Soci[opath] Networks: The fall of the 1st generation (digg.com); the current state of the 2nd (Facebook, Reddit, Twitter) and 3rd (Instagram, Snapchat, YikYak); and why 4chan rules them all (and in the darkness binds them)

WARNING: What follows is a completely biased account of social networks, made by a big fan of 4chan. 

Stanislavski was once doing a play about a terrorist at yalta

he imported real palm trees at a great expense

when he put them on the stage, under the lights, they looked fake

so he then had to make artificial ones that would look real

That was Shia Labeouf, in this somewhat surreal interview/email exchange. If you are curious, the video at the top of the link I just gave you is the other component of the interview besides the email exchange I quoted above, and that video consists of Shia staring silently at the reporter, while she silently stares back…for one straight hour.

As you may or may not now, this “Stanislavski” person that Shia mentions was the creator of “method acting”, so it is actually possible that the above story is true. However, I don’t know just HOW true, since my source is Shia Labeouf, and not the “pre plagiarism-accusations Shia” (he of Disney and Transformers fame), but the “post post-postmodernism Shia” (he of brown paper bags and weird art exhibitions).

*Cue to drop sack of salt on the Stanislavsky story*

Regardless of the veracity of the story, there is something to be said about how it seems to resonate with the “social network” experience. What exactly is that “something” that should be said, I have no idea. The parallels are probably different for each person. For me, the artificial palm trees that look real are people’s online personas, and the real palm trees that look fake are the rare moments of sincerity online, when someone removes their mask for a moment, no matter how brief, and acts like themselves…but the honesty of this experience is so alien to the fake palm trees that it makes the real moment seem fake, with the sad consequence that the poor reaction online to the real moments perpetuates the abundance of fake moments on the social media world.

I promise that the last paragraph makes sense in my head.

What follows is a brief outline of this essay. Hopefully, this will keep me focused, sharp, and (relatively) concise [Edit from the future: I failed on that last goal]:

  • As a way of introduction, and before I get too caught up on long paragraphs (with their corresponding abundance of words, words, words) there will be an overview of Christina Wodtke’s  use of Alexander’s patterns, and how the 2nd and 3rd generation social networks fit into this pattern.
  • Then, I will look at the Demise of Digg, and how this relates to some current social networks.
  • After that, there will be a section outlining some of the problems with the current social networks.
  • Finally, 4chan will emerge as the politically incorrect, depraved, extremely dysfunctional (but perhaps ONLY) solution.

So let’s reproduce in block quotes the three patterns which form the core of Wodtke’s article (Identity, Relationships, and Activity). Right below each block quote, I will add information on how these patterns play out on a variety of social networks:

[1] Identity

Conflict: Who can you trust online?

Elements of Identity: Profile, Presence, Reputation.

Resolution:

Identity is the bedrock of social architecture. In the brilliant essay “A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy,”  Clay Shirky writes:

“If you were going to build a piece of social software to support large and long-lived groups, what would you design for? The first thing you would design for is handles the user can invest in.”

Participation is rewarded by enhanced reputation and the ability to collect items in the system (bookmarks, history, relationships, and so on). [On my comments for the next pattern, relationships, I will speak more in-depth about this enhanced reputation and item collection by discussing “voting” processes in the different networks] 

Digg: Registration = Username. No pictures, no real names, no personal information.

FB: Registration = Profile. Picture encouraged. REAL NAME POLICY ENFORCED IN A BIG BROTHERISH WAY. Strong push for personal information.

Twitter: Registration = Handle. Picture encouraged, real name optional, brief bio optional.

Reddit: Registration = Username. No pictures, no real names, no personal information.

Instagram: Registration = Username (or you can use your FB profile). Picture pretty much required (it is mainly a photo app), no real name, no personal information (other than the one in your pictures, which is often, unwittingly, a lot).

Snapchat: Registration = Handle. You can’t add anything else, even if you want to.

YikYak: No registration; anonymous participation allowed.

4chan: No registration; anonymous participation allowed.

[2] Relationships

Conflict: On a web site with thousands or millions of people, how do you make sure you can keep track of the people you care about?

Elements of relationships: Contacts, groups, Norms.

Resolution:

Relationships on the web are just as important as relationships in real life.

Create rules for behavior and consequences for violating the rules such as a time-out or a ban.

Digg: No contact list. Voting (+ Digg/- Bury). Comments.  Private messages.

FB: Contact list (friends). Voting (+ Like). Comments. Public and private sharing, with the option to “Tag” people on them. Groups. Private Chat (one-on-one and group)

Twitter: Contact list (followers). Voting (+ Retweet, + Favorite). Comments. Public sharing. Public Chat (“tweet conversation”, only one-on-one)

Reddit: No contact list. Voting (+ Upvote/- Downvote). Comments. Public sharing. Private messages.

