A well-researched article in the German print magazine c't featuring 4chan's /b/ accurately describes /b/ and its ancient history. It caused /b/'s title to be changed to DAS TROLLPARADIES. A translation can be found below. By far and away, it likely implicates the author in both lurking moar and doing actual research. It is undetermined which is the larger crime. c't magazine is the most subscribed computer magazine in all of Europe, meaning the article is serious business.
The Troll Paradise
An Internet subculture evolves from a web annoyance to a global movement.
Through virtual raids on other websites, the online forum 4chan became known as the shithole of the Internet. Now the anonymous horde picked itself a new target: The sect Scientology. Worldwide protest marches introduce a new audience to that site.
It's Friday evening, February 15th 2008, and nothing is going on in the Hello-Kitty-Online (HKO) forums. HKO is an online roleplaying game in a candy-look for children and teenagers which is still in its beta phase. The forums are supposed to be a place to discuss the game as an effective way for advertisement.
But apparently Kittenmewmew and Shiningstarsarah are not alone in there. Kitten expectantly clicks on a new thread. The first two replies are cryptic nonsense. Mudkips? That's one of those creatures from Pokemon. She scrolls a bit further down. A nice little boy smiles at her... he's not wearing a shirt... and no pants either...
In the next few hours the HKO community is buried in a whole avalanche of pictures: An unknown person repeatedly posts the same high-resolution book cover - which is a few screen pages long. Someone else creates a mosaic from pornographic GIF-animations and pictures of scat-fetishists. One of the raiders stays at least a bit on topic: He fills his posts with a brown-clothed Hitler-Kitty lifting its paw in a Nazi salute.
Shiningstarsarah sounds the alarm: Some people are uploading completely inappropriate pictures! But there is no one else. Who would do something like that? Kittenmewmew quickly finds something in common in the names of the posters. "I just googled. Anon is Anonymous, isn't it? You are the good guys fighting Scientology. Why do you stain your name with stuff like that????" The classification is correct, the assumed motives are not. The uncomprehending outcry provokes the vandals to continue with their posting flood.
On Saturday an Admin probably took a closer look at the forum, as it got taken offline for a week. This is exactly what the initiators of this mischief call "Epic Win", a legendary victory. But in the heat of the battle one of these anonymous people broke rules 1 and 2. His subject line reveals who started all this: "WWW.4CHAN.ORG". Those unofficial rules originate from the movie "Fight Club": First rule, do not talk about 4chan. Second rule, do not talk about 4chan. 4chan does not hold the status of an Internet secret anymore, though. The site is the biggest English imageboard. Imageboards are web-forums the primary focus of which is the posting of pictures.
The structure and software is modeled on the Japanese image board "Futaba Channel". Everything that moves is discussed in over 100 forums by young people (juvenile or teens could also be correct): Music, movies, animals, cars, pornography. The often bizarre pictures early awakened the interest of many Americans. An active contribution is hindered by two big hurdles: the language-barrier and an IP-filter.
A forum-member of the humor website "Something Awful" got an idea to create an English-speaking counterpart in 2003. Just like in the Japanese original, everyone can contribute on 4chan: Anonymous contribution is not just possible, it's the standard.
Altogether, 4chan provides over 40 imageboards in 6 categories. Like the Futaba-Channel, 9 boards concentrate on Japanese popular culture, including Anime and Manga, Cosplay and giant robots. 18 forums deal with miscellaneous hobbies and special interests ranging from Origami and photographing to cars, weapons and sports. The adult boards contain the usual topics, including lots of Japanese pornography.
In every area, mods watch over compliance with the rules: Relevance to the topic, more or less articulate postings, no posts against the law. If someone breaks the basic rules, the mods do not hesitate. If someone spams the topic with nonsense or posts illegal content, he will be kicked out, or "b&" (banned). His IP will get on a blacklist, so that he cannot access the board except for a page where both the length of his ban and the reason for it are displayed.
