Inside 4Chan’s Random Forum

22 August 2017

Once one of the internet’s most popular imageboards and a place loathed and feared in equal measure, 4Chan’s random forum (known to its denizens as /b/), is now a husk. The forum was once a vibrant place, partially due to an absence of rules or moderation (child pornography was the only taboo). News outlets would report on the forum’s misadventures – although generally misunderstanding them or misattributing their actions to ‘the hacking group known as anonymous’.

The earliest memes – lolcats, Rickrolling, and the vast majority of image macros were born on /b/, back before people even knew how to pronounce ‘meme’ (maymay, meemee, mem?). The forum was also known for its campaigns and raids. Sometimes, this would mean protesting Scientology and tracking down animal abusers. Other times, it involved posting bright, flashing text to epilepsy forums or convincing Justin Bieber fans to self-harm. All of this was due a distinct culture – owing to a fairly unique system, one which did not require users to have an account to post, one in which forum threads lived or died simply based upon their sheer popularity, as well as a dearth of rules.

Attending an all-boys high school in the late 2000s, I was always aware of /b/’s existence. In 2010, a close friend of mine even used /b/ to successfully rig a major competition Bliss N Eso were holding. These days, however, the forum has lost something. A victim of its own notoriety, it seems, it hasn’t been blamed for anything for years, hasn’t been the focus of any major controversies, and what little productive activity that was achieved on the forum seems to have dried up. The memes too, are gone, as other websites have taken on this role. Quite unsurprisingly it has been taken over by porn – a cursory glance of /b/ on any given day will be roughly fifty per cent pornography. The remainder is a collection of humour threads, racist news discussion threads (/b/ is located next-door to the alt-right’s haven, /pol/), collaborative drawing threads and ‘roll’ threads (whereby people post to see the number their post is assigned and then take a specific action – generally watching a particular movie or something more inane).

Due to its entirely anonymous nature, as well as being a place of mischief, it is impossible to know anything about anyone on the website. The users of /b/ pride themselves on their anonymity – it’s why they, as a collective, call themselves anonymous and is perhaps their only shared philosophy. ‘What happens online, stays online’ is a loose approximation of this ethos, one that a number of more reputable forums have followed – causing trouble when users, for example, ‘jokingly’ threaten school-shootings, cause major websites to go offline, or attempt to track down the Boston bombers and subsequently harass family members of a dead son.

I tried to ask the users of /b/ why they still used /b/ – and to reveal a bit about themselves. I was met with few responses: ‘kek’ (a corruption of ‘lol’), ‘Lurk moar faggot’ (to ‘lurk’ meaning to observe but not post – something told to those new in the community) and ‘4Chan is gay’. I had expected little and yet I was still disappointed. Thankfully internet metrics company, Alexa, had some information. The average 4Chan user was more likely not to have graduated from college, was slightly more likely to be ages 18 to 24 (sadly, Alexa does not track the adolescent age group), was hugely more likely to be Caucasian over any other ethnicity and was also greatly more likely to be browsing from school. Oddly, relative to the general internet population, women are moderately over-represented on 4Chan – surprising for a place that meets women with the command to post ‘tits or gtfo’.

Poe’s law dictates that without clarity of intent, people will mistake parody for the real thing. What starts as an intentionally off-colour remark or joke gets co-opted, with edgy teenagers trying to out-do each other. As a result, it appeals to the sick and the lost. After I had placated users, proving I wasn’t the big bad mainstream media looking for cheap clicks, I received some helpful answers. One individual, an insurance salesman who had been active on /b/ since its inception in 2003 (an ‘oldfag’, in their parlance) spoke of it as a community that used to be focused around harmless jokes, before being widely publicised as “the internet hate machine” and drawing in rebellious youths.

Others spoke of it as an escape. “Been unemployed for years, sit in my fam’s home doing nothing all day, too depressed to change that, don’t even know what I’m doing anymore,” one user stated.

Another user agreed stating, “Same but only unemployed for six months. Seriously just sit around and thing about killing myself all day. Do’nt know what to do, havent had a fun time with a friend in a long time. This literally just fills up my day in a very non satisfying way. until I can sleep again [sic].”

Of course, these are just the stories of a few, and stories that may or may not be true. I’ve always detested the media’s portrayal of 4Chan, a depiction of homogeneous bigoted hackers, and don’t want to make a similar mistake. /b/ is still a huge community, and with that comes complexity and diversity (albeit with a complete lack of racial diversity).
Past its prime, out-of-date, and overrun with teenagers, however, there is a discernible sense of decay – it is no longer any kind of ‘utopia’ – but then again, it probably never was.