Instagram: Contact list (followers). Voting (+ Heart). Comments.

Snapchat: Contact list. No voting. Private Sharing (pictures and video, but they expire). Private chat.

YikYak: No contact list. Voting (+up/-down; comment or post deleted after 5 down votes). Text only. PROXIMITY BASED — you can only view posts from, and interact with, people within a 4-5 mile radius.

4chan: No contact list. No voting. Forum-style sharing.

NOTE: Because these are, after all, social networks, there is a significant amount of overlap between the previous section (Relationships), and the next section (Activity). Therefore, much of the content of these two “patterns” is interchangeable. I have chosen to highlight the homogenization of social networks on the following section.

[3] Activity

Conflict: If there’s nothing to do on a site, then it doesn’t matter if all your friends are there or not. The site has no more interest than an address book, and it won’t get affection or traffic.

Elements of activity: Sharing, Conversations, Collaborating.

[NOTE ON SHARING: On 4chan you can pick what content you want to see by going to your chosen forums, and on Reddit, although there is a default “front page”, you can easily subscribe or block certain “subreddits” and be master of your content as well. On Facebook, on the other hand, an algorithm decides which post from your “friends” to show you. And they sometime run psychological experiments on you — without your consent — to see how miserable the algorithm’s choices are making you.]

Resolution:

Create activities that are useful to individuals but are much improved by group participation.

Digg: Link to articles, pictures, videos.

FB: Link to articles, pictures, videos. Pet/baby spam. Complain or brag.

Twitter: Link to articles, pictures, videos. Saying completely useless, 140-character-long garbage (It may seem like I am hating on them, but here is what one of the creators of Twitter said, when talking about why they chose that name, said “The definition was ‘a short burst of inconsequential information’ and ‘chirps from birds.’ And that’s exactly what the product was.”

Reddit: Link to articles, pictures, videos. Conversations with famous people. Relatively informative and pleasant interactions (when compared to, for example, Youtube). A decent amount of recycled content…sometimes recycled from itself (known as reposts, it’s a big problem on Reddit).

Instagram: Pictures, videos (mostly of people’s lunches).

Snapchat: Pictures, videos (mostly people acting stupid and/or horny) that disappear seconds after being viewed.

YikYak: Anonymous posts and mini-conversations (mostly people acting stupid or horny, and recycled content/jokes from elsewhere) that disappear automatically a few hours after being posted. 200 character limit (they probably thought the additional 60 characters over Twitter would make a big difference in terms of depth and nuance…”they” also probably think Buzzfeed and Tumblr are much better ways to stay informed than The New Yorker and The Atlantic).

4chan: Anonymous posts and forum-style conversations. A LOT of hornyness and downright mean-spirited comments, and some stupidity…BUT ALSO a preposterous amount of wholly original jokes, memes, and pranks. 

As a disclaimer, I should say that the concept widely used on this post of “three generations” of social networks was completely invented by me, and therefore it is extremely arbitrary and may not hold up to a lot of scrutiny.

With that out of the way, we will now take a look at Digg, which at one point pretty much ruled the Internet, here is what Wodtke had to say about this particular social network:

Digg, an online news service in which the top stories are selected by reader votes, is as likely to select an insightful political commentary as it is an illegal crack for a piece of software as their top story. This unpredictability makes architecting social spaces the most challenging work a designer can take on. (ur-reddit)

As you can tell from the above quote, Digg was kind of an “ur-reddit”.

The genius of Digg was that it required very little input and maintenance from the creators of the site, because the whole operation — the posts, the voting, the censoring — was almost completely crowdsourced…for free. The ‘free’ part is important for two reasons: 1. it means that the owners of Digg were saving money in addition to time, and 2. the bulk of the “work” at Digg was made by volunteers, and no amount of money given to paid workers can buy you the kind of loyalty and motivation that volunteers bring to the table.

For a long time in the early 2000’s, it seemed like Digg’s HQ was destined to have a prime location in the downtown of the internet, right alongside Google and (back then) Yahoo…but then the roof caved in on Diggs’… umm digs.

Here is a brief, hyperlinked history of Digg’s demise:

2007: Digg experiences a “User Revolt” after a link to an illegal decryption key for HD DVDs was removed by the Digg team. Multiple users then proceeded to overtake the home page with multiple links to the decryption key.

2008: Google enters negotiations to buy Digg for $200 million, but the deal falls through after Google decides they can just make their own.

