What or who is 4chan? And why are they such utter douchebags? That is the train of thought that presents itself at news that 4chan, implicated in the leaking of nude photos of celebrities, is now apparently targeting Emma Watson, after the 24-year-old actress gave a rousing speech to the UN on Monday, not only addressing that favourite topic of the internet’s masses of misogynists, feminism, but daring to call for more men to take up the banner of gender equality.
The first question has an easy answer and a more complicated one. Simply, 4chan is an image-board website set up in 2003, by a 15-year-old insomniac. Posters start a thread with a picture; others can then comment. Loopiness runs right across the site. Users can lay some claim to setting the tastes of ‘the internet’: cats are, and have always been, big; trace the genesis of defining memes – Chocolate Rain, RickRolling - and you’ll end up somewhere in 4chan. Except, you may not. Old content on the site gets wiped to make space for the newer stuff – it’s up to other sites to archive what’s considered ‘valuable’; the jokes, the memes, the stolen nudes.
Then there’s /b/, the Random forum. It’s here that things can get a little ugly, and where the group (‘cultural movement’ is too flattering) known as Anonymous first took shape (users post as ‘Anon’ if they don’t specify a username). I spent a little time there about 5 years ago for a piece of coursework. It’s dirty and defiant about it: lots of porn, lots of racism, lots of sexism. If you object to such things, volubly, you a) won’t speak the same language of other users and b) will invite some fairly stiff abuse. Unsurprisingly, users are thought to belong predominantly in the young, white and male demographic. Humour ranges from the dark and funny to dark and hideously depressing.
It gets complicated when you try and define who or what Anonymous is. They are of course anonymous. Plus, there’s a loose hierarchy; when the group takes up a mass action – say, trying to shut down the Visa and Mastercard websites, in support of Julian Assange – the leaders work in tight-knit cells, then open their plans to the floor, so all the millions of other /b/ users can pile in. Gabriella Coleman, the foremost academic working on 4chan, reckons that something like a fifth of 4chan users are the ‘hackers’ that take precedence in media reporting, the rest, plain old geeks and freaks.
All of which is to say, it’s pretty hard to tell the exact parties responsible for “Emma You Are Next” message and the countdown clock expiring in a few days’ time. There’s no such thing as a 4chan project organised from on-high but it’s perfectly that the website was set up by one or two regulars on the board. Equally possibly, they’re bluffing: /b/ has a history of hoaxing, and BusinessInsider reckons that’s what’s going on here. What isn’t in doubt, however, is that a few users have posted some vile stuff about Emma Watson: “It is real and going to happen this weekend”, said one “That feminist b*** Emma is going to show the world she is as much of a whore as any woman.”
What also isn’t in doubt is that being nasty for the sake of it is a part of the /b/ forum’s identity. Lulz is how the site refers to hurtful pranks. In its early days, Anonymous was responsible for a fake epilepsy site that, when clicked on, flashed out strobe lighting in an attempt to cause seizures in sufferers. Site users may talk up their civic conscience (once, a cat-abuser was tracked down by the forum - once), but, if you stick your fork into one piece of the /b/ pie at any ordinary time of day, you’re unlikely to find people talking Moggie-care and Marxism.
And not only is the Emma Watson sting fairly middle of the road for /b/, the risks are not unique to celebrities. After Jennifer Lawrence’s pictures were stolen last month a similar site, AnonIB, came under scrutiny: it hosts an ‘obtainedpictures’ forum on which ‘I Cloud rippers’ post pictures they’ve hacked from ordinary women’s phones.
I’d bet most regular Anons won’t bat an eye at the hurt caused, and will more than bat an eye at any released pictures. That’s not to say the person behind the site is a representative of the 4chan or even the Anonymous identity. “It’s not a group”, one computer-security specialist told the New Yorker – more a shape-shifting subculture. (Far, far away from the /b/ forum, 4chan users recently raised money for a game development project aimed at bringing more women into the macho industry.)
Douchebags abound in the real world, but mostly keep quiet in public. Those that come to /b/ have free reign. The best way the rest of the world can respond to the dude or dudes that right now threaten Emma Watson is to treat them as small, real people doing a small thing, and, should they publish pictures, to ignore them too.