Monday, August 12, 2013

Anonymous and the Chaotic Wellsprings

Lots of people - even those who aren't too steeped in Internet nonsense - have probably heard of the group called Anonymous.

Ah yes, who could I possibly trust more to talk about the Internet than FOX News reporters?

The much-sensationalized group originated on the website 4chan, where the default setting for its members' names is "Anonymous". Since the vast majority of people don't bother to change the default name and let their online handles remain "Anonymous", the joke is that Anonymous is one entity, formed by the contributions of many. On 4chan's "random" subforum - often shortened to /b/ - the posters would get into all sorts of strange activity, giving Anonymous its wild reputation.

But Anonymous is not unique. The /b/ subforum was one of a long line of similar forums on the Internet, where the rules are relaxed and the users form an unwieldy community. Today, we'll explore the corners of the Internet where this has happened before, ant talk about why Anonymous has been elevated above the rest.

We've talked about emergent subcultures in online communities, and we've talked about how extreme insularity manifests in community behavior, but groups like Anonymous goes beyond simply being an insular subculture. We see that the users can get very creative - and sometimes obscene - within their own forum space. But at the same time, the users can get unmanageable, infringing on other people's spaces online.

The earliest example that I could find of this was on the [H]ard|OCP forums, a computer hardware website that flourished in the late '90s and early '00s. The website once boasted a sub-forum called "General Mayhem", an area where the computer-related topicality rules were not as enforced, and people could talk about whatever was on their mind.

The General Mayhem forum - shortened to GenMay - swelled to such popularity that it became the most popular sub-forum on the website, having more activity than all the other sub-forums combined. During its heyday, it produced a lot of online catchphrases that became popular through other corners of the internet.

The GenMay users, however, soon became unmanageable, and would cause trouble around the other sub-forums. By 2002, the unruliness of the GenMay community - along with its extreme bandwidth sink - caused [H]ard|OCP administrator Kyle Bennet to shut down the subforum and purge the database of its content. The community's response - after initial outrage - was to form a spinoff website specifically for the GenMay community.

 Hey, remember this? Me neither. But GenMay did it.

Of course, neither website gathers the same numbers that they likely used to. GenMay was relevant at a time when the Internet was still very young and not as heavily integrated into our daily lives.

Back in the early days of the website GameFAQs, there was a message board called "Life, the Universe, and Everything". Often shortened to LUE, the board had a similar purpose to GenMay: no-holds barred discussion, free from the restrictions of topicality on other GameFAQs message boards. Like GenMay, LUE also became the most active forum on its respective website, and developed lots of online catchphrases that were parroted by other people. The members of LUE - often calling themselves LUEsers - would soon gain a reputation for causing trouble, both within its own forum, and in other forums.

The tipping point was in 2003, when members of LUE were guided to a LiveJournal page that belonged to someone who had recently committed suicide. LUEsers began posting things on the Livejournal page to harrass the person's family. Jeff Veasey, the GameFAQS administrator, referred to the board as "a cancer", and began gradually shutting down LUE after the LiveJournal incident. 

But there was a portion of the users on the board that held so tightly to what LUE offered that they created their own spinoff website. These LUEsers designed their website to deliberately be secretive so that only members who were around for LUE's "glory days" on GameFAQs could participate.

LUE and GenMay were communities within the GameFAQs and [H]ard|OCP communities. They had the most relaxed of rules, generated the most activity, and saw the most unhinged of contributions. We already know that a lot of forums on the Internet have low barriers of entry, but these are areas within those same forums that have an even lower barrier of entry than the main forums themselves. These communities grew so big and unruly that even the site administrators couldn't stomp out what had been formed. When their home forum was shut down, their most devoted members simply made new forums elsewhere, and business carried on.

But since nobody's really heard of LUE, you can guess that business didn't carry on very well.

Which brings us to Anonymous.

4chan is comprised of many forums with a strong emphasis on posting images. The theme of most of these forums is based around Japanese culture, niche hobbies, and other interests. The /b/ forum was 4chan's board with the lowest barrier of entry - it was their "random" board, having no topicality associated with it. The members of /b/ - often called /b/tards, but sometimes generally called anons - were responsible for the creation of many popular online expressions that exploded in popularity.

