For all its cultural relevance, it’s possible you’ve never heard of 4chan. It’s not much to look at. Just a few pixels blinking on a page like something out of “Duck Hunt.”
Its army of anonymous users anointed founder Christopher Poole Time Magazine’s Most Influential Person of 2009 by manipulating the poll. It gamed Google Trends, forcing a racial slur to its No. 1 spot. And one of its users, which number more than 7 million, was once investigated for spilling the contents of Sarah Palin’s e-mail.
But this weekend, 4chan shot into headlines like never before. On Sunday evening, one or many 4chan users dumped what appeared to be a trove of private, nude photographs of numerous celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton. The exact provenance of the images remains murky, like almost everything involving 4chan, which deploys fleets of anonymous users who vie for site supremacy by one-upping each other with outrageous material.
The trove of celebrity pictures was about as outrageous as it gets, perhaps the most intrusive, intimate pictures ever circulated publicly of celebrities. They quickly spilled to Reddit, where thousands purveyed it under the handle of “the Fappening” — “fap” means to masturbate — before the news reached Buzzfeed and the rest of the viral media gang.
Now, following 24 hours of hot coverage, the feds are involved. “This is a flagrant violation of privacy,” a Lawrence spokesman said in a statement reported by Reuters. “The authorities have been contacted and will prosecute anyone who posts the stolen photos of Jennifer Lawrence.”
The FBI said it is “addressing the matter,” calling the leak an “unlawful release of material involving high profile individuals.”
But exactly what makes 4chan unique may complicate the investigation into what party or parties were behind the leak. 4chan users operate with complete anonymity, which Poole said contributes to creativity. It also means, however, that users are free to post the profane, the hurtful, the evil. “They get rowdy — it’s like a bar without alcohol,” Willard Ling, one longtime user told the Wall Street Journal in 2008. “It’s like that psychological concept of deindividualization — when groups of people become less aware of their own responsibility.”
Nowhere among 4chan’s vast collection of message boards is this more apparent than in a section known as “/b/,” called the “darkest corner of the searchable Web.” It’s where the Jennifer Lawrence photographs first materialized, which were apparently hawked for bitcoin. And it’s also where more users are reportedly trying to ignite a viral hashtag #leakforJLaw, which encourages people to post nude selfies of themselves to support the celebrity.
Unless it’s a prank.
/b/ is a realm pervaded by something called “shock posts” — graphic scenes of violence or sex. A realm where “completely anonymous — no login, no username — people try to shock, entertain and coax free porn from one another,” wrote Gawker’s Nick Douglas. He said it’s otherwise known as the “a–hole of the internet.”
According to an MIT paper published by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, /b/ operates under a very different set of mores than most of society. Its “lack of identity makes traditional reputation systems unworkable,” the paper stated. “Second, instead of archiving conversations, /b/ deletes them when newer content arrives — often within minutes — which leads to a chaotic, fast-paced experience.” It makes “complete anonymity and content deletion the norm.”
It’s bound by few rules. According to Wired, the few include: “Do not talk about /b/,” Do NOT talk about /b/,” and “there is always more f—– up s— than what you just saw.”
The message board was the first created under the banner of 4chan, and Poole says it’s self-perpetuating and self-governing. “Ultimately, the power lies in the community to dictate its own standards,” he told the New York Times in 2008. “All we do is provide a general framework.”
But what if those standards plumb the depths of human depravity? Although there does appear to be some self-monitoring when it comes to child pornography, the group traffics in outright homophobic and sexist slurs. “/b/ is a man’s world, and women are routinely ignored or abused,” according to Wired. “The downward evolutionary pressure — everyone has to be more extreme than the last guy — has led /b/ to repeatedly phoning the parents of deceased, shouting Internet memes down the line at them.”
Example: the creation of the hashtag #cutforbieber, which soared into trending topics last year. “Tweet a bunch of pics of people cutting themselves and claim we did it because [Justin] Bieber was smoking weed,” one community member wrote, according to the Daily Dot. “See if we can get some little girls to cut themselves.”
Even now, amid widespread condemnation of the leaked photographs and the threat of prosecution, some /b/ users remain gleeful. “This might be the best but also the saddest day in /b/’s history,” the Daily Dot quoted one saying. “We’ve been teased with all these glorious pics. BUT there’s lots of videos out there, and I have a feeling that we will never get our hands on them. … it’s going to haunt you forever.”
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