December 12, 2012 § Leave a Comment
“4chan is known for playing elaborate and often tasteless pranks on the public.”
—-but let’s report on it anyway.
December 12, 2012 § 1 Comment
A collaborator of mine just sent me these screencaps (via imgur), said to be proof that the Clackamas Town Center shooter posted a threat to 4chan before fatally shooting two others and killing himself. The news hit Twitter early this morning:
From a simple Twitter search of “Clackamass” and “4chan” (conducted at 6:45am EST):
It’s early, and I’m not sure how/where/if this story will travel, so I don’t entirely know what to say, other than it is most likely a hoax, so proceed with caution. For one thing, this kind of thing has happened before. For another, why would a person magically have a screencap posted two days ago on a forum whose boards 404 after a few hours? People make weird threats on 4chan’s /b/ board all the time, so while it’s possible that a concerned anon saw the post and decided to take a cap just in case, it isn’t likely. What is likely is that some anon or group of anons decided it would be fun to photoshop a screencap and see how far the story would go, which was precisely the motivation behind the Aurora 9gag prank. In addition to lining up with everything /b/ has ever done, particularly in the wake of mass shootings, the alleged screengrab includes a subtle –what appears to be a subtle– reference to the perception that /b/ has been defanged, a point that strongly suggests that trolling is in fact afoot. “this is why no one takes 4chan seriously anymore. i am going to shoot up this fucking mall tomorrow and you will all see,” the alleged poster allegedly posted. This might not be an explicit memetic reference –a basic calling card of much trolling, particularly trolling emanating from /b/– but it does gesture towards an ongoing conversation amongst /b/ regulars.
So at first blush, I call bullshit. The question is, what will the internet say?
Update: Here is one thing.
October 22, 2012 § Leave a Comment
For the last few days I’ve been revisiting –reworking, reorganizing, reframing– my dissertation for possible publication. I haven’t looked at the thing since I deposited the manuscript in mid August, and since “finishing” (finishing is a relative term) so much has happened in the world-o-trolling I hardly even know where to start. The discourse surrounding trolls and trolling behaviors has gotten away from everyone, including trolls, who seem just as confused about what the term means and whom the term subsumes as the media. As I discussed in this May 2012 post, my argument can handle these sorts of seismic shifts, since I had no choice but to back up and retrofit my argument to BE about change. Still, yikes, and back to the coal mines I guess.
The above art film pretty much captures it. And a quick programming note: I will be drunk blogging Smiley aka 4chan the Movie with my friend Kate Miltner this Sunday; check your local listings.
September 9, 2012 § 2 Comments
The other day my partner Chris Menning argued that search interest in the term “meme” had plateaued, and speculated that this had something to do with lulz Anonymous’s post-OWS inactivity, or maybe not inactivity but lack of media attention (which essentially amounts to the same thing). The idea being that Anonymous–and by “Anonymous” he meant little-a, i.e. the anon most closely associated with 4chan’s /b/-board–was no longer generating new memetic content, and therefore no longer fueling the once ubiquitous meme-train (and subsequently, Google search interest in similar).
Today Chris clarified his position, specifically by defining his terms a bit more carefully and also by positioning his argument in relation to existing arguments, including one of my own blog posts wherein I wring my hands over ad-hoc methodological reframings. And wring my hands I did, oh boy. Because these aren’t easy conversations to have, in fact can be the source of great existential turmoil. But they are important conversations to have, and not just important but inevitable. Things change, especially when underground content or behavior begins to go mainstream, and particularly when said mainstreaming begins making certain people money (see above). I devote the last two chapters of my dissertation to precisely these issues, and precisely these shifts, and postulate a number of interconnected reasons explaining not just the how but also the why.
The fact is, though, this dust is still settling. We don’t know how or when the story will end, or if it even makes sense to use that sort of framing. We’re certainly in a period of transition, and it certainly is the case that the meme/troll space of 2012 is very different from the meme/troll space of 2008. The question of whether or not that’s a good thing is irrelevant — we are where we are, deal with it. I’ll keep wringing my hands, and the world will keep turning, and otherwise who knows.
July 13, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Pfft 4chan, says Adrian Chen. (also, it’s Friday, I’m about to watch Ancient Aliens, so more on this tomorrow, maybe.)
Like so many once-dominant trends, 4chan was made irrelevant by its own success. A few years ago, 4chan’s hyperactive remix culture made it a unique cauldron where bits of internet detritus could come together and give birth to new memes, Lolcats, Rick-rolling and Nyan Cat, are all 4chan classics. As memes became the language of the web—and grew to be increasingly lucrative—aggregators like BuzzFeed professionalized the process, repackaging the best stuff from darker corners of the web with cold efficiency. Why wade through the porn and gore on 4chan to find the next internet thing when a slick BuzzFeed listicle comes complete with a half-dozen share buttons to easily show all your friends?
Full article here!
June 1, 2012 § 2 Comments
From the NYT review of Parmy Olson’s new book, We Are Anonymous.
The breeding ground for much of this was 4chan, the “Deep Web” destination “still mostly unknown to the mainstream but beloved by millions of regular users.” The realm of 4chan called /b/ is where some of this book’s most destructive characters spent their early Internet years, soaking up so much pornography, violence and in-joke humor that they became bored enough to move on. Ms. Olson, whose evenhanded appraisals steer far clear of sensationalism, describes 4chan as “a teeming pit of depraved images and nasty jokes, yet at the same time a source of extraordinary, unhindered creativity.” It thrived on sex and gore. But it popularized the idea of matching funny captions with cute cat photos too.
Full review here, wats not included.
June 1, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Quick theory: perhaps 4chan keeping much more extensive records of who does what than anyone knows (common knowledge that they already flag and hand over info to Feds when pressed; this data has to go somewhere, even if front-end is regularly flushed). Perhaps deeper cookie/indexing log/data something, hence compromise of servers major deal for users, hence 4chan’s stern warning for users to flush personal DNS cache? Whatever it is, something in the water doesn’t taste quite right. (implications: could potentially build up criminal folder on anons accessing illegal/potentially illegal or otherwise embarrassing content, anything from torrents to kiddie porn? ALL IS FULL OF UNCLEAR)
Update: this is probably wrong. More likely that hackers unlocked access logs, which could be stitched together with other data, much more compromising data, which could potentially unmask browsing history and potentially actual rl identity of who knows how many anons.
More as the story develops.
June 1, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Lastly, there was no political motive here, we will not tell lies and pretend that it was all to fight an injustice. This was for the lulz. This was for the fame. This was done because only we have the skill to do it. This was done, so that we can laugh at your butthurt. We did it because we can.
“If we all did the things we are capable of, we would astound ourselves.” ~Thomas A Edison
….quote from UGNazi press release today re: 4chan hack. Admins at 4chan urging users to delete DNS cache, which is serious business, and also begs many questions. Like…..wait, what? How do you compromise data on 4chan?
And also this today, blowback against Jennifer Emick, noted anti-Anon (apparently she outed Sabu?). Doesn’t seem connected, but coincidences are rarely a coincidence (also per the article, “For about a year, Anonymous has been the Internet’s greatest spectacle: raucous hacks, federal takedowns, scheming, betrayal and giggles” — again, what?? I have literally never read a weirder article about Anonymous).
Bizarre day, I dunno.
“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.