The forum itself features the message "USER WAS BANNED FOR THIS POST" in bold red letters below the relevant posting - a warning for potential imitators. Small transgressions are punished with a ban lasting three to five days, in serious cases the user gets locked out from the server for good. Some comply with the punishment, others sneak back onto the forum having changed their IP, cruising towards their next ban.
Most forums feature ten pages with ten threads each. Threads with new postings get pushed onto the main page, while those without any response go back until they disappear from the server. 4chan does not provide an archive - gone means gone.
The most popular board, however, is the board "Random", known among the users as "/b/". The motto here is: anything goes, or at least almost anything. Moderators react only to very serious offenses. For fist-timers, the things that can be seen going on here could be too much to take: hardcore pornography appears tame in comparison. It is not without a reason the regular users call themselves "/b/tards" - "retard" meaning "retard" in English.
The Meme Machine
[below LOLcat images] The two cats that started everything. Now the cat memes have spread into the Internet mainstream.
In /b/, Anonymity is not an option, it is forced. The obligation to give up your identity establishes an unusual system of social dynamics: One who cannot stand out among his peers through his name, must do so through his deeds.
Most of these deeds happen inside of /b/. Image boards provide the unique possibility to not only respond to each other in words, but in pictures as well. Someone introduces a topic, others follow. In this way, Random has developed many own traditions, such as "Caturday" - a day on which threads are filled with cat photos with text macros on them. The recipe for this is simple: You take a cute picture of a cat and add some text in broken English. The results are for example a chubby cat with saucer eyes asking for a Cheeseburger, or a ginger-colored pile of misery with hanging ears that confesses: "I made you a cookie... but I eated it." The genre of these images is called "Lolcats"; "LOL" being the Chat-Acronym for "Laughing Out Loud".
"Cat Macros", however, are only one of the countless memes on /b/. The artificial word Meme was coined by evolution biologist Richard Dawkins; he used the term to describe basic cultural units. These are building blocks such as religious ideas as well as clothing styles and figures of speech. On 4chan, memes appear in the form of pictures that are posted repeatedly, often with small variations.
Photos with a black frame and two lines of text are called "Motivationals". They mimic the cheesy motivational posters found in so many US offices. The originals praise hope and perseverance, the imitations mock religion or show Darth Vader pouring water from one container to another: "Sense - this picture makes none."
Nowadays, motivationals can also be found outside of 4chan. Lolcats and similar memes have been adopted by the Internet mainstream as well. Several sites are able to exist only because of cute animals with anthropomorphizing slogans.
Other 4chan memes require more creativity, like the continuing stories around "Epic Fail Guy", a masked stickman. The plot of the episodes develops over the course of a thread, often with spontaneous reactions from the other users. This manner of storytelling consciously plays with the way image boards work and would be impossible in any other medium.
[below picture of an EFG thread] Only possible in an image board: Together the pictures form a comic that runs in a circle.
Confessions, Fizzling Out
Most of the time, however, the users of the random board try to impress others by using shock strategies. A /b/tard confesses to having killed his little sister with a television set. Another user brags about his girlfriend's expertise in oral sex - including a picture of the girl in question.
For a reality talk show, this would be ideal material to attract high ratings. The 4chan community reacts to such confessions with self-indulged boredom. Most of these texts already have been around for months and get re-used over and over again. The name for this is "Copypasta", a portmanteau of "Copy & Paste". The pictures that accompany these texts often come from user profiles of unsuspecting MySpace users.
Since new users come to 4chan every day, there always is someone who starts raging at the old slogans. This, in turn, amuses the old users, who rifle through their mounts of Copypasta to re-post even more of these old stories, like the one with the manager of a video game store, who hilariously fumes about a series of prank calls. After all, who needs to know that the actual event took place two years ago and it never became known if the text was indeed written by a store manager or rather by a /b/tard. It does not matter, as long as the bait looks new and the result leads to "lulz" (a corruption of the plural of LOL)
[below longcat pictures] One long-serving meme is "Longcat". Pictures of the long-stretched white cat appear in ever-new variations.