(Note: The links in the next paragraph are not work safe.)

In 2006, the members of /b/ raided an online game called Habbo Hotel to demonstrate against alleged racism by the game's moderators. This raid was done again in 2007 and 2008. That year also saw the launch of Project CHANology, a full-scale campaign against the Church of Scientology. In 2009, /b/ raided YouTube with the intent of overloading the video platform with pornography. Eventually, a spinoff 4chan site containing the board /i/ - short for invasions - was born, and the concept of Anonymous as an entity started spreading beyond 4chan proper. Today Anonymous is no longer simply associated with 4chan, but now a larger movement, taking online vigilantism to a new level.

But usually not before making a complete tool out of themselves.

So why was /b/ the place to spawn such a movement, and not GenMay or LUE? They were all very chaotic, and they all spawned lots of tidbits of Internet culture, so why do we talk about Anons and not LUEsers or...whatever it is that people on GenMay call themselves?

Perhaps the "Anonymous" handle is far more accessible. While Anonymous may have started out as (and may still be) an insular community with core members, its name certainly doesn't sell itself that way. People have been doing things under pseudonyms or with anonymity for centuries. A handle like "LUEser", however, won't seem very accessible unless you know what "LUE" is.

4chan's administrator also responded differently to his website's no-holds-barred forum than did GameFAQs or [H]ard|OCP. The /b/ forum is still accessible today, and its layout is mostly unchanged from what it was in the mid-2000s. It's hard to predict what would have happened if LUE or GenMay had never had their community disrupted - after all, neither group seems to have seen the same kind of popularity after being cut off their home website. It could be that LUEsers simply didn't want that kind of popularity. Anons certainly seem to resent the wider popularity of "Anonymous".

But, perhaps another major factor is timing. Anonymous became relevant at a time when online culture was getting greater public exposure. The public eye wasn't paying attention to "internet culture" in the early 2000s, but then social networks started taking off, people started spending more time online, and they happened to start noticing Anonymous. As Anonymous got larger, they started going out of their way to grab the public's attention.

Discussions started happening about online mob behavior, and the freedoms of anonymity. People tried to sell Anonymous as something larger than any of us, and since they were doing so anonymously, it was hard to separate the imagery from the actual group. They donned Guy Fawkes masks, symbolizing anarchy, smugness and anonymity. The suit, though stemming from an older meme, could be said to symbolize power, class, and wealth.

Oh, a suit. Surely that didn't generalize into any bad trends.

Mainstream media likes referring to moot and 4chan with awe, for being a creative platform previously unheard of. When Reddit started getting popular, people started calling it "4chan lite", as though the phenomenon of Reddit was derivative of 4chan's product. Remember my blog post where I said that nobody talks about YTMND's "war" on Ebaumsworld anymore? That's probably because it happened in 2006, before 4chan hit its peak in popularity and defined the public perception of internet culture for itself.

The rise of 4chan, /b/, and Anonymous is basically the event that separates the old Internet culture of SomethingAwful, YTMND - and yes, GenMay and LUE - and the new Internet culture of Reddit, Tumblr, modern YouTube, and Twitter. Everything before Anonymous is a cultural blur. Everything after Anonymous is happening in the wake of what the "Anonymous" phenomenon has taught us about online culture.

It's been said that 4chan's cultural force is on the wane. It certainly isn't featured in online events as much anymore, and Anonymous as an activist group has been mostly succeeded by other website groups. Everyone is a little more Internet-savvy now than they were eight years ago. We now have discourse on cyberbullying, online security, social network structure, online regulation, and privacy that were spurred by Anonymous' existence.

As for LUE and GenMay, they are long past being on the wane. Since the early Internet was a haven for gamers, a lot of these groups' recent activities involve communal participation in online games. At this point, they're dying clubs, forced into exclusion a long time ago, and never really moving past their respective eras.

Anonymous may have been culturally important, but it was not the first of its kind. It was merely the first of its kind to get noticed.

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