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Absolutely everything you need to know to understand 4chan, the Internet’s own bogeyman

A protester at a 4-chan organized anti-Scientology rally, in 2011. (Melisa Toh/Flickr)

4chan, that most elusive of Internet beasts, has seen a whole lot of press lately — little of it good. First the site was blamed for leaking the stolen nude photographs of dozens of female celebrities. Later it invented an unfunny and inexplicable “mascot” for Ebola, and encouraged witless new iPhone owners to microwave their phones. (That latter rumor gained so much traction, the Los Angeles Police Department felt compelled to weigh in.)

Apparently convinced the “ninth circle of Hell” was not doing enough to sabotage itself, shady viral marketers posing as 4chan users then pretended to hack Emma Watson’s nudes and — in the ensuing Internet-wide cacophony — demanded that 4chan be shut down.

“The recent 4chan celebrity nude leaks have been an invasion of privacy,” the hoaxsters railed in an open letter against 4chan, “and [are] also clear indication that the Internet NEEDS to be censored.”

How, exactly, does one anonymous Web site generate such outrage? And how can a series of wholly anonymous, time-sensitive message boards — message boards with an interface straight out of the Geocities age — have such a profound, ranging impact on the Internet at large? More importantly: Who the heck are these people, and don’t they have anything better to do?

No worries, bewildered reader. We have answers.

What is 4chan?

4chan is a series of wholly anonymous, anything-goes forums. 4chan, in its layout and fundamental operation, is not terrifically different from Reddit, Something Awful, or other large-scale Internet forums. The site is broken up into threads where users can discuss different topics — everything from civet coffee to sex toys — and something like 22 million users do just that every month.

A couple things make 4chan unusual as a forum, however. For one thing, unlike Reddit, users never need to make an account or pick a username — even a pseudonymous one. That means participants can say and do virtually anything they want with only the most remote threat of accountability. It also means you can’t message other users or establish any kind of social relationship with them, unless they reveal their identity in some way. For a social network, that’s pretty weird. In fact, a number of sociologists have spent time studying exactly how it works.

To further complicate things, 4chan threads expire after a certain amount of time — less time for R-rated boards, more time for G or PG ones — which lends a sense of impermanence to the whole operation and means that users rarely see the exact same thing. Few posts last more than a few days before they’re deleted from 4chan’s servers. Posts are organized reverse-chronologically — although “organized” maybe overstates it. 4chan’s interface is deliberately, anachronistically minimalist, which can make it difficult for non-regular users to access.

Bottom line: 4chan is a forum — nothing crazy or mysterious there. It’s just a forum with no names, few rules and few consequences, which is (a) the philosophical antithesis to virtually every other mainstream social property and (b) means people can (and do!) say just about anything they want.

Who uses 4chan?

According to the site’s own statistics, the vast majority of its users are young, college-educated men with an interest in Japanese culture, video games, comics and technology. Most live in English-speaking countries — the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia — but the site also sees sizable traffic from Germany, Sweden and France. In late 2010, a 4chan user conducted a (wholly unscientific) survey of other site users, which found that, among other things, most 4chan users don’t discuss the site offline and most users wouldn’t let their kids join it. The site’s founder urged readers to take the survey with “a massive grain of salt” — since the site thrives on anonymity, he pointed out, there’s ultimately no way to know who uses it with any certainty.

Why is 4chan important/why should I care?

Three reasons: First, 4chan is the original incubator for a huge number of memes and behaviors that we now consider central to mainstream Internet culture. Second, 4chan is responsible for some of the largest hoaxes, cyberbullying incidents and Internet pranks of the past five years. Third, Anonymous got its start on 4chan — and the hacktivist collective is an increasingly important player in news events from Ferguson to the Steubenville rape. In short, the full list of things 4chan has given the Internet would be pretty extensive. But here’s a start on the good:

  1. LOLCats: funny pictures of cats with text superimposed on them
  2. Dusty the cat: an abused cat in Oklahoma whose video was posted to YouTube; 4chan tracked down the cat’s owner and sent his details to police.
  3. Advice animals: pictures of animals or humans with stereotypical or archetypal captions superimposed
  4. Rage comics: a genre of simple, line-drawn Web comics — you probably recognize some of its most familiar characters from memes.
  5. Rickrolling: the practice of sending someone a link that actually, secretly, links to the music video for Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.”
  6. Chocolate Rain: 4chan users swarmed the music video for Tay Zonday’s “Chocolate Rain,” thereby moving it up the YouTube charts and transforming it into a veritable meme. Several mainstream artists have since covered it.

