“Cats and Penises All the Way Down: Performances of Gender and Sexuality on 4chan/b/” — ICA 2012 Presentation
May 25, 2012 § 3 Comments
I presented the following paper at the 62nd annual International Communications Association meeting in Phoenix. The panel was titled Performing Bodies: Sex, Gender and Community Online.
My name is Whitney Phillips and I study trolls. Trolls and the trolls who troll them! I am two weeks away from defending my dissertation, titled “THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS: The Origins, Evolution and Cultural Embededness of Online Trolling,” at the University of Oregon.
When I submitted my abstract for this panel, my plan was to discuss representations of gender and sexuality on 4chan/b/, particularly trolls’ use of the word “fag,” and even more particularly, how trolls’ use of the word “fag” fits into and complicates their relationship with cute online content. That was the plan. But that’s not what I’ll be presenting today, since in the months between submitting and presenting, trolls’ relationship to that most problematic word changed. Before we can consider the significance of this shift, I must first provide a bit of subcultural background, starting with 4chan itself.
4chan.org, a simple imageboard modeled after Japan’s wildly successful Futaba Channel, was founded in 2003 by then-15 year-old Christopher “moot” Poole. Currently the site houses dozens of content-specific boards, all of which cater to a particular subset of the 4chan population. The /a/ board, for example, is devoted to anime, the /x/ board to paranormal phenomena, the /v/ board to video games, and so on.
The most popular board on 4chan—and the board to which I have restricted my focus here and in my other work—is /b/, the “random” board, which generates the bulk of 4chan’s traffic. Populated by tens of thousands of self-identifying trolls, users who revel in transgression and disruptiveness, /b/ is widely regarded as an epicenter (arguably the epicenter) of online trolling activity, and consistently pumps out some of the Internet’s most recognizable, not to mention offensive, viral content. As Matthias Schwartz explains in his 2008 profile of the site, “Measured in terms of depravity, insularity and traffic-driven turnover, the culture of /b/ has little precedent…[it] reads like the inside of a high-school bathroom stall, or an obscene telephone party line, or a blog with no posts and all comments filled with slang that you are too old to understand” (Schwartz 2008).
Schwartz’ association of /b/ with X-rated latrinalia is particularly fitting, as content—much like its bathroom-stall equivalent—is almost always posted anonymously. Although users are given the option to populate the [Name] field, very few do, and even fewer provide identifying details (that is to say, actual names or names the poster intends to use more than once). As a result, the vast majority of content is created anonymously and modified anonymously and downloaded, re-modified and attributed anonymously. Users are thus known as “anon,” and the collective “Anonymous.”
This term has undergone a profound shift in recent months; I could devote three separate presentations to the ever-widening gulf between lulz-Anon and political-Anon. But I don’t have three separate presentations to give, I have one. And for this particular presentation, let the record show that I’m referring to what is known as “little-a” Anonymous, the Anonymous that conducts its business on and around 4chan. Furthermore I am restricting my focus here to on-site behaviors. In other words, to the ways in which anons on /b/ perform for other anons on /b/—often described as trolls trolling trolls trolling trolls. The conversation shifts as soon as you start talking about off-site behaviors, but that’s outside my present scope.
Although trolling on 4chan is predicated on anonymity, it is possible to posit a few basic demographic markers. Based on four years of research and nearly 2,000 hours of participant observation, I feel entirely confident asserting that the vast majority of trolls on 4chan/b/ are white, male, English-speaking members of the middle class between the ages of 18 and 30. There is much to say about the whiteness and nationality and socioeconomic class of trolls, but for now I am restricting my focus to gender (hence the title of this presentation, “Cats and Penises all the Way Down”).