Much funnier than virtual rage on the own forum, however, is taking the confusion outside of it. These attacks on other websites and forums, during which the /b/tards present themselves as "Anonymous" to stir things up are called "raids". And Hello Kitty Online got off lightly.
The "Habbo Hotel" of the Finnish Sulake Corporation already had to endure two successful attacks by Anonymous. The hotel is a multinational chat environment for teenagers. The principle can be compared to Second Life, only with pixelated graphics. Every room is a chatroom; there is a swimming pool in front of the hotel.
One of the /b/tards noticed the simplicity of this design. The virtual avatars of the users could in fact block each other's way. The popular swimming pool had only one ladder. If somebody placed himself before it, he blocked the access.
On July 12th, 2006 Anonymous uniformly attacked the hotel. Choosing an avatar, everybody had picked a grey suit, dark skin color and a haircut like Shock-headed Peter. Quickly, the pool deck was filled with "Nigras", who positioned themselves around the entrance to the pool. Whoever tried to pass was confronted with the simple explanation: "Pool's closed".
[below Habbo screenshot] The chat-world of Habbo Hotel was attacked two times by the Anonymous hordes. They blocked the entrances to several areas, including the pool.
It did not help the administrators of Habbo Hotel to kick one Nigra after the other from the server. At some point, they simply gave up: Anonymous were too many, for every banned user there came five more. A year later the amusement seekers repeated their game. They filled the pool in hundreds until the server went offline - another Epic Win for the attackers.
But /b/ does not stop there, targeting radio and television as well. In 2006, TV comic Tom Green started a late-night show on the Internet. The show was broadcast live and featured a phone-in. For three months, the talk show was literally bombarded with prank calls. A YouTube video shows a snippet from the show, in which a visibly upset Tom Green screams "4CHAN"; again a "Win".
Hal Turner, a fairly right-wing US radio moderator, suffered even worse. Due to lack of sponsorship, he planned to end his talk show with a three-hour long special broadcast. Over 150 anonymous callers turned around what was supposed to be a nice end of the show. Turner, who is known for his rough tone, decided to counter the attack by publishing the phone numbers of the callers on his website. Anonymous hackers found his private address and number. After several hundreds of calls, the tough guy gave up and withdrew.
The main motivation for these excursions of Anonymous is the quest for "lulz", or fun. But not every potential target actually gets shot at. Every day, an unknown user will post contact information for new victims: call there, write e-mails to this girl, deface this website. The common reaction is a shrug of the shoulders: "/b/ is not your personal army."
Rules for the Rule-less
As a matter of fact, /b/ does have rules of conduct; however, they are outsourced. Two independent wikis serve to instruct the newly arrived: Wikichan and Encyclopedia Dramatica - the latter self-ironically features a fused ae in its logo.
Rules 1 and 2 were mentioned before: One is not supposed to tell outsiders about /b/. During raids, the anonymous intruders usually claim to come from Ebaum's World. This is the name of a website notorious for its theft of ideas.
One time a victim of Anonymous contacted a local branch of the US TV channel "Fox News." The resulting report presented the anonymous mobbing as cyber-terrorism - the name 4chan, however, was not mentioned. Users of the forum regarded the tabloid expose as a legendary failure - "Epic Fail". At the time of the writing of this article, the video can still be found on YouTube, flagged as "Fox exposes Ebaums".
The rules that follow sound more like a manifesto than rules for a web forum: "3. We are Anonymous. 4. Anonymous is legion. 5. Anonymous never forgives. 6. Anonymous can be a horrible, senseless, uncaring monster." To summarize: God help us if they are let loose.
The targets that are deemed to provide most fun are those over which the anonymous army feels morally superior. Granted, one can be a teenager who prefers his Friday night parties to take place on the Internet rather than with friends in real life, but one still has a certain pride. To really get the rest of the /b/tards interested in a raid, one therefore has to explain why the potential target is "Fail" (to fail can also mean "to fail" as in "fail a class").
