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User investment and behavior policing on 4chan

DOI: 10.5210/fm.v19i2.4819

TRAMMELL, Matthew. User investment and behavior policing on 4chan. First Monday, [S.l.], feb. 2014. ISSN 13960466. Available at: http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4819

p.1: In this paper I explore the posting habits of anonymous users of the “Sports” (/sp/) board of the American imageboard 4chan. Through qualitative analysis of the content of various posts, I argue that, contrary to the purported ideology and discourse of anonymity associated with controversial, anonymous online spaces like 4chan, users of the site are in fact highly invested in delimiting and policing the borders of what counts as “acceptable” posting behavior within the community, and are also eager to defend themselves from accusations of unfamiliarity with the mores of the community’s subcultural practices. These findings are remarkable given that anonymous users gain no consistent reputation among their fellow users by taking part in these practices and have nothing to risk in terms of community prestige. I conclude that member registration and expression of a virtual embodied identity are not required for inspiring investment of user energy in preserving and enforcing the boundaries and culture of a virtual community, and that anonymous spaces like 4chan actually have more in common with communities that depend on persistent user identity than they care to admit. -- Highlighted mar 20, 2014

p.1: While boundaries may change over time, the act of “policing” others’ behaviors, particularly within online communities that present themselves as largely open spaces of free expression, can aid in increasing both individual user attachment to the virtual space itself as well as solidarity among members by promoting user involvement in shaping community culture. -- Highlighted mar 20, 2014

p.1: Though a community may establish itself against mainstream, culturally dominant forms of behavior, it runs the risk of replicating the same ideological mechanisms utilized by the dominant culture in order to ensure its continued existence as an oppositionary community. -- Highlighted mar 20, 2014

p.1: I claim that anonymous virtual communities, while appearing to resist many of the policing behaviors associated with other, registration–dependent Web sites, actually replicate many of those same practices. These practices include users’ claims to authenticity, accusations toward others of unfamiliarity practices, in–jokes, and esoteric references that attempt to identify fellow posters as either enculturated long–term users of the site or new users that are unfamiliar with the mores of the community. -- Highlighted mar 20, 2014

p.2: My findings in fact reveal a large investment of user energy in delimiting and policing the borders of what qualifies as acceptable posting behaviors on the largely anonymous /sp/. I argue that these moderating practices result from a desire on the part of users to express and leverage as currency knowledge of site and board–specific practices and mores, even though, as anonymous posters, they can gain no consistent reputation among other site users by doing so. -- Highlighted mar 20, 2014

p.2: enculturated and long–term users of a site whose virtual identities are bound to the community aid in enforcing the boundaries and rules of the forum: “strongly attached members ... help enforce norms of appropriate behavior ... police the community and sanction deviant behaviors ... and perform behind the scenes work to help maintain the community” [3]. R.J. Maratea and Philip Kavanau (2012) have also discussed the social psychology behind user attachment to a community, arguing that, “the frequency of an individual’s participation in the community ... communicates their level of attachment, symbolizes commitment and loyalty, and may influence social status and role(s) within the group, which can be contested and change over time” [4]. -- Highlighted mar 20, 2014

p.3: As an anonymous forum with very few enforced posting rules, 4chan is known for its users’ unfettered usage of extremely offensive language, including racial, homophobic, and sexist slurs. While there is of course no divorcing such terms from their offensive usage and associations, it’s worth noting that on 4chan, the term “fag,” at least, is used so often and in such a cavalier manner so as to seem less of a homophobic slur and more of a generally offensive suffix to refer to users of varying interests, hobbies, professions, etc. Gabriella Coleman (2012), who has written extensively about 4chan and the hacking collective Anonymous, has confirmed this usage: “It is common on 4chan to use ‘-fag’ as a derisive, if not actually homophobic, suffix” [10]. Similarly, Whitney Phillips (2013) has claimed that, “[on 4chan,] depending on the context, ‘fag’ can function as a homophobic slur, term of endearment, or neutral mode of self–identification” [11]. Hence, on 4chan, a user who posts original artwork is considered an “artfag,” whereas a “newfag” is a new user not yet familiar with the culture of the site or a specific board [12]. The co–opting of “fag” and the insistence on its non–offensive nature fits with 4chan’s general ethos of hostility toward any practice seen by its users as even remotely gesturing toward sensitivity or political correctness. -- Highlighted mar 20, 2014

p.6: In the 15 threads collected, the word “autism” as well as forms such as “autist” and “autistic” were used toward other users and posting habits a total of seven times; it therefore appears to be a fairly common insult on /sp/. Moreover, these terms appeared often in undocumented threads on /sp/ and other boards as well. Casually referring to another user as “autistic,” then, is another case of a highly offensive practice being co–opted by 4chan users; it is often used to denigrate any type of post or behavior that a user deems to be obsessive, overly analytical, or lacking in broader social awareness. -- Highlighted mar 20, 2014

p.8: In an environment where just about anything goes and being shockingly offensive and subversive is the norm, the political and critical value of the practice becomes cheapened within a very short period of time. Affectively, users’ offensive posting behaviors and content stops functioning as a way of subverting dominant, politically correct cultural expectations, and rather becomes an expected quality of site behavior. In addition, when a user is anonymous and isn’t worried about a karma score (as one would be on Reddit), self–expression indeed becomes easier; but so does inculcating a mob mentality and banding together against perceived aberrant posting behaviors. -- Highlighted mar 20, 2014

p.8: For moot, 4chan’s founder, the site’s anonymity is of paramount importance in a society that increasingly seeks to erase the boundary between off–line and online identities; he has claimed that, “people deserve a place to be wrong” [25]. Aside from any political exigency or ideological validity to this claim, it may be true that 4chan allows users a place to express opinions that are unpopular according to the standards of a politically correct mainstream culture; but as my findings suggest, being “wrong” in terms of the accepted posting practices of the site, or at least /sp/, is strongly discouraged by the habits of those who are enculturated, long–term users of the site (or who are at least claiming to be). -- Highlighted mar 20, 2014

p.8: Because of the highly ephemeral nature of most threads, large–scale quantitative analysis of any board is problematic. -- Highlighted mar 20, 2014