Internet 50th Anniversary/Brief History of the Anon Subculture
"I have a terrible feeling that your children, by the time they are my age, would be barely recognizable to me as human, so permanently jacked in to The Great Mind will they be."--John Perry Barlow.
The Internet, a worldwide network of computers and other devices, was invented in 1969, when it was called ARPANET and was used by the Department of Defense for advanced research projects. The National Science Foundation got in on the act in 1982, and created a network of university computers for transmission of scientific data. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1990, which for the first time allowed text and pages to be sent on the Internet through an easy-to-comprehend protocol. The release of Windows 95 brought the Internet to the masses, and now here we are today.
Or that's the "official" story. The reality is that then as now there was an "unofficial story" of the Internet.
Communication has always been a principal need of all people, fast communication even more so. Once with telegrams communication reached the maximum speed physically attainable but still required professional operators, the focus turned to making communication more accessible by the average person. Thus telephone systems turned from hand-cranked to operator-switched to rotary-dialed. But it didn't take a genius to realize that the same lines over which sound encoded as electrical energy traveled, could also carry much more compact text encoded as electrical energy.
While precursors were used as far back as the 1920s, the first real modems were invented in 1958, to coordinate a NATO response to a Soviet air attack on the United States when the telegram would almost certainly not work fast enough, not to mention the postal service. Through the 1960s and 1970s communication by modem was limited to a few, because of the high cost of computers and the difficulty of using modems. This situation was changed by two things: the introduction of cheap personal computers, such as the "1977 Trinity" and the Commodore 64, and the invention of the Hayes Smartmodem.
The "1977 Trinity": the Apple II, the TRS-80, and the Commodore PET 2001, could fit on desks easily, were affordable, and were (comparatively) easy to operate. While their producers had hopefully marketed them as being fit for such ambitious purposes as personal financial management and home automation, they fell far short of expectations. Nevertheless, even though their operation required no small degree of skill, many of their owners programmed games and other applications on them, remarkable given they only had a few kilobytes of RAM (about a sixth the length of this chapter represented as pure text.) While fervor for them among the general public soon died down, a minority of the population stuck with computers. Snowed in during a snowstorm in the winter of 1978-79, Ward Christensen invented the first bulletin board system (BBS).
The Hayes Smartmodem, invented in 1981, could be connected up to any personal computer and then to the phone lines of the world, and controlled by a versatile set of AT commands. It only sent 300 bits per second (a character, meaning an individual letter, space, or symbol, is 8 bits) but even so people still found ways to take advantage of it to communicate. The first BBSes were firmly anchored to their local communities and contained only spaces for people to write messages and numbers of BBSes further afield.
Of course, it was the last part that drove the most improvement in internet culture. If you were curious of a BBS on the other side of the country, you had to communicate with them through phone lines, which meant paying the phone bills, which could be exorbitant, since the Bell System had a virtual monopoly on telephone service at the time. So people came up with ways to make calls for free and started calling themselves "phreaks." The addition of a remote way to connect to corporate computer systems also meant that people would try to "hack" into them, for fun or for profit. These were the first "hackers": a label that is now discarded as a cliché by even the mainstream media, but at that time they were the symbol of the Internet for many ordinary people, and must be credited for setting the Internet on a path of suspicion, if not outright opposition, to corporate and governmental authority, which large parts of it still walk on.
And that is justified, because the users of the Internet were never huddled masses of good-for-nothings yearning to receive government technology handed to them on a silver platter. When in 1973 the government-supplied modems for accessing a sort of primitive message board, Community Memory, sent only 100 bits per second, Lee Felsenstein designed a homemade modem and built it from spare parts, calling it the "Pennywhistle." It was much cheaper than the government-provided Omnitech, and sent 300 bits per second. And so it was that in 1980, when ARPANET, with its strict rules forbidding the use of "electronic mail" and "anything which is not in direct support of Government business", was not available for social and recreational purposes, two graduate students invented Usenet.
Usenet resembles IRC except articles and posts (collectively termed news) are permanent. News is posted to an individual news server, and at regular intervals the news server synchronizes with all the other news servers connected to Usenet to bring the latest news to its users. News on Usenet is sectioned into "newsgroups", just like chat in IRC is partitioned into "channels", and unlike websites, where the most important part (.gov, .edu, .org or the country subdomain) is at the end of a domain name, with less important elements towards the start, in Usenet the top-level hierarchy of newsgroups begins at the start of a newsgroup hierarchy (comp. for computers, news. for meta discussion, sci. for science, rec. for recreation, soc. for socializing and social issues, talk. for religion and politics, humanities. for literature and philosophy, misc. for others, and alt. for newsgroups unapproved by the administration.)
