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EWFA Chapter 4

Tenshi Hinanawi edited this page Feb 18, 2012 · 1 revision

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Chapter 4 - Tracing 4chan Ancestry

LIKE EVERY OTHER web community, 4chan didn’t simply materialize fully formed out of the ether. In order to understand the motivations and interests of 4chan users, it’s helpful to know where 4chan came from. The history of the web isn’t so much a story about technology as it is a story about people, and how the ways they interact with one another change when new technology allows them to try new things.

Phone Phreaks: Pre-Internet Hackers

One might argue that the roots of 4chan go all the way back to the ’50s, when a bunch of kids figured out how to get free long-distance phone calls by whistling a specific pitch into the receiver. These kids called themselves phone phreaks. Many of the phreaks were blind, with increased sensitivity to sound that enabled them to quickly learn the right pitch to mimic the phone companies’ control tones. Many were also social misfits, drawn together from across the US by their shared interest in technology, and more importantly, in breaking the technology.

In the late 1960s, one phreaker, John Draper—known by the nickname “Captain Crunch” after he discovered that a plastic toy whistle distributed in boxes of Captain Crunch cereal perfectly produced the right tone to hack into the phone network—helped to spread the hobby, which eventually permeated the MIT tech community, where the practice of hacking into communication systems continued, along with the rise of . . .

The Wild West: Usenet & BBSes

A lot of 4chan users laud their platform for hearkening back to the early days of the Internet. “Back then it was like the Wild West. There weren’t these structures in place to make sure that people stayed in line,” one anon told me. Another said, “And forget about the thirty-page terms of service documents.” If you stepped out of line, either you got banned or your transgression became the new law of the land.

Dating the birth of the Internet depends on your criteria. It’s difficult to pinpoint where a bunch of nerds playing around with modems stopped and “the Internet” began. Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) started appearing in the late ’70s. These were mostly local communities, since dialing into a BBS outside of your local calling area would have brought hefty long distance charges. I’ve talked to a few dozen people about those early days, from community managers to hackers to system operators, and they all agree on two things: the Internet in that era was expensive and slow.

BBSes were simple text-based precursors to message boards, where people could post messages to everyone else who happened to dial in. The boards often dealt with local interests and specific hobbies like fishing or philosophy. There were also boards dedicated to computing and hacking. It was in these that the first instances of what would come to be known as leetspeak bubbled to the surface. This pidgin English was used by hackers to get around wordfilters and, eventually, to avoid the prying eyes of search engines. Hackers became h4x0rz, for example. This argot is very common on 4chan, though it has been co-opted by people with no hacking ability and is now either used ironically or by noobs attempting to emulate the hackers of yore. Anyone who says things like, “ph34r my 1337 h4x0rz ski11z” isn’t going to bring down Bank of America any time soon.

In 1979, three grad students developed Usenet, a file-transferring network that ran on the Unix operating system. Users gathered in “newsgroups” with threaded discussions much like the message boards of today. Usenet differed from previous BBSes because it lacked a central server and system administrator. Apart from leetspeak, Usenet is known for being an early breeding ground for memes, though at the time they were limited to in-jokes and slang such as sockpuppet, cleanfeed, flaming, trolling, and sporgery. Despite the rise of more technologically advanced forms of online community, Usenet has experienced significant growth year to year.

Brad Templeton is a software architect and the creator of Usenet’s “Emily Postnews” (Postnews is a double pun referring to etiquette expert Emily Post and to postnews, a piece of Usenet software), a character he created in order to establish basic Usenet etiquette, or netiquette. Some of the principles he laid down came from as far back as the ’70s and pre-Internet mailing lists. He explained to me that with so many people struggling to figure out how to best use the Internet, it took time to recognize how easy it was to offend with text.

Today, we take antisocial behavior on the Internet as a given. We routinely read and say things that we’d never say in real life. When someone lets loose with a string of expletives in a comments section I roll my eyes and keep scrolling. But if someone said those things to me on the street my heart would stop. During the early days on the Internet, there were no agreed-upon standards of etiquette. Templeton helped to define the way people would behave for decades to come.

The Virtual Community: The Well

In 1985 Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant founded the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, or WELL. The WELL was made up of a new breed of techno-utopian ex-hippies who’d been experimenting with communal living and other alternative lifestyles. These baby boomers had grown up a bit, and where their ’60s brethren had failed, they believed they’d succeed, with the power of network technology. It was all very back-to-the-earth, but with a focus on the power of computing. Words like cybernetic and transhumanism were thrown around. Many of the community’s first users were subscribers to Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, a magazine devoted to topics like alternative shelter, nomadics, and telecommunications. These subscribers were already on the forefront of technology, and very smart. This early user base would come to have a tremendous influence on the quality of discourse.

In 1995, a decade into the WELL’s history, Wired magazine called the WELL the world’s most influential online community. It was a hyperintellectual environment that bore significant structural barriers to entry. It was slow. It was complicated. And perhaps most importantly, it was expensive. Between the monthly fee ($8), the hourly fee ($2), and any additional fees exacted by telephone companies (to say nothing of the cost of a computer and modem in those days), it wasn’t uncommon for power users to burn through $300+ per month.

The WELL provided free access to reporters, which not only rewarded the WELL with plenty of press, but also infused the community with a sense of journalistic integrity.

I talked with former WELL Director Cliff Figallo, who can be considered one of the first community managers. Today the field is one of the tech industry’s hottest careers and a necessary component of nearly all consumer-facing companies’ online strategies. Back then it wasn’t so glamorous, and Cliff doesn’t have a whole lot of nostalgia for those days. He’s quick to point out how much a pain in the neck running the WELL could be. And he quickly dispels any image of the pre-AOL Internet as an anarchic proto-4chan.

