Anonymity as Culture: Treatise

by David Auerbach

Alienation, irony, autonomy, discourse. On 4chan and Internet masquerade.

“Anonymity as Culture” was produced by Triple Canopy as part of its Research Work project area, supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc. of Houston, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York Council for the Humanities.

BEFORE FACEBOOK AND TWITTER BECAME avenues for advertising ourselves and our careers, before Internet dating became not only acceptable but preferable to the alternatives, before so much of our social and professional lives came to be conducted on the Web, social spaces of a different kind existed online. They were populated by people who, for whatever reason, found a sense of belonging in communities built around semi-anonymous, real-time, written discourse. Some were computer hobbyists and professionals, some were recluses, some were anarchists; all of them found their local communities wanting and were willing to sacrifice face-to-face interaction for a world of mostly unformatted text on a black screen.

Today, the most ubiquitous online communities are social networks where our identities are mostly known and mostly persistent. Each tweet, each status update, is branded with a persistent name or affiliation. The loudest voices on Twitter are celebrities. For Twitter and Facebook, the connection of users’ accounts to their real identities is part of facilitating long-term connections between people (and therefore to Twitter and Facebook and their advertisers). Google’s recently unveiled social network, Google+, has followed Facebook in suspending accounts with suspected pseudonyms and demanding proof of identity.1

1 Facebook VP Elliot Schrage told the New York Times, “Facebook has always been based on a real-name culture. We fundamentally believe this leads to greater accountability and a safer and more trusted environment for people who use the service.” While Google+ has introduced restricted support for pseudonyms, Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, has described Google+ as an “identity service”: “But my general rule is people have a lot of free time and people on the Internet, there are people who do really really evil and wrong things on the Internet, and it would be useful if we had strong identity so we could weed them out. I’m not suggesting eliminating them, what I’m suggesting is if we knew their identity was accurate, we could rank them. Think of them like an identity rank.”

Yet for people who do not want to be known, do not want to be corralled into demographic groups, and do not want the hierarchy of prestige, other spaces persist. These are the sort of spaces that were the progenitors of social networks: newsgroups, chatrooms, online forums, and Internet Relay Chat channels. They offer a lack of accountability for what one says, a way to hide unappealing facts about oneself, and an instant escape hatch if things get unpleasant. They offer anonymity.

The growth of these anonymous spaces marks the first wide-scale collective gathering of those who are alienated, disaffected, voiceless, and just plain unsocialized. These are people whose tweets will not make the headlines. They do not wish to create a platform that enables them to be heard by the world; they want to shut out the world. Ironically, their popularity has exploded as part of the Web 2.0 boom, despite serving a fundamentally different purpose. The foundation of what I will call “A-culture,” as opposed to the culture of Facebook, Twitter, and other mainstream social-networking sites, is the intentional disconnect between one’s real life and one’s online persona (or, frequently, personae). Online forums and chatrooms are by nature inward-looking, and the lack of identity—much less celebrity—makes it difficult for the outside world to address them.

A-culture emerged only with the ubiquity of the Internet, though it had antecedents in hacker and geek circles of the 1980s and ’90s. Its members were generally young, many of them teenagers, many of them alienated from the cultural mainstream, adolescent or otherwise. But the growth of computer literacy and Internet accessibility increased diversity. The computer geeks of the ’90s are now middle-aged and have seen an influx of science-fiction and anime fans young and old, many of them women. Though frequently denigrated as homophobic, A-culture also possesses a significant queer voice.

By the mid-2000s, the locus for this sort of culture was the 4chan discussion boards, a massive gathering of self-declared misfits that today attracts more than ten million unique visitors each month and garners one million posts each day. Though 4chan was founded as a forum for discussing anime, it soon attracted geeks of all stripes, who charted their enthusiasms, argued, and trolled one another at an amazingly fast pace. The result was a generation of self-perpetuating memes such as Goatse, Boxxy, All Your Base Are Belong to Us, and LOLcats—the mythos of A-culture, constantly being created and documented. Though occasionally memes like LOLcats register in the popular consciousness, the role they play within A-culture is distinct: They serve to reify a shared and progressive sense of culture and belonging that trumps differences among individuals.

Not Wikipedia.

Many of the smaller, self-contained splinter groups that have sprung from the undifferentiated mass of online forums explicitly seek to document, celebrate, and perpetuate A-culture. The wiki Encyclopædia Dramatica, which began in 2004 (and in 2011 was taken down by its creator, only to be revived elsewhere), was meant to be a monument to the transient threads of 4chan and other boards. The Wikipedia-like site was full of profanity and slurs against any and all groups, and proudly distilled the most misanthropic and antisocial aspects of A-culture into concentrated shots of satiric hatred. The membership of Encyclopædia Dramatica were fiercely protective of its culture:

do you honesty think we went to ED for memes? ED was our history. the history of our internet, not those fags at facebook who play farmville. it was the greatest archive of our world outside of this bullshit world we have no control over. it was a place where we can go and read about shit that we find entertaining and sometimes informative in a fucked up way that we love. if you want memes go to KYM [KnowYourMeme], if you want what the internet really is go to ED.
—commenter “Gofuckyourself” on
   Geekosystem, talking about the then-
   dead Encyclopædia Dramatica, 2011

The political outgrowths of this movement have attracted the most attention: hacker collective Anonymous, anarcho-libertarian groups like LulzSec and Antisec. The loosely activist arm of A-culture made headlines with its 2008 attacks on the Church of Scientology, which had threatened to sue websites posting a leaked church promotional video starring Tom Cruise. Fiercely protective of the sovereignty of what they see as their domain, A-culture pranked and hacked the church repeatedly and ruthlessly. Additional political actions, ranging from campaigns in defense of WikiLeaks to hacking Syria’s Ministry of Defense website to messaging on behalf of Occupy Wall Street, have followed with the same loose orientation: semi-anarchist, anti-censorship, and anti-interference. (For more on Anonymous and the politicization of A-culture, see Gabriella Coleman’s “Our Weirdness Is Free,” also published in this issue of Triple Canopy.)

