Even if you've never clicked on 4chan, you've felt its influence— LOLcats, FAIL blog, and Rickrolling are just a few of the Internet memes that incubated there. Yet visiting 4chan—especially the site's most-active board, /b/ —can be a little offputting. There's the porn, the racism, the things having to do with the surprising abilities of an octopus that you see once and never forget. Some of this is designed to shock and scare away the casual visitor. Most of it is just sick.
The influence of /b/ across the Web cannot be denied, however, and presents a question: How does an anonymous, unfiltered, revolting message board produce much of the Internet's shared culture? Six researchers from MIT and the University of Southampton studied /b/ and tried to figure out how it works. In a recent paper, they argue that the mechanics of the message board, specifically its anonymity and ephemerality, hold the key to its twisted sway.
In 2004, Christopher Poole, then a teenager, built 4chan and modeled it on a bigger, established Japanese site called Futaba Channel. The /b/ board on 4chan allows anyone to start a new thread by posting an image, and the newest 15 threads get previewed on the first page. Any time someone replies to a thread, it gets bumped back to the top. If a thread gets no replies it falls down the list and ultimately gets deleted. The default method of posting is anonymous. Even if you type in a username, someone else can use the same one.
The researchers captured two weeks of activity on /b/ last summer: 5,576,096 posts in 482,559 threads. As you can gather, the pace is furious. The median life of a thread was 3.9 minutes. The shortest-lived thread disappeared in 28 seconds; the longest survived for 6 hours and 12 minutes. That particular thread was started by a pagan willing to answer all questions: "how do you worship your so called gods?" Another durable thread was "self-shot nudity." With this velocity, there's new stuff every time you refresh the /b/ page—it feels alive, chaotic. The median thread spent only 5 seconds on the front page.
During the peak times on /b/—after work and school in the United States—there's a Darwinian struggle to make the best wisecrack, to tell the most disgusting story. It's not unlike a high-school cafeteria table. Knowing that all of the threads will disappear creates an incentive to contribute to and improve good threads. The best ones stay current, popular, fit. Michael Bernstein, one of the authors of the paper, explained the ecosystem this way: "Even a single dedicated person can't force a meme to spread on /b/; there's too much content and people will ignore it. The result is that if you want success (replies), you need to produce content that will grab people quickly, and encourage them to respond or remix it."
The lack of archives spurs the uploading of fresh images. It also has the secondary effect of forcing /b/ regulars to save their favorite threads on their own computers. They will often reintroduce memes onto /b/ after a few days or weeks, which generates further variations, remixes, or complete hijackings in a different direction. The need to save stuff also acts as a powerful "selection mechanism" that sees 4chan ephemera get posted in other places, or combined with other memes, like the fake Successories poster.