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July 30, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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To /b/ Or Not To /b/

Exploring the filthy depths of the internet

 

 
“It’s like walking in on your parents. You always suspected something was going on behind closed doors, but when you see it, it’s truly shocking, but for the life of you, you just can’t look away”.

These are the words of a user Salient spoke about the darker side of the internet. Lurking behind the pretty facade of Google’s and Facebook’s, Yahoo’s and Twitter’s, there is a seedier internet. It’s a world inhabited by criminals, pedophiles, and hackers—alongside everyday people just like you and I.

These fiercely insular communities are near-anonymous; a breeding ground for depravity allowed by the security and disconnection anonymity allows. It’s safe to say this element plays an enormous part in influencing user behaviour. The separation from immediate social consequences allows the darkest thoughts of the users’ minds to be expressed unfiltered, and their actions continue untroubled by any significant law-enforcement presence.

The most accessible avenue of the internet underworld is www.4chan.org.  4chan is an imageboard with 25 million monthly users, founded by then-15-year-old Christopher ‘moot’ Poole in 2003.

To a first time user, the site is bewildering. Navigation is less than intuitive, the advertisements for sexualised anime are bizarre, the lingo used cryptic and clique-ish. Each board has their own slang, their own in-jokes, their own cultures.

Misogyny and racism are par for the course, and the contempt with which female users are treated is inescapable. Women are sexualised objects; the most common request to a female user is “tits or GTFO” or, bewilderingly, “sharpie in pooper”.

A 4chan user Salient spoke to said these terms are used solely for effect: nigger, a common insult, is “used for shock value, everything there’s just shock value.”

The depravity does not stop at bigotry: “There’s heaps of fucked up shit, like gore porn and girls having sex with dogs and all sorts of cartoon animals fucking, you kinda get conditioned to it after a while”, one user told Salient. Users talk of becoming “jaded”. “You don’t realise how abnormal all the things you see are because in that world, they are normal”.

While ‘faggot’ and ‘fag’ are words bandied around on 4chan, they are used in a somewhat endearing sense as suffixes for self-descriptors: ‘newfag’ and ‘oldfag’ indicate the length of time users have been on the site, while, for example, Australians are ‘Ausfags’. While this is no place for a debate on the inherent homophobia within these terms, 4chan’s acceptance of homosexuality is visible through their Handsome Men, Cute Male, and Yaoi boards, the prevalence of gay meet up or rate threads, and the sheer volume of lesbian and transsexual porn.

The phrase “It’s not gay unless balls are touching” originated within 4chan’s random, or /b/, board. On face value it’s a humourous qualifier, but it also works on a deeper level as an ironic comment on heteronormativity and linguistic constructions. Indeed, the world of 4chan content-creation is often as brilliant as it is absurd.

Alongside the depravity, a more wholesome community flourishes. The content on the site varies widely across boards; collaborative interest-based boards exist for a wide range of topics including music, sports, art, 3D animation, science and math, fashion, food, literature and travel. One user described it to Salient as “a place where people also go to share their creations”.

As an internet user, you have undoubtedly been exposed to some of 4chan’s creations: lolcats, Rick Rolling, and Pedobear have all entered the online zeitgeist. Meme production is a fascinating expression of the collective community; an evolutionary process which can be witnessed in real-time if one is on the right board in the right thread at the right time.

Poole sees it as “riffing on a massive scale”. “One of the things that 4Chan does that’s really special is the way people come together to collaborate en masse. It’s the process at which you arrive at the product that is fascinating.” One user described it as “ the embodiment of free speech and expression on the Internet.”

With anonymity such a central aspect of these communities, it is hard to pin down the ‘average’ user. Fiercely insular, rule number one (and two) of the ‘Rules of the Internet’—a modus operandi of sorts for 4chan users—is ‘Do not talk about /b/’. The majority of users see more people joining 4chan as a bad thing.

Little is known about the community as a whole: gathering any sort of group data is contradictory to the main overarching principle of the site. In 2010 one user undertook a site survey—Poole cautions it should be “taken with a grain of salt”—which canvassed 8100 respondents. 1500 of these responses were identified as troll surveys removed for final analysis, testament to the culture of trolling which exists within 4chan. 75 per cent of respondents were between 13 and 15, 78 per cent were male, around a quarter identify as LGBTQ, 66 per cent are white. There are very few users who have graduated college. The homogeneity of the site perhaps contributes to the sexism and racism; groupthink being expressed through a hivemind 30,000 strong at any one time.

