I enjoy the atmosphere of my neighborhood, its proximity to theaters and good food. And yet it's hard to say that my relationship with my neighborhood has deepened beyond friendship. My close friends live in a completely different part of town. Utilitarian surface connections are as far as I get with most of the people who live physically near me. Is this neighborhood of surface connections a depressing reality, another lamentable casualty of the Internet age?
As I turn to my computer to chat with strangers across the globe, I find myself the target of an insinuation that these online relationships are worse than ephemeral, a distraction from my “real” relationships. You can find a dozen books articulating this terror, with titles like The Lonely American or Bowling Alone. As we communicate online more and more, the authors of these books fear that the new ways we connect will only connect us to loneliness.
But for all the time I spend online I have never once thought of the Internet as a place for forming relationships, although I do use email and IM to maintain relationships with long distance friends. What I look for online is something other than friendship, and in searching for that something I found 4chan, a website for anonymous discussion that can only be described as a forum for the unrestrained Id of the Internet. The 4chan community is incredibly rude and offensive in every possible manner, yet it also creates art, dialogue, satire and discussion. In the words of one Anonymous, "I get to talk with some of the best people on the Internet, as well as some of the worst people in the world. Both are equally amusing for me." This is a place of collaboration, creation and entertainment, but not a place for connection.
Moot (real name Christopher Poole) created 4chan as an imitation of Futaba Channel (2chan.net), a Japanese image board and forum. Futaba Channel is famous for being a hugely influential community of geek culture enthusiasts, and it has around 60 boards dedicated to the discussion of everything from junk food to politics to anime. Every thread must start with an image, and all subsequent replies may consist of image, text, or both. The opportunities for visual gags or an ironic gap between image and text have lead to a way of communication all its own. 4chan is like an animate comic book that members draw to each other. And since old content must be deleted to make room for new, this ensures an influx of new discussion and creation. In the words of one anonymous, "4chan is the only place on the [Internet] that can keep you occupied for hours to[sic] end thanks to all the fast-moving boards."
Posts are by default anonymous, tied to no identity, online or off. Not only are they not traceable to a real person, they aren’t even traceable from one post to the next so each post can only be judged on its own merits. Because so many of the posters are anonymous, the word itself has acquired a symbolic quality in the 4chan community. “Anonymous is not a single person, but rather, represents the collective whole of 4chan," according to 4chan's FAQ, although the individual boards that make up 4chan are often quite different in tone, and the posters frequently disagree with each other.
For a mostly anonymous community where anyone can post without any sort of registration, the community is quite insular. It resents people who ask questions to which longtime members should know the answer, yet those who are in the know can ask the same questions and get considerably less sarcastic answers. Each board has its own customs and etiquette, and respecting them is often enough to get a civil reply from someone.
Another consequence of anonymity is that there are no consequences for acting in the rudest manner possible. In fact, it's become a favorite pastime of many posters, who are described with the slang word "troll,” which describes either a person, or the act of a person, who intends to frustrate or annoy others, most often by feigning an ignorant or contradictory belief. Anywhere else on the Internet this would be bullying, but on 4chan this is treated as just another form of entertainment, like a game of The Dozens.
However, because this is a community that insists on not taking anything seriously, anonymous posters will say that anyone who takes a post too seriously deserves what they get. One anonymous says, "I come here to troll and be trolled," indicating that some users find it to be one of the more entertaining aspects of 4chan. The nature of trolling is such that posters who are pretending to be furious with each other could both be laughing behind their computers. The anonymous posting helps by making it impossible to hold grudges against each other. One Anonymous on the comics and cartoons board says that "People aren't afraid to voice their opinions or be abrasive, and everyone else is free to voice their opposing abrasive opinions right back. Two anon who are arguing in one thread might be making each other lol in another, and they'll never know. No one will ever know. And no one will care either."
However, some aspects of the community are disturbing and pernicious in their attitudes toward real life, evoking the worst fears represented in books like Bowling Alone and The Lonely American. The opinions expressed don't necessarily represent all posters, but they do represent a vocal minority. In /jp/, a board devoted to general Japanese geek culture, one Anonymous says "/jp/ isn't lonely nerds crying about how they don't have a girlfriend. The people of /jp/ are misanthropic shutins searching for a better way of life. /jp/ isn't about having an inferiority complex, it's about having a superiority complex." Not all posters are nearly so antisocial, but most share the feeling that this is a place to pursue their interests, not alleviate their loneliness. Another Anonymous says "/jp/ is filled with sadomasochistic self-hating monsters who live only to inflict pain upon themselves and everyone around them."