[Analysis] Internet Cultures

2018/06/11

Introduction

Optimism and Naivety

The general computer was the most influential invention of the 20th century by a long shot. The world inhabited by people in the 21st century would be completely unrecognizable to those who came before. More important than the computer itself was the creation of the Internet, a vast and amorphous collection of servers and clients which would make up a new abtract space referred to as "cyberspace". Easily the most optimistic outlook by the early pioneers of cyberspace is "A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace" written in 1996 by John Perry Barlow. It opens with a very clear summary statement:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

John Barlow, an incredibly influential cyberlibertarian, showed unbridled optimism at the future of the Internet, rejecting any concept of "meatspace" politicians exercising control over what he saw as a pure realm free of prejudice or archaic legal principles. He would go on to be a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, one of the most important groups for the protection of civil liberties on the Internet. (I have donated money to the EFF in the past.)

Unfortunately, Barlow's optimism seems excessive in retrospect. There is a reason why: cyberspace is not actually a meeting of pure minds, free from restraint. A later essay would explain why.

"Code Is Law"

On January 1, 2000, another influential Internet activist named Lawrence Lessig published an essay in Harvard Magazine named "Code Is Law: On Liberty in Cyberspace". Lessig would go on to create the non-profit organization Creative Commons and his ideas would fundamentally change the Internet's cultural landscape, especially with later concepts like Remix Culture.

"Code Is Law" will serve as the foundation for my later analysis of various Internet subcultures, so it will be worth a brief analysis of its ideas.

This regulator is code--the software and hardware that make cyberspace as it is. This code, or architecture, sets the terms on which life in cyberspace is experienced. It determines how easy it is to protect privacy, or how easy it is to censor speech. It determines whether access to information is general or whether information is zoned. It affects who sees what, or what is monitored. In a host of ways that one cannot begin to see unless one begins to understand the nature of this code, the code of cyberspace regulates.

In the essay, Lessig is commenting mostly on the way this code will change the nature of censorship on the Internet. He speaks at length about how the regulation of the internet in order to get rid of crimes, and the ability for people to snoop on others' data on the Internet, and the complex social value judgments that we as a society have to make in order to make the Internet the proper kind of cyberspace for us.

He ends by talking about one of the most important aspects of the "Code Is Law" idea, which is that an "unregulated" internet is actually impossible, in a similar criticism to how libertarians are sometimes criticized by an argument that tyranny by a corporation is just as possible as tyranny by a government.

Our choice is not between "regulation" and "no regulation." The code regulates. It implements values, or not. It enables freedoms, or disables them. It protects privacy, or promotes monitoring. People choose how the code does these things. People write the code. Thus the choice is not whether people will decide how cyberspace regulates. People--coders--will. The only choice is whether we collectively will have a role in their choice--and thus in determining how these values regulate--or whether collectively we will allow the coders to select our values for us.

For here's the obvious point: when government steps aside, it's not as if nothing takes its place. It's not as if private interests have no interests; as if private interests don't have ends that they will then pursue. To push the antigovernment button is not to teleport us to Eden. When the interests of government are gone, other interests take their place. Do we know what those interests are? And are we so certain they are anything better?

"The Medium is the Message"

Long before the Internet was even a thought, a Canadian intellectual named Marshall McLuhan made a deep impact on the field of media theory with the idea that "the medium is the message". I should say at the outset that I have theoretical/empirical problems with some of the influential thinkers of media theory, particularly Baudrillard, but that the general ideas have merit. I took some quick quotes from McLuhan's 1967 book "The Medium Is The Massage" (sic) from Wikiquote in lieu of a full explanation.

All media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage. Any understanding of social and cultural change is impossible without a knowledge of the way media work as environments. All media are extensions of some human faculty – psychic or physical.

and

Environments are invisible. Their groundrules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns elude easy perception.

It is worth mentioning that McLuhan's work in many ways predicts the existence and nature of the World Wide Web, which would not exist for decades after this book, and quite a few years after his death in 1980.

