‘The Patriots”: How Japanese Otaku Culture Created the Modern Net
“What do you mean ‘the otaku holds the key?’”
With thanks to Fire Water
The web is not merely a tool of democracy: it’s a tool of radical democracy. Civilisation as a whole is designed to take us, with each developmental step, further and further away from the cruel and violent, resource-intensive lifestyle that is its antithesis and from whence civilisation itself came. Fittingly, the internet was designed for, and so promotes, the disinterested sharing of such resources. The old paradigm most universally damaged in the Early Digital era — ground almost to dust, beyond sandblasting and examination, while the likes of trade, elective security and democracy still stand a beleaguered, though firm, three-part Ozymandias — is property.
“Property”; the philosophical forefather of the nation state most responsible for the commercialisation of the web once said about it that “Where there is no property, there can be no justice”.
Regardless of one’s personal stance on notions of property and justice and their relation, then, it is a fact that the culture of the internet has functionally if not legislatively repealed/suspended one of the foremost liberal legal virtues.
One of the former pillars of democracy, of independent ownership — first suggested when a transcendent-of-state democracy so complete as we generally know in the early 21st century was unimaginable — no longer stands, replaced by its opposite. To share, and to be able to reap, disinterestedly is now thought a truer democratic ‘justice’, with remuneration to producers a soppy and insolent trifle — artists and those creators of abstracted intellectual or sensual experiences having been the first exempted from the old democratic creed’s insurance of pay for their work commensurate with demand.
Regardless of one’s value appraisal of such a development, the natural corollary of this development is that we must produce more in order to feed the insatiable appetite of the global userbase. Offline, we are beginning to develop a well-merited anxiety of ecological collapse, and a greater and greater understanding of the role of an unsustainable rate of global production behind that threat of collapse. It should give us cause, though I wonder if it does, to look deeper into clauses in the democratic contract that we seldom contend with, and with which our spiralling state of ecological health is inexorably bound up.
Because, even if Locke’s old adage about property has had the rug pulled out from underneath it, its cousin is still prosperous: the idea that, in a democracy, the citizen is free not only to own (now no longer a given if your goods are digital) but to produce. An indefinite production results in both immediate waste and collateral waste — as what is usable but not used, left obscure among the seething volume of alternative options, joins the rotting mass of the inherently useless.
We must contend with the fact that in order for democracy not to poison its surroundings (and so be endangered in and of itself), we must find a way to deal with or else prevent this proliferation of waste. Such volumes of garbage are as deleterious the health of our online ecosystem — taking the form as they do of the mountains of content that separate all but the very intrepid from the truths of the wider digital world — as the waste from our real-life consumptive habits are to our real world.
This is not particularly revolutionary knowledge in the late 10s. What is revelatory is that the same diagnosis of our present situation could, if one were to look in the right places, have been made in the late 90s, by a simple case study of Japanese anime obsessives, and an anticipation of the global empire they would found.
2Chan + 2Chan =
At the turn of the millennium, Japanese online culture could fairly have been considered to be at least half a decade ahead of its Western counterpart. This theory has an almost mathematical reflection — 4chan, whose unadulterated plains have become a shorthand for the latent anarchy of the public digital domain, and whose users have been responsible for “some of the highest-profile collective actions in the history of the net”, was birthed of a Japanese parent, 2channel.
4chan began its life thoroughly in 2channel’s image (not to be confused with 2chan, a proxy for the original set up in 2001 in advance of the original 2channel’s threatened shut-down), as a forum sanctuary for otaku.
Created by a 15-year-old Christopher Poole, in his bedroom in New York City, its first batch of colonists were a group of regular commenters from the Something Awful forum page “Anime Death Tentacle Rape Whorehouse”, whom Poole convinced of their dissatisfaction with said message-board, and invited to come discuss anime on his new 4chan page instead. For several years, ostensibly until the creation in 2008 of nine new boards, covering the likes of sports and fashion while relegating Otaku discussions to a specialist board, and until the proliferation of the Rickroll, 4chan retained its first genre-specific focus.