2009: Digg introduces the “DiggBar”, which users don’t digg at all. The way the DiggBar worked had some eerie similarities to Facebook’s latest negotiations with the NYTimes (which will very likely result in bringing Facebook’s quest for total media control within Zuckie’s grasp…I really wish I was exaggerating).

2010: A redesign on Digg results in a significant reduction of users: 34% in the UK and 26% in the US.

2011: Reddit traffic, which for the previous couple of years had been bumper-to-bumper on “Early Adopters Avenue”, finally makes it to “Early Majority Highway”, effectively burying Digg (I promise that is the last Digg pun). Twitter is also on the rise, and Google becomes a lot better at finding relevant content.

By the way, Digg really got unlucky on those failed negotiations of 2008, because to the delight of tech entrepreneurs (and investors putting their money on the current bubble bursting), Google has been the main culprit in the insane market valuations Internet companies have been getting the last few years. How? Well, Google has been buying out potential competitors (as opposed to what they did with Digg, which was pretend to be interested in a buy only to decide to sneakily — and legally — steal intellectual property) as far back as the olden days of 2004, and last year they were still legally monopolizing markets. While most people know that this has been standard operating procedure for Google, a lot of Apple fanboys don’t realize that despite all the bullshit about innovation that Apple constantly spews, they also go shopping for new things when Jony Ive gets tired of using his British accent to make stupid decisions appear smart. And although Google and Apple have made their fair share of notable purchases, by far the most remarkable example of this “buy-or-die” mentality is the insane trophy-wifeish spending spree that Facebook has been in for the last few years (the total of the three purchases linked to in the last sentence — Whatsapp, Oculus, and Instagram — is 22 billion dollars). If you see some pink smoke in the sky, that is the evaporation of Enzensberger’s rosy dreams for media providing equal opportunity and a level playing field. The sad reality is that a few major players with tons of cash rule the Internet world… just like in the T.V. world, the publishing world, the retail world, the banking world, etc. This concentration of power in a few big corporations mirrors the concentration of power in a few key players in government (although which power structure is the reflection and which one is the ‘original’ has become really hard to tell these days with the power of lobbyists). Money — more than fear and royal or shedding blood — just might be the best way for those in power to perpetuate themselves ad infinitum. That is perhaps the greatest (and scariest) triumph of capitalism. Or maybe I am just having PTSD sequels from my Enzensberger experience.

Someone over at The Atlantic wrote a blog post a few years back trying to figure out what happened to Digg. At the end, the writer wonders why anyone would try to get into Social Networks when “no one has a competitive advantage, the space is crowded, and you can’t compete in price”. But then he realizes the utter genius of it all:

Then I remember how social networks function: users produce the product and they *are* the product. Now that’s some kind of good hustle.

So it is not just Digg that uses the masses to do the work, and it is not just by crowdsourcing that they get more money — the real kicker is the fact that the very same crowd becomes, itself, the product. In other words, people populating the website and filling it with quality content are producing the REAL product — the content and themselves. All the website does is provide a space where people can do this, and therefore the website isn’t the product anymore than the government is the product of a factory because it owns the land. Google uses the same, extremely-good-hustle model.

But let’s remember Enzensberger words:

Anyone who imagines that freedom for the media will be established if only everyone is busy transmitting and receiving is the dupe of a liberalism which, decked out in contemporary colors, merely peddles the faded concepts of a preordained harmony of social interests.

It turns out that certain corporations started to pay influential people on Digg to post certain content or link to certain websites. And so it was that Digg started peddling “the faded concepts of a preordained harmony of social interests” by pretending to be working in the interest of the masses, when in reality they were only being paid to manipulate the masses, being told what was seen and what was deleted. Much like the old media has been operating for a long time. Much like GoogleReddit, and Facebook are operating now (as mentioned in the previous blog post).

Digg ultimately sold for about $16 million in 2012 — less than 10% of Google’s offer four years prior, and less than half of what a completely deserted Myspace sold for in 2011.

OK, let’s put the sad story of Digg behind us, and look at where social networks currently are and where they might be in the near future. We will be assisted along our path by some of the more nail-on-the-head quotes from Wodtke, such as:

You can’t change a person’s nature, but you can design the environment he moves around in.

And:

While your designs can never control people, they can encourage good behavior and discourage bad behavior.

There are some echoes of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” there, and with good reason.

The way Facebook is set up, it does not “control people” per se, but it does nudge them around to do what Facebook wants them to do. Unfortunately, because Facebook is now a publicly traded company, it doesn’t have any interest (or stock)  in encouraging good behaviour and discouraging bad behaviour. Facebook is simply going to do whatever makes Facebook more money, and if that means promoting sensationlist clickbait or censoring politically sensitive stories, then so be it. If you listen closely, you can almost hear Enzensberger’s screaming about how the new media is adopting the bad habits of the old media. There is that “remediation” popping up again, destroying all dreams of a new media order.