This activism, however various, is fundamentally in line with the self-willed autonomy of A-culture. The participants want to be—and, increasingly, are expressing an interest in nonparticipants’ being—left alone and allowed to thrive, and they want the principles of the culture they’ve created to be defended; anger at censorious forces, from Sony to the Syrian government, has led to increasing political mobilization, albeit often haphazardly.

Anonymous Scientology protest, 2008.

Here, though, I want to examine what underlies the politics and the memes: the rhetorical and philological characteristics of A-culture. The nature of social interactions taking place on message boards and online forums is different from any other form of communication, owing to the uniquely real-time, multiparticipant nature of the written discourse. The social-libertarian ethos and the surplus of obscenity are partly products of the medium, not just of the participants. Too little attention has been paid to this symbiotic evolution of A-culture and the new mediums of online communication it employs. There has never before been a space in which:

1. Discourse is primarily written rather than
2. Participants are mostly if not totally
3. Interactions are evanescent,
    disappearing within hours, or minutes.

These are not incidental features of A-culture. They are fundamental to the way in which the culture regulates itself and its members interact. And so rather than analyze the factors that lead people to choose to be anonymous, I want to ask what effect being anonymous has on interactions in these forums.

In 1991, anarchist writer Hakim Bey wrote of the “Temporary Autonomous Zone,” a space in which people would be freed from structures of social control. Based on the then-small worlds of computer bulletin-board systems and other hobbyist groups, Bey’s idea of the TAZ strikingly anticipates what A-culture has come to provide: a semi-autonomous safe space for people who otherwise are enmeshed in the majority culture. Bey wrote:

In the face of contemporary pecksniffian anaesthesia we'll erect a whole gallery of forebears, heros who carried on the struggle against bad consciousness but still knew how to party, a genial gene pool, a rare and difficult category to define, great minds not just for Truth but for the truth of pleasure, serious but not sober, whose sunny disposition makes them not sluggish but sharp, brilliant but not tormented. Imagine a Nietzsche with good digestion. Not the tepid Epicureans nor the bloated Sybarites. Sort of a spiritual hedonism, an actual Path of Pleasure, vision of a good life which is both noble and possible, rooted in a sense of the magnificent over-abundance of reality.

Yet while Bey may have anticipated the form of the spaces provided by A-culture, he was mistaken about the content. The realization of the TAZ is considerably less idyllic than Bey’s Dionysian paradise: Masquerade is an integral part of social interaction; suspicion, pranking, and unreality are pervasive; people join groups without revealing any more about themselves than they wish. A-culture has different rules.

From “Homosexuality: A Chatroom Debate (IRC),” in “Anonymity as Culture: Case Studies

woofertweeter: yeah i don't think gay people deserve to live either
woofertweeter: how was your weekend
DukePhillips: XD
Mastermind: lol...
DreamPolice: And what do you have against gays? You should be happy WE exist.
Mastermind: how is it gay for a girl to put a dildo into her anus
woofertweeter: that wasn't an invitation to talk about your sexual activity
DreamPolice: If I were straight, i'd see it this way.
woofertweeter: you're not, bro
Mastermind: homophobic person....
DreamPolice: If MEN... date OTHER MEN... that means... LESS MEN, are fighting for WOMEN.
woofertweeter: Yeah. That's bad.
woofertweeter: Competition is necessary.
Mastermind: lol
DannoWilliams: the homosexual is right
DreamPolice: I still don't understand why people have problems with gays.
Mastermind: lol i never claimed to support gay's i just got nothing agaisnt them aslong as they stay the f*ck away from me
DreamPolice: I'm glad a lot of my generation are open minded.
woofertweeter: yeah, from your standpoint, sure, there's nothing wrong with letting them be.
ultramint: ...wtfbbq?

What Is A-Culture?

“A” stands for many things:

Who participates in A-culture? Many already spend a great amount of time on computers: programmers, hackers, gamers, and other professionals or enthusiasts. Others seek the benefits of anonymity: the ability to antagonize, prank, and generally act out without facing the consequences, without those actions being attached to one’s real-life identity. Then there is a crucial third category, which perhaps drives A-culture more than computers or trolling. It is best summed up by the Japanese word otaku.

Stills from Otaku no Video, 1991.

Otaku was originally applied, with negative connotations, to people whose obsessive, fanlike interests in geeky things like video games, anime and manga, computers, comic books, science fiction—but really in anything, including sports, cars, bodybuilding, guns—are such that they become a distraction from “real life.” The term is associated with shut-ins, the unemployed, and, generally, losers:

Otaku come in many flavors, but one thing can be said for each and every one of them. They've each staked out their own favorite thing, and they obsess over it relentlessly. Regardless of other intelligence, an otaku will have an obsessive, unhealthy, and almost encyclopedic knowledge of their chosen topic.
—TV Tropes, 2012

In 1991, cult anime studio Gainax made the half-animated, half-documentary Otaku no Video, which featured a group of anime artists declaring themselves to be obsessive, socially inept fans of the genre, ironically validating the shame and pride of being an otaku. “Are we really that depressing? Are we really that weird?” one artist asks. “Is it a crime to love anime or SFX movies? Why should it be a reason to set us apart? If you're into playing tennis, that's just fine and dandy, but if you watch anime, you're weird? Why?! I quit! No more job-hunting for me! If otaku are going to be discriminated against, then so be it. I'm gonna become a total otaku! I'm gonna be not just an Otaku but the Otaku of otaku … Ota-king!”2

