4chan isn't weird
In the context of empathy, decency, and general kindness, 4chan is unique, to put it very diplomatically. In the context of sociological inquiry, 4chan is unique, full stop; the place is home to misfits that defy and elude theoretical account. They’re loners, but they’ve gathered together. They’re terrible to each other, yet they’re a community. They’re anonymous, yet they have a culture. The userbase grows, yet that culture hasn’t changed a lick, Eternal Septembers1 be damned. What gives?
In truth, 4chan doesn’t defy theory. Rather, it just reconfigures theory in ways that nowhere else on the web can match. To appreciate just how extensive those reconfigurations are, 4chan (and its culture) need to be separated according to a life-cycle; splitting the forum’s cultural timeline into its creation, spread, and perpetuation will give each sociological framework at play the opportunity to be turned on its head.
In the beginning
Online social organisations are best typed according to a two-step evolutionary scale, beginning at online group, and ending at online community (Matzat 2004, 10–12). Online groups are primarily functional: they exist to discuss a certain topic or perform a certain task. Online communities are a superset of groups, with the additional trait that individuals in the community express a collective identity. Typically, emotional engagement in a group is what evolves it into a community (Matzat 2004, 66–68). Anecdotally, 4chan is an online community. Groups like the hacktivists Anonymous exemplify the presence of a collective identity. Moreover, there exist unfortunate cases, such as the 2019 Christchurch massacre, where individuals have anecdotally identified 4chan as a social influence on their identity and behaviour (Sparrow 2020, 8–21, 108). In the context of this typology, 4chan raises two questions: how do a bunch of loners form a group?, and how do horribly abrasive people form a community?
Group of loners is a bit of an oxymoron, especially according to sociological theory. The loners in question are outcasts or, to put it formally, deviants. Any attempts to assemble or communicate loner-to-loner should, theoretically speaking, be thwarted by wider society. At the very least, even if they can gather, the loners shouldn’t be able to gain enough of a foothold to establish complex social organisations. Enter Internet, screen left. The web reconfigures social structures such that even the most shunned and deviant can communicate and be heard. Doubly so if you give them something to talk about. 4chan began as a board for the discussion of niche (read: nerdy) topics like anime, manga, and other otaku cultural produce. Armed with a central topic and purpose, and the ability to actually find one another, the deviants have the makings of, and come together to form, an online group.
Assembled they may be, but that doesn’t satisfy the conditions necessary to form a collective identity and a community. 4chan has a very belligerent method of communication. How, then, can anyone using the site experience enough of a (positive) emotional connection that they begin to identify with other individuals in the group? Answer: trick question. The belligerence, as we’ll see, is just a cultural thing. Being mean is how 4chan talks, much like you might be very rowdy with your friends but still be incredibly close with them. The real roadblock to establishing a collective identity is the ubiquitous anonymity. How do you emotionally engage with strangers? Answer: trick question again. By way of its unique demographic, 4chan achieves community status by short-circuiting the need for emotional engagement to form collective identity. Channers already have a collective identity: they’re deviants. By having a label assigned to them, they don’t have to develop one to become a community. That said, perhaps it’s not such a trick question. Anonymity needn’t preclude emotional engagement. Actors may not experience their interactions as being with diffuse, anonymous individuals. Their interactions, from their perspective, might simply be with 4chan as a collective. As they continue to interact with that collective, they can have the prolonged, multiplex social exchanges necessary to form an emotional attachment. The coming section will elaborate on this.
Moving beyond the social structure of 4chan as a collective, There’s one more question to ask: how was its culture born? Where does all of that sourness come from? In a word (or two), subversion and transgression. The web is a veritable Globe Theatre for the performance of the self. 4chan is no exception, and is subject to the typical Goffmanian processes of self presentation. Consider the performance of self’s statement that we perform out identities. The oft-neglected corollary there is that we must perform our identities. Channers already have an identity, one that is embedded in the embodied world; they are deviants. Applying the corollary, channers must perform this identity. They do so by employing Goffmanian front, the the “expressive equipment of a standard kind intentionally or unwittingly employed by the individual during his performance” (Goffman, quoted in Phillips and Milner (2017, 67)). On 4chan, this front is all manner of subversive and transgressive behaviour, in accordance with imagined audience of other deviants. That front is refined, pushed, and played with by the audience, what Goffman calls “reciprocal influence.” The audience can even go so far as to define an expected front for participants to adopt (Phillips and Milner 2017, 67). In other words, misfits must be misfits. The identities assigned to channers embedded in the physical world force them to grapple with that identity in all facets of life. Online, and on 4chan, that grapple becomes an embrace.