I only had to ban one person in ten years at the Well. It was too expensive and difficult to dial in; the people who were there had a good reason to be there. We were very friendly, but very hands off.

I asked Stewart Brand, cofounder of the WELL and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, about the nature of anonymity in an effort to draw parallels between 4chan and the infancy of the Internet. Unlike other Internet communities of the day, the WELL forced identity on its users. Stewart attributes the success of the community to “continuity of community and absence of anonymity”—what he calls “the main preventatives of destructive flaming.” The people on the WELL were mostly friends who knew each other well. He says, “There was a fair amount of raucous name-calling still, but there was also enough community shaming of name-callers to keep it tolerable.”

I made the no-anonymity rule specifically to avoid online vileness. After a while we did experiment with one anonymous conference, and it was so immediately destructive it was shut down within the week by popular demand.

Where Usenet had newsgroups, the WELL had “conferences,” subject areas devoted to computing, religion, politics, whatever. The community was like the Wild West in the sense that it was writing the rules as it went along. This new territory didn’t have any mores. One defining maxim that Stewart Brand coined for the WELL was, “You own your own words,” which reinforced personal responsibility.

Cliff told me a story about cantaloupes and how this early community dealt with unsubstantiated claims.

Just after I was named Director of the WELL in August 1986, one of the WELL’s earliest members openly discussed her idea of starting an online news service using USENET (not the WELL) as her platform. This was more than five years before the Internet connected existing networks into a privately run commercial system. There had just been a big story in the news about watermelons grown in California containing pesticides. The aspiring reporter posted on the WELL that she’d received “unsubstantiated” reports of the same pesticides being found in cantaloupe.

The reactions of pretty much everyone on the WELL could be summed up as, “That’s interesting. Maybe I’ll stop eating cantaloupe, at least until the story is proven false.” But one founding member of the WELL felt that we had opened the door to the spread of evil net rumors, and that we at the WELL were obligated to nip this unethical behavioral trend in the bud. A weeklong argument ensued among interested WELLers, most of whom questioned what amount of damage could possibly be done by sharing secondhand knowledge with a virtual audience in a private online community. The court of popular opinion decided in favor of the aspiring reporter and eventually the plaintiff quit the WELL.

To me, “the tainted cantaloupe incident” was one of the most important formative social discoveries we made in the WELL’s early experimental phase. As Director of the WELL I spent considerable time trying to understand how ad hoc groups worked things out in cyberspace, and how people attempted to achieve their purposes through monitors and keyboards.

There is still no bright line separating casual from professional conversation on the Web. The answer to the question, “Who IS a journalist?” only gets hazier every day. Every day millions of false rumors are intentionally planted on the web. Tools are being invented to help support the social web’s ability to self-correct.

Given that the WELL was founded by optimistic hippies, I assumed these geeks on the forefront of technology would have high hopes for their hobby, but I was surprised to find the opposite.

“I had no idea the Internet would expand to the scale it is today. Absolutely no idea,” says Figallo.

The Eternal September

Throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s, universities granted their students access to Usenet and other BBSes. Every September these online communities would be flooded with new users who hadn’t learned the lingo or the etiquette. The veterans would naturally look down on these noobs with disdain, and dreaded the coming of September. In many cases, trolling was an effective remedy.

In 1993, America Online began offering its customers Usenet access, which brought the community thousands, and eventually millions, of new users. These users were often the children of net-savvy parents who were relatively less equipped than university students to provide value to the Usenet communities. And the influx didn’t stop. The AOL users just kept coming. Waves upon waves of noobs. Trolling isn’t as effective a form of social engineering when the noobs outnumber the old war horses.

On January 26, 1994, Dave Fischer posted a message to the alt.folklore.computers newsgroup: “September 1993 will go down in net.history as the September that never ended.”

And thus the phrase eternal September was born. It’s something that every successful Internet community experiences, but this represented a massive shift in demographics for the web.

The Internet was no longer an exclusive haven for geeks; and a bit of magic was lost forever along with the countercultural exclusivity of the web. Rather than accept the mainstreamification, some geeks burrowed deeper into weirder territory.

Rotten, Stile Project and . . . Gaping Holes

Enter Rotten.com. I was first introduced to this portal to hell when my meth head coworker at a fast food restaurant told me about this site that “has, like, dead bodies and shit.” The site’s current header includes a pretty clear disclaimer:

The soft white underbelly of the net, eviscerated for all to see: Rotten dot com collects images and information from many sources to present the viewer with a truly unpleasant experience. Pure evil since 1996.

In 1999, the site added a regular column called “The Daily Rotten,” a news feed dedicated to macabre stories of terrorism, abuse, disfigurement, and perversion. A photo of a Chinese man supposedly eating a fried human fetus was one particularly scandalous photo. An image that still haunts my memory depicted a man who’d been nearly consumed from the inside out by parasitic worms. The site is full of tumors, birth defects, rashes, cysts, and other bodily terrors. Rotten was disgusting, but the Internet was captivated. In the early ’00s, the site received two hundred thousand rubbernecking visitors every day.

Tim Hwang, who went on to found the meme-centric ROFLCon convention, admits Rotten’s peculiar appeal:

In middle school, we were spending a lot of time online. And a big part of the attraction of the Internet is finding really nasty things to send to your friends. So, at the time we were passing around a lot of Rotten links.

