Guest Post: The Digital Polis – Nicholas Carson Miller
I invited Nicholas Carson Miller to guest post on the shape of a particular internet culture…I hope you enjoy his work -SportLinguist
I. The New Prehistory
We can’t go ask ancient peoples what was going on when they decided to get together and start building cities. Frustratingly, none of the folks involved in the development of prehistoric communities are still around to ask and weren’t kind enough to leave detailed ethnographic and historical accounts of their experiences. Shame on them. We can, however, connect to the internet and observe the development of a new kind of community.
Early humans, tiring of wandering and hunting alone, began living around one another, trying their hands at farming, trading necessities and surpluses, and finding increasingly productive and complex ways to protect and govern the communities that developed. Early internet users logged on alone, visiting web pages and sending limited communications—but then a need for specialized communal activities lead to email lists, chat rooms, social networks, and, most interestingly, forums.
These internet communities, especially certain infamous and influential forums such as 4chan, Gaia Online, and Something Awful, are beginning to exhibit fascinating cultural trends that are to me reminiscent of early city-states. The development of the culture of these communities should be taken as a possible reflection of the development of real-world communities and is conveniently occurring right before our eyes at a highly accelerated rate. Let’s be sure to keep an eye on what’s happening before it becomes lost in the prehistory of the internet.
II. Infant Cultures
Consider the imageboard 4chan. 4chan appeared on the internet in 2003 and over the subsequent seven years grew to become the second largest (behind Gaia) and certainly one of the most influential communities on the web. It is 4chan we can thank for ‘lolcats,’ ‘epic fails,’ the ‘rick-roll’ and ‘trolling’ in general. Many of the internet’s most familiar memes can be traced back to 4chan and its infamous subforum, /b/.
/b/ is notorious, and that is why it is so interesting. It has developed a very observable culture involving specific values, perspectives, rules, symbols, and artifacts. This culture is certainly still very much in flux and the community volatile, but is beginning to reach a sort of lasting self-definition.
In a way, /b/’s activities over the past few years can be easily likened to a sort of ‘heroic age.’ In time, these events, having gained such fame and having been referred to in so many contexts to support so many viewpoints, will simply become legend, the facts being no longer distinguishable from exaggeration and imagination. Some of the early events are already the stuff of legend. Just as the face of Helen launched a thousand ships, reactions to the face of ‘Boxxy’ sparked an online conflict1 so enormous that the forum was temporarily crashed. The events of /b/-day and the reactions to increased enforcement of forum policies have likewise taken on an epic quality in their retelling.
The diaspora of disgruntled /b/ regulars (who flooded other forums and founded several new alternative communities) as a result of /b/-day resembles the Greek age of colonization and the mythology associated with that period. /b/-day and the diaspora even figure into a developing origin myth2 that asserts 4chan’s status as a sort of mother-forum in the way that Greek colonies acknowledged the cities of their founders.
Older members already refer to famous forum events with a sort of nostalgia, recalling “epic” raids executed against other internet communities by the more exclusive and elite community of computer-savvy “/b/-tards” who once populated the board.
In 2006, the social website ‘Habbo Hotel’ was invaded3 by an army of ‘raiders’ comprised of allied forces from 4chan, myg0t.com, YTMND.com, and other forums. The alliance formed and the invasion took place to avenge an act committed by Habbo’s leadership against members of the 4chan community. One of the alleged victims of the Habbo moderators posted a cry for justice on 4chan and an alliance was quickly formed. After a prolonged invasion and conflict with Habbo’s moderators, the site was crashed, the servers were reset, and the invaders claimed a celebrated victory. The event too closely resembles the Trojan War to be easily ignored.
The “Great Habbo Raid” and other similar activities are becoming ideals with which new proposed raids are compared. Much as the figures of the Greek heroic age and their various deeds became standards later Greeks used to help define their values, standards, symbols, and ambitions, the figures and deeds of what is already referred to as “Old /b/” are providing new generations of /b/-tards with a guide for their words and actions (see link 4 for a How-to chart for raiding). Phrases used in the classic raids, such as “Pool’s closed,” “Zerg Rush,” and “Is this Battletoads?”5 have become entrenched slang in the language of /b/, like the hexameter formulae of the Homeric epics.
III. Values and World-Wide-Webviews
I concede that it is at first difficult to take seriously communities such as 4chan, whose boards are dedicated primarily to crude humor, ignorant shouting matches, and amateur pornography. It is clearly a stretch to compare ancient invasions and conquests with 4chan’s occasional flood of prank-calling and server-overloading. And we have a natural disinclination to treat phrases like “Son I am party” and “omgwtfbbq” as important elements of a rapidly developing culture.
But consider the world in which this culture exists and the life this leads one to lead. Members of an internet forum exist and survive by posting on the forum.