The freedom to post anonymously, and its un-curated nature, were intrinsic aspects of its appeal. These attributes also led to so many mendacious incidents transpiring across its boards: the swastika CJK unicode character, the 2006 dirty bomb football stadium threat, Ali Saad and Colin Campbell, Gamergate and the leaking of the private photos of dozens of female celebrities, among so many other unstoried events.
As would one day be the case of its Western offspring, 2channel, or 2ch, became notorious quickly after its launch. Like 4chan after it, and like its own forebear Ayashii World, 2channel’s boards could be added to anonymously, and given the location of its servers in the United States, the website escaped Japanese legal scrutiny compared to its predecessors.
Notionally, the forum was intended to be “a place of fair and genuine information exchange” or, where appropriate, “a place of academic discussion”. It has on occasion fulfilled these diktats, as in 2005, when discourse on 2ch amongst several Korean academics helped contribute to the discovery of the construction of human embryonic stem cells (ES cells) by Korean jaundice. However, 2channel, and offshoots like Futaba Channel, immediately became more interesting as a proving ground on which the unreconstructed human spirit could be observed under minimal constraints in a digital environment.
2channel might have gained some marginal acclaim for facilitating scholarship, much like 4chan would later become an action hub for real-world initiatives like Anonymous and Project Chanology; but in a curious way, both sites are remarkable for that about them which is most unremarkable, innocuous, even trivial. Given such unpoliced surrounds, whose disinterest can permit most of what’s available to the imagination, the product was trivia. Unending trivia. Mind-bending, time-upending trivia whose flows unravelled like the spooling foams of a waterfall, javelin’d briefly into a user’s mind, then removed.
One Day, This Will All be Yours…
Behaviourally, the forums of 2Channel were as we find boards today no matter the real-world origins of their citizenry. Slander and other vandalism posts like spamming and flooding were notionally forbidden on the site, and in the case of on-site slander were deemed punishable by Japanese law, but the site began to suppurate with the stuff, with defamation and hate speech against public figures, institutions, minorities, and specific ethnic groups. Despite the severity of their actions, those on 2ch who perpetrated such acts could hide behind a few of the core mulligans of internet citizenship: behind that anonymous posting rule, behind the fact that the speed and scale of perpetration made prompt response impossible and further action no less hard, behind the fact that, well, who cares, they’re just a bunch of online bullies, or, as we’ve come to know them, trolls.
In the early 00s, the boards saw innovations and the establishment of new modes of discourse that would not be replicated for years in the west. By 2001, images were being posted on message boards. In the era of the 30GB hard-drive were standard, “it was unprecedented to be able to post [for instance] a hi-res photo of delicious food to discuss,” though just that was soon being done daily on Futaba channel, the ur-Instagram.
The second notable behaviour observed on these messageboards, particularly on those where communication was tied to image-sharing, was ephemerality. While on older messageboards like 2channel, content stuck around indefinitely, on others like Futaba, space restrictions required image threads to be removed weekly, or even daily.
The result was the model of the contemporary newsfeed, a place with no history, that which Christopher Poole called “the waterfall of content, [where] great memes would be reposted again or screencapped, just like salmon swimming against river rapids. Less compelling content would fall into the void and be forgotten.”
As Okeh notes, this “ephemerality was conducive to incredible stories (true and false), as well as /b/’s infamous raids against other sites, where the thread would disappear within a couple of hours.”
These otaku, the Patriots of a net citizenry that would come to follow in their footsteps, had created their own world — one with its own human themes, its own luxuriantly incessant rate of change, its own policy of truth, and its own (narrow) territorial limits. And that’s the problem. A problem that is now everyone’s problem.
The Pilgrims vs. the World
The otakus who became the early regulars of 2channel became, ostensibly, the most influential users of the net heretofore; though their actions may not have individually appeared to have the same gravitas of the web’s ostensible founding fathers (Page, Brin, Thiel, Bezos, although perhaps its most accurate to call them those whose flaming arms laid the mass of the land itself) and their works which summatively provide the net’s still unformalised constitution, the otaku were the first to mint the currencies by which a vast percentage of ordinary web transactions are carried out: memes.