Since in the 1980s Usenet was available mainly on university campuses, every September, when an incoming class of freshmen would have to be educated in the etiquette of Usenet by returning students, was dreaded by the old users. In September 1993, which would be called for all time in Usenet folklore as the "September that never ended", when AOL began to offer access to Usenet, a never-ending influx of new users began. This torrent of new users wiped much of the old culture out, but enough stayed to trickle down and be the base of the culture of the nascent World Wide Web.
While Usenet was a true confederation of equal and independent servers, and required the agreement of the owner of every one of them to cancel any given message, one disadvantage its protocol brought with it was that servers were expensive and difficult to operate. In 2011, Duke University and the University of North Carolina, the first two universities that adopted it, closed down their Usenet servers. Now there is nothing to do but admire the few remaining stalwarts who remain steadfastly committed to this last bastion of simplicity and liberty, and be filled with regret at how little they are appreciated in this day and age.
Modems improved in speed through the 1980s, meaning BBSes could now share files, and eventually graphical user interfaces (GUIs), where interaction with the system was by the use of buttons instead of typed commands, supplanted the old command-line systems. While previously many BBSes had real-time chat interfaces, Jarkko Oikarinen, a student at the University of Oulu, invented IRC, the first real instant messaging system in 1990. Servers could now be devoted exclusively to chatting, and connected worldwide to form a network. Unfortunately, the first IRC network broke apart months after formation due to policy disagreements, thus ensuring that communication would never flow as free as information on the Internet of the future.
All those who were looking for a place to transcend humanity's psychological limitations in cyberspace were disappointed. The IRC network split, split, and split again, and was subject to high ping times, gross mismanagement, frequent "netsplits", and anarchy, tyranny, or worse, a combination of both, ominously foreshadowing what was to come to all Internet communities. The supposed compromise between liberty and safety, while almost never true in real life, resurfaced itself again and again on the Internet, between liberty (of expression) and safety (of emotions). In all but very few cases, the only alternative to an abusive environment was a tyrannical moderation; and the only alternative to a tyrannical moderation was an abusive environment. Few were, and are, the communities that manage to get the balance "just right", and compounding this is that every person defines "just right" for them differently. This is a problem we continue to grapple with in the 21st century, and will probably never cease as long as the brains behind every comment were adapted for life in the savanna as hunter-gatherers 20,000 years ago.
All in all, John Perry Barlow's rebuke to the "Governments of the Industrial World" in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace that "You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces," was not an act of childish grandstanding; rather it was an accurate statement of the formation of the culture of the Internet, if not its infrastructure.
But the other piece of the puzzle happens on the other side of the Pacific. The Japanese economy, which had been booming for the past four decades, suddenly collapsed to the shock of all observers in the early part of the 1990s. Fortunately, Japan had developed a high-technology based economy in that time, which enabled it to ride out the storm, although not undamaged. The Japanese people proved to be as enthusiastic adopters of the new methods of communication and socialization as any others, and created a variety of BBSes relating to topics obscure, illegal, or both. The biggest one among these was called Ayashii World. Many sites used its name, but one, owned by Masayuki Shiba, was the oldest (it was founded in 1995), largest and most influential.
Unable to control his runaway userbase, Shiba closed his website down in 1998, citing legal threats, and pressured all other owners of websites that used the Ayashii World name to close down as well. The userbase, which by that time had ballooned to an appreciable size, scattered in all directions, but eventually some settled down in a BBS called Amezou. Unlike Ayashii World, posts on Amezou were grouped into threads, and could be bumped (brought to the top) or saged (left alone), in a way that would not be unfamiliar to users of 4chan today. Amezou was retroactively christened "The First Channel". While Ayashii World was, after a torturous series of temporary homes, refounded, its users would have no substantial influence on those who ended up on Amezou anymore.
At this point the reader must excuse the digression, but it is one that was formative of a large part of chan culture.
