/r9k/: the Sibling of /b/ and how it works

I am going to lay out a case study on /r9k/, a board on the forum website 4chan. This study will apply first a brief overview of the foundational writings in Internet culture, and then an overview of how meatspace environmental design influences culture. After another brief interlude of Internet community theory, I will explore how the culture of /r9k/ is shaped by many of the forces identified by the aforementioned authors, drawing from my own ethnographic experience working in /r9k/. I will use the issue of race as the main specific focus of my discussion, although this work could well address issues such as gender and class if the scope were expanded. /r9k/ is a rich environment, and so for practical purposes, I am forced to selected from a cornucopia. I do not at all mean to deny the importance of intersectional evaluations, but that the complications and values in examining one intersection component shine light as to the potential for examining the community in full, accounting for all cultural components. My intention is to use the case study and the theory I do draw on to argue that the formation of online communities is neither purely the result of preëxisting, offline preferences; nor is it exclusively the result of technological determinism, the design wholly controlling the nature of the community. Both of these avenues are of shared importance to the formation of networked cultures.

/r9k/ mostly goes about minding their business, in the particular corner of the Internet they inhabit. Dwarfed on 4chan, it’s host website, by its bigger and more famous older sibling /b/; it’s never gets press. At least, not like the New York Times, CNN, Time and an endless string of other publications and channels that report on 4chan’s doing, which in all accuracy, refers to /b/’s doings. However, it is this insular privacy that makes /r9k/ so perfect for investigation. In some ways it’s perhaps the closest we can get to an uncontacted Amazonian tribe on the Internet. It’s there, people who share its basic geographic region (other 4chan boards) go there and know it, but the larger world hasn’t walked into the clearing. It’s low-key.

/r9k/ lacks the mass, gawking press around cultural items such as cosplay and hentei, which may not originate on 4chan but have a strong representation across the various boards. And it is that where the crux of my interest comes to play. What is /r9k/? It’s simple principle: OC [original content] only (in theory, at least) is supposed to keep it focused on content. This isn’t to say it’s devoid of memes—or even circulates them at a lower rate than elsewhere—or that other boards post OC slower than /r9k/, just that this is the jumping-off point. When compared to /pol/ for politics, /cgl/ for cosplay and EGL, /r9k/ is pretty ill-defined at origin. Even /b/ as “random” is explicit: anything. I believe this design-based culture is a very important thing to think about. The Robot 9000 algorithm—that filters out repeat content and stops it from posting, thus keeping it limited to OC—is what truly sets /r9k/ apart, and emphasizes how numerous other design features of 4chan craft its culture.{1}

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 4.20.38 AM

In 1996, during what was still the relatively nascent Internet, John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation published his now-famous Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. His rhetoric was echoing many of the same themes as the The Conscious of a Hacker (also known as the Hacker Manifesto) published a decade earlier in 1986, which states a fundamental ethos for hackers, “my crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like” (1986). However there is a careful nuance in what separates Barlow from The Mentor, for he writes that “we are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.” Barlow’s world is one crafted; The Mentor’s is undiscovered country. Barlow discusses the “global social space we are building” while The Mentor says that “we explore”.

This paradigm shift in the conceptualization of the Internet hasn’t been replaced yet. From Twitter and Facebook, to the comments on the New York Times, the Net is about creation. This exists in deep contrast to push back against Barlow’s other points regarding peacefulness, acceptance, and that cyberspace is “a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but is not where bodies live” (1996). It would be utterly ignorant to say that racism and sexism, grounded by definition in the existence of bodies, does not exist in great force on the Internet. It is all too easy to write Barlow off as well-intentioned, but ultimately privileged and worst of all, old. His, it is said, was an Internet not at all like are own for it lacked in great quantity the visual culture that has come to define the Internet of today.