While the word otaku carries stigma, questions of “reclaiming” it are paradoxical, because with otaku stigma and pride are inseparable. To be an otaku is to willfully identify as rejected and alienated. Otaku-like communities began when personal computers and modems first appeared on the consumer marketplace in the 1980s, but did not grow significantly until Internet access became widespread in the '90s. Large-scale precursors to A-culture sprang up: hacker boards like SlashDot and kuro5hin, and Usenet groups like alt.2600, populated not only by computer professionals but by amateurs, troublemakers, and freaks. A fast-moving discourse evolved, with people fighting viciously in flame wars over the slightest matters; pranking was a constant pastime. The more antisocial aspects of this behavior—willful, disingenuous provocation and malicious deceit—became known as trolling:

Are you familiar with fishing? Trolling is where you set your fishing lines in the water and then slowly go back and forth dragging the bait and hoping for a bite. Trolling on the Net is the same concept—someone baits a post and then waits for the bite on the line and then enjoys the ensuing fight.
—post by on
   wedding newsgroup, 1995, as quoted
   in Peter Kollock and Marc Smith,
   Communities in Cyberspace, 1999

2 Otaku no Video also sounds notes of sexual fetishism that would become extremely common in Gainax productions and anime genrally—such fetishism being an otaku approach to sexuality.
Otaku room, via rockshaman.
The Simpsonzu, by spacecoyote.

Beyond provocation, early trolling entailed tricks like gulling SlashDot users into clicking on a seemingly innocuous link that would in fact lead to a shock site like Goatse.3 SlashDot moderators took increasingly strident countermeasures to prevent such trolling, which were circumvented by even more complex tricks. The escalating fights and ridicule reinforced Godwin’s Law, coined by the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Mike Godwin in 1990: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1 (100%).”

3 This seminal shock site contains, in the words of Wikipedia, a picture of “a naked man stretching his anus with both hands, to approximately the width of his hand.”

Concurrently, sites like LiveJournal and deviantArt became gathering places for anime and science-fiction fans. On these sites, participants frequently used pseudonyms or otherwise veiled their identities, which allowed them to build reputations and personal linkages based solely around their online presence. DeviantArt focused on sharing fan artwork; LiveJournal differed from other blog communities in emphasizing social networking long before anywhere else did.4 But all of these sites were closely focused on interests rather than the personalities of users, which links them to otaku and has come to distinguish A-culture from mainstream social networks like Facebook. A-culture participants sublimate their social selves to transient groups based on their interests.

4 These fan communities involved more women than did the hacker communities. Fandom has, in fact, traditionally had a greater female presence than hacker culture. One common form of Star Trek fan fiction in the ’70s, the sexually explicit story pairing up Kirk and Spock, was frequently written by women. (This is an early example of what is now called “slash” fan fiction.) Female science-fiction fans such as Bjo Trimble and Dirce Archer were tremendously influential in their communities as long ago as the 1950s and ’60s.

As a result, A-culture provides an unparalleled space for registering the voices of a class of people who cannot be heard on the more prominent online channels. Historian Robert H. Wiebe writes, in Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy (1995), of the emergence of a “national class” at the turn of the twentieth century, the group of professional urbanites who held jobs that were more tied to the emerging national, rationalized society than to any local community: engineers, doctors, lawyers, professors, bankers, and the like. What remained was the “local class,” consisting of those members of the middle and upper classes who were more deeply tied by professional bonds to their communities: realtors, retailers, and other service providers who did not come to be a vocal part of the national conversation.5 For the most part, that local class is not visible on the Internet, having little presence in national media, traditional or otherwise. What A-culture has done, inadvertently, is establish the largest virtual congregation of members of the local class intermixing freely with members of the national class and foreigners. Rural high school dropouts and Harvard PhD students interact often without knowing one another’s background, and the uniformity of the discourse further eradicates such distinctions.

5 Wiebe stresses that the lower class was—and remains—excluded from local and national conversations.

Collective Stigma

“The information of most relevance in the study of stigmas has certain properties,” Erving Goffman wrote in Stigma (1963). “It is information about an individual. It is about his more or less abiding characteristics, as opposed to the moods, feelings, or intents that he might have at a particular moment.” Largely because of the medium of communication, the abiding characteristics of individuals are subdued in A-culture, which is not true of other Internet forums and social networks. Beyond a certain level of anonymity, lasting indicators of stigma cannot be attached.

The level of anonymity may vary between different A-culture locales, but what unifies them is the contingent nature of recognition. Consider three common levels of anonymity:

1. Persistent pseudonym anonymity: A
    user’s posts are persistently linked
    across time to a single pseudonymous
    moniker registered on a particular site.
2. Per-session anonymity: A user’s posts
    are verifiably linked across time to a
    single pseudonymous moniker within a
    single thread or chat on a particular site,
    but can change across threads, giving
    the moniker a lifetime of minutes.
3. Per-message anonymity: There is no
    verifiable way to identify a user even
    from one post to the next.

Even in the least anonymous case, the only thing known about a user is her pseudonym and what she has posted previously. This stands in stark contrast to Facebook, where real names are the norm, and even to Twitter, where a previously unknown participant can only gain visibility by either earning the trust of existing, known participants or by being “discovered.” Joke accounts are not the rule but the exception. (One example is @MayorEmanuel, a spoof of Rahm Emanuel that delivers profane updates like “Carl the Intern wrote two speeches for me, one for winning and one for a runoff. There's a lot more motherfucking profanity in the latter.”)