4chan is a niche site, yet it is squarely positioned on the surface level of the internet. Below the world wide web is the deep web, an online area likened to the part of the iceberg which sits below the surface, but on a much larger scale—the deep web is between 400 and 550 times larger than the surface world wide web. Though much of this is dynamically generated and inaccessible—for example, every email ever sent is there somewhere—parts of the deep web can be explored through the Tor network, which is near-completely anonymous.

Developed and financed by the U.S. government for secure military communications, its anonymity has made it a haven for criminals. It requires a specialised browser, from which access can be gained. Through homepage-of-sorts ‘The Hidden Wiki’, users can access various marketplaces: for drugs, child pornography, stolen credit card numbers, or assassins. These marketplaces use a secure online currency, ‘BitCoins’, to trade without the need for traditional central, traceable banking methods.

However, it’s not all fun and games: the Tor network is frequented by hackers, and users of the deep web are advised to use proxies, firewalls and air-tight anti-virus software. Placing tape over integrated webcams is necessary—your computer can be controlled remotely to spy on you.

To some degree, the lawlessness and  depravity found in such communities reflects the user requirements (which are practically non-existent).

To post on 4chan requires no log in. As for the deep web, anyone can gain access provided they download the Tor browser. Anonymity is the ultimate aim of the deep web—indeed Tor was designed with anonymity and high-level encryption as a central feature.

“What’s unique about [4chan] is that it’s anonymous, and it has no memory. There’s no archive, there are no barriers, there’s no registration”, Poole said in a 2010 TED talk. Poole attributes this anonymity to 4chan becoming a “discussion that’s completely raw, completely unfiltered”. The default username is—tellingly—simply ‘Anonymous’.

While 4chan is anonymous, if necessary users can be identified from site audit logs which trace back to an individual IP. In the past three years, multiple individuals have been reported to the authorities for uploading or downloading child pornography and prosecuted accordingly. Criminal proceedings have also stemmed from cyberbullying incidents, counterfeiting and threats to property and lives.

Not everyone appreciates the principle of anonymity: Facebook’s Randi Zuckerburg believes “anonymity on the Internet has to go away”. “People behave a lot better when they have their real names down…I think people hide behind anonymity and they feel like they can say whatever they want behind closed doors.”

Poole disagrees; to him, “anonymity is authenticity”. It lends itself to the creative process: “The cost of failure is really high when you’re contributing as yourself”, and anonymity allows outside-the-box thought to proceed unfettered by real-world implications.

Law enforcement trying to stop the evils spread through this software do run into difficulties, but remain positive. The British Metropolitan Police Central e-crime Unit “there are ways to get round [anonymising technology], and we do get round them. When you use the internet, something’s always recorded somewhere. It’s a question of identifying who is holding that information.”

Often, law enforcement comes not from legal authority but from within the community, vigilante-style. 4chan users are not afraid of taking the moral high ground, despite the company they share. The site is thought to be the origin of hacktivist group Anonymous, famous for attacks in support of Wikileaks, and in opposition of anti-internet freedom bills and Scientology. There is a phenomena called ‘pedo baiting’, where users enter online chatrooms posing as pedophile fodder in order to expose child molesters—this has led to a number of arrests.

In 2011, Anonymous revealed the names of 1,589 members of Lolita City, a child porn site which is hosted on the Tor network and contains over 100 gigabytes of child pornography.

The 4chan and deep web cabals are not wholly deviant, and often well-intentioned. To write them off as depraved and perverted is reductionist and to some degree, normative; while there are abhorrent elements in the underworld of the internet, often they overshadow a group of people who are your run-of-the-mill, Internet Explorer-using, Hotmail account-holding, average internet Joes.

These internet communities display the best and worst elements of society, providing a fascinating melting-pot of morality and intention which is constantly bubbling; seething with polar opposite interaction. It’s not pretty, and certainly not a world which provides much solace to those seeking to kindle any faith in humanity. The final word goes to a Victoria student, who—unsurprisingly—wished to remain anonymous:

“It’s definitely not a site I’d tell my mum about. And she walked in on me watching porn once, so that awkwardness is long gone. Let me tell you, what you’re asking about is a fucked up place, but it’s something you have to be a part of to understand”. ▲

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