"/b/ has given rise to more fluid practices to signal identity and status in spite of, or perhaps because of, the lack of technological support."
May 31, 2011 10:35 AM   Subscribe

4chan and /b/: An Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community is a paper by researchers from MIT and the University of Southampton. The paper itself [PDF].
posted by Sticherbeast (42 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
I thought /b/ was all one person who chooses to remain anonymous.
posted by double block and bleed at 10:43 AM on May 31, 2011


Cue MIT and the University of Southampton getting hacked by Anonymous in 3...2...1...
posted by happyroach at 10:44 AM on May 31, 2011


Ok this looks to be fascinating reading. Loading the article onto my kindle for the train home.

Thanks Sticherbeast!
posted by strixus at 10:45 AM on May 31, 2011


So who is going to be the first to attempt this "triforce" thing here on MeFi?
posted by randomination at 10:47 AM on May 31, 2011


Cue MIT and the University of Southampton getting hacked by Anonymous in 3...2...1...

To hell with Westboro vs. KKK. I wanna Anonymous vs. MIT. That battle would be way more epic. Would Caltech join the ranks of Anonymous? Legen... wait for it... dary.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 10:49 AM on May 31, 2011 [4 favorites]


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I guess I will?
posted by mrgoat at 10:49 AM on May 31, 2011 [5 favorites]


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posted by Faint of Butt at 10:50 AM on May 31, 2011


Cue MIT and the University of Southampton getting hacked by Anonymous in 3...2...1...

I dunno, I don't see anything here where it looks like they're poking the /b/-hive, as it were. Anonymous loves being provoked, but this just seems observational.
posted by chimaera at 10:50 AM on May 31, 2011


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posted by honest knave at 10:51 AM on May 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


I think /b/ is a medium, not a community, precisely because of the total anonymity (which is optional but ubiquitous). Users cannot be confident that any two posts are truly from the same user, or that any two posts purportedly from different users are not from the same user. The propensity for trolling magnifies this situation. The user's conversation is limited to "himself" and "everyone else". Where there is no distinction between individuals, there is no community. Of course, there are plenty of related sites and channels where people have actual usernames.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 10:52 AM on May 31, 2011 [8 favorites]


MIT doesn't know know about the VIP chans.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:53 AM on May 31, 2011


So who is going to be the first to attempt this "triforce" thing here on MeFi?

Don't remember, go through the archives and see who it was.
posted by DU at 10:53 AM on May 31, 2011


Rhizome.org has signaled their status to me by keeping embedded hyphens in the stuff they copied from the PDF.
posted by DU at 11:06 AM on May 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


Rhizome.org has signaled their status to me by keeping embedded hyphens in the stuff they copied from the PDF.

I reckon that's the digital equivalent of a big red baboon ass. NB: This hypothesis was derived from my observations, and will need to be tested more rigorously.
posted by robself at 11:10 AM on May 31, 2011


That was a pretty interesting read, and very even-handed. I generally consider /b/ to be a wretched hive of scum and villainy, but it's hard to deny its relevance.
posted by DWRoelands at 11:15 AM on May 31, 2011


I'm not sure that anonymity completely destroys community. Aside from alternative identification mechanisms, user voice can be quite distinctive. MetaFilter is a good case for that. Memory-loss (whether internal or enforced) is a greater problem for community than anonymity. You hang out on a given board, you come to know people. /fit/ has TinyTrip, /tv/ has/had the Russian Avatard and someone obsessed with the feet of Chloe Moretz. It's true that the more extreme (fixated, tiresome, insane) are more memorable, aside from style issues, but that is true of just about any community.

The paper, weirdly, ignores the switching capability introduced by users who have done more than consider tripping up, as well as the not insignificant number of times that the passwords behind the tripcodes have been found. I think someone has actually implemented a rainbow table approach already.

The median thread life was interesting. Back in the early days of /b/, I could find something atrocious and push the link around to various victims friends for days, plural, before it would fall off. (Ah, Mr. Hands, you are still useful in My Little Pony threads) Still, carefully timed, you can keep a thread alive for hours. I try to do a thread, maybe two, for Hunter S. Thompson, either on his birthday or on the date of his death, bumpan' with photos interspersed with snaps from Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas or Where the Buffalo Roam. Thread lifetime is more about persistence than anything else, unless you find some shocking new material in a photo series that will attract replies from those eager (or dreading) to see more.

You've come a long way, /b/aby.
posted by adipocere at 11:18 AM on May 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


The paper is risking a declaration of war by certain pointy sided buildings...

but thank you for the link - this aspect certainly captured my interest in understanding such 'communities' ...

Users cannot be confident that any two posts are truly from the same user, or that any two posts purportedly from different users are not from the same user. The propensity for trolling magnifies this situation.

posted by infini at 11:53 AM on May 31, 2011


I think /b/ is a medium, not a community, precisely because of the total anonymity (which is optional but ubiquitous). Users cannot be confident that any two posts are truly from the same user, or that any two posts purportedly from different users are not from the same user. The propensity for trolling magnifies this situation.

