4chan: Beneath the Mask

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4chan: Beneath the Mask

Expect explicit language in this piece.  If you’re familiar with 4chan, I’m sure you already suspected this was the case.

What is 4chan?

4chan.org was launched on October 1st, 2003 by Christopher Poole—aka moot— originally as a place to discuss anime, manga, and other facets of Japanese culture. The site is what is known as an imageboard, an internet forum which operates mostly by the user posting images, although text is also encouraged. What makes the site unique is the level of anonymity it allows its users. Popular social media outlet Facebook on the other hand has no anonymity because it uses real names and personal information to link created content to its creators. Another popular website for online discussion is Reddit, which has some anonymity, but it still requires its users to create an account, where what they post will always be associated with their username for other users to read and to comment on. 4chan is different because the website was created with no feature to retain user data, and anyone who posts under their own name is ridiculed and called an “attention whore” or a “namefag”. The site has no memory after a discussion has reached its end, and said discussion is not archived in any manner after it deletes itself from the site. Though there are many different topics to choose from when visiting 4chan, the most popular and the most interesting is the board classified only as “random”. This random board, called /b/, is where 4chan receives most of its website traffic. The site has so much traffic that oftentimes it cannot be moderated properly and what little rules there are can’t be enforced with any standard of reliability, though there are informal rules created by the users themselves. These “Rules of the Internet” are generally accepted by users of the site. A few examples are rules one and two are both “Do not talk about /b/”, rule eight is “There are no real rules about posting”, and rule 36 is “There is always more fucked up shit than what you just saw”. For this reason, many use the site as a place to say the things they want to say without consequence, and without restriction or restraint. With little moderation, a lack of authority, and no system of gaining or losing a reputation with other users, one is free to express themselves completely unfiltered. What we are left with is an abyss of aggressive, sexual, and raw energy, that of which can easily become offensive, hateful, and sometimes illegal outside of its own context. Using a Freudian lens to study 4chan and its users, one must ask if having the ability to release these desires so unacceptable in society is a viable way of achieving happiness.

Obligatory Freud Reference

In chapter seven of Sigmund Freud’s book Civilization and its Discontents, he states that the origins of the sense of guilt stem from a fear of authority and from fear of the super-ego (189). Authority causes us, as a part of civilization, to remove the satisfaction of our drives and urges. The forbidden desires that most people have at one time or another can’t be hidden from the super-ego, which is where our conscience lies, and where we reflect the social standards we have learned and accumulated throughout our lives. If our purpose in life is none other than to be happy, then we must do that in any way possible. On 4chan, there is a lack of authority where even the moderators of the site are unable to do much more than to temporarily ban someone from the site. Because of this, some of the guilt associated with releasing these desires is alleviated. Since everyone is anonymous, there is no form of identity, meaning one’s posts cannot be traced back to their location. For this reason, there is no need to fear the super-ego and no need to feel remorse or guilt for the actions taken whilst on the site.

Addicted to Lulz (Mainlining Schadenfreude)



In an interview with Jamin Brophy-Warren of The Wall Street Journal, a 4chan moderator said “They get rowdy. It’s like a bar without alcohol… it’s like that psychological concept of deindividualization. When groups of people become less aware of their own responsibility…” (Brophy-Warren, 2). This doesn’t mean, however, that everything on 4chan is terrible or gross, illegal or offensive in some way. The site is one of the most prominent proponents of the popularization of internet memes, such as LOLcats, Rickrolling, Pedobear, and many more. Pranking the unsuspecting has been a favorite past-time of 4chan’s userbase since the beginning. In 2007, a link to singer Rick Astley’s video of his 1987 song “Never Gonna Give You Up” was posted on 4chan, claiming to be the first trailer for video game Grand Theft Auto IV. The idea quickly gained popularity and has spread beyond the walls of 4chan into other facets of the internet. The video on YouTube, titled “RickRoll’d” currently has 69 million views. Other notable pranks by 4chan include hacking the TIME 100 poll to put Moot at the top of the list, hacking Mountain Dew’s “Dub the Dew” poll to name their new green-apple infused drink “Hitler Did Nothing Wrong”, and what was dubbed “Project North Korea is Best Korea” where 4chan users rigged an online poll to set North Korea as the destination for Justin Bieber’s “My World” tour. Various prank calls, and “raids” are popular on the site as well. 4chan users raided a kids video game called Habbo Hotel in July 2006 after a rumor was going around that moderators were banning users based on their online avatar’s skin color. Users from 4chan flooded the video game as black characters with Afros, and blocked entrances to popular areas. Since players are not able walk through other users, the blockade was very successful and frustrating for players. These pranks are according to 4chan’s users “for the lulz”, meaning they are not serious and are just trying to get a laugh and some enjoyment out of it.

