“Who is this 4Chan person?”
That was the rather embarrassing question posed by one CNN anchor last month, shortly after the now infamous celebrity photo leak. Unfortunately CNN’s supposed technology analyst was just as stumped, but shared his expert insights regardless, “He may have been just a system administrator who knew his way around and how to hack things.” Oh dear.
Despite CNN’s bewilderment, internet devotees and those who’ve been closely following the celebrity photo leak will probably have some familiarity with the site by now. But it would appear much of the world is still pretty confused. The all-encompassing and oh-so accurate college poll produced some contrasting replies to the question, “What is 4Chan?” From the debatable “A bunch of arseholes”, to the downright confused “Is it a social media site?” and, “Maybe like a fundraiser for a sick guy.”
For the most part, however, Gen Y’ers had some clue who or what this mysterious 4Chan was. It was when you started probing the older generations that the responses became really imaginative.
“Like Jackie Chan?”
“The singer? Or is that 2Chain?”
And perhaps most importantly, “Four of what? Biscuits?”
Time to set the record straight. Launched in New York in 2003, 4Chan is based on the popular Japanese concept of imageboards and was originally created for the primary purpose of discussing anime and manga. Over time new boards sprang up and these days they reflect a numerous and varied range of topics – anything from the predictable videogame and technology boards, to origami to LGBT to hardcore porn. You might think you’re oblivious to the ins and outs of the site, but if you’re familiar with the most recent celeb hacking scandal, the LOLcat memes, Chocolate Rain or Rickrollin’, then you’re probably familiar with 4Chan. One of the key factors that contributes to the site’s popularity is the fact users do not need to register an account to participate in discussions and can post anything anonymously, hence the site’s well-publicised appeal to hackers and online trolls.
But is 4Chan “just a site for cyberbullies” and “everything that’s wrong with the internet”, as one student put it? Many would beg to differ. Yes it has been linked to some of the biggest hacks in our time – Sarah Palin’s email messages were posted, Steve Jobs and Justin Bieber died on multiple occasions, YouTube and the BBC were conned and of course hundreds of celeb pics were leaked – but it’s also becoming a global platform for free speech. 4Chan’s Random imageboard, also known as /b/, is by far the busiest board and is where the majority of the leaks are exposed. It’s an “anything goes”, NSFW hangout where users share ideas and images namelessly.
Many things have grown out of /b/ that have filtered through to the wider world. One of these was LOLCats – the original cat memes, most often posted to 4Chan on Caturday (which is Saturday to all you non net-nerds). Another was the Anonymous movement, the activist group known to hack government and corporate sites, often in protest of privacy breaches. Now inherently linked to the Occupy movement that has spread across the world in recent years, Anonymous members can be distinguished in public by the Guy Fawkes masks they’ve made so widely recognised. Gabriella Coleman is an anthropology professor at Mcgill University who has been studying both 4Chan and Anonymous. She points out that the site is contradictory on many levels. “On the one hand, there is this value placed on privacy and shielding the self,” she says, “but on the other hand, 4Chan is an epicentre of violating people’s privacy by exposing [their] photographs.”
So, while a large proportion of us are quick to label the site toxic, there’s a lot more to 4Chan than meets the eye. It has undoubtedly spawned some of the most cruel and deeply revealing hacks in history, but has it not simultaneously bred global political movements and anarchic revolutions of thought? Not to mention an endless list of memes and internet sensations whose origins are still obscure to much of the planet. – Thea Carley
Top photo from believekevin’s flickr photostream.