The bar to visibility in A-culture is vastly lower—frequently nonexistent—and so the requirements for identity are that much lower. The result is a greater collective mentality. The more people have to distinguish themselves to acquire a reputation, as on Twitter, the less reason the louder voices have to identify with the hoi polloi. Remove that path to prestige, as well as hard prestige measures like number of followers, and the collective, agglutinative character of a social space increases. While A-culture includes plenty of people who know one another offline, the dominant and more distinctive phenomena are consequences of the disconnect between online personae and their real-life equivalents. Even close-knit groups within A-culture tend to remain diffusely anonymous to outsiders, making it difficult to know who has contributed any particular piece of content. Oftentimes nothing more than a pseudonym links people who have interacted online for years. The offline world is to be minimized, not invoked.

Even when participants partially abandon anonymity by revealing themselves visually in video or pictures, or by talking about their lives, there is frequently no lasting thread to connect this momentary revelation with future participation. Thus the individual stigma that someone might feel is replaced by a collective stigma belonging to the entirety of A-culture, as sites like 4chan are branded cesspools of hate and obscenity—to the delight of many of their participants.

4chan, created in 2003 by the then-fifteen-year-old admin known as moot—he still runs the site, and has since revealed himself to be Chris Poole—in some ways represents the apotheosis of this mind-set, as the allowance for near-total anonymity (per-message anonymity) and lack of user registration enables participants to post quickly with few impediments. The emphasis on posting images allows people to create their own variations on content; these variations can easily be exported, repeated, and cited, causing the number of cultural referents to balloon in a very short time. (This mode of participation, as well as the general adulation of bad taste, can be traced to the more regulated forums of website Something Awful.) Auxiliary sites like Encyclopædia Dramatica were established to document the obsessions of participants, the memes they created, and also the members unfortunate enough to gain some notoriety within the community. As if to underscore the self-declared virtues of anonymity, any reputation achieved by a member, even under a pseudonym, is almost invariably negative, though a very small senior subset of the community such as moot himself are treated as guardian angels, and the abuse heaped on them is tinted with respect.6

6 Contrariwise, alienating, provoking, or merely irritating the community can result in a member’s being deanonymized and “doxed” by having their personal information published: A-culture’s form of ostracism.

The sites of A-culture fall into four loose categories:

1. Precursors: BBSes, kuro5hin, SlashDot,
    Usenet, Fark, Stile Project
2. Messageboards, forums, chatrooms:
    4chan (and countless spinoffs),
    Something Awful, Internet Relay Chat
    (including EFNet and Anonymous),
    massively multiplayer online role-
    playing games (World of Warcraft
    in particular), GaiaOnline
3. Social-network blogs: LiveJournal (and
    derivatives like Dreamwidth and
    InsaneJournal), deviantArt
4. Wikis and documentation:
    Encyclopædia Dramatica, LurkMore,
    TV Tropes, Urban Dictionary

Innumerable other sites have sprung up (and often died) that cater to particular subcommunities (420chan, WikiFur) or just imitate existing sites (DeadJournal, 7chan).

Today, A-culture offers a place for obsessive discussion of many otaku-like interests. Some of the most prominent are anime, video games, bodybuilding, guns, sports, science fiction, comic books, cosplay (costuming oneself as an anime, science-fiction, or other character), furries (dressing up as and/or fetishizing furry anthropomorphic animals), and trolling. (Trolling makes up only a fraction of the activity that occurs on even the most troll-centric forums.) More significantly, A-culture offers a place for discussion of A-culture. Because the community is so autonomous from the real world, there is great opportunity to continually redefine one’s role in it and even redefine the nature of the community itself. A-culture is a space for playing with unrestricted notions of identity and affiliation and for the establishment of a private set of in-jokes and references that come to constitute a collective memory.

While A-culture has always had a largely adolescent, white, and male population, the demographics are not so homogenous. 4chan reports that 35 percent of its members are female; half the visitors are from the United States, with the rest being chiefly drawn from other English-speaking countries, European countries, and Japan. The most dominant sites all use English, but Chilean and Brazilian users have also created 4chan-like image boards in Spanish and Portuguese. Racial data is harder to obtain; a majority of known A-culture figures are white, but posters identifying as Asian, black, and Hispanic are not uncommon. A-culture has the flexibility to absorb people of vastly disparate backgrounds without those backgrounds causing conflict—or even being apparent:

dude I'm black, and I am straight, but none the less I think they didn't care who it offended. I doubt anyone who wrote those articles seriously hold those opinions even some of the same authors talked crap about racist and xenophobic people in general. A lot of different people liked it. It is funny you are assuming he is white. It brings back the meme "there are no black people on the internet" I bet was started by a black person btw :P But you assumed everyone on here is white which you think is somehow the default. If anything I will accuse you of white privilege.
—commenter “none” on Geekosystem,
   defending Encyclopædia Dramatica,

And though anonymity does not play directly into the majority of the discussions on forums associated with A-culture, it is responsible—along with the written nature of the discourse—for the characteristics that have emerged from those sites, four of which follow.

The hierarchy of 4chan, via

Four Aspects


At its peak, discussion proceeds at such a fast pace that the ground disappears beneath the participants’ feet as they are typing. Updates are delivered every few seconds. Hundreds of people can participate in a single thread or chat, and digressions are wiped off the front page by whatever conversation is trending. On 4chan, threads can expire within minutes or hours, at which point they are deleted. (Notable threads are occasionally archived on another site.) Other boards move more slowly, but the idea remains the same: Discourse and culture are evolving every moment. The velocity, in tandem with the volume, of discourse, means that no participant’s words will be seen more than momentarily, and so each participant must continually reassert herself, which contributes to the fluid sense of identity.


Any point of discussion made can be immediately ironized, either through ridicule, parody, or metatextual maneuvers. Participants are acutely aware of the characteristics of the culture and make reference to them as—or even before—they come into being. The irony of A-culture is different from blasé hipster irony because it is a structural fixture, independent of sincerity. It is not a tool of condescension, but a consequence of an overload of self-knowledge and cultural knowledge.