Julian Dibbell from MIT’s Technology Review says people of a younger generation’s “…mental life have been punctuated by a series of passing enthusiasms: video games, online chat rooms, Japanese animation” and that “/b/’s anarchy sets the tone… swarms of gleeful online troublemakers—trolls, in internet parlance—occasionally issue forth to prank, hack, harass, and otherwise provoke other online communities and users” (Dibbell, 1). She goes on to say “Often intended to shock, shot through with racism, misogyny, and other qualities deliberately chosen from beyond the contemporary pale, the words and images of /b/ have become an online spectacle…The id of the Internet, it has been called more than once” (2). The id, according to Freud in his 1933 work New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, is “the dark, inaccessible part of our personality… We approach the id with analogies: we call it a chaos, a caldron full of seething excitations… It has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle” (Freud, 105-6). Are 4chan’s users using the pleasure principle in these pranks, inside jokes, and gags? Are they using the website to seek pleasure that can’t be found in our society and avoiding the pain that instead makes itself apparent within it? Schadenfreude is when the misfortune of others bring forth a feeling of joy or pleasure. Compilation videos of people generally failing at something, getting hurt, and being stupid in general are very popular online, and the same goes for popular TV shows such as Jackass, CKY, Trigger Happy TV, and Impractical Jokers. One could argue that the internet equivalent to these shows is called trolling, deliberately posting provocative material online to incite an angry response. Trolling gives a sense of empowerment that can’t easily be found in real life. A commonly used phrase used on 4chan is “trolling is a art”, using “a” instead of “an” on purpose. Freud might say the art of trolling is used as a substitutive satisfaction, one way to endure the pain and disappointment that life imposes on us (74). It is human nature to derive pleasure from the misfortune of others, and the same can be said about the jokes and pranks of 4chan.

Free Speech for What? (feat. Lil Freud)liljon

The inter-connectedness of the internet allows a person to communicate with people who share their interests. This is most useful if those interests are not welcomed by society. 4chan reinforces those interests and other shared psychological traits, whereas an internet-less world would squash them. The anonymity of 4chan even further allows us to escape the modified personal identity we identify with in the real world, and to essentially live a double life at a minimum: one identity in which we are conforming to the moral and social constructs of our civilized society, and one where we are at our most primitive. One may assume that these “internet trolls” are depraved, sub-human people, sitting in their parent’s basement, not doing anything with their lives, but the reality is that these people are far more likely to be ordinary people living an average adult life. Anne Wells Branscomb from The Yale Law Journal says in her article “Anonymity, Autonomy, and Accountability: Challenges to the First Amendment in Cyberspaces” that “Observers of online activity have recognized inclinations to preserve individual and group autonomy without governmental intrusion or authoritarian censorship…” (Branscomb, 1640). The problem with a website that has little to no authority to speak of is that its users will push the boundaries of free speech as far as they can.