Twitter is also a publicly traded company, and therefore it also doesn’t give a tweet about encouraging good behaviour and discouraging bad. But the design of the site, especially the 140 character limit, does speak volumes about what kind of message this medium encourages.

Similarly, the way Instagram works encourages certain types of behaviour: Because Instagram, unlike Facebook, is mainly used to share personal pictures and video, Instagram is the place to be for both figurative and literal posers, although there is a fair amount of posing on Facebook as well. Also, if girls posting slutty pictures get a lot of hearts/likes, and a nice family picture gets almost no hearts/likes, then the design of Instagram is clearly encouraging slutty behaviour. I suppose whether this is “good” or “bad” depends on how far removed from being a horny teenager you are. Get thee to a nunnery girls, before your perception of yourself becomes so distorted by stupid Internet points that you think the only part of you that has any value is your body. I may be trying to cover the sun with one finger here — if my friends are any indication, it is way too late for any sort of intervention.

As much as Instagram might encourage virtual pimping of oneself, Snapchat, with its disappearing pictures and videos, makes Instagram look demure. I don’t think we need Sherlock Holmes to tell us what kind of behaviour is encouraged by telling kids that whatever they share will only be seen for a few seconds and then disappear forever. (Which may not be entirely true…)

Anonymity on 4chan and YikYak certainly encourages unhinged behaviour (this problem is exacerbated, in the case of YikYak, because the anonymity is compounded with the proximity functionality — which is an environment ripe for bullying). The lack of inhibition resulting from the inherent anonymity of these two services often results in offensive behaviour… but, just as often, it also results in bursts of creativity. Well, on 4chan it does, because the text-only nature of YikYak, along with its Tweeter-like character limit and the quick expiry of its posts and comments (usually around 2 hours), combine to make most very poor-quality contributions (and by “poor quality” I mean “really stupid”). 4chan contributions are very rarely stupid. In fact, despite the lack of a voting system, dumb interjections are swiftly attacked on 4chan, and the dumb interjectors are bullied off the site, or at least bullied into silence. And while there is a generous portion of “crazy” on 4chan, I believe that there is a close connection between madness and genius — almost to the point of being an inherent connection. To my knowledge, there has not been anyone in history deemed a “genius” who didn’t have a fair share of madness as well. I make this clarification because if you don’t believe on that madness/genius connection, then you will think this entire post is nonsense (as opposed to most of my posts, which are only partially nonsense).

I will speak about the kind of behaviour Reddit encourages — and expand significantly on 4chan behaviour — a bit later in this post.

Meanwhile, let’s look at another extremely perceptive quote from Wodtke:

Social architecture’s ongoing challenge is to find intelligent and subtle ways of allowing people to choose degrees of publicness (including shelter from other people’s publicness).

The thing is, you don’t get that much of a choice with the 2nd generation networks, because anything you put out there (even if it is only seen by a few people you have handpicked yourself) can be taken by them and shared with the entire world. On Facebook, even if you delete something shortly after you publish it, the damage is done — once the post is out of the bottle there is no putting it back in. Same goes for Twitter, where celebrities often tweet stupid things that they delete shortly after, but a single screen capture — taken while the tweet was up — is enough to make any attempts at damage control by the PR machine completely hopeless. Facebook’s default, as in most of the other social networks, is set to “share with everyone”. In this context, choosing “degrees of publicness” — as Wodtke calls them — is nearly impossible. This often leads to serious problems, such as the time a girl was helping count her grandmother’s savings and posted a picture of the money on FB (link for people who have trouble figuring out happens when you put 2+2); or the time random teenagers trashed a stranger’s house after learning on FB that it was temporarily vacant. Even Reddit, for all the things it does right, fails miserably at letting people choose their desired distance from the online “town square” — anything you have ever said on Reddit is easily accessible by anyone who clicks on your username. This one-click background check can be used against trolls and people with fake sob stories, but more often it is used not against the trolls, but by the trolls, since they can quickly find dirt on anyone and use it against them. Of course, you could potentially avoid this by deleting every comment you make, but this would be a stupid way to use a social network, if it can be called a “use” at all; not to mention the fact that having all your posts replaced with “[deleted]” looks very suspicious and is, by itself, very telling.