In the summer of 1998, an animated television series by the name of Serial Experiments Lain aired on TV Tokyo. It describes a teenaged girl called Lain who receives an email from a girl in her class who had supposedly killed herself. Through the email, she gradually discovers that there is a whole network of devices and other receptacles of intelligent thought, called the "Wired". Eventually, she finds out that she is a program given a human body, with the purpose of seamlessly integrating the Wired together with real life.
Her creator, Eiri Masami, claims to be a god in the Wired, complete with a group of followers called the Knights. He tries to convince her to abandon her body and carry out the mission, but she refuses and releases the identities of all the Knights to the Wired, who are killed almost instantaneously. She then erases the memories everyone except her friend Arisu has of her. Arisu pleads with Lain to remove her memories. At first, she refuses, but while she is talking with Arisu, Eiri manifests himself as a grotesque beast and tries to crush the two. Lain asks him why he is using physical force if he preaches abandoning the flesh, and he disappears under this wave of facts and logic. Distraught over what she has done to Arisu, she resets the world without her. She pays the grown-up Arisu one last visit, telling her and the audience "I will always be there," and the series ends with that.
Its creators never expected it to "go mainstream", given the avant-garde subject of which it treats, and it is a wonder it even managed to get a timeslot. It never became as popular as mainstream works of anime, such as Pokemon, which were being made around the same time, in part due to its inconvenient time slot (beginning at 1:15 am before Monday mornings). But it gained a cult following, and spread to Europe and the English-speaking world.
In 1998, Hiroyuki Nishimura founded 2ch. It was originally a reference to how the display of a game console, when connected to a television set, would show on channel 2, but later it was explained as being the "Second Channel" when Amezou was the first. When Amezou collapsed in 1999, many users from Amezou tried to found new websites that emulated Amezou's posting style, but some found their way to 2ch, just like how some had found their way to Amezou when Ayashii World collapsed. Since Hiroyuki was attending the University of Central Arkansas at the time, the server was also located there.
Under Gertz vs. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974), plaintiffs must prove allegedly defamatory matter about "private figures" was false, and that the defendant published it with negligence as to whether it was true, to receive any damages. About "public figures" the rule is that the plaintiff must show "actual malice", which is defined to mean, in New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), "with knowledge of falsity or with reckless disregard of its truth"; "reckless disregard" is clarified as "a subjective standard", requiring the defendant to have "actually entertained serious doubts as to the veracity of his publication" in St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727 (1968). The "actual malice" rule also obtains when the plaintiff wants "punitive damages", that is damages over and above compensating him for the injury to his reputation, even if he is a "private figure".
The US Supreme Court has struck down all state laws imposing a more stringent standard on defendants as against the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution. This is in contrast to the situation in most other countries, where the defendant has the burden of proving defamatory matter was true, and in some cases "with good motives and to justifiable ends," and if he fails to do so he is at fault for libel even if he had done everything he could to verify the defamatory matter.
I hope I have educated the reader with this tangent, or if not, at least interested him. But anyway, if there's one thing to take away from this, it's that the difficulty of suing 2ch for defamation was the key to it staying afloat for so long. 2ch developed a thriving culture (who can forget the "Train Man"?) but it could only post text. And for some, only posting text was not enough when broadband connections were beginning to make loading images fast and easy. In addition, 2ch was on the verge of breaking apart as well.
That's why, in 2001, Futaba Channel was founded, meaning "two leaves" in Japanese. It was the second imageboard, or website allowing both images and text, in Japanese (the first was founded in 1997, and was momentarily successful, but the time was not ripe for one then.) It was also called 2chan. There were also people from foreign countries, including a young Moot, there, but this brief blossom of interaction was blown away when both Futaba and 2ch blocked all non-Japanese IPs. But the importance that 2ch gained in the Japanese internet, based on a very unique set of cultural circumstances, cannot be restated enough. It became as popular as it was, and remains as popular as it is, because the Japanese honor-based culture made it almost impossible to express one's real thoughts and feelings without fear of social ostracism, with a real name or even pseudonymously.
Even still, word of Futaba Channel had spread all over a site called Something Awful, where payment was required to view and post, especially one of its subforums, Anime Death Tentacle Rape Whorehouse, as well as many other IRC channels. In February 2003, an imageboard called world2ch was created; its creator wanted to make an imageboard where English and Japanese speakers could intermingle with each other. He succeeded, but surprisingly the Japanese were not that good at English. This is more than can be said for the Americans though, as at least the Japanese would have learned English in school. This would last until 2006, when it also collapsed.
