EWFA Chapter 5
Chapter 5 - The Rise of 4chan
BY 2003 THERE were plenty of English-speaking communities in place where one could share cool stuff from the Internet, but for some they just didn’t move fast enough.
Christopher Poole was a teenage anime geek who would frequent Something Awful’s anime forum under the name “moot,” and occasionally lurk Japanese forums like 2channel and Futaba. He appreciated the quick pace of these sites. As soon as you get to the bottom of a page, you can hit refresh and be hit with a page of completely new content. But because Poole didn’t speak Japanese, he could only check out the images.
So he lifted Futaba Channel’s code wholesale and created 4chan.net, an English-speaking forum that would bring the dynamic culture of 2channel and Futaba Channel to the West. The site launched on October 1, 2003.
Poole posted a message to the Something Awful forums announcing the creation of the image board. It was met with immediate positive reception. No logins, no profiles, no hierarchy of users. Just a frenzy of streamlined fun. With 4chan it wasn’t about who you were, it was about what you knew, a pure meritocracy. People loved it. 4chan.org received millions of hits in the first few weeks of its existence. Eventually Futaba and 2channel users became aware of 4chan, which brought in a flood of traffic, taking down the site’s servers.
I tracked down a guy who calls himself “Shii,” who is credited with writing the software for 4chan’s text boards. On his personal site, he claims, “I wrote the suck-ass anonymous message board software that they still use today, despite never having taken a programming class ever.” In 2003 Shii learned of the existence of the Japanese chan boards and was excited to bring that style of forum to the West. That October, Shii met moot online, who had announced the development of 4chan on the Something Awful anime forum they both frequented called Anime Death Tentacle Rape Whorehouse (ADTRW), a jokingly offensive name poking fun at the medium’s extreme fringes.
Shii vividly remembers moot calling him up to deliver an hour-long monologue about how 4chan was going to be the best site on the Internet. moot made Shii a volunteer moderator, but according to Shii, they began to butt heads when moot tried to turn the site into a business—though he admits, “I’ve always had trouble consulting others before I do stuff and I was not very professional, so he banned me from the site in 2005.”
Shii tells me 4chan was a very different place back in its infancy.
4chan in 2003 was utterly different from the familiar culture that’s developed today. It was a fairly friendly place where everyone used nicknames, re-posted memes from 2chan, and dug up interesting pictures. The signal-to-noise ratio was very high; users would start drama about each other; but the tone of discussion was casual but polite. In other words, it was similar to any other Internet forum.
But it wasn’t always anonymous.
Originally, the 4chan mod team wanted people to fill in their names with tripcodes [an optional feature on 4chan that allows users to create an ID code that remains constant throughout the board. This is looked down on by most 4chan users, who prefer that everyone be anonymous] . . . The overwhelming majority of 4channers used their names; people who criticized others anonymously were called cowards who didn’t want responsibility for their actions. The shift towards condoning anonymity was a combination of bottom-up organic change (some people were anonymous from the beginning) and a change in attitude from the mod team.
Shii claims he was enamored with 2chan’s culture of anonymity and promoted it passionately on ADTRW and the Raspberry Heaven forums. ADTRW contained a thread dedicated to Futaba Channel, where users posted the weirdest stuff they could find, introducing thousands of Westerners to the most bizarre stuff coming out of Japan. Shii says that most of 4chan’s earliest memes were mostly copied directly from Futaba Channel.
Raspberry Heaven was a DC++ file-sharing hub for ADTRW users that eventually became a gathering place for those purged from ADTRW when Something Awful attempted to clean up some of the nastier content from its boards.
Today you might better dub the site Something Sensitive—and Raspberry Heaven became the gathering place for people, like me, who were purged. There is a huge gulf between RH, which continues on today with most of its original userbase, and the ADTRW of today which is full of the most pretentious, self-hating Serious Anime Fans you could find anywhere.
Anyway, Shii thought 4chan was the future.
[I was] claiming that it was a panacea for everything that was wrong with American message boards, etc. I was actually a bullheaded 16-year-old and was making stuff up, not because I believed 4chan could be the greatest accomplishment in human history (it was obvious from the start that would not happen), but because I wanted to create something new and make the Internet change.
Over the next few months moot would add and remove different boards according to demand. He created a Guro board, catering to audiences who were after animated depictions of sexualized violence and gore, and Lolicon, for sexualized depictions of underage children. He would eventually shut down both, possibly to appeal to advertisers and to Paypal, who processed donations. The Lolicon board was also shut down due to occasional floods of actual child pornography.
Shii admits that the availability of extreme pornography played a massive role in 4chan’s growth.