In the next section I will touch on how the structure of a few of the Internet's most influential websites influenced the cultures that erupted from them, and how this also changed the secondary effects those cultures could have on the rest of the Web. Even in this era of walled gardens, the Web still exists -- although the ways in which nodes on this web influence each other are frequently subversive.

Major Internet Cultures

phpbb era

Before the existence of major social media sites, most communities would spring up around some particular topic and remain relatively closed. Larger communities may exist of which each community is a piece -- the "furry" community is a canonical example of a decentralized Internet subculture, although it is a divisive topic to say the least. Many of these communities had a simple structure: they would have a website, typically a static html page administered by a webmaster who may also have been the person "in charge", and in order for community members to hang out, they would use Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a PHP bulletin board system, or both. IRC, as a real-time chat, serves a different purpose than a categorized and indexed forum, and some communities eschewed real-time group communication entirely (although Instant Messengers like AIM were common in this era, and personal friendships arose over those networks).

A typical phpbb board had a structured layout, with boards like:

Sometimes these boards were organized into categories or sub-boards. The complexity tended to grow as the user base grew.

These boards use a combination of usernames, visual avatars, consistent “signatures” under each post, post counts, titles, etc to maintain a complex reputation system. A user who is invested into the community, with hundreds or thousands of posts, is less likely to misbehave since he has invested a lot of time and energy into this personal identity. Admins and moderators were typically labeled as such, and the presence of one of them online tended to keep misbehavior in check. Rules could be strictly enforced, and some communities got a reputation for having strict moderators.

Some of these types of boards still exist. For example, the Bay 12 Games Forum which is mostly used for talking about Dwarf Fortress, and the Internet troll culture nexus KiwiFarms is still around to create drama to this day.

A brief side note to illustrate the kinds of people we may be talking about here. Margaret Pless wrote this for New York Magazine:

Consider that across the forums there are multiple warnings to members to conceal their identity. For KFers, anonymity isn’t a choice but a necessity — they know what they’re doing is probably illegal, and that their anonymity insulates them from any consequences. They know their “entertainment” harms vulnerable people, which is why some of them felt bad when that one target hanged herself. But, most important, they know that if their anonymity were compromised, their own community might eat them alive.

4chan

The website 4chan.org is the most famous example of an anonymous imageboard, but it wasn’t the first, and it isn’t the last. There were those that came before (2ch) and those that came after (8ch), but none had the same effect on Internet culture as 4chan. 4chan’s b board, “Random”, used to be one of the most anarchic places on the Internet, which turned it into a hotbed of cultural creativity – but mostly garbage. Memes repeated ad nauseum, troll threads spammed with nonsense, perfectly good conversations interrupted by someone spamming photos of graphic executions, etc were the norm on b.

An edgy and remorseless culture arose there, leading to incidents like The Great Habbo Raid of 2006, where “/b/tards” completely ruined the experience of Habbo users for the “lulz”. (Encyclopedia Dramatica will be used as a source for some of this article. Take its tone into consideration, as it is the same culture we are talking about, having diverged slightly in its own wiki medium. If you are easily offended, perhaps don’t click.) Another infamous incident was when /b/tards posthumously trolled a teenage boy who had committed suicide, leading to the “an hero” meme. Early 4chan, while malicious, had not yet morphed into the far-right troll culture we see today (although racism “for the lulz” was rampant), and they frequently raided right-wing political targets like the entertaining raids on Hal Turner, a radio conspiracy theorist (like a diet Alex Jones). Later, Anonymous would even launch a moral crusade against the Church of Scientology, leading to Project Chanology. Project Chanology was derided by many /b/tards as “moralfaggotry”, revealing the early ethical split in the community that would eventually lead to the creation of Anonymous as a hacktivist collective (leaning left-wing) and of the alt-right /pol/ users that would take center stage in Internet culture starting in 2015.