It was not until the late ’00s that the idea of the internet meme began to be codified into the Western imagination — sure you had the “Baby Cha Cha Cha” in the 90s, but the first meme to give graduation to the phenomenon, from one in which only forum frequenters dabbled in to one of global public visibility, was the hallowed Rick Roll. It epitomised meme culture — that which would appear to replicate itself among users of its own will, entirely apart from its intrinsic value or utility as content — and coincided with the rise of Facebook, which allowed communication by this means to take place on a mass scale.
There is at the very least the suggestion of some value of the typical otaku approach to conduct on the web, when kept within sensible and civil confines — it can allow an unfettered and highly imaginary interface, both forceful and innocuous, with one’s given passion, whatever that may be, in such a way as to make the outside world loathe to intrude. That’s the principle of sanctuary; hardly a bad thing from time to time.
What we’ve seen, in Facebook’s refinement of the 2Channel model without evaluating the need for a tighter code of ethical conduct, in its proliferation of this model to the world, is a grave complication. The systems the otakus designed, the systems designed for the otakus, were designed, and very deliberately, to keep the world out. That same model is now used by every user of social media worldwide today, regardless of location or really of platform. Out of a little Google shaped barrel flows the inexhaustible waterfall of content. We are not sat on the butte, by the brook with the forest about us, marvelling leisurely at it, free to move on at will. We are sat behind its wall and beneath its roar.
To use a less lyrical analogy, it is because the system we use causes us to live like otakus of our own private concerns that we are coming to be walled up in our own waste. The more ephemeral content we produce — the more memes, the more tweets, the more photos, assets of any kind — which has no intrinsic value beyond the given moment, the more we are closed in within those concerns. We see more of what we have tended to produce before, as Google tends to its hegemony by tending to its impression of our appetites, as news outlets produce in accordance with the meme principle, in order to elicit a portion of our momentary attention and keep afloat. All of life comes to seem like that which lasts no more than the width of time stretched along the pad of your scrolling thumb.
The notoriety 2chan initially garnered in the early 00s for the volume of “junk data” its users produced was notable. Nowadays, the noises of concern about the global churn of that same waste production is dwarfed only by the sound of everybody doing it.
Living amongst chimeras — articles of momentary delight with no form or lifespan — is one of refractation, a life determined by the fear of monstrous reality, one without substance. There is serious, though far from universal, concern for the ways in which otakuhood serves to mask deeper problems of socialisation and psychological maladaption. The aforenoted tendency of messageboard aggregators to be combined of equal parts wistful Moe anime fantasy with far-right power fantasy would be revealing in this respect.
What can hardly be denied to lack in the life of a particularly devoted otaku, whether they harbour any ill-intention or not, is the nourishment of context. It is no wonder that in such a self-made dimension the articles of greatest appeal are “incredible stories, true and false”. It is no wonder that such a world of divorce and uncertain apprehension over the truth will ultimately breed unhappiness, and with it, social dysfunction.
It’s an otaku’s world, now, the web; it’s just a question of “Who’s your senpai?”
Looking at Democracy as an Organism
Perhaps since the Spanish Civil War, and more pointedly Robert Capa’s depiction of The Falling Soldier, have we come to view our contemporary democracy as something bovine and sacramental. The democratic franchise has, beyond being an active utility, also become an icon of the victory of humanism such that original humanists themselves might’ve found it too vulgar to even dream about its filigrees, the colours of universal franchise that now rightfully adorn the ears of its cup.
Nevertheless, there is a danger in the human instinct to ascribe divine provenance post hoc to an instrument of state — it obscures our ability consider said instrument in terms of its potential as a living organism.
Property was once considered a virtue of justice, but now justice is seen to be in the virtue of service; to feed the larger organism, at work and at rest. The chief impression the Western world cultivated of itself at the first midnight chimes of www., when the Wall fell, was that it had conclusively proved its triumph as a perfected democratic system. It swiftly fell in love with its self-selected, history-ended pedigree: that, within the democratic system which had proven victorious over Soviet socialism, all negative consequences of appetite had been nullified or mitigated against. People could do what they liked; there could be no ill result.
