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EWFA Chapter 2
Chapter 2 - Discovering 4chan
GROWING UP IN rural Pennsylvania I had little exposure to the outside world, culturally speaking, except for the piddly local library. My grandparents bought my sister and I our first family computer, a Compaq Presario with a blindingly fast Pentium II processor, when I was fourteen. My ninety-year-old grandfather insisted that familiarity with a computer would define a person’s ability to compete in the marketplace of tomorrow, but I had one thing on my mind: How do I get this thing to play video games?
Up until then, I had owned a few Nintendo consoles. Pop in a game cartridge and you’re off. There was no installation of software, no downloading patches. Everything just worked. Not so with this unfamiliar contraption that miraculously landed in my room (a decision my parents apparently made without considering the implications of putting what was essentially a free porn machine in an adolescent boy’s bedroom). Of course, I was terrified at the prospect of divine retribution and celestial shame, and I limited my racy searches on that computer to victorias secret.com, which still brought unimaginable guilt.
Successfully running an average game on a PC in those days often required hours of detective work. I trawled tech support pages and dug deeply into hobbyist forums, slowly loading page after page until I had gathered enough information to get back into the game.
I familiarized myself with dozens of software packages, but I was most fortunate to grow up along with simple hypertext, the nonlinear, nonhierarchical structure of ideas all connected across millions of blue sentence fragments. My search for knowledge and entertainment on the web felt like untangling a giant knot; at times screen-smashingly frustrating and at other times deeply satisfying. I would follow certain paths across twenty pages, come to a dead end, and then start over from the beginning, following a different path. Over time I became more adept at finding the fastest routes to the information I wanted, whether that meant googling various search strings, posting a question on a forum, or browsing massive downloadable user manuals.
Along the way, I learned basic computer skills. More importantly, I learned how to navigate the Internet, a skill that would come to define my career. Due to the way information is structured on the web, one can follow endless rabbit holes of information. This was the dawn of the search engine and Wikipedia, which together opened my mind to an infinite world of new questions and answers. At some point gaming became a secondary concern, and I started using the Internet for the Internet’s sake.
Though my mother put strict limits on the amount of time I could spend on the Internet, I had an hour each day to chat with friends on AOL Instant Messenger, read video game news, and look at funny photos at places like Fark and Something Awful. I’d boot up the computer, dial up a connection, and open twenty windows. Then I’d putz around the house, waiting for everything to load (usually about ten minutes). Then, and only then, would I start the egg timer that my mom used to mark our Computer Time. The twenty windows would generally keep me occupied for the hour.
Over the next few years I discovered Napster, which opened my ears to indie rock. I became obsessed with punk music and its associated aesthetic. During those years I read probably thousands of music reviews and participated in countless forum arguments over the authenticity of certain bands. I got turned onto indie game development and the software piracy scene. I engaged in conversations about the nature of art, pop culture, and the web itself. I felt as though I was a part of something to which literally no one I knew in real life was privy. At home, amid miles of cornfields, I had one neighbor (a middle-aged couple), but online I was a part of a cadre of critics and tastemakers on the bleeding edge of culture. (Looking back, I was probably pretty insufferable in those days.)
And then college happened. I went to a tiny liberal arts school a few miles from my hometown. Culturally speaking, it didn’t have much more to offer, but I fell in with a small group of indie rock geeks. We were aesthetes, silently projecting an aura of cultural superiority over the normals, who likely never noticed.
One of my friends shared my enthusiasm for the web, though his knowledge of its emerging trends dwarfed mine. He was the sort of guy who wore a fedora, started a satirical newspaper, and had dreams of developing a gossip site that would act as sort of a hyperlocal Gawker for our rinky-dink campus. Perhaps more than our shared love of the web, we had in common a basic desire to be a part of a world bigger than the one in which our bodies were trapped. We’d talk about New York business moguls and Silicon Valley upstarts, referring to industry personalities by first names though we were miles away (geographically and experientially) from either of those scenes.
This friend and I developed a habit for sending each other, via instant messenger, links to funny or interesting web content. It became a challenge to beat each other to the latest story, and since we were pretty much the only people we knew who spent most of their waking hours in front of a computer, this practice continued after college. To this day, we still IM each other stuff.
Sometime in 2006, this guy sent me a link to 4chan—to a gross-out photo of an anime (Japanese animation) character doing something unspeakable involving at least three bodily fluids. For us, the Internet was a magical ladder reaching to new heights of the human imagination, but it was also a hilarious cesspool of depravity.
“Dude, WTF,” was probably my response, incredulity giving way to laughter at the existence of the kind of mind who would create such an atrocity. “Where did you find this?”
“4chan.org. It’s a gold mine.”
And so began my relationship with 4chan. My friend went on to write, in a blog post for Gawker, one of the first mainstream reports of 4chan as a growing phenomenon.
4chan users would likely call me a newfag (read on, offended readers) and a lurker. I’ve rarely ever posted anything on the site, and I came to the scene relatively late. But what I found on 4chan was a distillation of what made the web so special. It’s wild and weird—a level playing field where physicists and fathers rub shoulders with horny teenagers and senior citizens who compulsively collect their belly button lint in mason jars, with photographic proof. To be honest, I often find the place generally repulsive, but sometimes repulsive things have massive influence.
On 4chan, you never quite know whom or what you’re going to run into. 4chan is like that burnout teenager who asked you and your childhood friends if y’all wanted to see a dead body down by the train tracks. 4chan is that kid in your class with Asperger’s who sketched out a hundred-page graphic novel based on the entire recorded output of the prog-metal band Rush. It’s the lightheartedly sadistic next-door bully named Sid from Pixar’s Toy Story. It’s Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden from Fight Club. It’s Willy Wonka and Boo Radley and Johnny Knoxville all rolled into one throbbing, sweating, oozing gob of id.
4chan is the most fascinating place on the Internet.
But What Is It?
4chan is an imageboard: a simple message board that allows users to post images in addition to text. Users can post anonymously, without setting up an account. It’s hosted at http://www.4chan.org, and was launched in 2003 by a 15-year-old kid who wanted to provide his online buddies with a place to share anime.
But somehow, 4chan has evolved into the web’s foremost wellspring of pop-culture output over the last decade, spawning globally recognized iconography and serving as a base for people who conduct clandestine operations ranging from stalking cute girls to organizing global efforts of pseudopolitical “hacktivism.”
As of this writing, 4chan receives 12 million hits monthly, making it one of the largest communities on the web. No small feat for a site with no marketing budget, no stated mission, no searchable index, no archives, a userbase that’s famously antagonistic to outsiders, a decade-old user interface, and almost zero static content. There’s something special about 4chan that keeps people coming back, in dramatically greater numbers year after year.
“Like it or hate it, 4chan is an important cultural force . . . It is a huge site, and so many Internet memes are formed there, it’s hard to ignore it,” said June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media, the organization that invited 4chan’s founder to speak alongside impressively credentialed academics, inventors, and entrepreneurs in 2010.
I could go on telling you about it, but I’d rather show you.