males, particularly white, saw themselves as fighting to protect spheres of influence they felt were being taken from them. When moot banned all talk of gamergate on 4chan, the riled-up hoard moved to Brennan’s 8chan.
In 2015, moot sold 4chan to Hiroyuki Nishimura, the originator of 2channel, the first “chan”, which had controversially been taken from him in 2014 by a man named James Watkins. Shortly thereafter, Brennan began working with Watkins, moving to the Philippines and bringing 8chan with him. Soon the mysterious Watkins was in control of both and the need to monetize them.
Reddit debuted in 2005 and became something like 4chan’s older, more mature, sibling. Like 4chan, users are protected by a thin veil of anonymity though unlike 4chan, accounts with usernames are required to post and everything is preserved. Instead of 4chan’s boards, reddit is divided into “subreddits” and moderation of illegal or unseemly content is much stronger. Unlike the chans, Reddit has significant financial backing and employs several hundred people. As such, while racist and violent content sometimes occurs on reddit, moderators and admins are far more likely to react quickly to it.