What is 4chan?

4CHAN

According to their website, 4chan is an image-based bulletin board where anyone can post comments and share images. 

When nude photos of actress Jennifer Lawrence and other female celebrities hit the Internet, one of the first places they surfaced was a message board site called 4chan. It's a complicated place: a home for snark, nastiness — and, in recent years, political activism. The Occupy movement owes a debt to 4chan. And if you've ever shared one of these LOLcat photos, so do you.

The site was created in 2003 as a forum where people could discuss various interests, like Japanese comics, each within its own discussion board. Soon, for topics that didn't fit elsewhere, another board emerged: /b/.

"People always said, ‘If it’s too off-point, or it’s too crude, or just too much for the rest of the site, take it to /b/,'" says filmmaker Brian Knappenberger, who has made documentaries about the political activism that eventually grew out of /b/, including "We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists."  

The /b/ board remains an anything-goes environment, and is not remotely safe for viewing at work. Knappenberger calls it "extreme free speech."

"There’s a lot of awful stuff on there," he says. "I would highly recommend no one going to /b/ at all.  And, of course, once I say that, everyone will want to go to /b/."   

One thing that allows 4chan to be so anarchic is that everyone posting there is anonymous.

"There’s no real community to 4chan," says Austin Wilson, an engineer from North Carolina who says he's an occasional user. "There’s just a bunch of different people who go to this website, and they don’t really know who any of the other people are."

There are things that grew out of /b/, some of which filtered out into the rest of the world. One was LOLcats.

Another was the political group that calls itself Anonymous, which is known for shutting down corporate and government sites, often to protest privacy breaches. The group adopted the Guy Fawkes mask for public protests, which went on to influence the Occupy movement.

Gabriella Coleman, an anthropology professor at McGill University, studies 4chan and Anonymous. Her book "Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy" will be published in November. She calls 4chan "the id of the Internet," and says it is full of contradictions.

"On the one hand, there is this value placed on privacy and shielding the self," she says. "But on the other hand, 4chan is an epicenter of violating people’s privacy by exposing people’s photographs."


Where business and 4chan overlap

Even if you've never visited 4chan or its notorious and popular /b/ image board, you've likely encountered their work elsewhere online, on your television, or even on the trading floor. Here are five of 4chan's biggest businesslike accomplishments, for better or worse:

They revived a pop star's career

The bait and switch is a classic internet prank, but it was perfected when folks began deploying Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" in the place of an "amazing video!" or "'Lost' spoilers!" and so on. "Rickrolling," as it's now called, was pioneered on 4chan in 2007 and quickly hit the mainstream. Astley enjoyed a career bump — probably because the song isn't half bad — even participating in a live Rickroll by interrupting the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. When 4chan founder moot (real name: Chrisopher Poole) made the "Time" 100 in 2009, Astley did the write-up.

They locked down at least one high school

Several 4chan users have seen criminal charges after threatening bombings or shooting sprees on the site. One post threatening a massacre shut down a Washington high school before investigators tracked the source to Sweden. Hoax shooting threats have also been traced back to 4chan users in Michigan and Australia.

A Wisconsin man was sentenced to six months in prison for threatening to detonate nuclear bombs at several NFL stadiums. The man's lawyer reportedly argued for leniency, saying of 4chan: "There's this odd community of people who go on this website. He's the poster boy of what can go wrong."

They (indirectly) created a profitable blog network and TV show

LOLcat is one of the best-known internet memes and maybe the quintessential one. The phenomenon was born on 4chan through a weekly ritual called "Caturday," but it had more legs than a typical image macro, spawning a successful blog network called Cheezburger and even a short-lived Bravo reality show following their employees.

Further, LOLcat's success cemented internet culture's fascination with cats and predicated the torrent of feline-related memes that have followed.

They tanked Apple's stock

Years before Steve Jobs' real death, someone used CNN's citizen journalism platform iReport to spread a rumor that the Apple founder had been rushed to the ER with heart problems. The hoax, which reportedly originated on 4chan, was enough to spook investors and Apple stock briefly dropped by 10 percent, even more than it would dip the day after Jobs' actual death in 2011.

They put hackers "on steroids"

We could dedicate a whole list to the exploits of Anonymous, the loose collective of hackers that was born on 4chan and dubbed in one early, alarmist news report as "hackers on steroids."

These days, they're generally considered activists, though their causes — like their membership and methods — are fluid. They've taken down many, many websites and published many, many people's personal information, including addresses and social security numbers, in various protests. Some Anonymous affiliates have also stolen government data and, most recently, fingered the wrong Missouri police officer in the shooting of Michael Brown.

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

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