Projects like "Hello Kitty Online" and "Habbo Hotel" are deemed to be Fail, since /b/tards regard them to be the mere exploiting of naive children. The condescending Hal Turner had effectively disqualified himself through his racist remarks. TV comic Tom Green made it just too easy for the 4channers; pretty MySpace-girlies can expect no mercy, either. At school, the good-looking laugh at the defenseless nerds; at home, the victims strike back with their digital fist.
A favorite past-time of /b/tards is also the hunt for pedophiles. First, they present themselves as young girls in chatrooms. If an adult bites the hook, the fake girls pretend to be FBI-agents and relish in the resulting reactions. In October of 2007, the anonymous fakers met Chris F., a Canadian father and church-goer. F. assumed he talked to a 13-year old Jessica and was so naive as to go on a date with her. There he was arrested by the police - Anonymous had played him directly into their hands.
[below motivationals] Motivationals mock the motivational posters often found in US offices, which are supposed to brighten the mood at the workplace.
Back to Reality
From time to time, the anything goes mentality of 4chan comes back to bite them. In mid-September 2006, 20 year old blogger Jake Brahm posted a bomb threat on /b/: Supposedly, on the 22nd of October, there would be synchronized attacks on seven US sports stadiums. Though Brahm had only planned it in his head, the Department of Homeland Security did not find it so funny. A police inquiry lead quickly to the author of the threats. Brahms turned himself in for arrest.
In this context, the meme "4chan Party Van" often pops up on /b/, an allusion to a supposed impending FBI raid. The juvenile envelope-pushers keep uploading illegal content, mostly sex pictures with children or animals. For most uploaders, it is a test of courage to break taboo. Many /b/tards cling desperately to puberty.
Illegal pornographic pictures quickly bring moderators to the scene, but they are not always fast enough. Until then, the other users tease the unknown idiot, saying that he can soon expect a visit from the Party Van. In this regard, 4chan is not as anonymous as many users think: the log files with the IPs of the users are swapped out every day, but they are stored for a month before being deleted.
The Tom Cruise Video
The big turning point came in the middle of January of this year when someone uploaded to YouTube a video of Tom Cruise in which the actor rants for nine minutes about how cool it is to be a member of Scientology. The video was a clip of a private ceremony of the cult's from about three years ago. The video was quickly taken offline.
Once something is put on the Internet, it is not so easy to get it off. Scientology tried to block further postings of the video to YouTube and other video sites, but the cat was out of the bag. One day later, the tirade found a permanent home on the gossip site Gawker. When lawyers demanded the site take down the video, Gawker refused, pointing to its newsworthiness [relevance, public interest].
On the Internet, Scientology had had a bad name since the days of Usenet. In 1995, the cult had tried to get the discussion forum alt.religion.scientology closed. At that time, there were posted many documents penned by cult founder L. Ron Hubbard, which Scientology considered copyright-protected religious documents. Whoever dared even quote these documents would be routinely silenced with copyright claims.
With one blow, /b/ had a new picture of the enemy: There exists such a cult that it can rip this source of fun out from under our collective nose? Most 4chan users made themselves useful for the first time in their lives against the cult. They recognized it through the isolation of dissenters, the legal proceedings, the forced separation of families, religious knowledge only for money, and systematic Internet censorship: Scientology was a first-class lulz killer. Finally, a worthy opponent.
Within a day, there arose "Project Chanology", complete with a wiki, logo, slogans, and all the trimmings. A YouTube video enumerated with a synthesized voice the cult's list of transgressions. They would not just sit and watch this happen; Anonymous would expose the hypocrisy of the organization. Scientology should be destroyed. The text was deliberately worded and ended with a typical /b/ saying: "We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget." And then, "Expect Us."
A Subculture Against Scientology
[below cam screenshot] Women who undress on the Internet for money are common targets for /b/tards. The usual goal is to get the unsuspecting "Camwhore" to place the keyboard on her
[below picture from protest] On February the 10th, Anonymous hit the street. Coordinated over the Internet, over 7000 people world-wide assembled before Scientology offices.
