ole Stryker is the author of Epic Win for Anonymous, a book detailing a typical day of life on the world’s largest anonymous imageboard site 4chan, its closely affiliated group Anonymous, as well as its background history. Prior to writing the book, Stryker has written several articles on the subject of Anonymous and internet culture as a former staff writer at the internet culture blog Urlesque.
Q: For our readers who aren’t familiar with your work on the Internets, why don’t you introduce yourself?
A: So I wrote a book called Epic Win for Anonymous, it is a book about web community 4chan and pseudo-political hacktivist movement that came out of it some years ago. Basically, it traces the history of certain web communities that paved the way for 4chan, which is an imageboard that has grown widely popular 12 million users a month. It was a social phenomenon that I felt I needed to explore thoroughly and Anonymous has been making headlines recently with Operation BART protests, so the latter half of the book became more about the Anonymous.
Q: What was the first thing that you stumbled onto on 4chan that made you go back again?
A: On 4chan--you might have to censor this--but I distinctly remember my friend sending me a link to a meme called “shitting dick nipples,” which is an image from a manga of a woman creature… who has dicks for nipples that are pooping. And um… basically, the appeal is not so much in the image itself but in the idea that there’s somebody out there meticulously crafting this sort of thing. And of course, there’s also the “LOLjapan” element, you know, like everything crazy coming out of Japan.
Q: 4chan launched back in 2003, why do you think that this type of book hadn’t been written yet?
A: Well, the press didn’t catch on to 4chan until 2007 when the Project Chanology protests were happening, and even then the focus was always on Anonymous rather than the community of 4chan. It’s been a steady build of pieces from publications like New York Times and Wired, like Julian Deboard, a journalist who wrote a piece about trolls back in early 2007, which was one of the first mainstream mentions of 4chan, and my good friend Nick Douglas wrote a piece for Gawker about 4chan and Something Awful in early 2007.
So public awareness has been sort of picking up, but there’s no way that anybody could have convinced a mainstream publisher to write a book until the explosion of Anonymous activities last year. Obviously, the Lulzsec stuff brought it over the top. Operation Sony was happening around the same time I was shopping around for a publisher. The publisher needs to have a reason to expect that people are gonna be interested in the book and niche community, even the ones getting tens of millions hits a month are not enough to drive the sales that the big publishers need to justify their release.
Q: In describing a typical day on 4chan, you tell the story from the perspective of a person sitting in front of a computer on a 12-hour nonstop marathon of monitoring the site. We’ve all spent our share of time on the site, but 12 hours sounds like it would give you a different vantage point. Tell us more about this experience.
A: Actually, I had an idea to do it as an article before the book deal came around, and basically, I wanted to provide a view of all the different boards on 4chan. Most people associate 4chan with specifically the random board, but there are actually 50 other boards, so it’s really only a few minutes on each board. What’s interesting is that you can get a sense of what’s going to pick up steam, given every post has an equal chance of making it to the front page and sticking around for awhile. When you spend a lot of time there, you start to recognize the sorts of things that tend to get attention and usually it’s original content.
In the book, I give an example of a thread posted by a guy who apparently robbed a jewelry store and happened to be on 4chan that day. Basically, he posted “Hey guys, I just robbed a jewelry store, here’s a pic of my gun and the loot I took” and the thread exploded. I mean, where else are you going to see a guy claiming to have done this other than the place where “anonymity” is so core to the experience? The closest you’re gonna get to that might be something like Cops on TV, but even that‘s still heavily scripted and pre-recorded. On 4chan, everything is happening right now.
Q: Can you tell us more about the /b/tards’ reaction after you posted the teaser thread about your book?
A: From the beginning, I knew that basically 4chan would be almost like a built-in viral marketing platform for the book, which is a statement that will catch me a lot of heat for saying that. I remember author Tao Lin notoriously went to 4chan’s board and tried to promote his book and he just got hammered. But what I found out was that there was not a whole lot that Anonymous can do to someone who sort of knows what the genreal tactics are.
They’ve sent pizzas, unsolicited mails, they’ve posted my home address publicly online but other than that, there hasn’t been managed to pull of anything. I wanted to sort of see what the reaction to the book would be on /b/ (random board), because I thought that would have an impact on the way the story was told, and sort of help people understand why 4chan has the dynamic of hating people talking about them, because they’re so anti-social to outsiders and they dont’ want normal people who aren’t hardcore geeks infiltrating the community and weakening it with this so-called “newfaggotry.”
Q: How does m00t exactly feel about the book?
A: I don’t know, unfortunately. I was a but disappointed but Christopher Poole wasn’t interested in contributing an interview to the book, which on the one hand I was bummed out, but the real story was with community rather than with Christopher Poole. However, I do know that he has a copy of the book and I’d love to hear what he thinks. I think his reasoning was: a) he’s really busy with his new starup project Canvas and b) he doesn’t want to comment publicly on the group of Anonymous. I think it’s because the further he can distance himself from all that, the less he has to worry about coming under legal fire.
Q: In the book, your description of Anonymous goes through an interesting change where in the beginning you use the word “pseudo-politics” as one of the characteristics they’re best know for. Now in 2011, after Operation BART and arguably multiple hacktivist campaigns targeting governments and other targets, do you think we’re seeing a significant transition from “pseudo politics” to something more influential and actionable?
A: Well, to define the terms of what I meant by calling their behaviors “pseudo-political,” I think sort of the ideals they are looking for is quite ever-shifting. I didn’t meant to say that this is silly or worthy of mockery, but to say there is no concrete ideal that they’re after. There are usually some vague goals like freedom of information or exposing government secrecy and police brutality, that sort of things.