For a wide swath of my generation, Rotten was a gateway drug that would eventually introduce users to places like 4chan. More importantly, Rotten served as an early whipping boy for censorship crusaders. In 1997, the Rotten staff unleashed a manifesto that would shape the way people approached censorship on the web:

The definition of obscenity, according to the Supreme Court and known informally as the Miller test, is:

  • must appeal to the prurient interest of the average person,
  • must describe sexual conduct in a way that is “patently offensive” to community standards, and
  • when taken as a whole, it “must lack serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

Certain people (including parents and schoolteachers) have complained to us and stated that rotten.com should not be “allowed” on the net, since children can view images on our site.

One US schoolteacher wrote us a very angry email that complained some of her students had bookmarked images on this site, that our site shouldn’t be on the net, and other claptrap.

This is our response. The net is not a babysitter! Children should not be roaming the Internet unsupervised any more than they should be roaming the streets of New York City unsupervised.

We cannot dumb the Internet down to the level of playground. Rotten dot com serves as a beacon to demonstrate that censorship of the Internet is impractical, unethical, and wrong. To censor this site, it is necessary to censor medical texts, history texts, evidence rooms, courtrooms, art museums, libraries, and other sources of information vital to functioning of free society.

Nearly all of the images which we have online are not even prurient, and would thus not fall under any definition of obscenity. Any images which we have of a sexual nature are in a context which render them far from obscene, in any United States jurisdiction. Some of the images may be offensive, but that has never been a crime. Life is sometimes offensive. You have to expect that.

The images we find most obscene are those of book burnings.

In 2001 the Rotten staff launched The Gaping Maw, which offered biting cultural commentary and satire, like a bizarre, adults-only Mad magazine. Because The Gaping Maw was hosted on Rotten, a site that was routinely threatened with lawsuits, its writers could get away with just about anything, providing some of the freshest commentary on the web.

A similarly rude site called Stile Project was founded in 1998 by a teenager named Jonathan Biderman. In 2001, it gained notoriety for hosting a video of a kitten being killed and prepared for a meal. PETA naturally flipped out and attempted to shut down the site. Strangely enough, Stile Project had been nominated for a Webby award the year before. Stile warned, “This is quite possible [sic] the single most offensive thing I have ever seen” in the video’s description; however, he felt the video exposed people’s hypocrisy toward their food.

To us it seems like the ultimate taboo. How could those Godless Asians do such a thing to such a beautiful creature? Well, I’m sure Indians wonder the same thing about us, but you don’t see North Americans shedding a tear every time a cow is slaughtered. . . . When’s the last time you cried over a Big Mac?

I do not condone animal abuse, and I view the video more as an educational tool than one of shock value. For us to say it is wrong, it would just make us all hypocrites since most of us eat meat. I never get hate mail when posting images of dead people . . .

Rotten and Stile represent two sites that were built upon a larger web trend of gross-out content. When I was a freshman in college, I remember someone telling me to visit lemonparty.org (Don’t do it). The URL of course leads to another shock site, this time a photo of three elderly gentlemen tangled in bed. (And in the last US presidential election, 4chan trolls posted signs on telephone poles reading, “Politics left you bitter? lemonparty.org.” Another sign read, “Sick of gas prices? www.lemonparty.org.”)

For many, the experience of Internet shock sites began with goatse, a notoriously repulsive image that is considered the king of shock sites. It features a hirsute gentleman bending over and stretching his anus wider than you’d think was humanly possible. The image was originally hosted at goatse.cx (as in goat sex). The link to goatse.cx was passed around by giggling teen boys, mostly, and used to troll unsuspecting browsers.

In 2010, a group of trollish hackers associated with Encyclopedia Dramatica, a wiki site focusing on 4chan culture, exposed a flaw in AT&T’s security, revealing the email addresses of iPad users. They called themselves Goatse Security (themselves an offshoot of the Gay Nigger Association of America troll collective). Their logo was a cartoonish parody of the goatse shock image, and their motto was “Gaping Holes Exposed.”

Nerd News: Slashdot & Metafilter

Slashdot founder Rob Malda, aka “Commander Taco,” says that he created Slashdot because he missed the high-minded technical community he enjoyed in the BBS era that discussed the sort of “news for nerds, stuff that matters” that interested him.

In 1997, Slashdot offered something new: user-submitted stories. Each story became its own discussion thread. The site became so popular that when a story was linked by Slashdot, the site’s host would often buckle under the weight of all the traffic. This phenomenon became known as the Slashdot Effect. This phenomenon is not unique to Slashdot, but Slashdot was one of the first to be routinely recognized as a server killer. Other sites can be farked, for example, or undergo the Digg Effect, demonstrating the power that content aggregators wield.

Malda says that Slashdot developed its own unique memetic culture almost instantly. He remembers lots of gross-out memes popping up in addition to stuff from the Star Wars prequels, which were hugely popular during Slashdot’s early years. I asked him if there was a specific moment when he realized that memes were a thing. He replied, “Long before I heard the word, that’s for sure.” Many of Slashdot’s memes deal with ultra geeky science and computing puns.

Malda claims that since he started Slashdot, the corporations have taken over, our rights are on the decline, and our privacy is gone. Back in the early days it was chaotic, but free. He recognizes the value in anonymity, and feels that there’s something special about 4chan’s community.

I love that they interact anonymously. Slashdot was similarly completely anonymous for the first year of our existence, and still today we allow anyone to post without any identifying information whatsoever.

I think a registered pseudonym is useful because it gives you continuity if not accountability. You might not know that “CmdrTaco” is actually a dude named Rob, but on Slashdot at least, you know that each time you see a post with that name attached, you know it’s the same guy. I felt for Slashdot that it was important to provide that for people that wanted it. I don’t think that creates a sense of “personal responsibility” in any sort of globalized sense, but it allows you to build a reputation and history which might be important if you want to be taken seriously.