And yet, having tracked /b/ occasionally in the recent past (mainly when MeFi just wasn't proving intense enough for my late-onset-ADHD), there are moments when something strangely benign, even beneficent happens within certain threads. One that comes to mind was a user who launched a thread with a brief anecdote about his childhood wherein he was in a car accident in which his two best friends, sitting on either side of him, were both killed, and how the incident still haunted him more than a decade later, to the degree that he couldn't make friends, couldn't enter into relationships, couldn't stomach any intimacy at all. For whatever reason, the feedback he got was amazingly sensitive and thoughtful for the most part. Yeah, there were a few obligatory snippets of full-on /b/ malevolence (and porn), but in general, folks responded with empathy and even wisdom.

I also get the impression with /b/ that certain users do know who each other, either by some of the jargon they use (the tone adipocere mentions above), or the image tags they use (or combinations of the two).
posted by philip-random at 12:08 PM on May 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is an H.P. Lovecraft novel waiting to happen. 4chan is not meant to be viewed through the fragile lens of human reason. How much you want to bet that in a couple of months these scientists will be locked up in a mental ward weeping about Rick Astley in a language we can't quite understand?
posted by abcde at 12:14 PM on May 31, 2011 [2 favorites]


my late-onset-ADHD)

errrr, that's ADD (though it does feel rather hi-def sometimes)
posted by philip-random at 12:24 PM on May 31, 2011


@Faint of Butt @honest knave

C-c-c-combo Breaker!!!!
posted by kuanes at 12:36 PM on May 31, 2011


/b/ is you and one other person who posts a lot faster than you. Prove me wrong.
posted by Taft at 12:43 PM on May 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


You hang out on a given board, you come to know people. /fit/ has TinyTrip, /tv/ has/had the Russian Avatard and someone obsessed with the feet of Chloe Moretz. It's true that the more extreme (fixated, tiresome, insane) are more memorable, aside from style issues, but that is true of just about any community.

Yeah, I'd be interested in seeing an analysis of the sub-boards. /b/ is explicitly random, so it's the most "pure" when it comes to anonymous chaos, but the sub-boards do an interesting job of fusing the culture of anonymity and ephemerality with a specific topic and certain house rules. I've actually found that culture to be pretty helpful when it comes to things like the /p/hoto board, where you can give and receive pretty harsh anonymous crits without taking it personally.

I'd also be interested in comparing /b/ to the failed experiment of /r9k/, where longer posts and slower threads were the rule. What was it about /r9k/ that turned it into the horrible, whiny thing it became?
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:08 PM on May 31, 2011


Ok, having read the article finally:

This is really fascinating to me as both someone interested in the academic study of these phenomena and as someone who frequents /b/ and other boards on 4chan. I've always been fascinated by the fact that the atmosphere on 4chan fosters a more general openness - not only of the bad, but of the good (my experience is much as philip-random mentions with this). With this abandonment of identity, there seems to be the ability to be more open emotionally -and that really interests me. To have an online identity that is the absence of identity ... that really makes my philosophy of mind senses tingle.
posted by strixus at 1:21 PM on May 31, 2011 [3 favorites]


Shut-ins and people with low "present" forms of social activity would be drawn to the Internet and, in a forum where anonymity rules, the very lack of identity frees them from some of the strictures of issues like Avoidant Personality Disorder, body dysmorphia, and the like. Don't look at me — what "me"? They get sucked into the pure randomness of /b/. But even islands of apparent order must exist within that chaos. Boards bud off, almost fractally, in response to topical pressures. /soc/ for most of the "rate me" junk, and so forth.

The slower pace and non-spamminess caused by the uniqueness filter made /r9k/ a home for that kind of thing because an outlet for the distressed is long-form by nature. Unique circumstances for unique people. It did develop its own self-reinforcing nature, probably faster than other boards, due to the often reflective and introspective nature of depression. I think some residents hit /adv/. I haven't checked out the new board on 4chon.
posted by adipocere at 1:30 PM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Eliza, Cleverbot, /b/, these Turing machines just keep getting better and better. /b/ is probably the most believable so far.
posted by Elmore at 1:33 PM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I've been wanting to make a sock puppet to comment anonymously on certain issues here on Mefi for a while.


But $5? No way!
posted by furiousxgeorge at 1:35 PM on May 31, 2011


I note that this study fails to identify the cancer that is killing /b/
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 1:37 PM on May 31, 2011 [6 favorites]


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Oh, you don't know how long that took me.
posted by Xoebe at 1:38 PM on May 31, 2011


ARGH! I tried to get cute with it and it didn't align properly.

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posted by Xoebe at 1:39 PM on May 31, 2011


ARGH! I tried to get cute with it and it didn't align properly.