… and the bad:

  1. Celebgate: the leak of dozens of stolen celebrity nude photos, which — while no longer available on 4chan — still exist as downloadable torrents across the Web.
  2. Gamergate: an ongoing movement to expose “corruption” in video game journalism, which was (purportedly!) drummed up by 4chan users. Gamergate has since wrecked the lives of several female gamers and commentators and spawned a larger discussion about the way that industry treats women.
  3. The cyberbullying of Jessi Slaughter: one of the earliest high-profile incidents of cyberbullying, in which 4chan members sent death threats and calls to an 11-year-old girl who would later make multiple suicide attempts.
  4. Google- and poll-bombing: voting or searching for the same terms en masse, to either sabotage an online vote or make a topic trend artificially. 4chan has successfully gotten a swastika to trend on Google.
  5. Fake bomb threats: a vast number of hoaxers have posted mass bomb and shooting threats to 4chan, prompting several arrests and evacuations.
  6. #Cutforbieber: a Twitter hashtag that encouraged young Beliebers to cut themselves to demonstrate their love for the performer.
  7. #Leakforjlaw: a similar social media prank that encouraged women to post their nude photos in support of Jennifer Lawrence.
  8. Bikini bridge: an invented beauty/fitness trend that encouraged women to lose enough weight to create a gap between the bones of their hip and pelvis; the trend, though fake, eventually caught on in online eating-disorder communities.
  9. Apple Wave: an alleged “feature” of the iPhone 6, hyped by 4chan users on Twitter, wherein people can charge their phones by microwaving them. Needless to say, that’s one of many 4chan news hoaxes.
  10. Ebola-chan: a jokey cartoon “mascot” for Ebola that, in the hands of some particularly unprincipled 4chan users, became a hoax directed at vulnerable West Africans.

The list goes on.

Doesn’t 4chan have any rules?

There are a few rules. Users are banned from violating U.S. law, including copyright law, and from posting other people’s personal information, impersonating site administrators, and using bots on the site. Users can post racist, graphic and other “grotesque” material, but only on the board /b/. (More on that later.) 4chan has teams of referees it calls “moderators” and “janitors,” who can delete posts and ban users who post illegal content.

But 4chan is notoriously tight-lipped about who moderates it — and how much. 4chan appears to see that secrecy as part of its ethos. “There is no way for an end user to accurately judge the amount of moderation taking place at any given point in time,” the site explains in an FAQ.

Is 4chan inherently evil?

That doesn’t mean 4chan is inherently evil, or that everything on the site is somehow depraved. Just like Reddit or Hacker News or anything else, the good and the bad coexist. You get message boards like /b/, which frequently traffic in gore and other shock porn. But you also get people talking about how to roast raw coffee beans or come out as gay to their families.

4chan’s board topics include cooking, fitness, fashion, technology, music, and math; they also include several boards dedicated to weapons, “politically incorrect” discussion, and hardcore — often disturbing — porn. Huge swaths of the site are dedicated to anime, manga and other Japanese cultural outputs, a legacy of the site’s creation in 2003. When 4chan’s founder, Christopher (“moot”) Poole, created the site in October of that year, he drew largely on the community in one of Something Awful’s anime forums. Poole, 15 at the time, is now in his mid-20s.

So whenever we talk about hoaxes and leaks and other icky 4chan stuff, where does that come from?

4chan, as of this writing, has 63 “boards,” or subforums. Two of those — /b/ and /pol/ — are primarily responsible for 4chan’s less-than-stellar reputation.