Interestingly, anonymous posters on Slashdot are jokingly labeled “Anonymous Coward.”

Matt Haughey was a big fan of Slashdot, but he wasn’t crazy about the interface. Slashdot had editors that picked from submitted stories. Matt was looking for something more democratic, so he created MetaFilter, a community where anyone’s story could land on the front page.

The community blog became most notable for its Ask Metafilter section, which was an early example of information crowd-sourcing. You could ask an obscure question and, due to the size and quality of the community, sometimes get surprisingly informed answers. This kind of querying would influence sites like Yahoo Answers, Quora, Reddit, and, to an extent, even 4chan.

According to Haughey, MetaFilter also developed its own memespeak pretty early on.

Probably in the first year, 2000 or so, I noticed people shouting “double post!” to something they’d seen before became a sort of game for people, where they wanted to be first to notice something was old and demonstrate their expertise at MetaFilter. There was also this early meme where a post that was really awful or boring would elicit a response of someone saying “I really like pancakes” and then everyone would talk about pancakes and we sort of had a pancakes-as-mascot thing for a while.

My favorite meme is the current one where someone overanalyzes something at MetaFilter, people tell them they are “bean-plating” which started with one user poking fun at another by saying “HI I’M ON METAFILTER AND I COULD OVERTHINK A PLATE OF BEANS.”

MetaFilter users were known for being creative smarty-pantses, which was reinforced by a simple decision by Haughey to charge users $5 to participate for life. It’s a modest fee, but according to Haughey it worked wonders in keeping out trolls and casual passersby who would contribute nothing of value to the conversation.

Haughey is fascinated by 4chan, especially how it produces interesting memes “from a place of total fuck-off anonymity.” Like most online communities, MetaFilter asks its users to post under usernames, but Matt recognizes the value in namelessness.

I do appreciate moot’s point about how anonymity lets you be ok with failing, while a username feels more like “everything is on your permanent record” and people might be afraid to ever try something. I’m a big fan of failure and I think everyone should be terrible at everything they love for the first year or so they do it. I guess I’d rather see a world where everyone has a username and a permanent record and we all have these embarrassing beginnings where we openly failed again and again before we started to figure things out.

Slashdot and Metafilter were the first big content aggregators, and their elegant feature sets have had a massive impact on the way all media now behaves on the web. Long before Digg and Reddit came along, Slashdot and MetaFilter provided users with a way to define what their news would look like. This democratization of the media has influenced not only the way news is consumed, but how it is formed, framed, and distributed.

But what about all the news for nerds that doesn’t matter? What if it’s not news, but . . . something else?

“It’s Not News. It’s Fark”

In 1999, Drew Curtis unleashed Fark (a purposefully misspelled euphemism for a word you can probably guess), an offbeat news aggregator that would become a meme creation powerhouse. The formula was simple: Fark’s community submitted articles to the site’s admins, who then green-lighted the best ones for inclusion in the site’s news feed. Each news story had an accompanying discussion thread that allowed the users to engage in witty banter on very specific, immediate topics.

Before Fark, Curtis often read news stories on the web and emailed the best ones to his friends, which he found to be a cumbersome way to share and discuss information. So he created Fark, allowing millions to share what essentially amounted to a giant global “News of the Weird” section.

Curtis was attending college in Iowa but living in Kentucky during the early ’90s. A friend advised him to check out email, a cheap way to circumvent expensive phone calls to campus. So he got an account and started using email to correspond with his contacts in the Midwest. He remembers a conversation with some friends:

I asked, “What is the Internet good for other than chat and text games?” They couldn’t think of anything. Even porn wasn’t doing all that great. Conventional wisdom was free porn sites had no chance of working because the minute people found out about them they crashed under the traffic.

Because every news story provided a comment thread full of geeks trying to outwit each other, Fark was an early breeding ground for Internet memes. The comment fields allowed for images, so clever Photoshops and wordplay abounded. One early meme was “Still no cure for cancer,” which would append stories dealing with scientific advances in obscure, seemingly useless fields of interest.

Curtis remembers when he first became acquainted with the term meme, recalling the development of Memepool in 1999 and rattling off some older memes that dried up long ago, such as Troops and I Kiss You. “It’s how I know I’m old,” he says. One meme that sticks out most in Drew’s mind is the legendary All Your Base Are Belong to Us, a garbled bit of Engrish (i.e., badly translated Japanese often found in video games) spoken by a villain from an old coin-operated arcade game called Zero Wing. The phrase took off on Something Awful and was further popularized by Fark. It eventually became a popular taunt in online gaming, a way to tell your opponent that they’d just been pwned. (This was another goof from video game land: in the frenetic pace of online play, people wishing to taunt their opponents with “hahaha owned,” as in “You’ve been owned,” easily made the mistake of typing pwned instead, as the p and o keys are adjacent on most keyboards.) Today there are thousands of photoshopped All Your Base images, and even T-shirts. It was one of the first image memes to be endlessly remixed.

Curtis claims that this insular Internet culture went mainstream around the advent of the big social networking sites MySpace and Facebook, which brought so many people online and made it easy for average joes to share content.

One thing I find interesting is that there isn’t another Fark. There’s stuff that kind of looks like Fark but nothing really exactly like it . . . Right now I’m pushing the fact that the entire social Internet is set up to give you what it thinks you want—Fark gives you what you don’t know you want. It’s about the only place out there which intentionally isn’t putting you into an echo chamber of like-minded sheep.