But to assert that is to ignore his first point. The Internet was built, and so it was the technology that has come to shape our developed style of use of it. But we defined what limits it would put on us. A feedback loop so technological determinism is neither true nor false in this case. The visual Internet we have today is the product of our own design; we built the Internet to reflect the visual culture of the offline. 4chan is specifically built around this design choice against a highly visual impulse. The hacker ethos is fundamental to the code of 4chan. moot [no capital letters in the same] launched 4chan by copying the code and anglicizing it from popular Japanese website 2chan, also the namesake of 4chan. It is a design aesthetic guided by simplicity and ease of use, content above appearance (Coleman 2013). The act of hacker coding is speech, and so imbeds in it both by mere existence and by design functionality the politics of the creator (Coleman 2013). Coleman’s arguments about hacker culture work in concert with Winner’s theory on object politics. As he writes “technical systems of various kinds are deeply interwoven in the condition of modern politics” (1980:122). His example of a utility company building a power line serves well: “important controversies can remain [even after general approval] with respect to the placement of its route and the design of its towers” (Winner 1980:127). Cultures clearly influence design choices.

Accompanying this is a look at design choices being responsible for culture. As a brief example of what I mean, there is a sort of game played across 4chan that appropriates a built-in feature for a second purpose to approximate a coin flip or a 1-10 pseudo-random number generator. Each post includes the attribution to the now-famous “Anonymous”, the date and time of the post, and the post number. The post number counts all time posting for each particular board, across all threads on that board. Thus with activity across many threads in the board, it becomes impossible to predict exactly what number a post will be. People can effectively use this to flip a coin by using odd/even and pick 1-10 based on this same principle. Many games can be played with this, such as this Magic 8-Ball like game whose rules are included below; “dubs” refers to the two last digits being the same number. The design is shaping the culture, completing the circle. moot brought with him whatever politics and values he had learned from 2chan and embedded them in the design of 4chan, this in turn has bred and developed a new culture, and once learned future designs by those familiar with it reflect it.

Screen Shot 2014-12-10 at 10.09.10 AM

The most famous example of how identity has responded to platform design is the previously references “Anonymous”. This name accompanies (almost) all posts made on 4chan. It acts not as a name so much as a collective identity; the hacktivist organization Anonymous that took their name from this 4chan design feature reference this in their unofficial slogan: We are anonymous. (This is rooted deeply in traditional Internet culture, the last line of The Mentor’s “Conscience of a Hacker” reads “You may stop this individual, but you can’t stop us all… [Ellipsis in original] After all, we’re all alike.”) The two exceptions to this lack of identity take the form of ID’s on /b/ and tripcode. /b/ assigns an ID to each poster, persistent throughout a thread, but varied across threads. One can tell if they are conversing with the same person within a thread, but cannot tell if that person is the same person they are talking with across two threads. This design choice is unique to /b/ and is due to provide some order to the immensely fast-flowing chaos. Across all boards 4chan also offers a tripcode service. A tripcode is a hash of a chosen word or string of characters input when posting, thus providing some echo of fixed identity. However, these trip inputs are often simple to guess and they cannot be counted on to signal a reliable identity.

This general lack of persistent identity is critical to the formulation of 4chan culture at-large and thus /r9k/. As Jesse Daniels lays out, “new social movements are […] less formal, consisting of loosely organized social networks” (2009:49). In discussing Internet forum communities and forum-based social movements, Daniels also lays out a parallel breakdown of users who are either active or passive (known online as a ‘lurker’) (2009:50). And most of the Internet operates by this principle, posts made on registered

Passive(guests or visitors) Active(registered users)
supportive lurkers innovators, creators, and early adopters
       ”       “ sustaining members
curiosity-seeking lurkers supportive members
oppositional lurkers oppositional members

accounts are often also accompanies by the number of posts that account has made. Posters establish seniority and credibility this way. Interacting with a high post-count user, once is more likely to expect a response, and likely a thoughtful one. Many posts signals commitment to the community and a willingness to put in the time to contribute deeply to the conversation.

But /r9k/ is designed not to have this feature. When people claim the identity of “Robot” there is no verified difference between the most active, who would otherwise clearly fall into the “innovators, creators, and early adopters” box and a “curiosity-seeking lurker”. The opposite could also apply. Many threads are directed towards lurkers, asking them why they choose only to lurk, and for how long they have been lurking. Frequently, respondents to these posts will claim to have been lurking for a number of years, not just a short few days or weeks. In this dynamic, social signaling becomes particularly important. One must rely on linguistic signs, robbed of visual indicators of in-grouping.

