My College Essay on 4chan

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You guys – remember when 4chan was a thing? It might very well still be, but I don’t run in those circles anymore and I think the last time I heard someone utter the word “4chan” out loud may have been years ago.

Nevertheless – I was trying to clean up my computer when I saw this essay I wrote during my junior year of college. It was for a media and communications course. I have to say… I’m impressed with 21 year old Jin. It might not be the most STRUCTURALLY compelling essay, and there may be some grammatical idiosyncrasies but some of the turns of phrases are rather compelling.

Here it is, in all its glory:

Hejin Chua – Dec 16, 2011

The difficulty in defining 4chan as a community is largely due to the anonymous nature of its users. With no single identity with which users can be attributed to, the populace that makes up 4chan will necessarily be nomadic, shifting, and amorphous. Being wedded more to time than space, the users that you see on 4chan today might not be the same users that are on 4chan tomorrow. This ephemeral nature of 4chan personhood also allows the same individuals to adopt different positions at different times. The lack of a consistent user base leads to a structural instability, which is exemplified by divisive ideologies that have since spawned from 4chan. Despite our inability to adequately place certain individuals as 4channers and construct an all-encompassing ideological manifesto that we can confidently attribute to them, 4chan is still a community which is governed by a unique etiquette and language. 4chan’s temporal and transgressive nature also attracts users of a certain strain: those who are digitally literate, immune to the gross and shocking, and constantly clamoring for additional stimulation.

 

The social media platforms of today all strongly stress the importance of having a single, coherent identity that can be tied back to your true identity. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Foursquare, tumblr, and so on can all be integrated with each other. Update one social media profile and it is possible for all your social media profiles to be updated en masse. However, 4chan subverts this by being an identity-free community that turns this notion of unity over its head. 4chan is where you can let loose, where you don’t have to conform, where your voice is no less powerful than the next person’s.

 

While 4chan’s anonymity might give rise to an ambiguous ideology, it also means that the community is less susceptible to groupthink. Consequently, 4chan is an excellently fertile ground for memes to grow and disperse. Memefactory refers to the Internet meme as a “content creation game”. In a community where there are no holds barred to creative expression, the power of crowd-sourcing that corporations can only dream about come to full force here. An image is posted, and 4channers then put their own spin on it by adding captions, superimposing other images, or converting it into multi-framed comics. Several mainstream Internet memes were borne out of the brain-churn that is 4chan: Socially Awkward Penguin, LOLcats, Rage Guy and many more. 4chan’s ability to collectively generate diverse and vibrant content is antithetical to one of the key tenets of the Western Hemisphere: that capitalism and private incentive is what gives rise to innovation and progress. The people of the 4chan community instead allow their individual identities to be subsumed by 4chan, while their artwork achieves anonymous fame.

 

The 4chan community has given birth to several expressions that would mean little elsewhere. Part of what sets apart one community from another are the kinds of “rituals, accents and objects” (140, Hebdige) that that particular community chooses to adopt. Since the 4chan community is relegated to the virtual world, physical artifacts such as a punk’s safety pins and ripped tee shirts (Hebdige, 141) are not relevant to 4channers. However, 4chan is rife with bizarre, offensive and esoteric expressions, some of which mean little outside of the context of the imageboard. For example, the /b/ board’s nameless users call themselves /b/tards, a nod to the general mentality that no one is to leave 4chan uninsulted. “Fuck”, “shit” and “nigger” are used liberally. “Tits or GTFO” refers to the consensus that pictures of females on /b/ merely exist to titillate. Original posters are “OPs”, newcomers are “newfags”, people who try (and usually fail) to create an uproar are “trollfags”, source is “sauce”- and many more. The expressions in 4chan are full of abbreviations, portmanteau and offensiveness. They speak in a dialect that is not immediately apparent to the casual browser, and it is this common understanding of what certain expressions mean that lends 4chan a sense of community.

 

Anonymous arose out of 4chan ten years ago as a loosely-organized “pseudo-political activist group” who is responsible for “for a variety of unrelated pranks, hacks, and protests beginning in 2007”. (Stryker) It would be erroneous to conflate the 4chan users and the group Anonymous. What both groups have in common is their proclivity for the irreverent, mischievous and offensive. Anonymous, like 4chan, also has no barrier to entry. It is a group that does not have initiation rites and screening procedures. However, Anonymous is a subgroup that spawned from 4chan, and is positioned as a group with a political agenda that aims to protect “freedom, free speech, privacy, the individual, and meritocracy”. (Coleman, 513) Anonymous integrated a political agenda but at the same time tamed the lulz of 4chan. Anonymous did not originate as a political enterprise. Anon is like a bonfire, that can be left alone and it grows by itself, and how it has grown, resulting in ideological or organizational contradictions. (514, Coleman)

 

It is key to note that Anonymous is inherently divisive because its anonymous nature allows its users to assume the moniker for various seemingly unrelated causes. Surely not every single individual who was part of hacking Mastercard would have found trolling Jessi Slaughter a worthy cause. It is hard to pinpoint the exact morality of Anonymous, given its amorphous and shifting structure. Anonymous might have divergent political agendas and subgroups within it, but this does not negate its status as a community. In fact, it only reinforces the notion that communities are not static entities but “a living idea…an idea that can be edited, updated, remanded–changed on a whim…a living consciousness.”[1]

 

But this is the beauty of operating under the Anonymous banner: “Anonymous is premised on a robust, anti-leader, anti-celebrity ethic, and its operations are open to all who care to contribute.” (Coleman, 511) The one thing that ties this community is its understanding that while differing opinions might look like “immorality”, it is merely a “rival morality”. (Warner, 5) While what Anonymous might do next is hard to predict – even to those on the inside – beneath the sectarian nature of these various subgroups is a grudging commitment to the belief that “allowing dissenters to shield their identities frees them to express critical, minority views”. (513, Coleman)

 

While Anonymous chastises those that seek personal fame, one questions if perhaps the individuals who operate under the Anonymous banner derive a certain sense of smug self-satisfaction to know that they are part of a greater, burgeoning cause. They might wax philosophical about the sublimation of personal identity, but Anonymous is perhaps one of the most attention-seeking groups out there. They actively taunt and tease the media, taking a sense of grandiose pride in their carefully worded manifestoes and apparent superiority. This contradiction seems to me, troubling. Is there a real difference between an individual aspiring to fame and glory out of millions of individuals versus a community achieving fame and glory out of millions of communities?

 

In a community where the lack of a continuous identity could mean getting blamelessly and rampantly trolled, it also allows one to be whoever they want. Transgression loves company, but where one is entirely anonymous, company loves transgression too. 4chan is both the cause and effect of transgression: it provides a venue for “bored, Internet-savvy teenage boys” to let off their surfeit of “hormonal energy” (Stryker), but it also draws out the dormant macabre freak in the most pleasant-minded of us. 4chan is a place where one can seek solace in the possibility (and the reality) that there is always someone out there who is even more morbid than we are. 4chan is a really fascinating community, one that is inclusive and exclusive at once. It is a massive contradiction, since its lack of identity continuity and barrier-free entry means anyone can join in, but the coded expressions with which they speak and the offensive and bigoted remarks also make sure to keep the newfags out.

[1] h “Operation Payback Manifesto from Anonymous : Indybay.” San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center. 9 Dec. 2011. Web. 16 Dec. 2011. <http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2010/12/09/18666107.php&gt;.

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The Author

Singaporean in NYC, analyzing relationships with a boozy brownie in hand.

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