Don't believe the hype. 4chan's agenda isn't always about the message. More often than not, it's solely about creating spectacle.
Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)
The beauty of nonsense is that it can't be deconstructed. Trying produces a mess of unrelated parts that make even less sense separately than when held together as a whole. In that sense 4chan is the most beautiful space on the Internet, a sublime vacuum that captures the dual romance and horror of being a 'netizen,' a generator for bizarre and offensive acts made more nonsensically opaque by the attempts to understand them in socio-political context. The most recognizable acts to come from the forum have been aggressive confrontations, often targeting individuals with merciless interruptions, threats, privacy violations, and a general taste for chaos.
2013 began with a number of spontaneous plans to induce Justin Bieber fans—a longtime 4chan obsession—into compromising or destructive behavior. The first was a Twitter-based scheme to convince Bieber fans to start cutting themselves and posting pictures of their wounds to express sadness and heartbreak over rumors that the pop singer smoked marijuana.
The act of cutting is often associated with teen girls, and much of the criticism against the #CutForBieber campaign arrived with fears that the world's vulnerable young girls were being hoaxed into scaring their innocent forearms. Cutting or self-harm is not an especially dangerous act in itself--when I was in junior high my friends and I amused ourselves during recess cutting pentagrams into our hands and forearms—but it can sometimes be a symptom of impulse control problems or other mental disorders. It can also just be a random, experimental thing a person does, like getting a tattoo or piercing.
It's a mistake to see these efforts, and the way the Internet intensifies them, as political or message-based. They are oppositional, not against any cause or platform, but against structure itself.
Rather than acquiescing to criticism, another project emerged to replace cutting with flashing. Accepting their critics worst fears—that the message board users were targeting teen innocents—#BoobsForBieber rose to encourage people to post pictures of their breasts on the Internet. This follow-up resulted in a handful of headless and likely photoshopped images posted to dummy Twitter accounts, while drawing criticism from fellow /b/ forum users. "Don't you living miscarriages understand that you're milking the joke, not to mention ruining the success of the previous Bieber raid," one poster wrote. #BoobsForBieber provoked similarly bizarre criticism from reporters. Wired's Jules Sherred wrote it "amounts to child porn if any underage fans think it is real, and decide to participate."
It is hopeless to interpret meaning from any event or digital spectacle that emerges from 4chan, but it is a mistake to decouple them from the responses they provoke, and in arranging the strange aggression of the prompt to the bizarreness of the social values argued for by critics, the disorder and freedom from taste encouraged by the site are at their richest. It is not nudity that is pornographic, but depictions of sexual intercourse, and that some automatically equate nudity with sexuality is a perversion too easily accepted as universal. And even though we accept the legitimacy of cultural industries of scale large enough to create a Bieber when they pursue money while espousing milquetoast generalities, there is nothing to say that an apparatus of that scale should not also be used to spread mayhem and that the terrible potential is a function of the scale as much as the intent.
It's a mistake to see these efforts, and the way the Internet intensifies them, as political or message-based—as was the case with this week's conservative worrying over a simple browser game called "Bullet to the Head of the NRA" released via the 4chan affiliate Encyclopedia Dramatica. They are oppositional, not against any cause or platform, but against structure itself. This is why the pleasure of the act is only furthered by the waves of criticism, whose arguments against the absurdity reveal the strange and no less dehumanizing assumptions of a normalized society.
In "Society of Control" Deleuze built on Foucault's idea of "vast spaces of enclosure" defining social order over the last three centuries of Western history: "The individual never ceases passing from one closed environment to another, each having its own laws: first the family; then the school ('you are no longer in your family'); then the barracks ('you are no longer at school'); then the factory; from time to time the hospital; possibly the prison, the preeminent instance of the enclosed environment."
The Internet is an essentially structured medium, but it is so large that the social and political forces that created it have been subsumed by and even larger power. 4chan's trolling schemes are not the action of a group interested in point-making, but instead the thrillsome aggression of those who have discovered a medium that no longer forces them to respect all of the social constructs (the sanctification of teen girls) and their imposed values (cutting is a sickness, though in other cultures it is a religious ritual, rite of passage, or simply an experiment of someone curious about their body).
What is frightening about 4chan is, for all of its antagonism of existing structures, it very rarely proposes any counter-structures. Freedom is the horror of realizing all the roles and values we believed to be self-evident were illusions, frames to normalize judgement, hierarchy, and punishment. But you too can be punished. The thing's hollow, after all. It goes on forever, and—oh my God—it's full of Justin Biebers. Some of them are screaming.