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.
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.
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.
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.