As European civilisation progressed from the feudal age, the greatest thinkers of both liberal (Locke) and broadly conservative (Burke) bent agreed upon property as something which itself almost approached a sacrament. Industrialisation made the notion that every man and woman should be entitled to the fruits of their labour untenable through abstraction of measurement. Ironically, in the internet era, that idea has been partially rehabilitated -we can once again produce by and for outselves — although the financial model native to the web brings us back closer to that older feudal dynamic, in which lordly service providers or platform owners pocket the majority of the producer’s dividends, and the producer (artist etc.) gets a pittance, with no inalienable rights bar that which is guaranteed in the legal binding of individual contracts with the old gatekeepers. It takes older, seriously imperfect systems and decrees that, in the face of their imperfection, the sensible alternative is abjection.
The maintenance of this system — in which those who exist online exist as something slightly less than human — abides owing to the extremity of the flatness in the net’s social structure, as well as the overwhelming ease with which crapola can and is produced. The “genome” of human culture thus begins to lose any bounds of distinction whatsoever, reduced to the levels of barest sensation, like an old -chan messageboard at the turn of the millennium, in which a lack of order does not so much result in anarchy as apathy. It was not a lingering concern totally trivialised. Esteemed Japanese video game creator Hideo Kojima noticed the disconcerting potential of a universal otaku, took it seriously. Made a rather fine video game out of it, in fact.
To remove the instance of “property” from that equation, which is really a way of saying to remove the issue of responsibility-for, recognised by both those who hold it and those who must not infringe upon or obstruct another’s holding of said reponsibility, eliminates the perceived value of holding anything, for it will surely be taken. Under such auspices, the difficulty often associated with worthwhile action — whether that action is to seek informedness, create something new and useful — comes to seem not merely futile but illogical. Might as well just make yourself laugh, in which case.
Perhaps it’s unwise to construe of your identity in terms of “I am what I have.” Practically, its replacement is now “I am what I produce”. And, as we’ve seen, what we are now tended to produce, through nothing but the wilful exercise of our power as citizen in a demos, is pabulum. Bumf. Waste.
By the elastic of idealism, it’s possible to defend democracy — as it is in theory possible to defend anything, though not necessarily convincingly — from any charge whatsoever relative to its supposed drawbacks. It is not, however, a betrayal of principle to concede that the democracy equation is possessed of waste products that its proprietors must see fit to deal with. To not countenance this is to sign another contract guaranteeing that those faults, remaining unaddressed, will eventually come to overturn all the good within the idea proper, and quite possibly have it replaced with something rather more nefarious.
Nevertheless, we are beginning to see the serious dangers of a take-take-take-oriented consumerist democracy become manifest in the threats we have, through negligence, seen start to be imposed on our societies and our physical world. If we presume the Hobbesian view of these things as organisms, then we must presume that the democratic organism’s health is not unimpeachable, that to consider only one’s own yield from the wider organism is to identify oneself as a parasite to it, and that some consideration of the wider ecosystem has paramount importance in preventing grave circumstances from coming to pass.
The antidotal measure may yet be found in the precise crop that has been so abused in the cause of getting us to this point in which we risk being overcome by waste: the digital humanitas, and particularly its respective manias for macro-narrative (i.e. not focusing on knicker-pictures and gossip tidbits using one’s uncherished moments of online connectivity), the provision of context through inter-disciplinary means, and an approach to the net’s richness of substance that still dignifies the human creators of its works.
It was stated by Spinoza, that most lovable and morally supreme of the great philosophers, that a life dominated by a single passion is a narrow one, incompatible with every kind of wisdom. We must come to understand that a ‘holy’ democracy, and a consumerist one, the one we collectively pursue, makes any idea of life other than one ruled by singular passion — whatsoever that passion might be, man-to-woman — seem like a waste of perfectly good vouchers, and wisdom a cute knick-knack from a bygone where both reason and empiricism looked fit to contend, and context a tiresome obstruction to our comforts. It makes us all the universal otaku.
The creation of context is the avowed enemy of censorship, just as it is of solipsism and despondency, as it squires with censorship within its own arena and has means there to rob it of its reason for being — by equipping the citizens of the net with a properly weighted sense of where urgent priority lies, in re-establishing the delight of heavier pursuits, by opening the possibilities of communal discernment, by not poisoning our communicative environments by the constant profusion of junk.
A world of our own is a marvel. But, without its context, there is no way whatsoever of knowing it.
 From 2ch Chronicle/The Third Channel by Ndubusi Okeh of the Yotsuba Society.