A-culture documents itself in temporary and more persistent forms, incessantly creating common knowledge to ironize. The nature of the discourse is such that anything can be archived, even if much is not. Self-mythologizing occurs at high velocity, with memes being created, parodied, and dismissed. This material is taken seriously because it forms the groundwork for future discussion.

The combination of self-documentation and irony has led to chaotic levels of metatextuality. One peak of self-referential meta-irony is reached in ForumWarz, an online single-player game in which one encounters parodies of various A-culture forums. One can play as Internet archetypes such as hackers, trolls, camwhores,7 and emo kids.8 The game itself contains a fictional ForumWarz server to be hacked, while the site’s real forums, where players can interact outside the game, include a set of role-playing forums in which participants are expected to act out the behaviors of their assumed identities. As many players already fall into one of these categories, the game offers the chance for participants to play archetypal versions of themselves and their brethren.

7 Camwhore: “an individual who performs sexual services on the Internet with webcam software in exchange for money, goods, or attention” (Wikipedia).
8 “Emo has been associated with a stereotype that includes being particularly emotional, sensitive, shy, introverted, or angst-ridden. It has also been associated with depression, self-injury, and suicide” (Wikipedia).


Ironically, the anonymous nature of A-culture produces a very pure form of elitism. Because participants are shielded from having their real-life qualities associated with their personae and words, frequently the only defining characteristics of participants are their memberships in these forums. This instantly provides a point of commonality among all participants by which they can define themselves in opposition to all nonparticipants, or some chosen subset of them.

In Sum: Meta-awareness

The following quote, from an academic paper on 4chan, illuminates the interaction of the four qualities, with elitism, velocity, and irony driving constant self-documentation (/b/ is 4chan’s “random” image board, and its most popular):

On /b/, ephemerality and deletion create a powerful selection mechanic by requiring content the community wants to see be repeatedly reposted, and potentially remixed. We believe this is critical to the site’s influence on internet culture and memes.
—Michael S. Bernstein et al., “4chan and
   /b/,” 2011

Self-documentation, catalyzed by the other three qualities, produces a kind of meta-awareness in which a poster is assumed not only to have intimate knowledge of the culture in which she is participating but also to anticipate responses based on that history:

What makes memories hang together is not that they are contiguous in time: it is rather that they are part of a totality of thoughts common to a group, the group of people with whom we have a relation at this moment, or with whom we have had a relation on the preceding day or days. To recall them it is hence sufficient that we place ourselves in the perspective of this group, that we adopt its interests and follow the slant of its reflections.
—Maurice Halbwachs, The Social
   Frameworks of Memory
, 1925

What occurs in A-culture is a minimization of memories particular to the individual or subgroup and a maximization of the larger collective memory, thus enabling and encouraging the meta-awareness of that collective memory. This meta-awareness fuels the three main economies of A-culture.

An apropos xkcd comic.

Elitist Economies

A-culture’s techniques of elitism, exclusion, and inclusion do not greatly differ in character and quality from those of other exclusive groups such as fraternities and secret societies. But due to the diffuse and open nature of participation, as well as the non-oral nature of interactions, the particular methods and mechanisms of A-culture are wildly at odds with most typical hazing and membership rituals of cliques:

wondermint: Ruining the lives of noobs makes me a troll.
keynsham: noobs are too easy to troll, it doesn't count
—trolling as status indicator, IRC, 2011

The techniques, while highly variable, are quite robust and serve to regulate both participants and content:

Dante: dude, i hate religion
ROFLCopter: We all do.
JON50K: yes, religion is crap
JON50K: we need a fucking big nuthouse
Moses: Yeah, bunch of bullshit
Thersites: yeah
JON50K: to put them all away
ROFLCopter: I believe in a flying spagetti monster.
LeSonyrRa: like... a concentration camp?
JON50K: but that'd probably turn into the next israel, ocne they're done killing each other
JON50K: lesonyrra: nah if we put them all in the same one
JON50K: they'll just clean each other up for us
—elitism on display, IRC, 2011

The Economy of Offense

Anyone entering into an A-culture forum is likely to witness a nonstop barrage of obscenity, abuse, hostility, and epithets related to race, gender, and sexuality (“fag” being the most common, often prefaced with any trait, e.g., “oldfag,” “straightfag”).9 Anyone objecting to this barrage will immediately attract a torrent of even greater abuse. These forums maintain an equilibrium of offense designed to drive away anyone who is not sympathetic to the general libertarian mind-set. This is not to say that the participants are not racist; the point is that there’s no way to know the views of the participants, even more given the self-referential irony in constant play. A-culture is hardly a utopia of free speech, but neither is it a fulcrum of hate speech. Yet the barrage inoculates against sincere, extreme hatred by making it harder for genuinely virulent views to stand out, homogenizing the group.

9 Even comparatively polite venues such as deviantArt host a remarkable amount of contention and baiting, sometimes made all the worse by participants taking offense more easily.

The result is a mix of pride and shame in regards to the offensive material. A-culture echoes H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos stories, in which exposure to some secret, Gnostic knowledge forever pollutes one’s mind, leaving one vulnerable to terrible forces that to most people are imaginary and harmless. The danger attached to this knowledge gives it currency.

A Lovecraftian/Gnostic comment on Goatse.

The Economy of Suspicion

While participants come to forums with no real-world baggage, conversations can’t remain hermetically sealed. In the case of discussions of pop culture or other common knowledge, the tension is less meaningful, since the matters are independently verifiable. But when the issue is the limited revelation of personal information, there is always reason to suspect that the poster is trolling—especially when a story is in the making.

The degree of suspicion varies. Within 4chan, the /b/ board is far more likely to be given over to trolling and fraud than other boards. But since the possibility always exists, there is a persistent need to take nothing at face value.