The question then, is where do we draw the line of what is considered free speech on the internet? Is there a point that’s too far out of line with society’s norms that it should be censored or banned? Freud says in Civilization and its Discontents “Just as the satisfaction of the drives spells happiness, so it is a cause of great suffering if the external world forces us to go without and refuses to satisfy our needs” (Freud, 83). 4chan users are avoiding suffering by using what Freud called sublimation. He says “But neither inverts [homosexuals] or other perverts can fully display their cultural gifts, since they have to suppress their drives without, however, being able to get rid of them. The perverse impulses, once repressed, come back in the disguise of neurotic symptoms” (Freud, 92). In Freud’s time, there really was no place these people could express these “cultural gifts”. They just had to repress the desires as best they could in hopes it didn’t eventually overwhelm them. Now, with the invention of the internet, some use sites such as 4chan to do exactly this. Often times one will encounter posts exhibiting wildly racist or misogynistic comments, often using words such as “nigger” or “faggot” to one another like it’s nothing. One common expression often used is “Tits or GTFO” in which a person will post a picture of a girl with the text “Do I look pretty?”, and the response will be “Tits or GTFO”, meaning literally post a photo without a shirt on or get the f_ck off the site. They also demand the picture have a timestamp with the current date and time on it as proof it is a real picture, since technically any photo from the internet could be used. A racist expression used, often accompanied by a drawing of a black guy holding a knife, is “around blacks never relax”. If one was to say these things in public, there would be social consequences, but on 4chan, it seems like it’s all fun and games, pointing back to the “doing it for the lulz” argument from before. If there’s one thing to mention about 4chan and humor, it is that they know how to laugh at themselves. For example, a popular comic called “Racists on 4chan”, sometimes called “Niggerwalks” is an example of this that shows a satirical version of the interaction between 4chan users and black people in “real life” and then what they do when they go online. In this incredibly offensive comic, a black man walks near a white man on the street and right away says “wassup pussy? What you lookin at?” to him as he passes. The white guy says “n-nothing…”, and the black guy responds with “Haha, I’m jus kiddin man. You alright?” He says peace and walks away, and that’s the end of their encounter. A fairly harmless interaction, now that we know the black man was just kidding around with him. Then in the next panel it shows the same white guy on 4chan later posting “This monkey subhuman nigger walked by me today… I lost it and called him what he was, a worthless nigger.” This comic is very self-aware, showing that they are laughing at themselves and their alleged racism and white superiority complex, but why would people feel the need to talk to another person that way behind their backs? How are they benefiting from this type of behavior?

Although just because somebody posts racist or misogynistic things on 4chan, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are racist or misogynistic people in their everyday lives. This behavior could be, to them, a way to turn inappropriate urges, even if the original had nothing to do with women or African-Americans, into something more acceptable, which in this case has to do with a form of groupthink called the bandwagon effect. To them, because everybody else on this website uses this kind of language, it is okay and acceptable. This effect is also called a hive-mind by many on the internet, a single intelligent entity made up of many smaller ones. It seems on 4chan that a user is able to step away from silly societal morals and values by getting rid of the self and stepping into a group consciousness. But even this idea has its problems. Not everybody on 4chan shares the same views.

There is a small group of 4chan users that take advantage of the site’s “no rules” format to push the limits of what they can post as far as society will let them. Because /b/ has so much traffic, by the time posts that violate the rules are found and removed, often times it is too late. Pornography and other graphic and offensive images dominate the board a lot of the time, but a small portion is even worse than that. Sometimes people create threads specifically for posting images of dead people or videos of people dying. When “summerfags” or “newfags”, people who are under eighteen years old on Summer vacation from school, invade the site every year, the “oldfags”, the real userbase, gangs together and posts images of gore and other heinous pictures like violent rape and abuse, child pornography, and generally disturbing images to force them off the site. Freud says “It is clearly not easy for people to forgo the satisfaction of their tendency to aggression. To do so makes them feel uneasy. One should not belittle the advantage that is enjoyed by a fairly small cultural circle, which is that it allows the aggressive drive an outlet in the form of hostility to outsiders” (Freud, 161). 4chan is a small cultural circle, and being hostile to outsiders is exactly what they do to release their aggressive drives. The only problem is that because of the site’s anonymous posting, it’s impossible to really know if someone is a “summerfag” or an “oldfag”, because every post is the same. So as long as you can stomach the content, you can pretend to be an oldfag just by knowing the rules of the site and the inside jokes associated.