The 3rd generation networks do a better job of “allowing people to choose degrees of publicness”. For instance, every picture or video taken on Snapchat self-destructs after a few seconds, Mission-Impossible style. Additionally, every time you take a picture or video Snapchat makes you select who you are sending it to, instead of the 2nd generation where, as mentioned, the default is to let anyone of your “friends” or “followers” see it. As if that wasn’t enough, Snapchat notifies you when anyone tries to screencap anything you shared, so users risk appearing like creeps and being ostracized in the future if they can’t be Zen enough to let go. Just to clarify, I am not saying that Snapchat doesn’t have any problems and that it is a great tool, but when it comes to choosing “degrees of publicness”, it does a lot better than FB, Twitter, or Instagram. YikYak is completely anonymous, and almost as transient as Snapchat, with posts disappearing after a couple of hours. And yet, partly as a result of this seemingly beneficial transience, the quality of the stuff shared in both Snapchat and YikYak tends to be even worse than the baby pictures and first world problems on FB, worse than the unfunny one-liners and obnoxious celebrity philosophers of Twitter, and way worse than the decent-but-often-recycled content on Reddit. Heck, even Instagram’s lunch pics and spend-30-minutes-trying-to-make-it-look-spontaneous shares are more bearable than the utterly useless contributions to the world made by the people on Snapchat and YikYak.

Of course, people will argue that some social networks are not aiming to be “useful”, so useless contributions are not only allowed, but encouraged (remember Twitter’s creator “short burst of inconsequential information” quote). This is a valid point, but then the question becomes “what ARE they aiming for?” I don’t have to talk to Twitter’s Biz (*cringes*) Stone or the founders of YikYak (whose balls may or may not have dropped yet) to get the REAL answer: They want to make the networks as addictive as possible, so people spend as much time as possible on them, so they can turn that time into as much money as possible (extreme skepticism of big corporations’ intentions brought to you by UW’s ENGL108F – The rebel) . Once again, this is just like in the olden (media) days. Once again, this is just remediation.

As for the networks that openly try to be “useful”, the REAL answer to how they are useful is not some bullshit about “connecting” the world (AKA encouraging meaningless interactions, like FB happy birthday wishes); nor is the real answer bringing “people” (AKA fake palm trees) together; nor is the real answer what Zuckerberg would say about Facebook’s “internet.org” project [Edit, April 19, 2015: one Indian journalist neatly summarized Mr. Zuck’s view of internet.org by saying that the CEO thought he was engaging in a “world-changing corporate social responsibility effort born from the goodness of his heart”…when the reality of internet.org is much, much darker). Ultimately, the real answer for what, exactly, is the use of this “useful” networks is basically the same as on the openly “useless” ones – money.

Now, this following statement may come across as sensationalist, but that doesn’t make it any less true: Facebook is slowly but surely dying (at least Facebook’s Facebook — as previously mentioned, the FB brand buys anything that starts to replace it, so Facebook’s Whatsapp and Facebook’s Instagram are still thriving). This is in part a result of hilarious, awkward appearances from parents on the network (you could argue that this only kills Facebook for the younger demographic, but sadly that is the only one that matters when it comes to investors. Having said that, I would consider calling National Geographic to request a documentary analyzing the behaviour of older adults on a kid-free Facebook). However, as frustrating as unwanted parental interventions may be, obviously the main factor in the abandonment of Facebook by teens (reminiscent of the beginning of the end for MySpace) is the appearance of the 3rd generation of social networks.

Young people leaving Facebook APPEARS to be a good thing, because it is becoming evident that using that particular social network devolves social skills to the point where, according to The Atlantic, students can’t hold a face-to-face conversation. And the main problem is not even that teenagers are becoming (somehow, rather amazingly) even more socially awkward than they have always been, but that they really really really don’t give a fuck about it. Someone should make them read this paragraph from the Atlantic article linked above:

When students apply for colleges and jobs, they won’t conduct interviews through their smart phones. When they negotiate pay raises and discuss projects with employers, they should exude a thoughtful presence and demonstrate the ability to think on their feet (or at least without Google). When they face significant life decisions, they must be able to think things through and converse with their partners. If the majority of their conversations are based on fragments pin-balled back and forth through a screen, how will they develop the ability to truly communicate in person?

