On Sunday, August 31, the Internet blew up when nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence, Kate Upton and multiple other celebrities surfaced on the web. This online explosion began on 4chan.
Up until a few days ago, it was unlikely that you had ever heard of 4chan. You may still have no idea what it is, but you've probably at least seen the name in multiple headlines surrounding the leaks.
If you are still unfamiliar with 4chan, you're not alone. In fact, it's apparent that even CNN is having trouble figuring out just what or "who" 4chan is.
The hacker known as 4Chan better watch out. CNN’s crack investigative team is googling as hard as they can to uncover his identity. — Lee Hutchinson (@Lee_Ars) September 2, 2014
Just to be clear, 4chan is not a person. CNN could have spent about five minutes on Google to figure that out.
Likewise, there are good reasons for everyone to know about 4chan, and its connection to the dark side of the Internet.
What is 4chan?
4chan is an online messaging board where all users are anonymous. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, users do not have to submit an email address or any other personal information.
It's basically an online bulletin-board, a series of forums in which people can communicate and share things without revealing their identities.
According to its homepage:
4chan is a simple image-based bulletin board where anyone can post comments and share images. There are boards dedicated to a variety of topics, from Japanese animation and culture to videogames, music, and photography. Users do not need to register an account before participating in the community. Feel free to click on a board that interests you and jump right in!
4chan was created in 2003 by Christopher Poole, who was 15 at the time. He modeled the site after an anime website called 2chan. Initially, he ran the site in secret, but eventually felt inspired to come out as the creator.
In 2011, when Poole was 23, he claimed that 4chan had grown so much that it had close to 12 million viewers a month. At this point, the site claims to get nearly 20 million unique visitors and 540 million page views each month.
Poole has capitalized on this success with a career in public speaking.
Despite the controversy surrounding 4chan, Poole has defended the anonymity of his users, claiming that it fosters creativity. During a TED conference in 2010, Poole stated:
Sites like it [4chan] are kind of going the way of the dinosaur right now. They're endangered because we're moving towards social networking, we're moving towards persistent identity. We're moving towards, you know, a lack of privacy, really.
After the release of these celebrity photos, the irony of this statement is astronomical. It seems that Poole may be out of touch with the monster he has created. 4chan is the Pandora's Box of the Internet.
The Dark Side Of 4chan: The Message Board Known As /b/
4chan had very innocent beginnings, but it grew into something very sinister over time. In fact, 4chan can be credited with the birth of the infamous online hacking group, Anonymous.
While some affiliates of Anonymous now claim to have no association with 4chan, they do not deny that their movement began on the website.
@antinorac 4Chan has no affiliation with Anonymous. We disbanded eons ago. — TheAnonMessage (@TheAnonMessage) September 2, 2014
Thus, the nature of the relationship between 4chan and Anonymous is unclear at present. According to Rob Walker from Slate:
Anonymous traces its roots to the infamous /b/ message board on 4Chan.org... 4Chan has been around since 2003, and it’s hard to pin down when and to what degree some of the people posting as Anonymous began to think of themselves as a de facto entity of the same name. That said, some of the images and phrases now associated with the group were clearly circulating on 4Chan by 2007, when a rather sensational local Fox News report depicted Anonymous as “a hacker gang,” and offered a scary assessment of wanton Internet cruelty and destruction.
Indeed, 4chan has been the catalyst for a number of troubling events on the Internet. As much as Poole might contend that the website offers a chance for people to communicate without fear, he should also acknowledge the more troublesome side of his creation.
When it first started, 4chan had two message boards. One was designated for discussions surrounding anime, and was called: /a/.
The other message board was for everything other than anime, and was known as: /b/.
While /b/ initially began as something that helped people create memes, it evolved into a medium for trolling, harassment and bullying.
Due to the fact that 4chan allows users to remain anonymous, they are not afraid to post gruesome and disturbing content. Furthermore, instead of archiving conversations, /b/ immediately deletes them when new content arrives. This has led to fast-paced and chaotic interactions, as well as complete and utter anonymity.
Hence, /b/ has played host to everything from violent pornography to photos of dead people and obscenely racist content. In fact, many users seem to actively encourage misogyny, racism and general intolerance.
Simply put, /b/ is a haven for the depraved.
The sheer power and influence that 4chan is able to wield online is difficult to deny and often goes beyond the Internet. The site is credited with creating one of the better-known Internet memes, Lolcats, pictures of cute cats paired with quirky, misspelled captions... But the site is often at the root of much mayhem on the Internet. Members taunted the family of a teenage suicide victim. A few years ago, members on the site started a rumor that Steven P. Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, had suffered a heart attack, causing shares of the company to plummet. More recently, some 4channers initiated a Web attack that brought down PayPal, Visa and Mastercard, after those sites cut off donations to WikiLeaks, the whistle-blowing site.
Poole has attempted to ban users who habitually post graphic and offensive content, and often tries to isolate explicitly sexual content. Yet, it is very difficult to prevent long-term abuse on a website that condones anonymity.
The Internet Is Our Responsibility
Thus, what happened to Jennifer Lawrence and the other individuals impacted by the photo leaks was disgusting. Yet it was hardly the first instance in which 4chan was behind abhorrent and harmful acts.
The Internet is an incredibly powerful entity. It literally has the capacity to destroy lives. Yet, it can also be used as a force for good.
Likewise, the Internet is constantly evolving, and we must all strive to understand it. Anyone could fall victim to its perils, but with the proper knowledge and preparation, this does not have to happen.
Eliminating online abuse altogether is likely impossible, but collectively we can work to ensure that it occurs less frequently. The first step in this endeavor is acknowledging that your information and privacy is at risk, and learning how to protect it in this era of online intrusion.