This was the first time a forum for such things had been created on the English-speaking Internet, since they were beyond the pale on any other kind of website. It is hard to imagine now but this was in fact an entirely new realm of obscenity on the Western Internet, a category of pictures which would get you banned forever from any respectable website, and which had previously only ever been pulled out by the worst kind of trolls to shock people.
After about a month moot began to ask for donations so that he could maintain the onslaught of new traffic to the site. 4chan was plagued by downtime throughout its early history, which would inspire others to set up dozens of competing chan-style image boards like iChan, Infinitychan, and Desuchan; these experienced temporary flares of traffic whenever 4chan was down, subsiding when 4chan went back online.
I got in touch with David Ashby, who runs an anime-centric chan site called iiichan. Like Shii, he’s got a lot of nostalgia for 4chan’s early days.
It felt like you were part of a really clever mob, in those days. There was high volume, but not to the insane levels you see on /b/ these days—you could refresh the page and still find the thread you’d just been looking at. The most liberating, incredible thing about it was how easy it was. To see a site like that, with no registration, no names, no history, basically . . . just cleverness and images.
The lack of history and the general impermanence was, and I guess still is, the most fun thing about 4chan. Everywhere else was concerned with building up a reputation, working your way into the important cliques on the site, getting noticed for who you were rather than what you knew. There were explicit hierarchies all around you, all the time. With imageboards, one can actually assume everyone else on the board is as smart and clever as you are—you find yourself talking up to the room, as opposed to down to it.
Before getting involved in the imageboard subculture, Ashby spent time on Megatokyo, a massive otaku forum, but was frustrated with how inefficient the average forum structure was, with the majority of space on pages devoted to “extraneous nonsense” like gaudy signatures, user profile images, and unnecessary bio information. He loved the community found in message board culture, but not the bloat.
Clash of the Chans
Ashby started iiichan along with several other 4chan refugees who were tired of dealing with the site’s frequent downtime.
Soon after I started paying attention to the idea of imageboards in detail, 4chan went down for something like two weeks, and a number of smaller refugee sites popped up, the longest-lived of those being iichan . . . The idea was floated for the users of the board to each take over their own board and run the site as a federation . . . That’s how I started running my own imageboard. I think the splintering occurred at first because of downtime but quickly morphed into an ideological separation just based on who found out about them. After all, there wasn’t any way for 4chan [being down] to advertise them; knowledge of their existence traveled via IRC and other sites, each drawing on a unique subset of 4chan users.
4chan was the first and most well-known, and no other English-speaking chan-style image board would ever come close to usurping it in terms of traffic or influence.
“Lain,” one of the early admins of iichan, posted on 4chan a message for moot, saying he could help out with servers and the like. moot posted back: “Who the hell are you?”—honestly curious, I think, and not trying to be dismissive. But iichan just wasn’t on moot’s radar; he had enough stuff to deal with just with 4chan.
During this period there was antagonism between 4chan users and those of other chan-style boards, wherein they would flood other boards with porn and other spam. Ashby recounts conflicts that have been dubbed the Chan Wars:
Those sorts of floods were often the work of one or two individuals with either some imagined grudge or a hankering to troll the users of another site. It was never between the admins of the boards themselves. They could be triggered by any number of things: perceived mocking of another site, “theft” of memes or jokes, or simply a dislike of the content being posted.
According to Shii, the Chan Wars began as a result of a porn site called HentaiKey whose owner was personally annoyed with moot for distributing porn for free on 4chan. He sent complaints to PayPal and moot’s domain registrar, which led to 4chan losing its hosting and original 4chan.net domain—which gave rise to iichan as a replacement site for anime geeks.
According to one anon, some of the more overtly trollish /b/tards left for 7chan en masse because this new site gave them more freedom to engage in illegal activity. In other cases, 4chan users were drawn to alternative chan boards because they had other boards discussing topics like law, philosophy, politics, and history. Encyclopedia Dramatica casts the birth of 7chan, one of the biggest alternatives to 4chan, in biblical proportions:
Anonymous toiled under Moot’s harsh rule for over 9000 years, building great pyramids unto him on many hectares of land. Anonymous cried out “When shall we be freed of this tyrant king, who so punishes us for our beliefs?”
The Internet spoke unto Anonymous: “There shall be a baby born amongst you, a child prophet, and he shall be called Ian, and he shall lead you from this place. There will be some other guys too, but they will turn out to be faggots.”
Upon his 17th year, the prophet Ian came before Moot and brought plagues of DDoSing and rebellion on his head. Ian parted the Internet, and led his people to freedom. Forty days and forty nights they traveled through the desert. Finally, on the last day, Ian dropped his GBC and proclaimed “This, my followers, is our new land. It shall be called 7chan.” And lol, the Internet saw that it was good.