/r9k/ is a board “focusing on experiences of social awkwardness, confusion and relationships at school or with family” (Knuttila 2011). These stories are often told by posters claiming to be male, and where Knuttila writes “relationships” it might be more appropriate to write lack of relationships. There is a strong sexual dynamic to a large portion of /r9k/’s content and terms such as KV (kissing virgin) and Chad (the named personification of the stereotypical ‘fraternity’, sexual active, alpha male). And while a reliance on language isn’t unique, it must be emphasized in /r9k/ due to the lack of personal images.{2} There is a long running joke on 4chan (as well as broadly across the Internet) about supposed Rule of the Internet, the most famous being ‘rule 34: There is porn of it, no exceptions.’ Likely the second best-known rule has a variable number but is always articulated thusly: ‘There are no girls on the Internet.’ (An extended corollary law follows the line that “On the the Internet all girls and guys and all children are FBI agents.”) While this rule is not taken literally, it is used as a rule of thumb; in a space where people can’t be seen online, the assumption is that they’re male.

I believe that this design, one conspiring against persistent identity, has worked to create a more tolerating community, but not wholly on its own. There is validation also in more recent theory—theory best defined in pushback to certain reading of Barlow. That people do not abandon their prejudices and preconceptions when going online, but look for communities that share in their interests: that the online is just an extension of the offline in many cases. Performance on a website such as Facebook is not unique when compared to offline social performance, but merely takes on an exaggerated form by offering more control and more ability for revision. The end goal, of presenting a certain enactment of personality is the same in all worlds.

The manifestation of offline lives is obvious in /r9k/: (a lack of) romantic-sexual relations revolves around the offline world. But people also bring in other opinions and concerns; race especially holds an important place in discussions of romance on /r9k/. What does it mean to be a racist, or to say racist things, in a world without race? Nobody sees each other on /r9k/. The tolerating feature of /r9k/ is that to pick a fight over a racist comment, when one admits to a racial preference in dating or friendship, is to pick a fight not with a racist but with racism itself. In the anonymizing, collectivizing, and aggregating platform of 4chan, an argument isn’t solo combat. You speak with however many voices back you up. If you’re ignorant of whether or not one or twenty people agree with you, it becomes meaningless to even try and differentiate your own arguments from the other concurrent voices. Nobody is writing in response to you specifically and the arguments you have laid out across multiple comments. One cannot write in response to any other single string of writing. Confronting racism on /r9k/ becomes the personification of acceptance, while the varied posts and comments defending racial preferences becomes a personified force of racism. Because racism is presented and confronted on /r9k/ it might seem contradictory to also say that it is a “tolerating” space, but it is because of the depersonalized nature of it that it is. No one-poster is guilty of it. It is pointless to even try an ostracize a poster. If they identify as a Robot before they identify as a racist, than the Anonymous identity and the Robot identity must be inclusive of them as a component of collective consciousness. One is able to melt back into the shadows to resume a faceless collective identity—nobody knows if another users chooses to jump around in activity level, like the rungs on Daniels’ forum user categorization.

In the following screenshot of a thread on /r9k/ several design features can be seen to be at play in a discussion of misogyny on the board. First, the OP is only named “Anonymous”, just as everybody else. The following voices, all largely concurring with each other, are inseparable in anything but post. There is no verification that these voices are actually different, and so the sensation of reading seems to becomes one of volume, the strength of numbers. Additionally, while posters can respond to previous comment, the thread isn’t broken down as it is on other websites like Reddit or comments on newspapers such as the Crimson. Everything all runs together into a single spill of words; there is no meaningful marking of asides or parsing. Its simple design scheme also is unlikely to attract a more style-conscious membership, it might be reasonable to argue that it runs counter to modern tendencies towards “user-centered design” in currently in vogue (Oudshoorn et.al 2004:30). Oudshoorn notes a shift from a design philosophy of an idealistic “everybody” to reliance on experimentation, a more scientific approach to user-friendly design as one of “key concepts that shaped […] design” (Oudshoorn et al. 2004:39). As 4chan self evidently lacks the experimental design philosophy (the coloring and layout and design hasn’t changed since launch) it embodies an antagonistic approach to the other concept of design for a preconceived everybody. It appears to rely on an approach of a design specifically for nobody. By making a site as unfriendly to modern taste as possible, it attracts a crowd for whom taste is of no concern—only as The Mentor put it, “judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like”.