Consider this 4chan thread, in which the original poster (OP) confesses to having a drunken bout of sex with his sister:

awwshit !!7M/e4Locp No.4962356

She got dumped today and came home a mess, crying, hysterics, the whole she-bang, I was sitting on my sofa flicking through the channels and waiting for the A-Team to download when she came in crying, she came into the livingroom, pulled out 2 bottles of jack daniels and a 2L bottle of coke from a grocery bag, muttered something about the shop being kind enough to refund her the champagne she bought, went into the kitchen, got some glasses, poured herself a straight double, downed it, then sat in silence for a moment, then burst into tears and fell into my lap.

So, she cries and cries, making my shirt soggier and soggier with her tears and bleeding mascara, I stick the A-Team on and she finally settles down, then she had a bright fucking idea, "Adam! lets go shot for shot, I wanna forget about today as fast as possible", great idea right? great...

Regarding 4chan's /b/.

So we go at it until the first bottle was dust, then we slow it down and start adding coke, and we get to talking, i was going to write out the whole conversation but fuck it, we talked she complimented me on being a "good man", I said she deserved better, she drunkenly, jokingly came onto me, I tried to back off, we left it alone for a while and continued drinking, then she started joking about it, and it came down to "If you wasn't my brother, I would"

"Well lets say today, you can pretend I'm not, you don't have the guts"

Then she jumped me, grinded, started stripping, I got turned on, then she tore down my jeans and rid me on the sofa.

on the screen BA's face was that of disappointment, he knew I would regret this.

we fucked on the sofa, then she took me into her bedroom, and fucked me again, and we fell asleep, her naked ontop of me, with her arms wrapped around me, I only just managed to escape without waking her up.

now im shitting myself because I fear what will happen when she does wake up.

gentlemen, advise me, what the fuck should I do now!?

The prurience and the unlikelihood of the incident are draws. Some take it seriously, some half-seriously, and some dispute the truth of the story while still trying to help it along. One poster’s assessment:

Theme - 2/10 (unoriginal)
Writing - 4/10 (poor)
Trolling Effort - 2/10 (very poor)
Trolling Effect - 8/10 (very good)
Total - 4/10 (40%)

This is a good troll. Note that this post, while demonstrating the appropriate sentiments of a man in his situation leaves the door open for an ongoing story. Also note the rushed feel to the words, as though it were a train of thought rather than a calculated reply. The use of commas rather than full stops enhances this. Through these techniques he draws in the reader, ensnaring them in this twisted fantasy. I will admit, I am left wanting to read more, despite the knowledge that this is fictitious.

I want to believe and not believe. Let's hope that if this isn't fictional you and you sis can still chill out. I'd say this might be a good time to start dating other chicks to forget this asap.

Another poster is dubious while also offering advice:

Trolling 101.

She'll be hung over, act like it never happened and try to make her think it was a bad dream.

Also, unsuccessful troll is unsuccessful. Learn to be less obvious.

Others indict the critics as trolls for doubting the OP. This poster taxonomizes those participating in the thread:

psuedo intellectuals flood to this thread trying to point out that it's a clever troll.
/b/ tards screaming "FUCK HER AGAIN LOL!"completely ignore OP and the fact that he's asking for good advice, not opinions OP is probably a scared and lonely young man turning to the only people he can ask for help in his final hour, and only a hand full of people give him legitimate, well thought out advice.

who is really the troll?

But such critics might be trolling as well.

A more innocuous but similarly unlikely story plays out when a femanon (anonymous female poster) confesses to having a crush on her coworker, who then shows up on the same forum and confronts her. Much suspicion ensues. One poster carefully analyzes the evidence:

The timing looks about right on all of these. If you go through and check the timestamps on Marie and Grant's posts, see how long it takes them to post again or reply to what the other one said, consider how long they are, etc. they are pretty consistent with an actual conversation. Too often, I've seen threads like this with the replies shot out one after the other, with no time for the players (samefagging OP) to read what the other wrote, think about how to respond, fret over what they wrote, that sort of thing, and it gives away that it's the same person. I mean, look at these two:

>>6372459 2:54, sends facebook message
>>6373041 3:52, gives up waiting and posts explanation

I read that as he decided to wait an hour, started writing that long thing after a decent amount of time had passed, and cut off the last few minutes of the hour because it became obvious she wasn't gonna show.

I'm not saying definitively that it's not a troll, I'm just saying that the probability that it's not is higher than some people seem to be implying, and it's a pretty good one if it is.

Another poster seeks to justify his enjoyment in spite of his suspicions:

it's obvious fiction but 4chan eats this shit up

i mean, it's like movies/books/pro wrestling, even if you know it's fake doesn't mean it can't be entertaining

And that ambivalence toward the reality of the situation leads to the final, most complicated economy.

The Economy of Unreality

The separation of participants from their real-life personae—along with the constant irony, sarcasm, and trolling—mandates that some aspect of unreality be present in all proceedings. But the chief engine of unreality is role-playing and the sense of gamesmanship by which participants exert control over their A-culture personae.

A-culture’s anonymity favors three cultures that are defined in part by masquerade: those of fandom, trolling/pranking, and role-playing games. The cultures of science-fiction and anime/manga fandom emphasize fan fiction and cosplay; furries have made the assumption of anthropomorphic animal personae central to their culture. Masquerade is, of course, central to role-playing games online and offline, from Dungeons & Dragons to World of Warcraft to LARP (live-action role playing, as practiced by the Society for Creative Anachronism and others). The masquerade demands that participants take on roles as actors or witnesses, and it requires that the focus not be on the identities of the enthusiasts themselves. Consequently, the links between the personae of participants and their real lives are far looser than pretty much anywhere else on the Internet. (Women have good reason to keep their identities secret, lest they be doxed, i.e., have their location and identity revealed by gangs of trolls.)

