4chan /b/: A new academic study of the influential message board.

Culture and technology.
June 28 2011 2:55 PM

4chanomics

What the influential, hilarious, revolting message board teaches us about Internet culture.

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The study confirmed that almost all of /b/ posts were anonymous, which is notable because anonymity has fallen out of favor online. Asking people to use their real names, or at least their Facebook accounts, gets credited with making commenting forums more civil and enlightened places where all threads don't end up being about Hitler. But the downside to having a so-called "persistent identity" is that some of us are less likely to speak up, to experiment, to be honest, because we fear that what we write will stick with us forever.

Bernstein told me that ephemerality and anonymity go hand-in-hand. "Anonymity means that there is no privileged class of users who have extra say in producing or evaluating content," he says. "This leads to a very democratic system of deciding what's funny or entertaining: Your content has to stand out on its own. There's also no permanent blemish if you try something and fail." So while anonymous users inevitably churn out a lot of insults and shock images, they can also be more daring and silly. Both the MIT authors and long-time /b/ users mention the occurence of tough-love type threads where a guy seeks and receives helpful advice about a girlfriend or about handling the trauma of a childhood accident. These sorts of conversations would be less likely to take place on a board where everyone uses his real name.

Screencapture from the site Canvas. Click image to expand.
A remixed image from Christopher Poole's new site, Canvas

Christopher Poole has been promoting the freeing virtues of anonymity in talks at TED and SXSW. In an indirect way, he's setting himself up as a counterpoint to Mark Zuckerberg, who often seems mystified that anyone would want to hide anything—like killing a pig, for example—from their social network. Poole's new venture, Canvas, is a tricky gambit: Can he take the anarchy of 4chan and make it safe for work? He has real venture capital behind him, which implies a real business plan. Canvas describes itself as "a place to share and play with images," which is the most innocent description of 4chan that you can imagine.

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I've only messed around with the beta version of Canvas for a few days, but Poole has created an easy-to-use platform that preserves one of 4chan's best features: the appeal of remixing an image for an audience. It can be intoxicating to hear the applause of the Internet when you come up with a great hipster Ariel. Still, Canvas will never have the back-alley adrenaline of 4chan, the sense that you could see something unforgettable at any refresh.

So what's going to happen to 4chan? The site that inspired it all, Futaba Channel and 2channel are recognized forces in Japan's popular culture, with their memes, characters, and jargon making their way onto T-shirts, television shows, and anime. (Hot Topic tried the T-shirt idea with Rage Guy. It didn't work out so well.) Poole has said that he will keep it going, though there is precedent for a 4chan-like site, Encyclopedia Dramatica, folding itself up and going mainstream. I'm tempted to dig up an old metaphor here and say that 4chan will be the Sex Pistols to Canvas' Green Day, but that's too reductive for the Internet. And really, what's the point of even trying: any /b/ thread could come up with a better, more disgusting metaphor in 30 seconds.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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