This is just a snippet of the staggering amount of lore dedicated to the different chan boards. Despite the tension between the different chans, /b/ reached one hundred thousand posts in April 2004, one of the first notable “gets.” Each post is given a number, and nice round ones are often sought after in get threads (as in “I got it!”). The random anon who posted the hundred-thousandth post wrote “lol Internet,” which became an instant meme, as many get posts do. That summer 4chan had its longest stretch of downtime, a full six weeks, which was triggered by a complaint sent to PayPal, who had been processing 4chan’s donations. moot was eventually able to get the site back online with some new features and boards in August.
One Million Get!
In 2005, /b/ reached one million posts. moot experimented further with the site’s principles of anonymity by removing the name fields entirely. The site continued to suffer from hacks and downtime, but by spring of 2006 the site had reached ten million posts.
At this point 4chan’s tomfoolery began to extend outside of /b/. /b/tards began to target Internet personalities, for varying reasons. They attacked furries. (People who like to dress up in cartoonish animal costumes called fursuits. Furries’ attraction to animals is often sexual, but many furries insist otherwise. 4chan is especially antagonistic to furries, though every Friday /b/tards post massive furry porn threads, calling it Furry Friday.) They attacked pro-anorexia message boards, washed-up celebrities, and the MySpace-profile-turned-online-memorial of a seventh grader who took his own life. Thrill-seeking /b/tards would find an easy target on the web, post related info to 4chan, and mobilize dozens, sometimes even hundreds, of anons in order to troll Internet users who’d caught their attention.
In August 2006, moot posted a message to /b/, declaring that anyone who posted illegal content (e.g., child pornography, personal information, and raid-related calls to action) would be banned permanently from 4chan, and anyone who posted within illicit discussion threads would be banned for two weeks. This led many users leave 4chan for other chan boards. It has gone down in chan lore as /b/day.
4chan’s Eternal September Moment
If one had to pick an eternal September period for 4chan, it began in 2007. That was the year of lolcats and Tay “Chocolate Rain” Zonday. Most importantly, it was the year of the Internet Hate Machine.
A Los Angeles Fox affiliate put together a breathless exposé on Anonymous. It starts off like this:
Anonymous. This is what “they” call themselves. They are hackers on steroids, treating the web like a real-life video game. Sacking websites, invading Myspace accounts, disrupting innocent people’s lives—and if you fight back, watch out.
At this point, the ominous music begins.
“Destroy. Die. Attack.” Threats from a gang of computer hackers calling themselves Anonymous . . . They attack innocent people like an Internet hate machine.
“Hackers on Steroids” and “Internet Hate Machine” became instant memes. I can imagine the howls of laughter that met this sensationalized news report.
Those who fight back face death threats. Anonymous has even threatened to bomb sports stadiums. Their name comes from their secret websites. It requires anyone posting on the site to remain anonymous.
MySpace users are among their favorite targets. People like David. Anonymous hacked his site and plastered it with gay sex pictures. His girlfriend left him. They crashed his computer with a virus and used his own email to infect everyone on his friend list.
The report doesn’t mention 4chan by name, instead calling it “an underground hacker site linked to Anonymous.”
Anonymous gets big lulz from pulling random pranks. For example, messing with online children’s games like Habbo Hotel. The pranks are often anti-Semitic or racist, and always posted on the Internet. But truly epic lulz come from raids and invasion.
Their most notorious stunt? A bomb threat against seven football stadiums, which drew national media attention.
Cut to a woman drawing her curtains, presumably to keep out lurking members of Anonymous.
This mother’s also fighting Anonymous. Her whole family’s been under attack.
“They posted pictures of all of us.”
Anonymous has posted their home address and phone number.
“Pretty much said that ‘You’ve got all the information now. Do what you need to do. Go go go.’”
Death threats started pouring in.
“Your heart is breaking. You need to keep your family safe.”
She installed electronic security, a phone tracing system, and bought a dog. Then she started tracking down Anonymous members and brought in the FBI.
“Buy a dog” has become another legendary meme. It’s used as a catchall for mocking advice. If someone asks “What can I do to save money on my tax return?” on Yahoo Answers, some /b/tard will inevitably reply, “Maybe you should buy a dog.”
This news story set the tone for the media’s relationship with 4chan for years to come. It’s marked by a weak grasp of Anonymous’s structure, histrionic sound bites from supposed victims, and ham-fisted usage of 4chan lingo.
Slashdot founder Rob Malda posted the video, commenting, “Cringe as you watch this video explain terms like ‘LULZ’ and show inspirational poster parodies as evidence of the evils of this terrifying ‘Group’.” The thread received over five hundred comments, nearly all making fun of the report, which conflated comparatively harmless Anonymous trolling with actual domestic terrorism.
One anonymous Slashdot commenter nailed the sea change:
Seriously, /b/ is so mainstream now, it beggars belief. Here is a Slashdot article that mentions it in passing without so much as stopping to explain the term . . .