Sadly — and the reason I say leaving Facebook only “appears” to be good — the 3rd generation social networks, which are the alleged cure for Facebook, may prove worse than the disease. Most of these Facebook-replacements — including Snapchat, YikYak, and Instagram — devolve social skills even further, to the point where people on them aren’t even having shitty, FB-style conversations. Instead, here is a sample of the weird interactions currently taking place (I apologize if it seems like I am continuing to beat a long-deceased equine, but as Atmosphere said “as long as I can hit my notes, amma stay on top this box of soap”):

Snapchat: *Here is a picture/video of me doing something that is SO vain, vacuous, and/or vapid (alliteration FTW) that I don’t want to post it anywhere else.*
YikYak: “I am horny” “Wanna do it?” *Silence* OR, alternatively: “Here is a joke I stole from some other website” OR “Here is something I am whining about which is too whiny for me to say it out loud or post it anywhere else”
Instagram: *Here is my lunch* OR *Casual-looking pose* with caption “#nofilter #nomakeup #AuNatural #LikeTheFrenchSay” (TRANSLATION “it took me 25 minutes and 34 failed attempts to get this selfie just right. I used three Instagram filters and have a shitload of makeup on”)

To be fair, Reddit does sometimes lead to insightful input from users who have expertise in an area relevant to the conversation, and I’ve also seen a fair share of enlightening conversations between two or more users. Additionally, the AMA’s (ask me anything) just might be the best, most democratized way for the masses to get their questions answered by people they would normally never get access to (good questions are upvoted quickly, which leads to the person doing the AMA seeing it and answering it — a much better process than some muppet on the news arbitrarily hand-picking a breezy question from Twitter). BUT to get to these good bits of Reddit you do have to get through a LOT of tedious and extremely annoying circlejerking, with users trying to parasite visibility and upvotes from popular comments by replying to them. The bottomline is that Reddit has started to show some of the cracks that ultimately brought Digg down, such as posts which obviously come from some corporation’s marketing staff; power users that game the system by using reposts, keywords, or spam in order to quickly get upvotes (therefore making it hard for average users to get their content to the front page); and blatantly conflict-of-interest censorship by the moderators. I don’t think it is unreasonable to think that a lot of the garbage on Reddit wouldn’t be there if there were no upvotes to gain. Conversely, and considering the huge amount of lurkers (from experience, I’ve calculated that out of every 60-80 people that see your post, only ONE of them votes, with comments being even more scarce), it is quite possible that if there was no username reputation to defend, no upvotes to crave, and no downvotes to fear, a lot more people would be willing to put their two cents out there. Even if those two cents turned out to be extremely depraved or racist, they would still be their own (read: genuine) two cents, and they would be shared because the users wants to share, not because the users are in search of validation through a clickable upwards arrow.

If it has started to sound like I am describing 4chan, that is because I am. Their anonymous comment system allows anyone to say anything, and in the future those comments can’t be traced back to you, so whatever you say on each individual post exists isolated from anything else, including the personality of the poster and his/her posting history (basically, 4chan is a formalist critic’s wet dream). The obvious concern with this anonymity is that it will lead to lewd behaviour, and the truth is that it often does, but once again: if being lewd is what the people want, then they should be ALLEWD. Or at least, they should be allewd if social networks are going to uphold those elusive twins — freedom and liberty — which have mostly disappeared from the AFK world (Away From Keyboard… the Pirate Bay movie taught me that any nerd worth their salt refuses to implicitly support the belief that life on the Internet is not real, and therefore I shall never use the phrase “In Real Life”. What, exactly, this “Internet is real” discussion means in the context of Shia’s palm tree story, I can’t even).

Let’s look at one last Wodtke quote:

If we remember the social in social architecture, we can continue to make new products that delight people as well as change their lives.

The simple truth is that 4chan has done many wonderful, hilarious, and sometimes even inspiring things that “delight people as well as change their lives”… FOR THE BETTER. Because it would be stupid to deny that Facebook has changed peoples lives, but while Facebook has done things like the aforementioned enabling of home invasions and crippling of the very social connections that make us human; 4chan, amidst all their reprehensible offenses (and I will get to those in a minute) has often produced content which is utterly hilarious, extremely smart, and, to be honest, more artistic than most things I have seen in art galleries lately. Not to mention the fact that they “fight the man” and “disrupt the system” with far more efficiency than those grande-caramel-machiatto revolutionaries wearing a Che T-shirt ever have. As if that wasn’t enough, most if not all of the content on 4chan has that most elusive of Internet qualities — a quality which Reddit, by its very nature as a Digg-style content aggregator, totally lacks (same goes for all the other homogenized social networks) — ORIGINALITY.