Performed selves establish a cultural baseline, or an archetype of sorts, but where do we go from there? What about the memes 4chan is so famous for? How do cultural artefacts—like certain ways of using new words, pictures, or new behaviours—spread? Here, 4chan’s behaviour can be explained by a new spin on those epidemiologically-inspired sociological concepts: contagions and ties.
Normally, for something like cultural innovation to spread, you need strong ties (Centola and Macy 2007, 709–10). Culture is a complex contagion—it requires multiple contacts with the infected in order to spread. Moreover, the infected have to be trusted, because you don’t want to make a fool of yourself trying the new thing just because some stranger told you to. 4chan, though, has the notable impracticality of anonymity. Technically speaking, there shouldn’t be any cultural spread because there shouldn’t be any strong ties because no one knows who anyone else is. Nevertheless, life seems to have found a way. There are two possibilities here, then. Either the ties on 4chan aren’t what they seem, or the contagion isn’t what it seems.
Suppose the former. Though it is technically impossible to form the strong ties necessary to spread a complex contagion like that on 4chan, they may be present in a different form. Recall the earlier supposition that the same anonymity that makes strong ties impossible may invoke some sense in actors that they’re interacting with a single, homogeneous mass, regardless of whom they’re actually replying to. Rather than having multiple weak links to individuals, an actor forms a single tie with 4chan as a monolithic whole. Because actors never discern that they’re having multiple short social actions with several individuals, they’re instead lulled into the sense that they’re having one long social relation with a single entity. The social processes occurring are artificially pushed up the sociological hierarchy, permitting and creating stronger social bonds.
Alternatively, suppose the latter. It could be that there is no such thing as a complex contagion on 4chan. One reason for that might be that the domain-specificity of a complex contagion reduces its complexity. Say what? Let me unpack that a bit. While culture is a complex contagion, it’s also a contagion that only infects its host and shows symptoms in certain scenarios. You’re hardly going to show all the symptoms of your heavy metal fandom culture when you’re at your new workplace, for example. Because of this, the complexity (riskiness) of adopting this culture while you’re in the domain it’s most suited to is reduced quite a bit. So much, in fact, that it functionally becomes a simple contagion, able to spread without all the arduous social reinforcement. The other potential reason complex contagions don’t exist on 4chan is (surprise) anonymity. Because anonymity eliminates any way of identifying you, if you try to make some risky cultural moves and get rejected, you can just pretend to be another person, no skin off your nose. This means that the complexity (again, riskiness) of the cultural contagion is functionally zero, making it as easy to spread as it is to appear in a new thread under a different guise. In both of these models, a complex contagion is able to spread through weak ties.
So, the culture either spreads through the hybridisation of ties (perceived strong ties where there are actually weak ties) or through the collapse of a complex contagion into a simple one. Either way, the spread of culture on an anonymous platform, however baffling and unprecedented, is not out of the scope of theory. And the trend continues...
The secret to immortality
Online communities die. No ifs, no buts, no digital coconuts. As the apocryphal Eternal September goes, the more a userbase grows, the more a community’s sensibilities must be diluted to accommodate the heterogeneous influx. Eventually, the culture converges on a locus of broadest appeal, and ceases to exist in any recognisable form. 4chan, though, has managed to stay remarkably true to its roots, despite a steady growth in numbers.