It is intriguing to note that if a 15-year-old geek hadn't wanted a unique domain name for his own email, none of what follows upon it would have happened.
His name was Christopher Poole, though posters on 4chan wouldn't know that for a long time to come. He was a regular of #raspberryheaven, an anime-centered IRC channel that despite that looked down upon those "otakus" that proclaimed their hobby everywhere. And he would end up working for the same people the community by that time had grown to despise.
But posters on 4chan wouldn't know that for a long, long time to come.
4chan was founded on October 1, 2003. The first two boards were /a/ (now Anime and Manga, at the time Anime/General) and /b/ (now simply Random, at the time Anime/Random). The large amount of traffic, and the taste for socially unacceptable and borderline illegal content among its posters caused it to go down and switch providers very frequently. But the administration of Something Awful were overly ban-happy. Most people who were banned by a free website and wanted to return would just make a sockpuppet account. That wasn't too practical for the average Internet user, who then as now couldn't spare $10. So they came to the new 4chan and found their friends all united by the "Anonymous" name. Many Japanese also came to 4chan because they were curious, and the Japanese page on 4chan remains even today as a relic of that era.
Before, the default name on imageboards had always been translated "Nameless." Moot chose to translate it as "Anonymous", and this would be the standard for all English imageboards to come.
4chan shut down in the summer of 2004, and this shutdown was long compared to the others. Some people took Futaba's code as Moot had and made their own imageboards. 1chan, which is now exclusively about trains, dates from that time. It is interesting to notice that W. T. Snacks, who was a mod on 4chan around that time, made a website coincidentally called 8chan.
When it came back, it finally attained stability. 4chan was still a relatively obscure website, where threads lasted for days even on /b/. The preference for anonymity formed around this time too, with "anon" taking the place of "guy" as an indefinite substitute for "person", and "tripfag" (one who used a special code which would turn into a hashed version of it when posted, to distinguish his posts) becoming a derogatory term. Starting with a raid on EBaumsworld, /b/ became much more aggressive, and was willing to "raid" other websites simply "for teh lulz" (for fun).
On October 30, 2005, Moot took away the server access privileges of one of the main mods of 4chan, W. T. Snacks, after a long argument on IRC in which he was accused of being a "lazy mod". While W. T. Snacks was resented while he was there for being too ban-happy, he is now fondly remembered for, in the words of his page on the Encyclopedia Dramatica, "keeping the faggots out of 4chan, as you would get royally pawned by his (her?) banhammer at any sign of a shitpost." When he returned in August 2006 he was welcomed. (Knowing ED, though, the reader is advised to take this with a pinch of salt, or better yet a whole saltshaker.)
4chan grew and grew, but /b/ grew to an outsized board in comparison with the others. While this may not have been the best time in 4chan history, this is the time most remember, or at least pretend to do. Several raids took place, the most memorable of which was the Great Habbo Hotel Raid of 2006, when posters on /b/ dressed up as black people in suits and ties, called themselves "nigras", blocked the entrance to the pool saying "pool's closed due to AIDS", and formed swastikas. (The effects of this raid were so far-reaching that even a decade after it happened you could still be instantly banned for dressing up like they did a decade ago.) But after an ambitious plan to raid all furry websites on the internet, Moot had had enough. He tried to enforce the rules there and ban raiding, but that only led to child pornography spamming. Shortly after, /b/ crashed. Most of its users went to 7chan.
While 4chan/b/ did return before long, chan culture, like the English language after 1776, would not anymore be concentrated under one administration, but would forever after be dispersed over many different independent ones. After Fox News reported on 4chan/b/ as "hackers on steroids" and "the internet hate machine", a large flow of Internet users from many different websites went to /b/. The summer of 2007 would go down in history, using the derisive term for new user of /b/, as the "newfag summer".
But 4chan survived, and even prospered. The year after, 2008, a giant raid began on /b/ against the Church of Scientology, for their alleged child abuse and exploitation of its members, but the straw that broke the camel's back for them was they had tried to censor an interview with the actor Tom Cruise about Scientology. For anons, however much they may relish posting "jailbait", are the least capable of countenancing actual crimes against children, and the most jealous of their rights to freedom of expression and information, of all. This was called Project Chanology. While at first they used their typical tactics, distributed denial-of-service attacks and ordering pizzas, they soon realized that the war against them would be one of "hearts and minds".