Curtis says that the social aspect of the site wasn’t really his goal from the beginning. He just wanted a place to share funny, interesting links with friends, not much different than lots of link aggregation sites of the day. He had a “Submit a Link” option on Fark from day one, but after a year it became obvious that the site’s future was in user submissions, so he made it a more prominent and integral feature.

It became apparent that people were submitting material faster than I could find it manually. So I switched to selecting from the submission queue as opposed to searching the broader Internet. Wasn’t really a plan so much as I’m just lazy.

Curtis eventually discovered that the crowd’s ability to provide the best bits of information vastly outpaced his own ability to curate content. This rest of the media caught up to his discovery in the Web 2.0 revolution that occurred several years later.

It wasn’t just the unique features of his site that made it a success; it was the changing infrastructure of the web as a whole. Blog software was becoming popular and increasingly approachable, even for tech noobs. It enabled unpaid, amateur writers and commentators to compete with mainstream news sites, and aggregators like Fark, Slashdot, and Metafilter gave them equal standing in terms of traffic. It wasn’t who you were, it was what you were saying.

Curtis doesn’t have a lot of nostalgia for the good old days (“Things were clunky and didn’t work all that great”). But things are always changing:

Another interesting thing I’ve noticed is that the VC [venture capital] dollars seem to scramble around based on the rules of web statistics. Look at all the money that poured into content farms [Demand Media, Associated Content], and now Google changed the rules and made them more or less moot (for now).

Curtis defines two major changes in the web since he started out: Tons more people, and the presence of a generation of folks who grew up online. Today, people are much more well-equipped to share the things they like, and companies are being forced to come to terms with the reality that their content has to be good, and that there is no secret formula for creating a viral sensation.

Fark was the first of the big content aggregators with a focus on the sort of offbeat stuff that people eventually recognized as being “from the Internet”—in other words, Internet memes. One popular Fark meme was a Photoshopped image of a kitten frolicking in a field, being chased by two Domos (a creepy Japanese TV mascot that looks like a brown rectangle with sharp teeth and beady eyes). The caption reads, “Every time you masturbate, god kills a kitten. Please, think of the kittens.” Farkers didn’t invent the phrase, which dates back to a 1996 student newspaper, but the goofy image coupled with the amusingly sacrilegious phrase went viral.

Another was the infamous UFIA, or Unsolicited Finger in Anus, which derives from a news story posted to Fark about a high school football player who poked a teammate’s butthole in a bit of jocular fun. The other kid didn’t think it was so funny and pressed charges, prompting a judge to eventually declare that an “unsolicited finger in anus is crude, not criminal.”

Farkers gleefully beat this catchphrase to death, culminating in Drew Curtis’s purchase of the naming rights to Boston’s Fleet Center for a day, hoping to rename it the Fark.com UFIA Center. The Fleet Center caught wind of the prank and opted to not use the name. However, a Farker was able to convince the Tennessee Department of Transportation to put up an “Adopt a Highway” sign that read “Drew Curtis TotalFark UFIA,” which he explained stood for Uniting Friends in America. The sign lasted a few days.

“The Internet Makes You Stupid”: Something Awful

I discovered Something Awful, a wonderland of bizarre online culture, almost immediately after getting online in the late ’90s. Its community of “goons” thrived, providing perhaps the most direct Western antecedent to 4chan, which was eventually spawned from its anime forum. Launched in 1999, the site charged a one-time $9.95 fee for forum access, which thousands willingly paid to be a part of the strangest community on the web.

Something Awful was a repository for lowbrow humor, with condescending editorial commentary tacked on. Founded in 1999 by Richard “Lowtax” Kyanka, the site featured daily essays about everything on the web perceived as awful, with a focus on nerd stuff like video games, anime, and script kiddie culture (script kiddies, or skriddies, are teenagers who’ve learned a few basic hacking techniques and think they’re capable of bringing down the Pentagon. Rather than hacking manually and writing their own code, they use prefab scripts with little understanding of what they’re doing). A trademark feature was the site’s “Awful Link of the Day,” which shined a spotlight on some hilariously dumb corner of the web. It might be a website fetishizing girls sucking on ice cubes or some guy’s exhaustively researched argument about how the biblical hell is geographically located within the earth’s molten core.

Other features on Something Awful include “Photoshop Phriday,” a weekly image gallery that lampoons any old thing using image editing tools. 4chan users have turned this practice into something approaching an Olympic sport. “Your Band Sucks,” a recurring column, offers hilariously provocative essays taking down highly regarded bands. The “Weekend Web” gathers quotes from weird message boards devoted to topics like urine consumption as a spiritual exercise, white supremacy, or support groups for those with self-diagnosed Asperger’s.

If there was something awful on the web, the guys at Something Awful eventually found it and skewered it with unparalleled wit. But beyond the collation and parody, Something Awful’s vibrant community eventually began to form a unique creative culture of its own, which included a collection of powerful memes. Perhaps more than any web community before it, Something Awful harnessed the power of its community’s creative abilities. With a bit of editorial direction, Something Awful managed to skim the cream from the top of its goon community, creating grade-A comedic content for web geeks.

Longtime contributor David Thorpe describes the site’s unique appeal.

I think a fair number of people who wound up fascinated by weird Internet fringe stuff came from Stile Project. Something Awful was on the rise right around the time Stile Project was on the decline, and the two sites had a few crossovers once in a while. Something Awful was much more appealing because it was funnier and way less sleazy. Rich Kyanka, the guy who started it, was making fun of the Internet from the perspective of a legitimately funny and fairly normal dude, whereas Stile presented himself as the kind of C.H.U.D. [Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller, named after a cult classic b-horror flick] who was only one step above the people he was making fun of.