What could create such a virulent subculture? The answer is easy, and it has everything to do with the medium of the anonymous imageboard. 4chan (particularly b, the board with the most traffic) has a few features to its usage which drive things in this direction relentlessly.

All posts are completely anonymous. Posts are given the name “Anonymous” and a post number. Even in the same thread, it can be difficult to tell which posts are by the same person, although the >>reply system and typing/writing styles can keep the thread together. At times in 4chan’s history, and on certain boards, there was an option to add a “tripcode” to ones name, so that a name like Anonymous!Ep8pui8Vw2 would give someone a consistent name. Tripcodes were secure because it’s a one-way operation – given the tripcode output Ep8pui8Vw2, it is very difficult to determine what the input was to create that code. In some contexts, it was possible to change the name entirely. As can be expected on 4chan, these people were derided as “tripfags” and “namefags” respectively, encouraging the anonymity of the site as a part of its structure.

Only 100 threads may be active at any given time. On b, where a thread with no replies could slide off “page 10” (10 threads per page) within an hour, getting a rise out of the community was critical. As long as your thread continued to get activity, it would remain near the top of the board. In this regard it didn’t matter why the thread was popular. If the thread was well-recieved by the community, it would have a decent shelf life (eventually dying by force after a few hundred posts), but controversial threads would be even more successful. Once a “shitstorm” begins, it won’t end until the thread reaches its comment limit and dies. A particularly successful shitstorm might create followup threads, or even migrate to other *chans or to IRC channels, where it can rage for days (or morph into a raid or a successful meme). Controversy is more important than conformity, but both are successful strategies. 4chan creates a sort of hive mind, but a highly violent one.

Rules are only lightly enforced. Posts which violate US law, like the posting of illegal pornography, will be removed somewhat swiftly and the poster banned, but the general culture of 4chan is laissez faire. Users flaming each other in ways which would recieve a permanent ban on Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit is a common sight on 4chan. “OP is a faggot” is an extremely common refrain by users who think that a thread is stupid. The suffix “-fag” became a general noun – “oldfag”, “newfag”, “moralfag”, “tripfag”, “namefag”, etc – which generally has a negative connotation, but not always. Casual racism was unpunished and even rewarded by the culture of the board. Hitler memes (like the dancing Hitler gif) were popular on early b. In general, these posts weren’t serious and served the purpose only of infuriating those who weren’t “in the club”; this vitriol served as a shibboleth to discourage “newfags” and “normalfags” from staying on the site. Ominiously, this ethical desensitization would later contribute to the birth of pol as a right-wing cultural phenomenon.

Reddit

Reddit is now one of the most-trafficked sites on the Internet, and surely exerts a huge influence on Internet culture. The site generally trends towards a cosmopolitan sort of center-left ideology, but it has also been home to now-banned far-right communities in the past, and still houses a highly influential (but commonly-mocked) pro-Trump subreddit on r/The_Donald.

Reddit has a mixed opinion on anonymity. No attempt is made to tie a Reddit account with a personal identity, like on Facebook, and a user can create an account without even entering an email address, which is commonly used on other sites to at least slow people down from creating tons of new accounts. Reddit’s take on anonymous posting has effected its culture substantially, with users creating “throwaway” accounts before posting deeply personal or controversial content to the site. However, most users have a main account which is subject to the typical style of Reddit “cultural control”.

Reddit’s innovation, which gives it a distinct character, is its karma system. Individual accounts accrue comment karma and post karma, which are separate – post karma can only be accrued by having successful thread submissions. Reddit’s original purpose as a link aggregator caused this, since they wanted to reward users who found and posted interesting content that other users approved of. The karma system has a more important effect, though: comments on Reddit are not sorted chronologically, but by karma. Posts on subreddits are also affected by karma, but the algorithm for which posts go on the front page of the subreddit is much more complicated.