Child pornography specifically has been a big problem for 4chan since the beginning. One 4chan member “trolled” Oprah Winfrey by typing an email that she read on her show. The video is available on YouTube under the title “LOLPRAH: Over 9000 Penises!” Over 9000 is another of the many memes or inside jokes often posted on 4chan taken from the children’s show Dragon Ball Z. She reads the email on her show, and says about the ‘pedophile’ “He doesn’t forgive, he does not forget, and his group has over 9000 penises, and they are all raping children.” She proceeds to say “So, I want you to know they’re organized and they have systematic ways of hurting children, and they’re using the internet to do it. These are the predators that are molesting and raping our children, then trading the photos and videos online.” When this aired on TV, the entirety of the internet had many a laugh. To somebody like Oprah who is completely unfamiliar with internet culture, the message seemed entirely serious. She took the message very seriously, and it made it onto the show. In and of itself, the message was clearly a joke, as it always is with memes and 4chan. Getting celebrities to say their inside jokes on the air is one of their favorite past times. A couple of other examples are Tom Green saying “Do a Barrell Roll” on his show which is taken from video game Star Fox, repeatedly prank calling the pawn shop from TV Reality Show Pawn Stars and asking for Super Nintendo game Battletoads, and prank calling Hal Turner’s radio show and attacking his website, causing it to go offline. These are all fairly harmless pranks, but even though 4chan often makes jokes about child pornography as seen with the Oprah prank and with the meme “Pedobear”, a cartoon bear who is a pedophile which is used to make fun of real pedophiles and people who have a sexual interest in minors, the site is often used to trade real images and animated .gifs, which are short video clips with no sound, of child pornography. Peter J. King writes in his article titled “No Plaything: Ethical Issues concerning Child-pornography” that “for a member of one culture to make moral judgments about another culture is no more sensible than for an English school child to refer to Australians as living upside down” (King, 328). The question one must ask with this in mind is whether “internet culture” should be kept separate from our own personal, social, or geographical culture. One might say that if child-pornography is immoral in the United States of America, then it should be illegal and immoral for US citizens on the internet as well. King goes on to look at the ethics of child-pornography using consequentialism, which he defines as “…the normative component, and holds that actions are moral or immoral wholly in so far as they produce certain consequences” (King, 329). So according to this theory, if somebody posts child-pornography or views it on 4chan, as long as there are no consequences for them doing so, it’s not morally wrong. But what exactly constitutes something as a consequence? Is that something specifically to the viewer or does that mean for the object as well? One may assume that the majority of pictures showing children being sexualized are taken against the child’s will. This may be precisely why King decides to take a Utilitarian position, so that he can “treat happiness as standing simply for pleasure and the absence of pain”, although he says he rejects “…the popular formulation of the utilitarian principle, which calls for actions to produce ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number” (King, 329). King says that pain has more significance than pleasure does morally, and that avoiding pain is more important than producing pleasure (329). If these people that share child pornography on 4chan are in fact pedophiles, it is entirely possible that they resort to sharing these images as a form of sublimation, so that by releasing this pent-up sexual urge they are preventing themselves from going out and molesting or raping children on their own. Speaking on exclusively moral, not legal, terms, it is undoubtedly better to view an existing image than to go out and harm a child in the real world. Unfortunately it is possible that a child was harmed in the making of that photo, which creates a sort of paradox in and of itself. There is only one type of child pornography that may be superior morally to both parties while at the same time still successfully ridding the sexual pedophillic urge, and that is something called lolicon hentai.