Thorpe joined the Something Awful forums in 2001 and hung around for a while, simply because it was a community of fun people that he could joke with. Zack Parsons, the closest thing Something Awful has to an editor-in-chief, eventually offered him a gig writing for the site.

I asked Thorpe if he thought it was weird how mainstream meme culture has gotten. When he started at Something Awful, a lot of the jokes and slang that are now featured on MTV were solely the realm of these hellaciously witty geeks on obscure Internet forums.

I always sort of figured it would happen. The fact that people are making tons of money on it now is kind of depressing, partially because the stuff that’s making money is a lot of the dumbest stuff, the worst of “Internet humor,” like the lolcat shit. Another reason it’s depressing is because I’m not one of the people making money off it.

Thorpe points to the creation of image macros, which used to be popular on Something Awful but have since died out due to their mainstream popularity. These are basically images with text plastered on top; lolcats are the most popular example. They were called macros because it used to be possible to post popular ones by typing a code in the post that would automatically generate the image. This is loosely based on the computer science concept of macros by which input sequences are linked to output sequences. In this case, code in, funny photo out.

Eventually, they developed into what a lot of people would call memes, like all the lolcat stuff. A good example of SA’s influence on that development was that my friend Jon, another writer for Something Awful, made this picture of Spider Man looking confused, with the caption “How do I shot web?” That was one of the first examples of the kind of broken language thing that slowly evolved into the lolcat phenomenon. Jon is pretty ashamed to have indirectly influenced the development of something so idiotic.

How Do I Shot Web is a massively popular meme, with thousands of iterations. It might be idiotic, but it’s a tangible part of web culture that makes up the memescape. The non sequiturs and obsession with human eccentricity were two powerful themes that defined Something Awful, and later 4chan and Internet pop culture as a whole.

The Birth of the Chans: Ayashii World, Amezou, and 2channel

Meanwhile, an enterprising Japanese slacker named Hiroyuki Nishimura developed a message board in 1999 called 2channel, a text-only anonymous forum that would eventually become a popular place for emotionally repressed Japanese to vent. But what made 2channel special was its almost complete lack of rules and anonymity.

2channel was based on a previous text board called Ayashii World, the first big anonymous text board in Japan. It was an outgrowth of Japanese Usenet culture, created by Shiba Masayuki in 1996. Because it was an extension of Usenet, its subject matter was deeply nerdy, focusing on hacking, pirating, porn, and other black market information. Ayashii World, like 4chan, was unique for two reasons: anonymous posting and meme creation. Ayashii World even had an equivalent to /b/, called the “scum board,” which was used exclusively to plan raids (attacks on other sites through hacking, spamming, or other destructive means).

The first image board meme, Giko-neko, was created here. It was represented in ASCII art, a form of illustration using text characters, as a cat, usually saying itte yoshi (Japanese for fuck off). Because the cat could be easily copy-pasted elsewhere, with new captions, it was easy for other users to make Giko-neko their own.

Ayashii World, like many anonymous chan boards, experienced so much downtime that its owner began to receive death threats, prompting him to shut down the board in 1998. When Ayashii World was shut down, many of its users created their own textboards in an effort to create a new home for nanashi, Japanese for anonymous.

The anonymous creator of one of the splinter boards, Amezou World, added a new style of discussion threading called floating threads, which displayed discussions in one chronological stream rather than in branching conversations. Secondly, he integrated bumping.

As Amezou became more popular, it was increasingly targeted by trolls. When violent threats eventually forced the creator of Amezou to shut down his board, another round of splinter groups popped up to meet the demand for anonymous community. Among these was 2channel, which brought chan culture to the mainstream.

“I created a free space, and what people did with it was up to them,” Nishimura told Wired in 2008, his laissez-faire approach mirroring that of 4chan’s founder. In order to understand why 2channel was such a raging success, it’s important to know a bit about Japanese culture. We’re talking about a society wherein face-to-face confrontation and emotional expression are actively discouraged. In the United States, straight talk and audacity are prized as character traits. In Japan, they are often interpreted as rudeness or disrespect.

It’s the culture of the salaryman, the lonely wage slave who lives to work, with the few social pleasures he allows himself often related to corporate team-building. The image of a salaryman is certainly a stereotype (sleeping in a suit on a subway, late-night corporate-sponsored karaoke), but there’s no question that this socially repressed caricature represented a community that was waiting for a platform like 2channel to come along. Today, the Japanese-only site draws several million daily page views—more than four times the traffic of 4chan, which is global. 2channel gives the people of Japan a place to say what they’re really thinking, with no real-life consequences.

The 2channel welcome screen message reads, “Welcome to the large group of bulletin boards that extensively covers topics from ‘hacking’ to ‘supper.’” More than six hundred individual boards are listed in a scrolling column on the left, including “Large Special Vehicles,” “I Love Dogs and Cats,” “Romantically Challenged,” and one of the most popular, a board dedicated to the recent Japanese earthquakes.

One board, “Solitary Man,” seems to be a place for lonely males to commiserate. I’ve found a thread in this board titled “What do you prefer in the opposite sex?” The first post, penned by an alleged 16-year-old boy, details different characteristics, like height, age, education, and attractiveness. The thread continues with people contributing characteristics like “kind person,” “looks like Cameron Diaz,” “likes housework,” “loves animals,” and “beautiful Japanese.” Within ten replies, a troll offers his idea of an ideal woman, with wings growing from her head, raptor claw hands and feet, and, of course, beautiful breasts.

Because the site doesn’t allow images of any kind, the users have developed a form of visual communication based on ASCII art.

These can be simple emoticons, like this angry fella, a 2channel emoticon, or kaomoji:

Some of them contain thousands of characters in order to create almost photo-realistic visual representations.

