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
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.
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:
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.
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:
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:
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: ...so how was your weekend
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.
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.
“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.
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:
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:
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%).”
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.
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.
“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:
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
The sites of A-culture fall into four loose categories:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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):
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 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.
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:
The techniques, while highly variable, are quite robust and serve to regulate both participants and content:
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.
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.
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:
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:
Another poster is dubious while also offering advice:
Others indict the critics as trolls for doubting the OP. This poster taxonomizes those participating in the thread:
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:
Another poster seeks to justify his enjoyment in spite of his suspicions:
And that ambivalence toward the reality of the situation leads to the final, most complicated economy.
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:
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:
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:
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?":
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.)
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:
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:
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”:
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:
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:
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.”