/pol/, or “politically incorrect,” ostensibly exists to discuss news and politics — but those discussions frequently dissolve into racial or misogynistic slurs. Of course, that’s not so different from, say, The Washington Post comments section. But while The Washington Post employs people to make sure the n-word and other nastiness don’t get around, /pol/ hurls them around frequently. This is where we saw the birth of the “Ebola-chan” meme.

As gross as /pol/ can get, however, /b/ is another animal entirely. The board serves as a kind of catch-all/release valve for all the rape porn, self-harm pics, and creepy drawings of scantily clad children that aren’t allowed in other forums. That’s by design, too: 4chan technically bans trolling, racism and grotesque imagery elsewhere on the site, but permits it in /b/. Even /b/ isn’t totally awful — a thread posted just this morning debates good Netflix recs — but it’s still an unfathomable grab-bag of the random, the gross and the downright bizarre.

How do 4chan in-jokes morph into major Internet trends?

In a phrase, what happens on 4chan does not stay on 4chan — not when it gets big, anyway. In-jokes and other benign ephemera tend to filter out organically, via users’ other online networks and social media accounts. (Celebgate, as I wrote earlier this month, reached the mainstream via a joint Reddit/4chan user named John Meneses.)

But frequently, 4chan is a bit more proactive in pushing its creations on the masses. When users orchestrate major hoaxes or pranks, for instance, they’ll often create fake Twitter accounts and hashtags to popularize the story or attract media attention. They’re also quite adept at gaming any platform that surfaces content based on popularity: that includes not only Twitter, which highlights “trending” topics, but also YouTube and Google Trends. Because certain forums have been so successful at getting a group of people to take action at once, 4chan’s been credited for pulling off “some of the highest-profile collective actions in the history of the Internet.”

But … why would anybody do that?

Honestly, it’s very difficult to guess 4chan’s motives, particularly since no one knows exactly who uses the site, and in exactly what numbers. But generally speaking, based on many hours spent hanging around the site, the people that spread hoaxes are often in it for the lulz — the schadenfreude, in other words. The visceral joy of laughing at someone else’s stupidity/expense. Even a decade after its launch, it’s pretty obvious that 4chan was founded by a teenage boy — and also obvious, I suspect, that many of its users still fall in that demographic, despite 4chan’s insistence that minors aren’t allowed on the site. (It’s telling that, when you enter “4chan users” into Google, one of the first suggested searches is “…are losers.”)

But there are plenty of other reasons to use 4chan too, of course. For other people, 4chan’s radical anonymity also functions as something of a safe space, a place to discuss interests or curiosities that would be taboo anywhere else. (It’s no coincidence that the brony subculture has its very own 4chan board.) The frequency of offensive language and slurs — used so casually, even unmaliciously — would seem to suggest users just crave a place to shake off any and all social rules. In fact, Poole said as much in an interview with the New York Times in 2010:

I get a lot of e-mail messages from people who say thanks for giving them a place to vent, an outlet to say what they can’t say in real life with friends and work colleagues — things that they know are wrong, but they still want to say.

That said, there’s no doubt that a lot of legitimately racist, mysoginistic, homophobic, pedophilic and otherwise unsavory people flock to 4chan, too. And those shady characters, mixed in with the pranksters and the radical-anonymity advocates, make for a volatile mixture: a place where any kind of mischief is wholly possible.

So we should shut 4chan down, right?

Wrong. Outside of “Rantic Marketing” — the serial hoaxers/annoying Internet humans that generated the Emma-Watson-nudes faux-scandal this week — very few people want to see 4chan go offline. The site’s founder, Poole, has argued convincingly that there’s inherent value in having, and shedding, multiple identities online. And 4chan is really a hotbed of creativity and dialogue, even if much of that creativity and dialogue is stuff you’d maybe rather not see.

That said, 4chan’s moderation — much like Reddit’s — leaves something to be desired, particularly because it’s so very, blackly opaque. For all we know, Poole himself is the only wizard behind the curtain.

But maybe that metaphor isn’t apt; it would seem to imply, after all, that somebody’s running the 4chan show. And when all is said and done, 4chan’s boundless, faceless anarchy is its defining characteristic — and the reason it’s become a kind of Internet bogeyman, equally hated and unknown.