After all, although it is not possible to prove definitively that all anons are biologically male, the ethos of /b/ is unquestionably androcentric. In addition to reveling in sexist tropes and deriding posters who come forward as female (the standard response being “tits or gtfo”), /b/ is home to a seemingly endless supply of pornographic material, all of which is filtered through an explicitly male gaze. But not necessarily a heterosexual male gaze; a large percentage of porn on /b/ is gay, and trolls devote a great deal of energy to ostensibly homosocial (if not outright homosexual) behavior, including frequent “rate my cawk” threads, in which anons post and rate pictures of each other’s penises. (Again, see presentation title)
The prevalence of the word “fag” further complicates this picture. Whenever anons joke about “an hero,” a trolling term for suicide, wax poetic about drug use, or ask Anonymous for advice, the standard response is “do it faggot,” often accompanied by a picture of someone or something (cartoon characters, dogs, bears, children) bearing his or its teeth grotesquely. The accusation of “faggotry” is rampant, from second person claims that “your a faggot” to sophomoric discussions of “buttsecks.” And yet when asked to self-identify, whether in terms of geography of college or major or interest, anons automatically affix “fag” to the end of whatever self-reflexive noun. Thus novice posters are “newfags,” old hands are “oldfags,” people posting in California are “Califags,” posters claiming to be gay are “gayfags,” and so on. Depending on the context, “-fag” can function as a homophobic slur, term of endearment, or neutral mode of self-identification.
In short, “fag” is what anons describe themselves as and what anons distance themselves from.
These already-muddy waters become even muddier when one considers trolls’ engagement with cutsie-pie content, particularly of the cat variety; it’s worth noting that LOLcats, the now-ubiquitous SFW staple, were first popularized on 4chan in the early-mid 2000s. It’s also worth noting that many trolls describe themselves as “catfags,” due to their love of cuddly kitties.
This seemingly oxy-moronic positioning is best illustrated by the following series of images taken from a standard “IT’S CATURDAY POST SOME FUCKING CATS” thread (Caturday is a much-honored tradition within the trollspace; it consists of exactly what you would assume). In these threads, trolls coo over cute pictures of cats, thereby challenging heteronormative gender expectations…
…while in the same thread re-inscribing heteronormative gender expectations…
…and sometimes simultaneously.
Had I been able to give this presentation the same day I submitted my panel proposal, my argument would have been that trolls’ relationship to cuteness, particularly cats, mirrors their relationship to the word “fag”; in their engagement with both, trolls reject and embrace and comment upon and ludicly recombine heteronormative masculinity. Put (not at all) simply, I would have argued, the trollspace somehow manages to be both homophobic and queer/ed.
This would have been the argument. But then in mid 2011, 4chan implemented a word filter designed to block overused or otherwise offensive words. “Fag” was at the top of that list; unless posters bypassed the filters by implementing a complicated series of Unicode characters, “fag” was automatically replaced with the still-problematic phrase “candy-ass.” (examples below)
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the shift from “fag” to “candy-ass” did NOT result in a reduction of homophobic sentiment. In fact, by calling attention to the new phrase, as well as rendering casual or self-reflexive use of the term impractical (“newCANDYASS” just didn’t look right), “candy-ass” took on increasingly aggressive connotations. What once flirted—albeit problematically—with queerness suddenly connoted more straightforward forms of homophobic expression. After the word filters were implemented, even after they were unceremoniously lifted in March of 2012, the sort of gender play (however ambivalent it might have been) exhibited in images like “brofist cat” and “I’m a fuzzy cuddleball, look at my fuckin balls cat” became more and more infrequent. Trolls no longer called themselves “catfags,” they just called other people fags.
So what can we take from this case study? First, it illustrates the ephemeral nature of online communities, and calls somewhat ulcer-inducing attention to the comparatively glacial pace of academic research. In the time it took to submit an abstract to a conference and actually present my findings, my original argument was rendered moot. Not all online communities move as quickly as trolls, but the fact is, what gets data-collected today may no longer be applicable, or no longer applicable in the same ways, six months from now.
Second, and perhaps more problematically, this case study challenges the efficacy of surface-level censorship. In this particular case, banning the word “fag” didn’t reduce the frequency with which it was posted, nor did it reduce the word’s visibility on the site. It quite literally highlighted its visibility, which in turn affixed a very specific meaning to a word that had till that point enjoyed a certain degree of semiotic flexibility. Even the anons who managed to bypass the word filter were affected—they had to expend extra energy to call their fellow anon a fag, so when they did, the insult was all the more pointed.
In short, 4chan’s attempt at censorship backfired, providing an interesting counterpoint to debates surrounding trollish or otherwise abusive online behaviors. If outright censorship doesn’t work, what does? I don’t pretend to offer a solution here, but look forward to discussing the issue during the Q&A.