Lolicon (think Nabakov’s Lolita) are drawn, animated, or 3D images of cartoon characters of young children partaking in sexual acts. These are not real people, but these images are shared even more often than real child pornography is on 4chan. Since there is no actual children being harmed in the making of this material, it could be said that this is a safer alternative to child pornography, but is it still bad because it condones the sexualization of children under the age of 18 years old? The legality of these kinds of images are blurry at the moment and are constantly being discussed and changed in Japan and elsewhere. Some critics say these images encourage sex crimes and pedophile-like activity, while others say it can be used to get rid of those urges all together in a way that no child is hurt. Hiroki Azuma is a Japanese cultural critic who says that “lolicon is the most convenient form of rebellion against society.” This style of art is much more popular in Japan than it is in America, but with 4chan being so often immersed in Otaku and Japanese culture, it’s no wonder that lolicon and hentai are so popular amongst its users. If Freud is correct in saying the symptoms of neuroses being substitutive satisfactions for unfulfilled sexual desires, and King is right about the absence of pain being more important than the pleasure produced, it makes sense that lolicon is a more acceptable alternative to child pornography in an online environment because the user is successfully substituting his sexual desires for a more acceptable form and there is no child abuse taking place. One could bring Freud’s Oedipal Complex into the picture and state that people watch child pornography because they are in love with themselves as a child and that’s their way of releasing this sexual energy, despite them being older. The libido of these people have been fixated onto little children while they were growing up. The reason could be anything from a childhood trauma to a history of abuse, or some other social situation that influenced the way they view children. Some of them surely have remorse for their actions because of the superego, but having a place they can go to view these things without the consequences of going to prison takes away from that. On the other hand, drawing loli comics or viewing the ones other people post could be a more acceptable form of sublimation.


4chan is a place where the morals and values of society are tossed into the garbage and where our moral and social filters are stripped away, leaving the inner beast that is humanity underneath. What started as an innocent enough place to view and discuss Japanese culture has turned into a mega site for anonymous discussion and creation. The creation of memes, these inside jokes, the pranks, and the “bad stuff”, namely child pornography and gore, are what makes 4chan what it is. The “Internet Hate Machine” as Fox News called it is a place, when put in Freudian terms, where someone can go to release their sexual and aggressive urges in a way that moves away from the fear of authority and the fear of the superego that we all are slave to. When you are anonymous, nobody knows you are there. There are no rules. You don’t have to be afraid of the superego in this environment, so one can deal with one’s libido in constructive and acceptable ways. Some find a sense of belonging in a place where not everyone is a moral saint. When you don’t have to abide by any social rules and you can express opinions that you’d be ostracized in society for, anything can happen. Maybe 4chan is not so bad after all if taken with a grain of salt.

Works Cited

Branscomb, Anne Wells. “Anonymity, Autonomy, and Accountability: Challenges to the First Amendment in Cyberspaces.” Yale Law Journal Company, Inc. . 104.7 (1995): 1639-1679. Print.

DiMaggio, Paul, Hargittai, Eszter, et al. “Social Implications of the Internet.” Annual Review of Sociology. 27. (2001): 307-336. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Ed. and Trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1962.

Jamin , Brophy-Warren. “Modest Web Site is Behind a Bevy of Memes.” WSJ.coml. The Wall Street Journal, 9 Jul 2008. Web. 16 Nov 2013.

Levmore, Saul. “The Anonymity Tool.” University of Pennsylvania Law Review. 144.5 (1996): 2191- 2236. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

Liu, Steve. “The Most Popular Thing You’ve Probably Never Heard of.” Web. 16 Nov 2013. <writingandrhetoric.cah.ucf.edu/stylus/files/2_1/stylus2_1-liu.pdf>.

King, Peter J. “No Plaything: Ethical Issues Concerning Child-Pornography.” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice. 11.3 (2007): 327-345. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

Michael S., Bernstein, Monroy-Hernandez Andres , et al. “4chan and /b/: An Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community.”Proceedings of the Fifth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media. (2011): 50-57. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

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