Over the past few months, if you’ve hung out with me (especially if I’ve had a few glasses of wine), you may have heard me begin to wax idiotic about something called 4chan. Rather than continuing to bore my drinking companions, I thought I’d record what it is I’ve been raving about in a more coherent manner.
For those of you who are unaware, 4chan (very, very NSFW) is an online image board with two unusual features: first, it is almost entirely anonymous, and second, posts are not archived, meaning that there is no permanent record of the behavior on the site. Its extremely fast-paced, foul, and transient nature have made it a hotbed of creativity - if you don’t mind scrolling through pages of racist, homophobic, sexist, idiotic humor. In fact, 4chan is single-handedly responsible for almost every major internet meme that has become popular in the past 7 years. If you’ve ever laughed a lolcat, you have 4chan to thank.
4chan is ground zero of a new generation of hackers – those who are bent on hacking the attention economy… these attention hackers are highlighting how manipulatable information flows are. They are showing that Top 100 lists can be gamed and that entertaining content can reach mass popularity without having any commercial intentions (regardless of whether or not someone decided to commercialize it on the other side). Their antics force people to think about status and power and they encourage folks to laugh at anything that takes itself too seriously.
In many ways, the accelerated, anything goes atmosphere of 4chan is an amplified version of modern online media. Advertisers often complain that it is getting more and more difficult to attract attention in a world in which consumers are constantly inundated with information, and even when something does manage to break through the clutter, its effects are temporary at best.
Users of 4chan - otherwise known as /b/tards - deal with the challenge of limited attention and unlimited information in a few ways:
- Repetition - check out 4chan a handful of times, and you’ll begin to see the same jokes, stories, and pictures repeated ad nauseum. This repetition establishes the shared culture that is 4chan by ensuring that as many people as possible experience the same messages.
- Insider jokes - A side effect of all the repetition is the creation of insider humor, in which users impress one another by referencing older or obscure messages in creative ways. Again, this is part of establishing a shared culture and common language.
- Extremes - This is where the offensive stuff comes in. Pornography, gore, racism, etc. are used so extensively to gain attention on 4chan that they’ve almost ceased to have an effect on regular visitors.
- Humor - A good joke always gains attention. Repeating the joke doesn’t diminish it, until the 100th repetition or so.
Interestingly enough, these tactics are very similar to those commonly employed by marketers. To me, 4chan is all about watching a disorganized community struggle to gain a voice in the face of unlimited chatter. Advertisers will have to continue to keep up with these skills if they want to have an impact in today’s media environment.