I realized a few thousand words ago that it was going to be almost impossible to properly convey the spirit of 4chan by talking about it…so what follows is a show-and-tell with some samples of 4chan’s genius. Because my grade will likely rise with each link visited, I strongly suggest clicking on all of them (none of the linked pages take more than a couple of minutes, and I can vouch for the awesomeness of them all — I exhaustively explored the 4chan forums and the 4chan subreddit and chose only the very best stuff):

  • 4chan objects to the quality of Taylor Swift’s music by rigging an online contest so that a school for the deaf would win a free T. Swift concert.
  • 4chan makes incredible short stories called “green texts”, which are one of the few things whose twists I never see coming. Here is the second best one, and the all-time best.
  • 4chan designed, from scratch, a new Pokemon game. It is actually a playable game, not just a concept. It comes complete with 200 brand new monsters and entirely new characters and cities (seriously).
  • 4chan convinces people that a new iOS software update allows their iPhones to be charged in the microwave. Here is a brief history of the events, including the very realistic faux-apple-ad they designed. And here is the story picked up by the media. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this whole hoax is that it came only a year after 4chan managed to convince iPhone users that a previous iOS update made the device waterproof. I wish I could say that 4chan was trying to make a point about how uneducated people are about things they use every day and which cost them hundreds of dollars; or that they were trying to show how if you made a believable enough Apple ad about jumping off a bridge, people would jump; however, it seems that they did it mostly for the lolz…which, by my lights, makes it even more awesome. They certainly “delighted” me, so Wodtke would be proud.
  • 4chan convinces people that Justin Bieber has cancer, and they should shave their heads in solidarity. Here is media coverage detailing how they did it (mainly through photoshopping fake tweets from celebrities, lending the rumor credibility).
  •  4chan creates a petition for Obama to build a Death Star in 2016. They managed to get enough signatures to get the petition reviewed, and the White House officially responded.
  • 4chan discusses the thickness of smartphones. This one is a bit dark, and maybe I enjoyed it a little more than most people would because 1. I hate the culture that has evolved around smartphones with a passion; 2. because I have also cringed every time a company announces how their latest phone is 1/18th thinner; and  3. because I also believe that if people could somehow start having sex with their phones, the last bastion of actual human connection would fall and society would inevitably collapse. (Particularly) explicit content.
  • 4chan creates a new meme — a “feels frog” curiously named “Pepe” (and inexplicably pronounced “pay pay”…probably for the lolz) — but then gets angry when celebrities and other websites steal the meme. 4chan then proceeds to create an entire Pepe (pay pay) economy, with “rare Pepes” and other non sense. Hilarity ensues. A somewhat decent explanation of the Pepe phenomenon can be found right here. As a final bonus, here is a cache of “rare” Pepes (pay pays), to illustrate the point…1272 times.
  • 4chan answers to a request for a simple photoshop, and the creativity displayed in the responses to this request could once and for all destroy the collective delusion that “there is nothing new under the sun”. I promise I am not hyperboling. 
  • 4chan responds to ANOTHER request for a photoshop. The responses are more numerous, and perhaps even more hilarious than last time. You would figure at least some of the responses would burrow ideas from the previous, extremely successful set of responses…but you would be wrong. Art is definitely not dead.
  • 4chan user explains the concept of “Tits or GTFO (get the fuck out)”. If you can get past the traditional 4chan language, this is actually one brilliant piece. The utter truth of it makes it worth reproducing it in its entirety:

    One of the rules of the internet is “there are no girls on the Internet”. This rule does not mean what you think it means.

    In real life, people like you for being a girl. They want to fuck you, so they pay attention to you and they pretend what you have to say is interesting, or [they pretend] that you are smart or clever. On the Internet, we don’t have the chance to fuck you. This means the advantage of being a “girl” does not exist. You don’t get a bonus to conversation just because I’d like to put my [penis] in you.

    When you make a post like [the one you just made] you are begging for attention. The only reason to post it is because you want your girl-advantage back, because youa re too vapid and too stupid to do or say anything interesting without it. You are forgetting the rules: There are no girls on the Internet.

    The one exception to this rule, the one way you can get your “girlness” back on the Internet, is to post your tits. This is, and should be, degrading to you — an admission that the only thing interesting about you is your naked body.

    tl;dr — tits or GET THE FUCK OUT.

When I started research on this post, I thought 4chan would potentially emerge as the only social network that actually delivered on any of the promises first made by MySpace, but I thought this would be a hard sell. I have now emerged on the other side thinking that “4chan is the best social network” is actually a pretty easy sell, if you can look past their umm…eccentricities (and to be fair, that is a huge “if”).

It is often said that the best treasure lies under the biggest, stinkiest piles of shit, and the Internet is no exception. In fact, at the risk of losing whatever credibility I have, I am willing to say that 4chan not only delivers on the promises of social networks, but on the promises of the internet as a whole, and, if you look at some of their more famous pranks and hacks, 4chan may actually be delivering on some of Enzensberger’s more ambitious, outlandish hopes for the media.

That is why it was a sad, sad day when I read recently about how 4chan might be dying.

