The Neighborhoods With No People: New Communities of the Digital Age
The hyperbole is characteristic of 4chan, but the sentiment is honest in its frustration. Loneliness and self-reinforcing negativity are not inherent qualities of 4chan, but they are a frequent undercurrent and especially strong in some boards: some neighborhoods are unpleasant places to live, and bring down everyone who lives in them.
It may seem easier to move out of an online community than a geographical one, but /jp/ posters also express their belief that the topics discussed on the board could not be discussed anywhere else on the Internet. These posters are willing to endure frustration, anger, and a toxic community in order to talk about, and hear news about, the subjects they love. None has any illusions about their online community as a replacement for human connection. Consistent with the findings in “The Lonely American” that online relationships cannot substitute for real ones, online communities like 4chan are in no way viewed by their users as a replacement for friendship.
The Lonely American argues that online communication, or any communication that is not in person, is inherently incomplete because humans interact with each other using all of their senses. “Our brains appear to be wired to make getting along with other people an inherentlyphysical enterprise,” according to Olds and Schwartz (italics theirs). One of their friends, who provides the opening anecdote of the chapter on online communication, maintains a blog which they say works because he is using it to maintain real world relationships instead of creating a “disembodied community in cyberspace.”
If anything, the 4chan community does nothing but confirm Olds and Schwartz’s research. The application of the research, however, leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of what online relationships are. Olds and Schwartz are focused, understandably, on human interaction for the sake of relationship, not human interaction for the sake of collaboration and creation of content. This isn’t surprising, given that Olds and Schwartz are also including technology such as telephones into a general explanation of why more means of communication is correlated with more lonely Americans. Telephone is a two-way form of communication, while a forum can involve thousands or millions of people (4chan receives, according to itself, 8 million unique visitors a month).
The forum as a neighborhood simply isn’t on Olds and Schwartz’s radar. It is telling that out of all the interviews I conducted, not a single person mentioned coming to 4chan to meet others. The vast majority were interested simply in the discussion, appreciation, and aggregation of content relevant to the board. These are all tasks that only a human brain can accomplish with accuracy and fidelity, yet none speak to a desire for connection.
It is as if the 4chan community is using each other as computers. This may sound cynical, but it is not much different from, say, an Amish barn raising, in which the community comes together for the sake of a neighbor. As strange as that comparison may sound, the share and share alike mentality of 4chan is representative of a level of community that few physical neighborhoods today could match, even if the most dangerous and unfriendly neighborhoods in America show more tact to their neighbors than posters on 4chan show to each other. It is far more powerful and intelligent than any search engine. Jjjj jIronically, 4chan exposes the limitations of technology by showing what can be accomplished by harnessing the minds of so many people.
One poster mentions that he posts on /co/ because he is unable to speak about cartoons with the people he knows in real life. While most posters characterize themselves as being loners, the fact remains that many also have real life friends with whom they simply can’t talk about these subjects. 4chan fills not a need for friendship, but a need for discussion, which does not require an emotional connection to be intellectually stimulating.
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This is the first part of a book that I am writing for Thought Catalog. This is a fiction book about young people in New York City. A lot of it is not fiction, and not made up, because I am not sure if I am very good at making things up.
The sad truth is that even if we were to invest all of our time and resources into making ourselves look like somebody else, most of us would not succeed in complying with the ridiculously unattainable beauty standard created by the media.
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