Internet culture of anonymity

Internet culture of anonymity

Artur ZarębaIn an age of social networks and communities where majority of users voluntarily give up on their privacy by exposing themselves, exhibiting their full identity and details about personal life, there is one, exceptional kind of online community where anonymity is an underlying rule of its functioning. Within years these communities, referred to as imageboards, have created its own culture, including coded language rules, customs and other capabilities. Phenomenon of English-language anonymous imageboard 4chan, with its all famous and infamous actions, soon gave birth to local, foreign-language versions of chans such as Polish karachan. Although the existence and engagements of those communities is highly questionable and controversial for many reasons, it is hard to deny the cultural influence they have over cyber and non-cyber world.

If one were to compare chan with something, a yard in which teenagers play would be appropriate thing. A place where someone discusses foreign cuisine, other starts a thread in programming board while another one will try to look for advice concerning affairs of the heart. However, near the yard, there is also an abandoned warehouse in which teenagers take part in forbidden activities. This is the /b board, known also as random – the most frequently visited board on chan. As for Polish karachan, one cannot simply enter /b by typing appropriate address in browser’s bar.

Knowledge of how to bypass security is the key to make it accessible. It can be possessed from another member of the community, or on one’s own. Having the key and knowing how to use it means that one is savvy enough to enter this closed community. From now on, the user becomes an anon – anonymous user of an imageboard. Nevertheless, the access is not given permanently, for the site gets regular security updates, so in order not to miss any of these, the board has to be visited regularly. Someone who browses it frequently, but does not post anything at all, lurks and is referred to as lurker. Lurking makes one feel attached to the community, it becomes a new habit. Although, a newfag (e.g. newcomer to chan) is better not to post anything until he learns newspeak, (also referred to us chanspeak) and general rules on the internets. Disobeying the rules means that someone whiteknights and deserves to be penalised. Whiteknighting includes using chanspeak, or copy-pasting chan content outside imageboard (especially on Facebook.)

Whiteknighting very often results in reprisals outreaching chan and internet overall. If a user is female, then she should not expose her gender (which makes her femamon) and act like an anon. Also revealing the fact of being an underage is considered as an illicit activity. 

The list of dos and don’ts is fairly extensive. For this reason, a wiki-like encyclopaedia called chanpedia has been found. 

Content posted on random board (/b) as the very name suggests might be varied. It is the birthplace of many internet memes and phenomena of which the most notable one is Anonymous group, founded on 4chan. Most of the posts contain humorous images, harmless or more or less harmful trolling. Other call for actions. Depending on what content particular anon posts, a division assigning him to specific group can be made. Therefore, a few groups can be distinguished, among which one can enumerate groups such as: the ones who troll, those who are fond of lulz (e.g. anons who are keen on posting memes featuring cats etc.) or those who would like to do something valuable for the rest of the world. A great example of the very last type would be the action coordinated by users of American imageboard 4chan, conducted in 2011 during the Arab Spring. After protests on Tahrir Square broke out, Egypt’s authorities turned off the Internet and cell phone services. At that time, a group of 4chan users found a way to bypass governmental blocking and bring back Egyptians the window on the world. The information had been sent and connection with the global Internet restored. 

However, there is the other side of the coin. It should be pointed out that regardless the praiseworthy actions, 4chan users are notorious especially for organised trolling actions and harassments whose outcomes in many cases turned out to be disastrous. Jessica Leonhardt, known to the internet community as Jessi Slaughter, became an internet celebrity in 2010 after she had posted series of vlogs on YouTube in which she criticized 4chan and its content. Her actions had not been left without response. Soon, she dragged attention of internet haters and 4chan trolls. Series of raids against Slaughter and her family had been carried out. Raids included revealing her personal data, sending her escorts off advertisement websites, ordering enormous quantities of pizza, prank-calls and hate e-mails, as well as trolling her Facebook and Twitter accounts. An outcome of these actions was another blubbering video in which Slaughter described harassment. Two of the videos featured her raging father, Gene, swearing to bring cyberbullies to justice. Gene became a meme, while anonymous raids hit back with even doubled force. Slaughter family started to receive death threats. Not soon after, Gene died, Jessi ended up in foster care which followed attempts to commit suicide. The story shows how things done in the internet may escalate quickly, having severe consequences in non-cyber life. 

Popularity of 4chan and its infamous actions spread across the Internet. Language barrier and the desire to create chan adjusted to Polish realities gave a birth to karachan. The most notorious Polish imageboard, karachan,org, is an extraordinary case in the country’s Internet. At first glance, karachan looks like another foreign version of American 4chan. Indeed, Polish chan bases on similar ground and rules as the American one, however some national and linguistic aspects determine its distinctive character. In a reportage published in Duży Format, an anon, purporting to be a former moderator of the imageboard, describes the forum as: 

“Karachan is a kind of subculture. We have our own language, built on a basis of distorted syntax and grammar, mixed with sensational spelling of English words and keywords which make allusions to stories told by the anons. We have our own history, organized raids, funny images and memes” (Chmielecka 2012).

The raids, mentioned paragraph above, are the actions which Polish anons admire most, took place in Polish internet history. This is also the factor which differs them from American counterparts. Whereas 4chan users have been taking part in undertakings which results might be perceived in both – positive and negative ways, on the other hand karachan is notorious only for organised trolling actions which in no way can be seen as positive. Giving an example, couple of teenagers slaughters boyfriend’s parents in cold blood. The woman’s profile can be easily found on Facebook, so anons cannot miss a chance to conduct another raid. They mark themselves on photos she posted, attaching one of the short story – copypasta. In this particular one anons accuse Pope John Paul the II of paedophilia. The same day, speaker of national broadcaster’s news channel cites the copypasta, putting it down to the woman. For anons it was the most successful raid in history of karachan. Later another raids would take place. Three families, whose members died in tragic circumstances, soon would experience devastating power of internet hatred.

The Internet is an endless sphere which enables to construct manifold creations. The anonymity and freedom it provides laid groundwork for creation of unique communities which evolved and created its own culture. Although sometimes outrageous, sometimes startling, culture of anonymity transcends its primal sphere, influencing surrounding world. Thus it is vital, especially these days, to be aware of surrounding cultures. As stated by Michelle LeBaron (2003), “[c]ultures are like underground rivers that run through our lives and relationships, giving us messages that shape our perceptions, attributions, judgments, and ideas of self and other.”