Apparently, a crazy website can survive on the Internet even after it hacks huge corporations…twice; after it votes for atrocious designs to win T-shirt contests; after it shows an absurdly easy “n” word trigger, with no possible defensible context; after it mocks ‘Murica and how they think that their way is always the right way; after it bullies a lost 10% dragon soul on Tumblr; and after it blatantly (and smartly) undermines the very label used by feminist rhetoric with one, impossible-to-argue-against green text story. You can get away with all these things and more. Just don’t you dare fap to fuck with Jennifer Lawrence’s nudes.

The Shia LaBeouf quote at the beginning of this post kinda makes sense: it is attention-catching and has just enough nonsense to seem mysterious but not so much nonsense that it would alienate anyone. However, it wasn’t until I was almost done writing this that I realized I would be using Shia yet again for the conclusion. As it turns out, on that same email interview from which the opening quote for this post was taken, Shia also said the following (and just like a broken clock is right twice a day, an actor who has seemed lost over the last few years might occasionally say something very wise and very true). Though he didn’t know it, Shia was perfectly describing 4chan when he said:

the networks might struggle to coherently represent the individual

but the collective can achieve coherence

and empowerment of self (selves)

through a shared creative consciousness

If you don’t see how this Shia quote relates to 4chan, scroll up and click again on the link to the 4chan-designed Pokemon game, and on the 4chan responses to the photoshop requests, and yes, even on their pranks and hoaxes. 4chan has succeeded where everyone else — from Digg and MySpace to Reddit and Facebook to SnapChat and YikYak — have failed: They created a “shared creative consciousness” (italicized and bolded because that is the key component all other social networks are missing).

Reddit has shown some glimpses of this “shared creative consciousness”, but then they start circlejerking for upvotes, and all hope is lost…leaving us with a front page of the Internet that has a shared (pseudo-democratized and often censored) creative (content-aggregated, deceitful-in-search-of-upvtotes, money-driven, and occasionally plagiarized wholesale) consciousness.

[Edit, May 5, 2015: Well, it seems that I might have been giving Reddit too much credit — it’s completely gone to hell now. To make matters worse, their new media credentials and their pretenses of media democratization make it easier for them to get away with all the shit they do in their totalitarian regime. This may sound a little too melodramatic, but there is a lot of evidence to support my claims. Here is the link’s rather depressing, but justified, conclusion:

It wasn’t always like this. A few years ago, there were just as many disagreements and differences of opinion on reddit, but they were REAL. And the site was still a democracy. People voted and things swung from side to side, everybody learned in the end.

Now we have a completely one-sided mess that pretends to be democratic but is quickly becoming the Fox News of the internet. They designed a system that would take advantage of the Eternal September syndrome and this manipulation has encouraged the retard masses to become their useful idiots.

I believe this can essentially be boiled down to not just greed, but controlling and manipulating the information that the millions of people see on a daily basis. Reddit gets billions of views. Manufactured consensus is very real and doing it through social media is the gold standard because people are hard-wired to value the opinions of their peers.

The people who run reddit are not the “cool bloggers” they try to portray themselves as. There is a head running things, and it is sinister and they are making A LOT of money, and have A LOT of power, and A LOT of influence.

And they know it. You should too.

So what can we do if Reddit offers no hope? My brief conclusion remains the same:]

May the makers of Pay Pay survive the current onslaught they are going through; because if 4chan dies, our Internet will become a lot less like Enzensberger’s, and a lot more like Facebooks’s internet.org (aka the Chinese Internet experience).

[Edit, August 4, 2015: I don’t mean to rub it in, but Reddit is significantly more fucked today than it was when I made my last edit back in May — their CEO has resigned, their numbers on Alexa are going down for the first time in years, and, most remarkably, one of their competitors (voat.co) is starting to seriously look like their legitimate replacer, with an absurd upward trend on Alexa that no one would have considered possible a couple of months ago.

As you can probably tell, I had a lot of fun writing this gargantuan post; but now, a few months down the road, I am seriously panicking about the state of the Internet, because shit’s been getting REALLY real lately: The threat of online content producers all becoming slaves under the dictatorships of massively-populated platforms like Facebook and Snapchat is no longer a threat, but a full-fledged reality; although the homogenization of social networks I detected might have seemed rather depressing and alarmist, it turns out that I was actually UNDERestimating the sameness of the brave new Internet, because every popular website is starting lo look and act the same; and last but not least, the probability of The Big Promise Of The Internet (providing an equal playing field and free speech for everyone) being successfully delivered seems lower than ever — you only need to look at what happened to Reddit, The Big Promise Of The Internet’s latest champion, over the last few months.

4chan may be seriously fucked up in many ways, but it just might be only thing keeping the Internet…well, Internet-y.]

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