EWFA Chapter 9
Chapter 9 - The Anti-Social Network
Facebook in particular is the most appalling spying machine that has ever been invented. Here we have the world’s most comprehensive database about people, their relationships, their names, their addresses, their locations and the communications with each other, their relatives, all sitting within the United States, all accessible to US intelligence. Facebook, Google, Yahoo—all these major US organizations have built-in interfaces for US intelligence. It’s not a matter of serving a subpoena. They have an interface that they have developed for US intelligence to use.
Now, is it the case that Facebook is actually run by US intelligence? No, it’s not like that. It’s simply that US intelligence is able to bring to bear legal and political pressure on them. And it’s costly for them to hand out records one by one, so they have automated the process. Everyone should understand that when they add their friends to Facebook, they are doing free work for United States intelligence agencies in building this database for them.
So declared WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in May 2011 during an interview with Russian news site RT. A spokesman for Facebook responded to CNET:
We don’t respond to pressure, we respond to compulsory legal process . . . There has never been a time we have been pressured to turn over data [and] we fight every time we believe the legal process is insufficient. The legal standards for compelling a company to turn over data are determined by the laws of the country, and we respect that standard.
Facebook provides an increasingly invaluable service to its users, allowing them to connect and self-actualize in exciting new ways. But with convenience comes tension. Do we really want any single entity to possess so much of our private information? Many net-savvy types who don’t have turned to anonymous IRC channels, message boards, and open-source alternative social networks like Diaspora to interact with friends, especially when engaging in activities of questionable legality.
Not surprisingly, 4chan is one of these places. The site’s radical approach to online community (relative to other communities of its day) has shaped the tenor of the discussion on the site. Some have called it the Anti-Facebook, due to its refusal to track even bare-bones data on its users. The two sites were launched within a few years of one another. Both were built on shoestring budgets by young, hungry introverts who ganked the basic idea from someone else and made it work. Both are wildly successful, but in very different ways.
Facebook, with five hundred million users, dwarfs 4chan. Facebook emphasizes the cultivation of a robust identity. It maintains a closed system with a lot of rules. It made its founder billions of dollars, brought generations of people online and furthermore made them active. Facebook has redefined how humans communicate. Speaking purely in terms of scale, 4chan is a tiny playground for bored geeks in comparison.
In David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg famously declared:
The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly . . . Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.
Facebook was originally a niche community of like-minded college kids, who turned to the site because they were unsatisfied with other services that did not offer exclusivity. Now that Facebook is full of moms, where do we turn to express ourselves the way we want?
They conflate the public sphere with the making of a public. That is, when I blog something, I am publishing it to the world for anyone and everyone to see: the more the better, is the assumption. But when I put something on Facebook my assumption had been that I was sharing it just with the public I created and control there. That public is private. Therein lies the confusion. Making that public public is what disturbs people. It robs them of their sense of control—and their actual control—of what they were sharing and with whom (no matter how many preferences we can set). On top of that, collecting our actions elsewhere on the net—our browsing and our likes—and making that public, too, through Facebook, disturbed people even more. Where does it end?
4chan offers a place where people are completely in control of their identity, allowing for expressions of opinions without repercussions. In a 2010 TED Talk, Christopher Poole explained his view on anonymity:
The greater good is being served here by allowing people—there are very few places now where you can go and be completely anonymous and say whatever you like. Saying whatever you like is powerful. Doing whatever you like is now crossing the line, but I think it’s important to have a place [like 4chan].
Poole outlined 4chan’s core competencies and further explained his devotion to privacy in a spring 2011 South by Southwest keynote speech. He described a “loss of the innocence of youth,” using the example of a child who moved to a new city and could reinvent himself in his new town. Or even an adult who got a new job and wanted to change the way he was perceived by coworkers. When you have a social network tracking your identity wherever you go, online and off, that sticks with you. “You can’t really make mistakes in the same way you used to be able to,” says Poole. “The cost of failure is really high when you’re contributing as yourself.”
When you’re anonymous, it allows people to be more flexible and creative, and poke and prod and try a lot of things that they might not were they to have a little picture of their face next to all their contributions.
I think anonymity is authenticity. It allows you to share in a completely unvarnished, unfiltered, raw way. I think that’s something that’s extremely valuable. In the case of content creation, it just allows you to play in ways that you may not have otherwise. We believe in content over creator.
So where’s the future? Will the Internet move inexorably toward proprietary networks that require identification, or will the open-source movement provide popular alternatives that cater to a public that, given the rise of Anonymous, seems to be growing more averse to a strong cross-platform identity? Some doomsayers have prophesied the end of the Internet as we know it, with companies like Facebook becoming so integral to the web experience that the open Internet will be seen as a Wild West–like blip in Internet history. Others believe the future lies with the freaks, the hackers, the Anons.
Hyperbole aside, it will probably be a mixture of both. Clay Shirky draws a metaphor from an old 1986 computer game created by LucasFilm called Habitat, considered to be the godfather of massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft. In the infancy of multiplayer gaming, software engineers’ programming knowledge outstripped their understanding of social behavior, and their user experience decisions were not based on previous knowledge. One contentious game play element in Habitat was “Player vs. Player” or “PvP” killing. Experienced players were able to handily murder noobs, which made the game less fun for everyone but those who’d been there the longest. In addition, the very concept of virtual murder was controversial. It didn’t take long for trolls to start randomly killing other players as they wandered around the virtual town. But if the engineers were to disallow PvP killing entirely, they would rob players of the thrill of danger and the joys of conquest. The moderators held a poll, asking if killing should be allowed in Habitat. The results were split 50/50. So they compromised. Killing would be disallowed inside the carefully manicured urban areas, but the moment you left town and headed out into the frontier, you were announcing to other players that you were down to scrap, if need be. This clever solution pleased most players, and continues to be the standard for many massively multiplayer games.