It’s a shame really. For a short while, /b/ was a great little Internet phenomenon. Anonymity, with all its baggage, and somehow no lawsuits. Now, though, the old guard is quickly moving on. Anybody who’s frequented the site can attest to this . . .
Despite my pessimistic tone, I predict that “Anonymous” will continue to grow. As more and more attention is given to these “secret websites,” more and more people are clamoring to become “hackers on steroids.” This new Anonymous will be larger, with more brute force at his call, but at the same time stupider, and less apt to create entertaining content. And paradoxically, he’ll be less anonymous than before. I see threads where a bunch of high-schoolers recognize each other based on posted photos and local memes.
A prescient analysis. Meanwhile, 4chan continued to grow as curious onlookers who caught the news coverage wandered onto /b/ to see what all the fuss was about. Wired ran a piece in January 2008 called “Mutilated Furries, Flying Phalluses: Put the Blame on Griefers, the Sociopaths of the Virtual World.” This article, written by Julian Dibbell, mentioned 4chan and finally provided noobs with a reasoned analysis of troll culture.
Meanwhile at Gawker, my friend Nick Douglas (the college buddy who turned me on to 4chan), wrote “What the Hell Are 4chan, ED, Something Awful, and ‘b’?”—a report that remains the top source cited on 4chan’s Wikipedia entry.
And so, shortly after its fourth birthday, and now with more than fifty million posts, /b/ was flooded with new users like never before. Many veteran users bemoaned that the newfags were only interested in trolling, and cared not for meme creation and ultranerdy culture. This constant grumbling about the “cancer of newfaggotry” became a recurring theme on 4chan. You can barely scroll to the bottom of a page on /b/ without seeing someone complain about how newfags are ruining the board.
“Newfags can’t triforce” is a meme that began as a way for old users to assert their authority over the noobs, and more importantly it showed new users that they have a lot to learn before they can mess around on 4chan. The triforce is a bit of video game iconography, an ancient source of power from the Legend of Zelda franchise that looks like three triangles arranged in a triangular pattern. Oldfags will post the symbol along with “Newfags can’t triforce.” New users who try to copy-paste the symbol in their reply to prove their worth will learn that the pasted symbol appears misaligned. The only way to properly display the triforce is by using a complex set of Unicode characters.
From here, 4chan continued to garner news coverage for various trolls and hacks, culminating in the anti-Scientology movement Project Chanology, which made Anonymous, if not 4chan itself, a household name. (See Chapter 8.)
On July 9, 2008, moot’s identity was revealed in a Wall Street Journal article, “Modest Web Site Is Behind a Bevy of Memes.” The article followed the template for 4chan exposés, starting off with a brief introduction to memes (e.g., Have you seen these lolcats things the kids are into?), easing into 4chan culture, highlighting Anonymous, and dropping a few quotes from eggheads and anons that demonstrate the surprising influence and size of the site. This was the first time moot, now unmasked as a handsome young man named Christopher Poole, showed his face in the media.
In the following three years, Project Chanology would peter out, with Anonymous moving on to other targets (everything from Paypal and Mastercard to Oprah and the Recording Industry Association of America). 4chan continued to churn out memes, and sites like Know Your Meme, Buzzfeed, Urlesque, and the Cheezburger Network rose up to serve as gateways between 4chan and the rest of the Internet. In 2010, Christopher Poole announced a new project called Canvas.
Shii has mixed feelings about 4chan today, and he hasn’t followed the site closely since 2005.
Before 4chan, posting online meant developing an Internet reputation, no matter what you wanted to say. I only saw this as a negative thing, because I could only see the downside of traditional forums; self-aggrandizing egos became famous while interesting voices were drowned out, and pointless and exhausting Internet drama was constant. Anything that would shake up that banality was interesting to me. But I don’t think I could have foreseen the shape it would take beyond mere entertainment, which 4chan certainly invented and improved tremendously.
Shii explains that 4chan has created both good and bad: Anonymous as social activist and Anonymous as stalker and harasser. Technology has served the group well in both directions, with members becoming skilled in initiating “life-ruining” attacks as well as impressive feats of social good. He says that both types of activity are now coordinated outside of 4chan in places like IRC and AnonOps. “4chan itself is not really innovative anymore,” he says.
Today moot’s busy with Canvas, though he occasionally gives an interview about the still-growing popularity of his first endeavor. In April 2011, moot gave an AMA on Reddit, where he engaged with the community in a Q&A session about Canvas and 4chan.
Someone asked him, “What do you think, ten years from now, the lasting cultural legacy of 4chan will be?”
He replied, “That it shaped ‘net and IRL culture in a way that few other communities/websites have.”
Quite an accomplishment for a 15-year-old kid.