Inside of a post, Reddit comments are arranged into a tree system. Here’s a quick example:

Top level comment [200 karma]

>> Reply A [50 karma]

>> Reply B [35 karma]

>> >> Reply to B [5 karma]

>> >> Reply to B [1 karma]

>> Reply C [-10 karma]

Top level comment [150 karma]

>> Reply A [10 karma]

And so on. Inside of each level, the time of each post is irrelevant, and the posts are sorted only by karma. This means that posts that get general approval are pushed to the top of each level, which causes them to be seen by more people, which may cause them to get more upvotes, etc. The opposite is true with downvotes: downvoted comments get pushed to the bottom of their levels, and comments below a certain karma threshold are hidden by default, which makes them easy to miss. There are momentum effects here. A comment with positive karma is more likely to get upvotes, and a comment with negative karma is more likely to get downvotes; Reddit is a community where groupthink definitely plays a role in individual choice. (There are alternative sorting mechanisms, but almost nobody uses them, except to sort by Controversial during certain threads.)

It is exactly this mechanism which creates the sort of hive-mind agreement that Reddit engenders in its users. This is also why more “sophisticated” (read: more anti-social) communities like 4chan mock Reddit users, thinking of them as “hugbox” losers who fall in line with popular opinions or dominant ideologies without thinking for themselves. This problem is more true on some subreddits than on others, especially the leftist subreddits which tend to have extremely strict moderation teams: see for example r/LateStageCapitalism and r/Anarchism. Right-wing Trump support subreddit r/The_Donald also has an extremely strict moderation team, as part of an explicit strategy to flood Reddit with pro-Trump content. (It worked, and the r/all “frontpage” algorithm has been reworked multiple times to keep T_D from spamming it.) All three subreddits, r/LateStageCapitalism, r/Anarchism, and r/The_Donald are guilty of the same hivemind, low-thought, ideological possession because of these policies.

(To be fair, there is a large amount of disagreement among leftists and rightists about specifics, and those debates are not banned, but actual dissent is banned immediately. This kind of overly-sensitive moderation style is part of why 4chan users mock Reddit.)

Conclusion

The major factors of the media of Internet communities are:

The nature of identity: a sort of spectrum from full anonymity (4chan) to pseudonyms (phpbb, Reddit), to forced real-name usage (Facebook). Full anonymity means each post in the thread must stand on its own and can’t even be tied with previous posts by the same person. Pseudonyms create more coherent conversations, but ones where users are forced to behave consistently and in a socially appropriate manner. Forced real-name usage puts peoples’ livelihoods and social status on the line. A comment on identity: some 4chan boards, like `/pol/` have introduced ID systems where a user’s posts in one thread will all have the same ID, but that same user in a different thread will not have the same ID. A user can be identified consistently only across one thread, not across the whole board. `/b/` does not use this.

The nature of reputation: this is related to the nature of identity, with reputation being generally useless on 4chan, highly influential on traditional message boards where a user will become synonymous with their avatar image, and a middle ground on Reddit where some figures are recognized (mods, bots, and popular figures) but most names being irrelevant.

The nature of a successful “meme” on that medium: phpbb boards have chronological threads and posts exclusively, 4chan has aggressively-pruned boards where only the most active threads survive at all, and Reddit uses group consensus to elevate or bury content.

The nature of its moderation team: this makes a huge difference. 4chan’s laissez faire approach can be compared to Reddit’s by-the-subreddit approach – Reddit’s admins only intervene in cases of illegal content, and the subreddit’s moderators have absolute sovereignty over what moderation tactics they will use for their communities. (Many subreddits have split over moderation drama.)

Identity Reputation Meme Moderation
phpbb / forums Pseudonymous Tied to name, # of posts Popularity, status Strict
4chan Anonymous Zero (tripcodes unpopular) Controversy, amusement Near-zero
Reddit Pseudonymous, throwaways Karma system Popularity Depends on community

At a later date I will apply the same analysis to the major “normie” platforms, Facebook and Twitter, and show how they also influence their users.