“Morphing Double N______.” That was the link I clicked on, the link at which I knew that researching this article, on lolcats of all things (a joke so quirky-yet-plain that it netted coverage in Time), was going to lead me all the way down, through every level of adolescent offensiveness into the final stage. This not to say that “Morphing Double N______” was the worst thing I’ve ever seen on the Internet, nor even the worst thing I’d seen in my research for this article. But it certainly was the strangest, the point at which I realized that, if one wishes or is compelled to, one can find things online that surpass every kind of infatuation with the bizarre and grotesque—that there is a stage of voyeurism beyond the academic and the transgressive and even genuinely disturbed, which is merely idle and too uncreative to rise to anything else. I clicked on the link, and I was greeted with a strangely distorted but recognizable picture of Will Smith. This was a “double n______,” the link informed me. It invited me to “take pictures of n______ and transform them into DOUBLE N______” by going to a page hosted by the University of St. Andrew’s (“Scotland’s first university”) and exaggerate their “Afro-Caribbean” features with the click of a button. This could be done as many times as one wished, and evidently many wished. I and every sweaty sixteen-year-old boy that populated this godawful site were able to page through dozens of these grotesqueries, nightmares of blackface made possible by someone’s computer science homework. I closed the window and felt fatigued—but also, most fortunately, I felt that my decency was intact. The Internet’s horrors could not bring my ruination; with all the worst things laid out before me, it seemed that it was not morality but transgressiveness that was vitiated, made into a cheap game good people were able to recognize as such and walk away from.
But onto the subject. Lolcats are pictures of cats. People write things on these pictures as if the cats themselves were saying them. The joke at the heart of it all—and it’s very far down there; the lolcats meme has become a freewheeling collection of catchphrases that can be applied to anything, presidents and “philolsophers” alike (“Whereof you kant speek, stfu,” says Wittgenstein)—is that cats, if they could talk, would be stupid. And so they say things like “I can has cheezburger?” when they’re adorably fat and “do not want” when they’re adorably upset. It’s surprisingly funny the first few times—but then you already knew this, because you’ve already seen lolcats too often. They’re amusing, but hardly in a way that you’d expect from an Internet gag; were they on birthday cards, their broken English stripped of chat acronyms, you’d buy one confident it would earn a long-term place on your grandmother’s fridge.
Lolcats, it also turns out, come from the same place as “Morphing Double N______”—a place known as “the asshole of the Internet,” 4chan.org. 4chan is an imageboard, a community where people can post and discuss pictures. It is unique in that it has an enormous cult following, and that it does not require the user—indeed, it is considered bad form—to leave any identifying information. Every post on 4chan is signed “Anonymous”; each individual 4chan poster, and 4chan’s posters as a whole, are known as “Anonymous.” It is on 4chan that this last stage of transgressiveness—the idly shocking; transgression as the lazy habit of the bored and dispossessed—is made into a daily practice, the mundane and insipid way that mundane and insipid boys with free afternoons and Photoshop pass their time. The obvious question presents itself: How did these people produce something as gentle and inoffensive as lolcats?
There is still one other thing 4chan has produced, something to complicate the question even further: moral activism, of a kind. 4chan is rather unsurprisingly the home of many death threats, especially of those relating to school shootings. Most of the time, the authorities who regularly monitor the site intervene. In at least one instance, however, a 4chan poster acted first. While most of the posters chanted “do it already, faggot” at the boy who threatened to plant two pipe bombs at his high school in Pflugerville, Texas, one found the name of the camera’s owner in the picture data and called the school. “Epic fail,” he said, and “lulz” were had by all.
More recently, 4chan has been gaining attention because of an anti-Scientology campaign some of its members are leading. “Project Chanology” is an attempt to reverse Scientology’s aggressive (and shockingly successful) work to eliminate its most vocal critics and embarrassing secrets from the Internet. Mostly this has entailed a quick-and-dirty hacking job that brought down the Scientology site for a few hours, as well as some weakly-attended protests. 4chan has hardly proved to be a wellspring of support for the project; those who claim to be old regulars mock it. Indeed, this “hacktivism” doesn’t quite live up to the heights of the video game villain rhetoric that Anonymous, the name 4chan’s activists have taken for their group, use in their YouTube manifestos: “You have nowhere to hide, for we are everywhere. You will find no recourse in attack, because for each of us that falls, ten more of us will take his place. … We are Anonymous. We are legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us.”
Undoubtedly 4chan’s social mobilization has been disappointing and pathetic—but perhaps we should not have expected more than a handful of man-boys wearing fedoras and (what else?) Guy Fawkes/V for Vendetta masks. Nor should we have believed that, when these brave citizens cut work and pumped themselves up with a couple cans of Sparks, they would have chosen a target that hasn’t been mocked repeatedly on South Park—Scientology, a cult completely American (and thus ineradicable) in its transparent greed, senseless blending of recent history’s spiritual and pseudo-scientific novelties, and adoption of the aura of celebrity as an insulation against criticism. For a group composed of 4chan posters, people who had not previously demonstrated a collective will capable of any goals loftier than putting on the grandest, longest-running parade of dick jokes in all of history and sharing pictures of pornography, cartoon pornography, and cartoon animal pornography, we might even call this an achievement.