Each discussion thread can potentially contain up to a thousand posts, which either “age” or “sage.” Saged posts (from the Japanese sageru) move down to the bottom of the thread, while aged, or bumped, posts float to the top. This dynamic method of arranging content was eventually borrowed by 4chan’s founder.

2channel is a place to argue, vent, cajole, insult, and goof around. The users are sarcastic and sophomoric, and have developed a dense internal lexicon. Those who aren’t in the know are said to be kuku yomenai, or someone who “can’t read the air.” In other words, a noob or newfag.

2channel can get pretty dark. In 2000, a 17-year-old kid posted a message claiming that he was about to hijack a bus, an act that he carried out an hour later, stabbing one passenger to death. Racism, especially toward Koreans, is rampant. Mass suicides have been organized on the site, and criminals have boasted about their plans before committing crimes hours later. Interestingly, many notable documented events resulting from or announced on 2channel has a Western analogue on 4chan. The cultures are so different, but the technology influences human behavior on a deeply similar level.

2channel also has a heartwarming side. Consider Trainman, an anonymous 2channel user who regaled the community with a story fit for a romance novel. While sitting on a train he noticed an attractive woman. A drunk man boarded the train and began to harass the other passengers, who ignored him. Then he began to sexually harass the woman. Despite being an introverted geek, Trainman took action, fighting off the man until the other passengers were able to alert the conductor.

The woman thanked him profusely and asked for his address so she could send him a token of appreciation. A few days later Trainman received a beautiful French tea set. Overwhelmed by her thoughtfulness, he returned to 2channel to update an expanding group of interested fans and ask for advice. As a self-conscious nerd, he had no idea how to respond appropriately. The folks on 2channel convinced him to contact the woman. He eventually worked up the courage to ask her out on a date, his first.

Then, per 2channel’s advice, he got a new haircut, bought a snazzy outfit, and picked up some contact lenses. His first date was a success, and he continued to keep 2channel abreast of his progress. After a few more dates he and the woman began texting regularly, and eventually Trainman confessed his love, which she returned. Trainman triumphantly announced their shared affection to 2channel, whose users banded together for an ecstatic online celebration.

Trainman’s story is now folklore in Japan, having been adapted for television, film, and manga. Though many are convinced of the story’s authenticity, it’s never been proven, and neither Trainman nor his lover have ever come forward in real life.

In a 2003 interview with Japan Media Review, Nishimura laid out the site’s appeal.

Q: Why did you decide to use perfect anonymity, not even requiring a user name?

A: Because delivering news without taking any risk is very important to us. There is a lot of information disclosure or secret news gathered on Channel 2. Few people would post that kind of information by taking a risk. Moreover, people can only truly discuss something when they don’t know each other.

If there is a user ID attached to a user, a discussion tends to become a criticizing game. On the other hand, under the anonymous system, even though your opinion/information is criticized, you don’t know with whom to be upset. Also with a user ID, those who participate in the site for a long time tend to have authority, and it becomes difficult for a user to disagree with them. Under a perfectly anonymous system, you can say, “it’s boring,” if it is actually boring. All information is treated equally; only an accurate argument will work.

2channel is now considered a media powerhouse on par with the country’s biggest magazines and TV channels. And it’s completely open and free for everyone, not just for viewing but for contributing and collaborating. 2channel behaves not only as an alternative media source, but as an ombudsman that is continuously keeping the Japanese mainstream media in check.

4chan Godfather: Futaba Channel

Futaba Channel, or 2ch, is an image board that was launched in 2001. The community is more focused on otaku culture than 2channel is. Futaba Channel contains around one hundred boards, some of which are devoted to images, some of which are text only.

I wander onto Futaba Channel and sure enough, it looks almost exactly like 4chan. I pick a board at random: “Two-dimensional Gro.” I’m met with a warning page:

You are about to enter the grotesque image board.

Images on the grotesque image board may cause serious consequences.

I enter the board, consequences be damned. It’s full of images of anime girls being suspended by hooks, or stretched out on examination tables while being disemboweled, or smiling sweetly while bleeding, apparently from having been recently quadruply amputated. Yuck.

I try the newest board, called “Nuclear.” It’s a forum for people to discuss the potential for nuclear fallout, primarily related to the Fukushima power plant. There seems to be a lot of anger being expressed toward the Tokyo Electric Power Company, the fourth-largest in the world, regarding its handling of the Fukushima nuclear accident in the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

“No nuclear power plants should be up and running properly in a country that cannot handle a nuclear accident,” writes one understandably resentful poster. Everyone seems to be arguing about who is to blame for the perceived lack of preparedness in the aftermath of the disaster.

This kind of venting is something that Japanese people probably wouldn’t feel comfortable with in real life. Futaba Channel and 2channel, with all their oddities, seem to offer a release valve for the Japanese.

The forums also provide an opportunity to achieve social good. In October of 2004, thousands of 2channel users rallied to help in the aftermath of the Niigata Prefecture Chuetsu earthquake. Right now, I’m seeing hundreds of threads buzzing with people sharing information and offering to help one another in the wake of the recent tsunami and earthquakes.

Collecting Bite-Sized Memes: You’re The Man Now Dog (YTMND)

In 2001, back in the United States, Max Goldberg launched the online community You’re the Man Now Dog.

The site began as nothing but the words “You’re the man now dog” written in ASCII text on a black background, at http://www.yourethemannowdog.com. The line is prominently spoken by Sean Connery in the trailer for the 2000 film Finding Forrester. By the end of the year, Goldberg had changed the site to include a tiled image of Connery, an audio clip of him saying the quote, and accompanying text reading the same. It was absurd and useless, and people appreciated it for exactly those reasons.