So will the Internet continue to look. Those who value safety over freedom will hang out on Facebook and other proprietary communities and mobile apps walled off with identity authentication. And those willing to brave the jungles of the open Internet will continue to spend time in anonymous IRC channels and message boards like 4chan.
Poole’s keynote speech also spoke to 4chan’s focus on meritocracy. Other communities that focus on identity, and on rewarding people with points, badges, and other accolades, develop strong hierarchies. Sometimes this is good. You want the smart people who continue producing compelling content to be rewarded.
But there are two ways this can go wrong. The first is encouraging self-promotion at the expense of quality content. You don’t see social media gurus trying to game 4chan in the same way that they do Twitter and Facebook. The second is that it can put the focus on strong personalities rather than on strong content. Longtime veterans of communities are organically given more respect and their words sometimes given more weight than they deserve. On 4chan, you’re only as respected as your latest post. Its users are happy to let the hivemind take credit for their creative work for nothing in return but the private satisfaction of entertaining or informing one’s /b/rothers and the sense of belonging that goes with it.
The success of 4chan as a meme generator has challenged everything we thought we knew about the way people behave on the web. People are willing to spend shocking amounts of time creating, collaborating, documenting—and all with no recognition. The implications are staggering. Give people a place that facilitates creation and sharing, and they will conjure entire civilizations (witness the overwhelming amount of lore preserved at Encyclopedia Dramatica).
While much of 4chan’s content is pure wankery, there’s something special at work there. 4chan allows its users to be jerks, but more importantly it provides a platform of social networking that focuses on what one is saying rather than who is saying it. For all you know, the guy who started a thread about particle physics on /b/ is Stephen Hawking. It’s meritocracy in its purest form. The smartest, funniest, fastest, strongest content wins, regardless of how popular, good-looking, or renowned the post’s author is. Anonymous neither accepts nor grants acclaim.
There are essentially twin themes that make 4chan what it is: the participatory creative culture and the spontaneous social activism. They can be seen as two manifestations of a process that social media researcher danah boyd calls “hacking the attention economy.” Whether through creativity or creative destruction, 4chan’s /b/tards (or lowercase a anonymous) and the politically oriented trolls (or capital A Anonymous) are exceptionally skilled at getting people to take notice, without spending a single dollar to promote their work. Neither of these capabilities could exist on Facebook at the same scale because they are only made possible by 4chan’s emphasis on anonymity and ephemerality.
Many have speculated that if Christopher Poole had played his cards right, he could have made bank with a community as big and as dynamic as 4chan. I’m skeptical. The moment one tries to monetize something like 4chan is the moment it stops being 4chan. Poole would have had to place content restrictions in place in order to draw advertisers and sponsors. And without restrictions, no company in its right mind (aside from the lowest level of pornographers) would want to advertise on 4chan as is. Furthermore, turning 4chan into a profitable business would likely agitate the userbase to the point where it would revolt against 4chan. 4chan users have turned against the site in the past, and I’m sure that any attempt to make much more revenue than what’s required to pay server bills would result in not just a mass exodus, but raids and trolls of epic proportions.
Poole recognized that. He rode the 4chan wave, gradually building a personal brand in order to generate interest from investors so he could finance Canvas. Many people in his place would have attempted to cash in a lot earlier, only to be met with failure. moot played it cool, managing the fringe elements of 4chan as best he could, learning through trial and error how online community works. I believe he was only able to pull it off because, like many start-uppers of his generation, he doesn’t seem to be in it for the money. He wears the same plain hoodie and t-shirt at parties that he wears when speaking in front of thousands. He’s a true nerd who was able to feed his passions through web community as a teen, and now he wants to give that experience to as many others as possible.
In its infancy, 4chan acted like a swirling tornado, traversing the geography of the Internet, picking up properties of the different web communities that came before it: the collaborative creativity of the Something Awful goons, the penchant for gross-out content from Rotten, the anonymity of the Far East boards, the gleeful trolling of Usenet, and so on. 4chan collected all those characteristics and mashed them up into a unique slurry of content and community.
Throughout the past eight years, 4chan has grown large enough to get attention, and other communities have formed in its wake. Know Your Meme was created to analyze memes, Buzzfeed to report them, the Cheezburger Network to monetize them. Reddit was born, which built small fences around content creation and communication that corralled the creative culture of 4chan, with fantastic results.
But as 4chan has scattered pieces of itself throughout the web, it approaches mainstream. Does this mean the golden age of 4chan is over? Will it cease to be what it once was, when millions of people buy this book and learn all of its secrets?
“I’m not ready to say that 4chan’s over,” says Know Your Meme’s Kenyatta Cheese. “If anything, 4chan will just go back to being the place it was a few years ago.”
I’m with Cheese. As those twin themes of 4chan become increasingly embedded in the mainstream, 4chan will go back to what it was before it started getting write-ups in The New York Times: a place for bored teens to shoot the breeze. When I asked danah boyd if she thought 4chan had jumped the shark, she pointed out that a lot of 4chan users who were there from the beginning have become literal oldfags. If you were 15 when 4chan started, you’re now 23, and most likely looking for something very different in your browsing experience. When I first discovered 4chan, I was captivated, but it’s certainly not part of my daily routine. I have to imagine that the turnover rate for /b/tards, at least (the enthusiast boards probably hold onto people’s attention for much longer) is very high, in the same way that hanging out down by the railroad tracks is only interesting for a summer or two. But aren’t those summers still supremely formative, even if it’s just killing time? Even if 4chan has handed off its twin characteristics to the broader web, it still contains something inimitable that is now a part of the psyche of an entire generation, and, I predict, of generations to come. Pretty epic.