And so, unlike anything before or since, as a community they changed of their own volition. Wearing Guy Fawkes masks, famous for their use in the film V for Vendetta, they protested in front of Scientology buildings, asking passersby to research the deaths of people attributed to Scientology. And it worked--too well. The media gushed at their supposed reform to more conventional methods of expressing dissent. This drew a large number of people who wanted to harness the supposed power of Anonymous for "moral" causes, who were referred to pejoratively as "moralfags". This brief flexing of muscles, while spirited as any, dissipated quietly around the end of 2008.
And the Church of Scientology still stands, a cruel mockery to the efforts of brave anons against this tyrannical cult, and a reminder to all its successors of the value of persistence and unity.
There was also a crippling civil war over a teenage girl called Boxxy, that contributed to sapping the resolve of /b/ over 2009. Those hackers who still wanted to do justice would form their own identity called "Anonymous", and be ridiculed by users of the chans as "maskfags" before fading into irrelevance. Of course, even as /b/ hit rock bottom they continued to be capable of amazing feats, such as manipulating TIME magazine's Person of the Year poll to read "Marblecake also the game".
In 2008, Randall Munroe, known for creating the webcomic XKCD, wrote a blog post in which he detailed a solution to deal with cliques and noise in large online communities—a problem that= they have always been plagued with. He examined entry requirements, moderators, peer moderation, and splinter communities, finding them all wanting. He originated an alternative solution: in his words, "a bot with access to the full channel logs could kick you out when you repeated something that had already been said. There would be no 'all your base are belong to us', no 'lol', no 'asl', no 'there are no girls on the internet'. No 'I know rite', no 'hi everyone', no 'morning sucks.' Just thoughtful, full sentences."
The bot was named ROBOT9000, and instead of kicking people out, muted them for two seconds, quadrupling for every subsequent violation. The mute duration reset after six hours. Moot borrowed the concept and made a board called /r9k/ utilizing the same mode, where exact reposts were not allowed. Over time /r9k/ would develop a unique culture, based around people embracing their not being able to obtain girlfriends, or to be as physically attractive as other men.
From this point onwards, it is impossible to tell the history of 4chan distinctly from the history of the Internet: the rise and fall of the "Social Justice Warrior", the "brony" (adult male fans of the TV series "My Little Pony"), and the "Alt-Right" mirror similar trends on the Internet at the time. Many cultural phenomena that are now fixtures in chan culture, such as "/sp/ get", emerged in the early 2010s.
The Gamergate controversy, where people who wanted to discuss video games overly pandering to feminists felt they had been censored by the moderation on 4chan, caused a large storm of dissension to take place there. Many people fled to 8chan, an imageboard created the year before, whose only rule was that content illegal in the United States could not be posted, and which allowed users to freely make their own boards, to continue their investigation of the matter. They moved from 8ch.net/gg/ to /gamergate/ to /gamergatehq/, as the first two boards fell to the Gay Nigger Association of America, an amorphous group of trolls. Several "exoduses" took place from 4chan, earning 8chan a firm place as the second largest English imageboard, and an undoubted right to refer to 4chan pejoratively as "halfchan" and 8chan proudly as "fullchan".
Tired of being the center of attention, Moot resigned as 4chan admin in 2015, passing the stick to Hiroyuki Nishimura, the founder of 2ch. Hiroyuki himself had been deprived of the ownership of 2ch by Jim Watkins, who later also bought up 8chan from Fredrick Brennan, a disabled American living in the Philippines, after his attempts with hiring Joshua Moon, the founder of Kiwi Farms, to improve the software failed miserably.
In 2016, on the politics boards of both 4chan and 8chan, there was an awakening of nationalist and populist sentiment. They viewed the successful "Leave" result in the referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain in the European Union in mid-2016, and Donald Trump's victory in the United States presidential election of 2016, as great triumphs for their philosophy. For better or worse, their users and memes spread throughout the chans, if not the larger Internet, and influenced the culture of every board.
In 2019, after multiple mass shootings the perpetrators of which had posted on 8chan and been encouraged by its users, CloudFlare, the service provider for 8chan, decided to terminate service for it. Another company agreed to provide service, but the power company that supplied that company's servers terminated service in turn. As of time of writing 8chan does not exist, and it has been confirmed by Watkins that it will never exist again.