A-culture contains far fewer collateral indicators of “everyday reality” than one finds on Twitter or Facebook. There are mentions of it everywhere, but context is virtually absent. Anyone asking for advice on a forum will post only select details, leaving little background knowledge with which to fill in the blanks; this is assuming that the poster isn’t trolling, which is often trivially easy, precisely for this reason.

Beyond breeding suspicion, these pervasive gaps in information and this focus on masquerade produce a general sense of unreality: Effects are detached from causes, the distinctions between fiction and truth are blurred. And so participants often take on the role of spectators or commentators, treating all happenings as theater:

All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Imageboards are the best example of this. Just sit back and enjoy the show.
—anonymous poster, 4chan, 2011

The extensive TV Tropes wiki began by documenting archetypes and clichés in television and fan fiction but has since extended to other media, online culture, and real life. It distinguishes between these categories, but since they share an overriding ontological structure, there is increasing pressure to relate to and analyze one category just as one would relate to and analyze others:

The wiki is called "TV Tropes" because TV is where we started. Over the course of a few years, our scope has crept out to include other media. Tropes transcend television. They reflect life. Since a lot of art, especially the popular arts, does its best to reflect life, tropes are likely to show up everywhere.

We are not a stuffy encyclopedic wiki [like Wikipedia]. We're a buttload more informal. We encourage breezy language and original thought. There Is No Such Thing As Notability, and no citations are needed.
—TV Tropes homepage, 2012

Fiction and reality are merely different instantiations of the same thing. Spectators on a thread will often treat the action as a fiction. When a 4chan poster about to join the army shares a picture of himself, another relates him to a fictional character:

You look like Joker from Full Metal Jacket.
All in all, I think he had a good war experience and that bodes well for you.

The appeal to fakery and unreality can even be a defense mechanism when confronted with a particularly troublesome post. Consider some of the responses on 4chan to a purported teenager who confesses to raping a friend, in a thread called "I'm a rapist, what do?":

a friend calls in the middle of the night
she's scared of her creepy neighbor
her bf is on vacation in Germany or something
I pass by
I go and talk to the neighbor, he's crazy but harmless
suddenly I'm a knight in shining armor

till that point all is good

I want to leave but the fucking subway is closed
she offers me to stay
okay nice, we watch a movie
she clings on my hard cause she's scared of zombies
she's in her sexy pajamas
being the dumbass I am, I misread ther signals
I make a move
ie jump on her and crunch her under my weight. I'm not very good at it
she's too surprised to react
finally she tries to push me away
my brain is off, I keep going
I take her pants off and penetrate her
it lasts for I think 10 minutes maybe less
a few seconds after I ejaculate, the truth hits me
I just raped her

she's in shock, doesn't say a word
I babble and leave, I walk on the streets and call a cab
it's now the morning, I freak out and asks for advice here

I don't know what I should do. I ruined her life and probablu mine too. Pic related, where I'll be soon.

The thing is, I tried to control myself for the longest time, like an hour or so. I had a crush on her since forever. She was half naked, against me, her head on my chest at every SHOCK moment. I was in maximum erection mode. And eventually I just lost it and jumped on her like a stupid horny dog.

So should I text her then go to the police? And what should I say? Rape, sexual assault? I picture my mother's reaction to this.. oh jesus fucking christ..

Some advised him to turn himself in, others told him to apologize, others just trolled, and others retreated into reacting as they would to a television drama. (Multiple anonymous posters are here indicated by alternating roman and italic type.)

Yeah you misread the whole situation dude, you are a guy she trusted, someone she felt safe around. You betrayed that trust, and her with what you did. That said, don't say anything to the cops if they come, they will try to get you to incriminate yourself. They will lock you in a room for hours to "interview" you (interview is just the politically correct way of saying interrogate). Don't go anywhere with them unless they have a warrant, etc. You dun goofed OP and you probably won't ever be able to repair your relationship with her ever again, I personally hope you rot in prison, but your rights to a fair trial are important so.

I don't know what to think anymore OP. And I love it, this is just like Law & Order. Did you save her from the creepy guy, or did you abuse her? Are you a hero or a villain? Did you rape her.. or did SHE raped YOU?

I hold my girlfriend down when we're having sex too. Although I am not rejecting that OP most likely raped her. It is unfortunate though, I actually feel sorry for OP and that's the first time that has happened to me on this website

same here I actually feel for him and I'm a girl
he got me at "oh god what will my mother think of me now"

I sincerely hope OP is trolling, if not, this is all terribly depressing.

All participants in A-culture must deal with the conflicted coexistence of sincere personal involvement and detached spectatorship. What may seem to be a problem is also a panacea, as it shelters participants from inextricable involvement—or at least guilt—though it also means that narratives are never fully developed, nor are the personae who are the protagonists and narrators of the stories. Participants fill this void with their own pieces of reality and fiction, but it is never enough to turn the events that transpire on-screen into reality. Hence the strange mixture of emotional investment and detachment on the part of participants in the above conversation—and on the part of the original poster narrating his life. Yet in making their own contributions to that world (however unreal), participants establish ownership; the world becomes their own because it is distinct and detached from the real one.

In this case, the original poster’s invocation of a serious moral issue causes two reactions. First: This is too real/sad/horrible and must be made less real. Second: This isn’t actually real. The original poster, if he is to be believed, ends up following the advice of some of the posters. He later returns to say that he has spoken to the girl and apologized, and that she is not going to turn him in to the police. He exits on this final, uneasy note, perhaps his own attempt to dictate the moral of the story:

By the way I do not endorse rape, it’s not cool, I’m not bragging at all.

The Rantings of a
4chan Hipster

i want to scream. I hate everything that my corner of life is being exploited, and mass produced, and torn apart so fucking hip faggots and teenagers can suddenly say something like ‘im behind seven proxies’ and [k]now what the fuck that means.