I remember someone sent me a link to it back in 2002. By the time the audio clip had repeated a third time I’d thrown my head back in laughter. Who made this? What does this mean? Why that specific line? The ludicrousness of it all. YTMND is an early example of the single-serving site, a URL reserved for an exceedingly singular, and usually trivial, purpose.

Over the next few years, creative goofs would apply the YTMND model (a pic, a sound clip, and text) to different weird pop-culture icons. So many people created derivatives that Max eventually decided to set up a site to host all of them, and //www.ytmnd.com was born.

The top-viewed YTMND is a clip of a prank call that was originally recorded by comedian Tom Mabe. The second is a massive animated GIF image created collectively by some clever Something Awful goons. The YTMND wiki explains:

The Blue Ball Machine is one of the most frequently-viewed pages on all of YTMND. The site is a patchwork of animated GIFs linked together accompanied by a looping hook of the song Breakfast Machine from the film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. The concept was conceived by Andorion, who created a template and some sample tiles and a thread for others to contribute, and the individual images were created by hundreds of Something Awful forums goons. Each image has three balls enter and leave at particular spots at any frame which is a multiple of 30, but otherwise the content is up to the creator. It has earned this title by accruing a staggering four million pageviews since its inception in October of 2005.

The third is called “Breakup Letter: Dramatic Reading,” which features a narrator reading an inarticulate breakup letter as though it were a dramatic Shakespearean monologue, while trying not to giggle:

Dear Loser,[Chris]~~~~!!!!!

I thought you liked me you said it yourself I hate you. People only say you asked me out because you needed a date for the dance and that after the dance you would dump me well guess what bastert i dumped you cause you were thinking that i cheated on you i didnt so like idiots that you guys are and so smart that you are you called me a slut. I hung up on you cause you tol me it on the phone

That’s a small taste, but you get the idea. Moving down the list I see an animated GIF of Paris Hilton that shows her using the same facial expression in every photo. Another has the opening sequence of “Cowboy Bebop,” only with audio of a Bill Cosby soundalike scatting over the original music (Cosby Bebop).

The appeal of YTMND is that it allowed users to crystallize a single, self-contained bit of absurdity into a unique URL that they could easily share with their friends. There was also a feature that allowed people to rate the clips, so the best ones rose to the top. For a time in the mid-2000s, YTMND was one of the most powerful Internet meme aggregators.

The Memesphere Expands

From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, the Internet birthed hundreds of smaller sites that have come to be known as early Internet memes themselves, or that hosted viral content before viral content was recognized as something new. I’ve already told you about “Gonads and Strife,” a cartoon from Threebrain, a flash animator who also released such viral sensations as “Sorry Your Mom Died” and “Monkey Salad.”

realultimatepower.com is a good example, and it somehow remains intact after all these years. The homepage begins:

Hi, this site is all about ninjas, REAL NINJAS. This site is awesome. My name is Robert and I can’t stop thinking about ninjas. These guys are cool; and by cool, I mean totally sweet.

Facts:

  1. Ninjas are mammals.
  1. Ninjas fight ALL the time.
  1. The purpose of the ninja is to flip out and kill people.

It goes on like this. I distinctly remember the pure delight the childlike wording of this home page brought to my college dorm. This stuff was our generation’s Monty Python. It was fresh and funny and it felt like nobody seemed to quite get it but us.

In 2004, Quiznos ran a campaign featuring the Spongmonkeys, who had achieved viral fame with an animation called “We Like the Moon.” Joel Vietch had originally created the video for his goofy animation site http://www.rathergood.com in 2003. The ads featured the bizarre creatures singing “We Love the Subs.” The monkeys were among the first, if not the first, Internet memes to be used in advertising. The bizarre nature of the Spongmonkeys ads confused many TV viewers, and the requisite explanation was, “Oh, it’s just this weird thing from the Internet.”

This phenomenon would reoccur a few years later, when one of the first YouTube sensations capitalized on the strength of 4chan’s meme-spreading capabilities. In the spring of 2007, a guy called Tay Zonday recorded himself singing an original song called “Chocolate Rain.” The video features an almost childlike Zonday crooning a surprising baritone into a microphone over a cheesy drum loop. Zonday’s face contorts with effort as he sings the utterly ungroovy tune. That November, Zonday licensed the song to Comedy Central and released a spoof called “Cherry Chocolate Rain” as part of an ad campaign for Cherry Chocolate Diet Dr. Pepper.

Newgrounds, eBaums World, and Albino Blacksheep, three successful web communities, hosted videos, flash games, and animations from thousands of independent content creators. Sites like these enabled people to create one-off pieces of content that had the potential to go superviral. At the time, there was a lot of arguing about content attribution. eBaums World especially came under fire for hosting video content it didn’t own. Today, these arguments seem almost quaint. There are so many places to host content these days that it’s virtually impossible to prevent people from sharing copyrighted content.

During this time the memesphere expanded rapidly throughout the web, and people began to see pieces of entertaining content from the Internet as a fresh new medium—but most people didn’t have a word for it yet. If asked “What the hell is this?” we’d say, “Oh it’s just something I found online.” Today we use the word meme.

Each of the communities I’ve just described is part of the gradual progression in the evolution of the online community that created the mother of all Internet in-groups, 4chan. Of course, online community branched forward in different directions, mutating into mainstream social networks like Facebook and Twitter too—but if you look closely, you can spot the countercultural strains of the freaky, outsider’s web community coming to a head when, in 2003, a 15-year-old kid decided he was going to create the best site on the Internet.


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