Human agriculture and trade allowed members of a community, by being productive in their activities, to provide some of the means by which other members of the community to be productive in their own activities. Members of a community help facilitate one another’s survival and prosperity.
Members of a forum survive by talking about things. If they aren’t talking, they don’t have a presence in the forum and effectively no longer exist. But idle chatter is rarely useful for inviting conversations with enough depth for various forum members to express opinions and attitudes (thus differentiating themselves and projecting their identities), so material must be provided to create the opportunity to express.
It then becomes the responsibility of forum members to seek out interesting stimuli (be it a hot news topic, a divisive question, an amusing joke or stupid picture, pornography, or otherwise) and post it on the board to keep talk flowing—because if talk is flowing, people are existing and the community thrives. Entertainment, attention, and emotional responses to stimuli become the staple of the internet user’s diet, as these resources facilitate the existence of those users.
The importance of these resources may account for the most loudly-touted ‘moral’ value of members of internet communities like 4chan: internet freedom. Any actions that prevent someone from maintaining an internet presence (preventing them from living) or restricting the ways in which one may maintain one’s presence (oppression) are seen as the worst of evils. Censorship becomes a heinous crime in this view akin to racial purification and the first amendment of the U.S. constitution holy scripture. Anyone promoting freedom of expression is celebrated and anyone believed to be restricting it is vilified. This leads to 4chan’s ambivalent feelings toward its founder, “Moot,” who in creating 4chan provided members with a haven of internet freedom, but by later instituting and eventually enforcing rules and policies restricted it. (The decision to enforce the policies nearly resulted in the forum’s destruction. This is the /b/-day mentioned above.)
But there are laws. Even despite the outcry against the institution of rules, the community soon came to accept the state of things. An abundance of child pornography on a forum endangers the forum as a whole—the FBI may find the abundance and shut down the forum. It became vital to find a governing balance between ensuring the safety of the forum and maintaining the freedoms of its members (sound familiar?). Moderators patrol forums, checking for illegal content. Members endangering the forum (by posting illegal content or content likely to engender negative actions towards the forum) are warned, restricted, or in extreme circumstances banned. Banning a member denies the member the right to visit the forum and post on it, denying him the right to exist there.
IV. What is this I don’t even
Community members must be highly aware of this vital balance. Experienced members support good content and ridicule bad content to keep the community healthy. They work to maintain the balance, striking against dangerous or dangerously naïve posters while also striking back against overzealous moderators.
A large enough and bold enough community will also endeavor to enforce its values on the world around it, supporting communities that seem to agree with it and lashing out against those who seem to disagree or threaten those who agree. In its recent forays into ‘foreign policy,’ 4chan has again made the news, in what I believe to be one of the most culturally important endeavors its members have yet undertaken.
In early December this year, under pressure from government agencies, Paypal and other financial institutions cut funding to Wikileaks. A few days later, Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, was arrested. Without hesitation, “Anonymous,” the army of 4chan, declared total war on these enemies of “net neutrality” in a grand statement: “a need exists, the necessity for a popular cyberarmy which could fight, or at least oppose, the constant threat of the restrictions on freedom on our only valid way of communication”7. Hours later8 several DDOS assaults9 had been launched, PostFinance had been attacked, the PayPal website was in and out of service, and Mastercard’s website was down. Most significantly, Anonymous was in the news and their message was being heard.
The values of these communities have grown so clear and influential that the communities are beginning to take action motivated by these values. Soon they may begin to shape the internet in ways greater than we can imagine. These are important times in the evolution of new cultures, which we cannot afford to ignore—they are developing fascinating populations and economies, along with new registers of language, new media of artistic expression, new traditions10, heroes11, and mythologies12, and new ways of seeing and engaging with the world.
Things to check out
1 – The Boxxy War: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/article970184.ece
3 – The Invasion of Habbo Hotel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n93zWYDbNfg
4 – The structure of a /b/ raid: http://images.encyclopediadramatica.com/images/6/62/RaidChart.gif
5 – Is this Battletoads? http://encyclopediadramatica.com/Battletoads
6 – Capital punishment: http://encyclopediadramatica.com/Ban
7 – The declaration of war: http://wikileakswar.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/hello-world/
9 – The weapon of choice: http://www.linuxsecurity.com/resource_files/intrusion_detection/ddos-whitepaper.html
10 – A weekly tradition: http://encyclopediadramatica.com/Caturday
11 – Are you ready for the Velocirapture? http://encyclopediadramatica.com/Raptor_jesus
12 – A holy text: http://www.lolcatbible.com/index.php?title=Genesis_1
13 – A hymn: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQw4w9WgXcQ
[The Digital Polis -Nicholas Carson Miller - December 2010]