This Facebook comment bemoaning the appropriation of A-culture by the mainstream was reposted on Reddit last October as “the rantings of what i call a 4chan hipster.” The worries of the “hipster” are unfounded, though, as A-culture is specifically designed to resist this sort of appropriation. No matter how much A-culture memes permeate sanitized websites like knowyourmeme and OhInternet (which displaced Encyclopædia Dramatica last year), and no matter the constant stream of respondents bemoaning the good old days (a necessary component of any avoidance of appropriation), A-culture resists absorption precisely through its economies of ironizing and offense, and because of the persistence of anonymity.

“4chan is already designed to deal with these issues,” wrote Reddit user ineedbeta:

By being anonymous, they not only remove ego from the users (which might be why they’re such dicks to everyone else) it also combines the power of every member into one force, which we've seen them use to great effect. I like the way you described them as self-exiled. That’s exactly what they wanted. By making it difficult and uncomfortable to become one of them, they keep their numbers low and they give value to membership. So, all that strange and alienating content becomes a wall that the users can take shelter behind.

Yet the maintenance of that wall remains an appealing form of self-creation, and so it will endure. A-culture is the first heavily populated social space in which traditional relations between the individual and the group are overturned. Georg Simmel describes this dynamic in his 1908 essay “Group Expansion and Development of Individuality”:

There is an unalterable ratio between individual and social factors that changes only its form. The narrower the circle to which we commit ourselves, the less freedom of individuality we possess; however, this narrower circle is itself something individual, and it cuts itself off sharply from all other circles precisely because it is small. Correspondingly, if the circle in which we are active and in which our interests hold sway enlarges, there is more room for it in the development of our individuality; but as parts of the whole, we have less uniqueness: the larger whole is less individual as a social group. Thus, the leveling of individual differences corresponds not only to the relative smallness and narrowness of the collectivity, but also—or above all—to its own individualistic coloring.

The changes in communication enabled by the Internet have created a situation in which the force of anonymity, combined with the inability to assert one’s own particularity, facilitate the leveling of individual differences even in a large collective.10 The result has been the establishment of an immensely large playground. In Homo Ludens (1938), Johan Huizinga bemoaned the loss of cultural spaces explicitly devoted to unserious, disinterested recreational activities such as potlatches, Eskimo drumming contests, and contests of rhetorical and athletic ability; the stratifying effects of industrialization and liberalism removed both the capacity and the impetus for the existence of a unifying cultural locale for competitive and agonistic play. He described three main characteristics of play:

10 Fan conventions for Star Trek and the like, which are defined in part by group masquerade with a common cultural referent, provide the best antecedent.

Here, then, we have the first main characteristic of play: that it is free, is in fact freedom. A second characteristic is closely connected with this, namely, that play is not “ordinary” or “real” life. It is rather a stepping out of “real” life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own. Every child knows perfectly well that he is “only pretending,” or that it was “only for fun.”

Not being “ordinary” life it stands outside the immediate satisfaction of wants and appetites; indeed it interrupts the appetitive process. It interpolates itself as a temporary activity satisfying in itself and ending there. Such at least is the way in which play presents itself to us in the first instance: as an intermezzo, an interlude in our daily lives.

Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration. This is the third main characteristic of play: its secludedness, its limitedness. It is “played out” within certain limits of time and place. It contains its own course and meaning.

The anonymity of A-culture has unexpectedly provided the conditions for a reestablishment of what Huizinga thought had disappeared by the nineteenth century, with its increasingly bourgeois, professionalized, and industrialized cultures. With those elements of individual identity that might be divisive and might reference the positions and responsibilities of “real” life obscured, freedom is reestablished. What looks like anarchy from the outside is rarely actually anarchic; it is play, carefully regimented and circumscribed.

For the most part, A-culture does not consume its participants’ lives. As a form of play, it requires “reality” as a complement to each participant’s online masque—hence the stigma of the otaku, for whom the life of play is realer than their real lives. A-culture derives its vitality from the otaku-like commitment its members bring to the masque, affirming its importance to them over their real lives. Yet real life remains A-culture’s necessary complement.

Though A-culture overlaps with the political activities of Anonymous and Occupy Wall Street, those groups, in their partial or total earnestness, lack the former’s recreational spirit, and consequently factionalism can more easily prove terminal to them. A-culture’s seclusion facilitates homogeneity, and thus the persistence and autonomy of the space of play, which is A-culture’s only operational goal.

Despite the general lack of seriousness, there is sincere commitment to the play space itself: to Encyclopædia Dramatica, to 4chan, and so on. To quote Huizinga again:

This “only pretending” quality of play betrays a consciousness of the inferiority of play compared with “seriousness,” a feeling that seems to be something as primary as play itself. Nevertheless, as we have already pointed out, the consciousness of play being “only a pretend” does not by any means prevent it from proceeding with the utmost seriousness, with an absorption, a devotion that passes into rapture and, temporarily at least, completely abolishes that troublesome “only” feeling. Any game can at any time wholly run away with the players. The contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid.

Huizinga’s description may seem more sanguine than it actually is when applied to A-culture. In the case studies that form the second part of this article, I focus on the frisson and friction that occur when A-culture’s spirit spills over into the realm of the serious. In these four instances—revolving around real and personal concerns about homosexuality, suicide, hate, and the manufacturing of pornography—there is solidarity, bonhomie, and sympathy but also fear, xenophobia, and, frequently, callous disregard for people outside the circle of play. The fluidity and unreality of the ever-growing space of A-culture are so enveloping that harmful, even dangerous forms of “play” can emerge and run rampant before any self-regulatory principle can kick in. It’s all fun and games until someone commissions a Brazilian scat-porn video.

Continue to “Anonymity as Culture: Case Studies.”