But because any 13 year old can create an Anonymous operation about how they’re gonna kill Facebook on November 5th (Operation Facebook), it’s never going to become a concrete political movement. And there’s always going to be some jackass targeting 11-year-old girls like Jessi Slaughter and saying it was under the banner of Anonymous, so I don’t think that Anonymous is sustainable as an actual political movement.
Q: Things get pretty colorful in description of certain 4chan threads. Was there any thread you saw while you were on the watch on 4chan and really wanted to explore in the book, but didn’t make it to print?
A: There’s one story that didn’t make it to the book from while I was browsing 4chan. Every once in awhile, people ask me what is the grossest thing you’ve seen on 4chan--this one might have to be edited out. So I once stumbled upon a thread where a man was meticulously detailing his process for saving his semen in mason jars. And he would place the mason jars on his radiator and add yeast fermentation culture, allow them to ferment for several days until it had reached an alcoholic property and he would take shots of his own stuff. …And there were photos.
I think that there’s a lot of things that will make your jaw drop, but that one just sticks in my mind as something that isn’t particularly profane, there wasn’t any nudity in the thread, it was pictures of jars, but the idea behind it that there exists a person in the universe that would do that…
Q: In the book, you talk about how anonymity and impermanence have been lauded as the primary cause of 4chan’s creativity, and later you mention that Reddit is catching up to 4chan in terms of meme creation. Will Reddit eventually hit a wall due to account creation and archived threads?
A: In a way, yes. I think Reddit does a much better job of facilitating viral content than 4chan does. Just speaking from personal experiences, you don’t have to wait through pages and pages for that one nugget.
It’s all there, right on the frontpage.However, I don’t think Reddit will ever replace 4chan, in terms of the spontaneity of the board, like the story I told you about the mason jar, you’re not gonna see that on Reddit because a) even if people use pseudonyms, they’re not going to want that to be associated with their handles and b) …like, where would you put them? [laughter] Is there a subreddit for anything like that?
Q: Chanarchive.org has been increasingly archiving more and more 4chan threads. Do you think that is stifling the creativity by removing the impermanence factor of the community?
A: I don’t think so, considering how many thread are started everyday on 4chan. Out of daily threads, maybe five would get archived a day? And I don’t think people on 4chan are aiming to get their threads archived. They’re just there to have fun and provide as much enjoyment to the community. …Nobody’s gonna say “Oh, I am going to get archived for this!” because chances of getting archived is very slim.
On Reddit on the other hand, users often say “I’m gonna get so many upvotes for this.” So that really changes the motive of what you’re posting and I don’t think 4chan users are like that. That’s what makes it special, you’re not doing it for reputation or monetary gain, you’re only doing it to make other people laugh or interest other people in some way.
And with 4chan people who decry the archiving efforts because they want to keep it a secret, I think, deep down, they recognize that it’s a posture that they’re putting on. People on 4chan are also on Facebook, they’re also on Reddit. So I think it’s a persona of "we hate everything and everyone” they’re assuming.
Q: Right, and you describe this persona as a game that everyone plays.
A: Yeah, I call it in the book the “4chan meta game.” The game is when you’re on 4chan, you’re subverting people’s expectations. I think this arises when something like LOLcat needs to be explained: you expect to see something disgusting on 4chan and people just flood in with pictures of cute cats, which is another way of people trying to subvert your expectations.
A: Yeah. There have been a lot of journalists who’ve been trying to explain the popularity of My Little Pony among male adults, but I don’t know if anyone has explained it as accurately as a reaction against the filth one might normally see on 4chan. You’re exactly doing what the other person doesn’t want you to do, and that’s part of 4chan’s metagame.
Q: You also talk about the future of 4chan, whether it has jumped the shark or not and what’s going to happen to it in the future. You also mention that if anything, it is going to go back to the way it was before. Why would that happen?
A: Anonymous as a movement has grown so large that it has transcended the community of 4chan. They’re not recruiting actively so much anymore, I think a lot of the media attention on 4chan the way it was last year because the entity of Anonymous is so separate from it at this point. So I think that people who are interested in becoming “freedom fighters” will be gravitated towards Anonymous but people who are looking for the vibrant memetic culture that 4chan used to be know for, will continue to find and there will always be new ways of people discovering 4chan.
Q: What is your all-time favorite meme or viral video?
A: My favorite viral video is called “SR Faceplant” and if you look up “ Metallica faceplant,” you’ll able to find it. It’s a video of this girl watching her friends’ Metallica cover band perform, she’s clearly drunk and starts headbanging, lets out a big “woooo” and then suddenly faceplants into the grass. Search “Metallica faceplant.” I’ve watched it maybe over one hundred times.
Q: Which advice animal character do you feel like you empathize with the most?
A: My favorite advice animal is probably the Foul Bachelor Frog. It’s my favorite by far. I work from home and I am a serial procrastinator, I’m really good about getting certain things done (my inbox is clean) but the rest of my life is pure chaos. Foul Bachelor Frog really hits on the inability of young males, and everybody to a lesser extent, being unable to take care of themselves.
I think my favorite iteration is “Ramen, Peanut butter, Taco Bell sauce / Instant Pad Thai.” I’ve never actually tried that but it actually does sound good.
Q: Thanks for coming!
A: Thanks for this opportunity.
Cole Stryker is a freelance blogger, author and media consultant. His book Epic Win for Anonymous: How 4chan’s Army Conquered the Web is available in both print and digital format. This interview was conducted in person by Amanda Brennan, Don Caldwell and Brad Kim on September 9th, 2011.