Anonymous emerged from the shadows and declared war on Scientology. At first, no one took the threat seriously – YouTube is full of such pretentious messages with dubious content. This attitude was to change rapidly when organized attacks took a toll on Scientology.com and Scientology.org that same weekend.
In dozens of threads on 4chan, the same simple tips to overload the Scientology servers were posted repeatedly. All links pointed far away from 4chan. Technically, the DDoS attack proved to be effective only at the very start: for one or two days, the main Scientology sites were not available. Now, however, the cult protects itself with a traffic filter from the security company Prolexic. But the primary goal was met: Project Chanology proved that the announcement was to be taken seriously.
The response of the online media was considerable, and the majority of the reports positive. With its aggressive legal attacks on critics, Scientology had not won itself many friends on the Internet. The most poignant criticism of the DDoS attack interestingly enough came from the camp of the long-time critics of Scientology. One particularly clear message came from the man behind "Xenu TV", Mark Bunker: Anonymous should not face Scientology at their level. He also warned them about the possible judicial consequences of illegal actions.
The message was heard. Bunker's bearded face instantly became a meme of its own: "Wise Beard Man". Project Chanology's mission statements were revised, passages with calls to sabotage removed. The declaration of war, they said, was not aimed at individuals, but at the corrupt organization that used their members and cheated them out of their money.
One week after the DDoS attacks, the next video by Anonymous appeared: "A Call To Action" appealed for a world-wide demonstration on the 10th of February, at 11 o'clock of each local time. This is a meaningful date for critics of the sect: it is the birthday of the Scientologist Lisa McPherson, who in 1995, at the age of 35, died of undernourishment and thirst in a Scientology Center.
On 4chan, this appeal was met with mixed feelings: some were against appearing in the public and thus compromising their anonymity. Others finally saw a worthy cause in the actions against Scientology. Many expressed doubt about the usefulness of it all, but were ready to take part – for the lulz.
Anonymous on the Streets
[next to march 15 flier] The call for the demonstration against Scientology in March, ironically mimicking a birthday invitation.
In spite of all prophecies of doom, February 10th was a considerable success. First of all, the Australians assembled before the Scientology headquarters, followed by the Europeans and Americans. Every demonstration caused a whole wave of new threads on 4chan, in which the participants published pictured of the "raid". In Australia, the USA and Canada many of the protesters wore masks, others confidently grinned into the camera - so much for anonymity.
The biggest groups assembled in London and Los Angeles. In each city, over 500 people held up picket signs and shouted slogans. It has been estimated that altogether 7,000 people protested against Scientology on that Sunday. All protests remained peaceful.
The press, having been made aware of the existence of Anonymous during the DDoS attacks, attended, too. With their masks, sometimes weird costumes and slogans ("Honk if you drive a car"), Anonymous provided good footage for the media.
On the following day, the Random board was overflowing with people. The users that stayed at home wanted to know how it went and ridiculed the pictures of the raid. The users that had taken part in the protests mocked the cowards for staying at home.
By now, /b/ has gone back to the usual routine: pictures of breasts and cats, meme repetitions ad nauseam. The matter with the sect brings new people to the boards. And in keeping with the tradition, they are being baited with Copypasta and laughed at.
Now and then, threads about Scientology still appear. Most of the time anonymous posters claim to be members of the sect and pretend to be ready for a discussion – this troll trap proves to be effective even with old users. Sometimes, serious discussions about the usefulness of the official declaration of war develop. Some even go as far as to insist that the push against Scientology is controlled from elsewhere, and that /b/ is merely being used by unknown forces.
As a matter of fact the organizers behind Project Chanology are still unknown. The website for its coordination is a wiki that can be edited by anyone who feels connected with the cause. The warning on the main page asserts: "The target is reading this, too"
The next world wide demonstration is set to take place on March the 15th. Again, the call is to appear at 11 o'clock at the local Scientology office. This time with party hats and cake – in view of the occasion: Completely coincidentally, Scientology celebrates the birthday of its founder exactly that same day.
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