4Chan Is Turning 15—And Remains the Internet's Teenager
The internet makes sense in metaphors. Superhighways, clouds, pages, links. Facebook is a town square. Wikipedia, a kind of brain. So what about 4chan, the imageboard site where users post just about anything, with anonymity and impunity? If you trust 4channers themselves, it’s the internet’s soul.
Well, that’s alarming.
4chan has never been a nice place. Most people don’t spend time there, but most people feel its effects, everything from fake news to doxing. Outsiders prefer different metaphors: Cesspool. Swamp. Sea of trolls.
There was a time, a couple of decades ago, when trolls didn’t really exist online—but communities of prototrolls were beginning to crawl out of the primordial ooze of the early web. One was a Japanese collective called Ayashii Warudo, sometimes translated as Nameless World, where users engaged in edgy, brazen banter and banded together to raid rival sites.
Across the Pacific, American geeks were eyeing their Japanese counterparts lustily. They fetishized everything about Japanese culture, not just videogames and samurai swords but manga and hentai (anime porn). Naturally, they found their way to places like Ayashii Warudo, and one enthusiast, a New Yorker named Christopher Poole, set out to create an English-language alternative. He ported over the ethos, populating the site with Japanese-style boards like /h/ (for hentai) and /y/ for yaoi (gay male hentai for a female audience). Announcing his creation’s existence in October 2003, Poole wrote: “regging [webspeak for registering] 4chan.net. brace for faggotry.” The tone was established.
Now the site is a .org, but other than that, little has changed. If you believe 4chan’s own reporting, the community is still mostly made up of young men interested in Japanese culture. (Though you’re supposed to be at least 18 to join, the mean age is presumed to be closer to 15—Poole’s age when he created it.) The design remains proudly undesigned. And because each message board is limited to 10 pages of posts, most messages get bumped off the server within a day, if not hours. It’s pretty much unusable for the uninitiated.
Not that you’d want to be there. The most popular boards on 4chan are typically /pol/, a place for what they say is “politically incorrect” (read: racism, misogyny, homophobia), and /b/, a nominally random board home to all the creepy porn and violent imagery banned from the rest of the site. Users are in it, they say, for the lulz. They make swatiskas trend on Google, tell Justin Bieber fans to self-harm, and leak celebrity nudes. And Gamergate, the smear campaign against female game developers? 4chan.
Indeed, nearly every evil of the internet begins, or picks up steam, on the site. To invoke yet another metaphor: It’s a breeding ground. (The fact that 4chan has been called so many things suggests a feeble attempt to make sense of chaos.) Many of the recruitment techniques of the so-called alt-right were piloted there; many white nationalists started out as 4channers. It’s unclear if or how one ages out of the site—but it is clear that it unleashes trolls on the real world.
That’s fairly well known these days. What’s less appreciated, however, is that 4chan has also given birth to good—or something like it. Consider Anonymous, the hacking collective that picks as its targets groups like Nazis and Scientologists. Also: Remember lolcats? Have you been Rickrolled? 4chan and 4chan. The site traffics heavily in exploitables—funny images begging for manipulation. Give that Pikachu a face!
There isn’t darkness without the light, it seems. So it’s probably fair to say 4channers are, at least a little bit, right: Their haven is the soul of the internet, the deep source of its sights and sounds, for worse and, occasionally, for better.
Yet this cannot last. At 15 years old, 4chan has reached adolescence. Up till now, trolls—children—have been in control. It’s not so funny anymore. After all, even the lost boys had to grow up.
Emma Grey Ellis (@EmmaGreyEllis) wrote about far-right websites in issue 25.10.
This article appears in the June issue. Subscribe now.