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 4.24.18 PM

The tolerating nature ends at the end of the group identity. One of the other boards on 4chan is /pol/, the political board. The main directory page of 4chan names it “politically incorrect”. /r9k/’s reputation is that of sad, lonely individuals who are often blamed for their own social failures. /pol/’s reputation is not only that of horrific racism, but open white pride and white identity nationalism. /pol/ is home to both the far left, Communists and neo-Stalinists, and the far-right, who frequently invoke Nazi symbols and shed any coded language. As the louder voice, the far-right members of /pol/ are responsible for constructing its reputation. Members of /pol/ may refer to themselves as /pol/acks, equivelent to Robot for /r9k/ or /b/tard for /b/; they are frequently referred to by non-/pol/members as stormfags, a reference to their supposed cross-over with the user base of Stormfront, the largest white pride website on the Internet, known to the Southern Poverty Law Center as a website that “acts to nurture budding killers and give them moral support”. While active in posting racist ‘infograms’ abusing practices of selective image presentation and data manipulation and misrepresentation alongside outright invention of statistics, /pol/ users have not been known to actively promote violence in the same way as Stormfront.{4}

However, /pol/ was known for its intense and immeasurable racism and for organizing ‘raids’ where /pol/acks would go to other interest boards on 4chan and post content usually reserved for /pol/. These brief cases of spreading the intolerant culture of /pol/ won them no friends, even on /r9k/. /r9k/ manifested racism in a manner tied to personal narratives of dating and relationships, not as aggressive and militant hatespeech. On Sunday, December 7, 2014 moot announced that /pol/ would be closing, for the second time as the current incarnation has itself been a recreation of a previously deleted /pol/.{5}

Following this announcement there has been a great migration to other boards, amounting to a prolonged raid on the entirety of the rest of 4chan. /r9k/ has responded aggressively, attempting to drown out comments on any /pol/-style threads with comments demanding that they leave and take their hate speech with them.

The Robot identity, for all its flaws, is defined by its own virtual space. Its values have been crafted by the designed environment—perhaps as much by the fact that the most assertively racist had another space, /pol/ to congregate that kept them mostly away from /r9k/ as any of the particular design features of /r9k/ itself. In the geographic region of cyberspace made up of the large-forum website, 4chan and Reddit in particular, the specific features of /r9k/ set its identity as much apart and as well integrated as any state is alongside other countries of its continent and region. Community can be engineered, and the online world is ripe for manipulation and management. People may not be a blank slate when they connect to the Internet, but Internet is as a malleable to the programmer as the cityscape to the architect.

Footnotes:
{1} The Robot 9000 is both the namesake of /r9k/, short of Robot 9001 (itself a reference to popular Internet meme ‘over 9000‘) and those who claim an identity as a regular user or at least fellow traveler of /r9k/ go by the name ‘robot’, with the derivative ‘fembot’ used to refer specifically to females on /r9k/.