“[The Internet is] no longer a subculture; it’s just the culture,” concludes Time’s lolcat article. There’s something right and something wrong here. If the Internet is just a reflection of our culture at large, something has been distorted. The more one looks at 4chan, the more complicated this distortion appears. The easy answer to the question of 4chan is that it looks exactly like something that the late-blooming, sexually-repressed minds of its adolescents with too few hobbies would produce— vitriolic, self-referential and mostly unfunny. In some of 4chan’s more inspired moments, however, it rises just a tiny bit above our expectations. Lolcats and some sparse street protests are nothing to be proud of, but the more self-aggrandizing participants will be happy to bandy about terms like “crowdsourcing,” “flashmobs,” and various other catchphrases to point—rather weakly and obliquely—to the idea that 4chan, in these relatively bright moments, is the flowering of a new kind of community. Even their rapid colonization of the word ‘meme’, a development I’m not certain Richard Dawkins welcomes, is a way of elevating their own existence, turning stupid jokes into the manifestation of a new understanding of human thought and culture (which memetics really is, or was, anyway). On one level, it’s hard to argue: without the Internet, many of 4chan and similar sites’ members wouldn’t be socialized in any way, absorbed instead in their own passions. And yet, “Morphing Double N______.” In other words, is this new socialization truly a good thing? It’s not even clear that 4chan’s posters would agree that it has improved their lives. One thread I found began with an almost certainly fabricated story: “Sometimes I take the warm Batterys out of my Radio and hold them tightly in my hands… they feel like real humanhands… and then I close my eyes and imagine a girl who lays next to me and holds my hands and… and likes me.” As the mockery slowly subsided, some posters began opening up: many told stories about their pathological inability to act upon their feelings; one said she (there are a handful) was glad she lived alone so no one would make her eat; a few agreed smoking tons of marijuana helped. And then this story: “I’m talking to this girl over IM. She’s 9. Turning 10 in 1-2 months. She’s really intelligent and”—that’s all you need to hear.
What’s remarkable about 4chan is the extent to which, as a new form of social organization, it perpetuates the constrictions one would have thought its participants would seek to overcome. Looking for company, lonely boys and men turn to 4chan—and there they remain anonymous. By forsaking identity, the 4chan poster seems to operate under the incredibly mistaken notion that keeping company is just being surrounded by talk, rather than being known as an individual. It is this misunderstanding that makes it difficult to have pity for 4chan posters. Even if they didn’t choose their life, they seem incapable of desiring another. Without wanting a more normal community, they get the strange one they think they want—a place of endless noise without conversation. Though this fails to provide any sort of self-actualization, it’s a way to pass the time, and it fulfills the posters’ childishly stunted notion of what is valuable in socialization, providing the product (jokes) but not the process (friends).
The suffering and self-effacement of its members is not an accidental feature of this community, either: were 4chan’s posters less weird, their jokes would gain less traction in the Internet as a whole; were 4chan organized along normal lines, it would be less fruitfully bizarre. 4chan’s incredibly varied output—from every kind of offensive joke to lolcats to social activism—is also no accident. Being freed from every constraint, 4chan is less of a culture than an evolutionary cultural process, producing everything possible, without a sustained organizational logic or goal.
In this elimination of all that is recognizable about socialization except its output, 4chan provides a social space in which the marginalized can be utilized without being recognized. There is no one to thank or respect on 4chan, and therefore the only relationship one can have with the community is exploitive. Time praised the lolcat phenomenon as non-commercial, noting that “it’s not based on a Saturday Night Live sketch, and nobody’s using it to get famous or sell anything.” The worse half of this is true: nobody’s using lolcats to gain recognition, because nobody invented them. But Time is dead wrong in saying that no one is using them to sell anything—the owner of the largest lolcat site quit his day job and is currently living off advertisements, having done nothing more creative than steal a joke from 4chan.
If one concedes the assumption that the Internet fosters new types of socialization, close examination of 4chan forces one to make an important caveat: even these novel communities come to exist within old paradigms. The paradigm, in this case, is the exploitation of marginal members of society—and that this exploitation is durable because the marginalized have, in the surprisingly common extreme cases, been conditioned to desire their own marginalization. The 4chan poster wants love, but he hates women; he wants friends, but all he knows how to do is make jokes; he wants to be accepted, but he insists on slavishly cultivating marginal tastes in art and sexuality. What the success of lolcats further shows is that, though the marginalized ratify their own suffering, this act is not separate from the long reach of capitalist exploitation. The boy recluse on 4chan just wants to be left alone to make some jokes; the rest of us are happy to grant his request, since his self-seclusion in anonymity involves forsaking his claims to our respect. And when even he does not demand respect, the continuation of the system in which he lives a miserable life, producing perhaps only one or two valuable things from which another profits, becomes morally tolerable.