For some, like Fox News, the online community known as “4chan” is a terrorist training camp. For others, including a growing cadre of Sonoma County teens—particularly those who are male, live with their parents and are practiced in navigating the backwaters of the web—4chan is a graffiti-tagged playground where the proverbial soapboxes of free speech are stacked like an endless game of Jenga.
“It depends on where you go,” said an 18-year-old Sonoma man, who, like the de facto identity setting when one logs on to 4chan.org, prefers to remain anonymous. “Some places are the armpit of the internet; other places are a great place to share information, photos and generally waste time.”
In its current iteration, the board offers little more in the way of user interface than the assiduously utilitarian Craigslist. Though 4chan may look like a reliquary for ancient HTML code, it functions as the primordial soup from which many of the internet’s memes erupt virally into public consciousness, from Rick-rolling (punking people with cloaked links to a certain Rick Astley video) to “LOL cats,” photos of kitties captioned with poor grammar (and later the cornerstone of a media empire launched Ben Huh, who was featured here May 19).
Like much of the internet’s quirkier mutations, 4chan was birthed in the bedroom of a 15-year-old high school student. It’s putative father, the now 22-year-old Christopher Poole, who uses the online handle “moot,” sought to create an American version of the popular Japanese board, Futaba Channel, which itself was an offshoot of 2channel, another Japanese site thought to be the largest online forum in the world. 4chan offers a bevy of forum topics, from Japanese culture and creative pursuits (origami, art criticism, fashion) to weapons and the paranormal and, predictably, most shades of pornography, animated and otherwise.
As with any community, 4chan has its own culture and protocols with different permutations for each topic forum. It even has an orientation procedure of a sort. According to the Sonoma teen, most people begin their 4chan odyssey in a forum simply called “/B/.”
“If you’re in /B/, you’re probably an immature asshole. Most people who start out in /B/ are about between the ages of 11 and 18, like my age, and it can go higher and lower, but it doesn’t really matter,” the teen explained. “It’s just the way it works—it’s like your growing-up period. It’s that stage of puberty.”
It follows then that one’s online pubescence comes besotted with juvenile humor, especially as regards the use of one’s identity.
“If you put a name in the name field, you’re called ‘name fag,’ which most users don’t mind. They’re usually not douche bags or people who are likely to get flamed,” explained the Sonoman, who made ample apologies for the board’s use of hate language. First timers are advised to “lurk,” online parlance for lingering in a forum and absorbing its ethos before eventually daring to post something. The blowback for not respecting the culture of a board can result in an online tongue-lashing or worse.
Some 4chan participants, under the loose moniker “Anonymous” (what else?), have allegedly organized campaigns of harassment against organizations and individuals that have raised its ire. Last month, the group virtually shut Gawker.com down, swamping the massive aggregate’s servers. Last spring, Brian Mettenbrink of Nebraska was sentenced to a year in federal prison and ordered to pay $20,000 in restitution to the Church of Scientology after being convicted of participating in such cyber-attacks. Other allegations have been lobbed at the group, which isn’t so much an organized body as a highly motivated evolutionary offshoot of crowd-sourcing.
Perhaps someday their collective energies will further coalesce and spring new variations on activism, protest or even candidacy. Until then, as the Sonoman explained, “We’re basically the quintessential geek culture, you know.”
But it’s the geeks who shall inherit the earth.
Daedalus Howell is not anonymous at .