The secret to 4chan’s defiance of death lies, as always, in its uniquely deviant demographic. From the outset, normies2 are discouraged by the website’s taboo relative to other platforms. At the very least, this gives the site some longevity as the terrible tipping point of cultural erosion is staved off. This isn’t enough on its own, though. To stay true to its roots, a culture needs to successfully indoctrinate any new initiates to be fluent enough that nothing changes. This is where Usenet failed and succumbed to the college plague. 4chan’s deviant demographic, though, creates a deviant subculture that uniquely positions it to fend off would-be cultural revolutionaries. Kek, BTFO, dubs and trips of truth, GIFs of George Costanza, PNGs of fish being (or avoiding being) hooked by bait; all of these cultural artefacts demand weirdness from participants.
If you aren’t transgressive enough, you’ll be shooed (to put it politely) away before you can do any harm. Post with enough weirdness and venom, and you’ll have passed your digital hazing and be welcomed into the fold. You’re still forced to keep on your toes, though; you’re anonymous, so there’s never any trust that you’re bona fide unless your actions play the part. If 4chan wasn’t so subversive, it would be all too willing to let the uninitiated be promoted; they’d be too busy respecting the wider social norms of politeness to protect their own.
This phenomenon is a weaponisation of anticipatory socialisation—individuals either adjusting their behaviour to fit a group, or turning away from it after rejection—combined with a deep, and nearly inscrutable digital folklore crafted with the affordances of digital mediation. Folklore is fundamentally vernacular and noninstitutional (Phillips and Milner 2017, 32). It underpins most everyday socialisation, especially in collective contexts. It’s also fundamentally hybrid, blurring boundaries between then and now, commercial and populist, conformist and subversive. As a result, it can often be impossible to trace and understand. Digital mediation makes this impenetrability skyrocket. Digital mediation affords social artefacts—pictures, text, and so on—archivability, modifiability, and modularity (Phillips and Milner 2017, 50–53). That’s all to say that digital mediation makes it possible to endlessly reconfigure and reinterpret social artefacts, to the point where they are completely unintelligible to an outgroup. 4chan, whether intentionally or not, makes heavy use of this in order to keep the bloodline pure.
Unique, but not alien
Surficially, 4chan certainly defies conventional wisdom. Explaining the ways its users socialise necessitates a little massaging of theory. Nevertheless, the theory works. That’s a boon, and it has two wider implications. The first is something of a hint at the answer to the question is the web a new way of socialising? If something as unconventional as 4chan can be accounted for by theory, perhaps it is the case that the web merely reconfigures what’s already happening in the social world. The other important news is that being able to explain some of these processes could prove incredibly useful for some of the problematic social processes occurring on the web. Understanding how 4chan works could be the key to curtailing the cultural attitudes that permit fake news, science denial, radicalisation, and general antagonistic, deviant behaviour on the web. In any case, despite every 4chan user’s subversive dreams, it seems that nothing is new under the sun.
Centola, Damon, and Michael Macy. 2007. “Complex Contagions and the Weakness of Long Ties.” American Journal of Sociology 113 (3): 702–34. https://doi.org/10.1086/521848.
Furie, Matt. 2010. Boy’s Club. Pigeon Press.
Khan, Imad. 2020. “The Story Behind 4chan’s Pepe the Frog Meme.” The Daily Dot. https://www.dailydot.com/unclick/4chan-pepe-the-frog-renaissance/.
Matzat, Uwe. 2004. “Cooperation and Community an the Internet: Past Issues and Present Perspectives for Theoretical-Empirical Internet Research.” Analyse & Kritik 26 (1): 63–90. https://www.degruyter.com/view/journals/auk/26/1/article-p63.xml.
Phillips, Whitney, and Ryan M. Milner. 2017. The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online. Polity.
Sparrow, Jeff. 2020. Fascists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre. Scribe Publications.
The Eternal September refers to the September of 1993, when ISP America Online began to offer Usenet services to subscribers. Prior to 1993, September, the month when university classes began, new students would flood the Usenet platform, uneducated in the platform’s cultural norms. Over time, the new users would learn to fit in. After 1993, the influx simply became too constant for the old guard to teach.↩
4chan, and now wider Internet, parlance for the broader, conformist public.↩