{2} Actually, /r9k/ is full of images. 4chan is, after all, an image board. With each new thread, the OP must include a picture—the text is optional. Subsequent responses are text and/or an image, however. While images can be posted, and while it is not unheard of, or even completely uncommon for them to be selfies or other personal photographs, the overwhelming majority are not. The platform design that has so many built-in anonymizing features has bred a culture where posting selfies is discouraged, as it would seem to defeat the point of using 4chan. For this reason also, users who post using tripcodes are often mocked and abused.{3} Attempting to establish a persistent identity is looked down upon. It might be anti-culture to try to be an individual on 4chan, but fundamentally the culture is reflecting values embedded in the technology and it becomes anti-platform. Indeed, the outing of an individual’s offline data is a feared event known as ‘doxxing’. The release of this information can result in anything form a massive ordering of pizza delivery to their home address, to death threats and harassment. It is also in part the fear of doxxing that serves to keep the community anonymous. The response to these anonymizing forces is the collectivizing force of group identity building in re-embodiment via a common form. Two generic faces, Pepe, a frog; and Wojak, a human face serve this purpose. There are literally thousands of redrawings, alterations, and reinterpretations of the basic Pepe image and the basic Wojak image. These derivative works place Pepe and Wojak into all sorts of expressive moods and imagined activities from existential sadness to cocaine use to comics enacting childish narratives revolving around crude fecal jokes, enabling users to express any conceivable urge. When there is a gap, a new one is created. There is no limit, and they are ever proliferating.

{3} The term tripfag is used to refer to posters who use tripcode, with the perjorative focus lying on the trip- half of the word. 4chan, across all boards, has turned -fag into a suffix that makes as a term into an identifying term. Noobs or newbies anywhere else on the Internet are referred to as newfags, old time 4chan users are oldfags. Another of the many -fags is for LGBTQ-identified individuals: gayfags. It is a term that can be both used with prejudice in the writing of a homophobe, or merely as an alternative group identifying term to LGBTQ. Words ending in -fag are not universally negative; many people proudly claim the title of oldfag and demonyms such as Australian have been replaced by Ausfag. Instead, one must be well versed in circumstantial usage and signalling to know if a particular word is negative or if its case-based use is. Tripfag can occasionally be just the term for one who uses tripcode, but is more often than not an insult because tripcode is looked down on. Within the confines of 4chan, the use of -fag has to be carefully evaluated—if one is looking for community standards, the word “faggot” is used exclusively in the pejorative way that both “fag” and “faggot” are offline.

{4} 4chan and its founder and head moderator moot have enforced an incredibly permissive view of free speech. The tendency is only to remove content that would get the website in trouble as a whole and potential force a closure, such as the distribution of child pornography. It was only after hefty legal threats that 4chan began responding to DMCA requests in response to the recent celebrity nude photo leak. Almost no other discussion is censored or limited.

{5} /pol/ has yet to be formally deleted as of writing. Instead, the design features of /pol/ have been destroyed so as to destroy a community while leaving the theoretical physical space intact. Visiting /pol/ now plays an unmutable loop of an audioclip discussing the sexual fetish of cuckolding; each post is now topped by a scrolling trigger warning, and captcha has been removed, effectively allowing spam and any throttling of post speed. Word filters have also been installed, changing certain words to others in the final post, obscuring meanings and when combined with the other changes, making posting almost pointless.

Bibliography

Barlow, John Perry
1996            A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. Online: Electronic Frontiers Foundation.

Coleman, Gabriella E.
2013            Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Daniels, Jesse
2009            Cyber Racism: White Supremacy Online and the New Attack on Civil Rights

Hatewatch Staff
2014            SPLC Report: Nearly 100 Murdered by Stormfront Users. Hatewatch. April 17, 2014.

Knuttila, Lee
2011            User unknown: 4chan, anonymity and contingency. First Monday 16(10):n.p.

Mentor, The
1986            The Conscience of a Hacker. Phrack 1(7):n.p.

Oudshoorn, Nelly, Els Rommes, and Marcelle Stienstra
2004            Configuring the User as Everybody” Gender and Design Cultures in Information and Communitcation Techonologies. Science, Technology, & Human Values 29(1):30-63.

Winner, Langdon
1980            Do Artifacts Have Politics? Daedalus 109(1):121-136.

Screenshots are not cited due to the impossibility of sourcing them. For screenshots of threads, the only available bibliographic information is contained within them: date and time of posting. For the rules of the rolling game, that image was pulled from 4chan on Sunday, December 7, 2014. It is impossible to attribute to an author and it can only be noted that it was found on 4chan, on /r9k/.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s