N00B!!!
posted by hippybear at 1:43 PM on May 31, 2011


▼  ▼  ▼
   ▲ ▲  etaFilter

RWAR!!

ok that's enough
posted by Xoebe at 1:44 PM on May 31, 2011 [21 favorites]


I'm really flattered to see this appear here! I'm one of the co-authors of this piece, and I'm super excited to see what people think about it.

Per EMRJKC's comment about community:

"I think /b/ is a medium, not a community, precisely because of the total anonymity (which is optional but ubiquitous). Users cannot be confident that any two posts are truly from the same user, or that any two posts purportedly from different users are not from the same user. The propensity for trolling magnifies this situation. The user's conversation is limited to "himself" and "everyone else". Where there is no distinction between individuals, there is no community. Of course, there are plenty of related sites and channels where people have actual usernames."

Certainly, 4chan's approach to identity does preclude certain kinds of behaviors that we would traditionally view as central to communities. We wanted to hit this issue directly, but when we explored the literature on communities, there's actually very little agreement about what constitutes communities. If we try to look at outcomes instead of things we imagine (reasonably) to be prerequisites (like persistant pseudonymity), it turns out 4chan actually does pretty well on most definitions. We don't argue this much in the paper because it's kind of beyond the scope, but earlier drafts had a lot more of it. Basically, if we think of communities as having shared resources, common values, shared language, a group identity, some sense of who's in the community and who's not, 4chan hits all of those points to greater and lesser degrees. There's a surprising amount of pro-community behavior on 4chan in the form of password trading, offers to photoshop/draw/xray images, image trading, emotional support in advice threads, etc. The traditionally anti-social behavior that 4chan is known for is definitely part of it, but a lot of traditional community-like functions are going on at the same time, even without a strong identity system that we would expect to be a prerequisite or that kind of thing.

Oh, and we've seen very little attention (negative or otherwise) from /b/. It's come up a few times (we still scrape /b/ for potential future work) and they're largely nonplussed by the whole thing. They tend to relish their status as internet ur-demons and we go to some lengths to avoid even engaging with those topics. They're interesting, but not our area of expertise and topics that have been talked to death.
posted by heresiarch at 2:00 PM on May 31, 2011 [21 favorites]


On a side note, is this where the slang term (?) 'liksfes' comes from as a gesture of sympathy or empathy or acknowledgement?
posted by infini at 2:49 PM on May 31, 2011


Thanks for dropping by the thread, heresiarch! Your article was terrific.

I definitely agree that /b/ is a community by any measure, which is all the more interesting given how it's a community with anonymity as a fundamental attribute. Is there a precedent for this sort of thing?

The slower pace and non-spamminess caused by the uniqueness filter made /r9k/ a home for that kind of thing because an outlet for the distressed is long-form by nature. Unique circumstances for unique people. It did develop its own self-reinforcing nature, probably faster than other boards, due to the often reflective and introspective nature of depression. I think some residents hit /adv/. I haven't checked out the new board on 4chon.

/adv/ is basically like /r9k/, from my limited experience of sticking my nose in there. For some reason /adv/ reads "younger" to me than /r9k/ - and, come to think of it, /r9k/ itself read as "younger" than /b/ - but I couldn't tell you why.

/r9k/ felt like a bunch of nerdy, depressed young men consoling one another, but always through a lens of all that advice coming from other nerdy, depressed young men. This led to a repetitious, if not downright spiral-like, tone, especially as the depressed, anxious userbase chased out those other people who might have been interested in using /r9k/ in different ways. I guess it's also true that the uniqueness filter basically forbade memes from growing, which is a way to permanently stunt a chan-style community.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:01 PM on May 31, 2011


It's a good paper, I'm glad it's written. A little startling to see it served off of csail.mit.edu, but also gratifying!

If you want to enjoy some of the creative bits of 4chan without the ugly stuff, epic4chan is a tumblr that's "the funniest memes from 4chan.org and other sites, without the horrors." and is largely pornography and hatespeech free.
posted by Nelson at 3:03 PM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


I thought the threads without porn WERE the horrors, am I doing it wrong?
posted by furiousxgeorge at 3:06 PM on May 31, 2011


So is anyone here willing to talk about the SpaceGhetto? It's kind of a 4chan for older folk, with local identities. Specializes in seeming to be busy pissing people off, yet with a weird inner life that is hard to relate to RL. I can't figger it out. Just askin'.
posted by stonepharisee at 3:31 PM on May 31, 2011 [1 favorite]


Proof positive that we do not need more money to fund research in the US and Uk...
posted by dagny at 11:44 PM on May 31, 2011


dagny <--- HE MAD
posted by obiwanwasabi at 3:46 AM on June 1, 2011


ITT newfags

Too bad they didn't get 4/chan gold - you get private access to m00t
posted by AndrewKemendo at 6:04 AM on June 1, 2011


stonepharisee: I have an account there. Shhhhhh! Keep it on the DL.
posted by stinkycheese at 1:40 PM on June 1, 2011


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