The Philosophical Troll: How cyberculture affects humanity

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Over the years, many scholars have analyzed various aspects of the world’s cultures. However, very few have yet looked into the impact of the vast, rich culture that has sprung up in only a few years on the internet. One of the primary uses of the internet since its very beginning is as a communication platform, allowing large numbers of people across great distances to talk via text-based chat systems. Communities form around these sites, with their own activities, vernacular, and dedicated members, collectively forming what is known as cyberculture. Once such site is 4chan, created in 2003, which allows users to post and comment anonymously using text as well as images. Though the anonymity removes the concept of personal identity that is a crucial component of other cultures, the 4chan community has developed an extremely rich culture of its own.

At first glance, 4chan, and especially the “/b/” board that is the focus of this article, seems horrible. Posts to the site are full of offensive language, vulgar images, and even the occasional child pornography scandal. However, illegal activities (which are actually very well moderated) aside, and looking deeper into the fairly impenetrable culture, we find interesting, positive forms of interaction facilitated by the unique medium. Without individual identities, the community has a very collective dynamic in which all ideas have equal weight and people of all origins and ideologies merge into a cohesive culture. Additionally, information on 4chan is very impermanent, as posts are quickly lost under new material and are not archived. As such, the culture itself revolves around common ideas repeated between threads rather than on any consistent reference or landmark. It changes rapidly and is relatively inaccessible to outsiders due to the references and in-jokes without reliable context.

In this article, I use Katherine Hayles’ idea that embodiment is a central component of communication to examine how this new culture is different than anything that has come before. The lack of physical bodies and identifiable features in general creates a vastly different dynamic between people and changes the way people see themselves. I suggest that cyberculture allows a more cohesive group dynamic, removing many of the factors that divide groups and discourage conversation. This introduces a kind of personal connection that is significantly different from most interactions previously possible, ruled by pure ideas distanced from any accountability or personal identity, and unencumbered by any concept of authority or hierarchy. Recognizing the novel qualities of cyberculture will be crucial to anyone studying social movements and dynamics, since its influences may not be visible or explainable otherwise. Additionally, this view may inform how parents handle internet use in children – what previously has been largely considered worthless or even detrimental games may become part of normal socialization. I will review some previous writing on our relationships with technology to inform my analysis. Then I will explain the contribution these sources make to an understanding of 4chan and cyberculture, and introduce some data relating to 4chan and its users. I will then analyze this information to reach my conclusion that cyberculture fundamentally changes the way people interact.

At its core, cyberculture is about how people interact with technology, and interact with each other through technology. Thus, to understand the impact of cyberculture on humanity, we need to understand the relationship between humanity and technology. Some believe that technology does not have a place in the fundamental definition of humanity, and as such its influence is primarily disruptive. Others see technology as a constructive extension of humanity. Several authors have previously analyzed this relationship, usually strongly supporting one side or the other. These authors disagree on whether technology is part of humanity, and by extension whether we should embrace it, incorporating its benefits into our lives, or keep it at arm’s length, minimizing the disruption it brings.

Stuart S. Blume of the University of Amsterdam takes the negative position, making the argument in his 1997 article “The Rhetoric and Counter-Rhetoric of a ‘Bionic’ Technology” that medical technologies like cochlear implants have a negative, disruptive impact on culture. Blume argues that the implants change our perception of people, turning deafness from a type of person to a disease to be cured. This creates conflict between the doctors trying to cure people, the deaf who may not want to be cured. Thus, Blume sees the technology as disrupting social structures, changing the relationships between doctors, scientists, and patients, creating conflict, and potentially destroying the culture of deaf people. Technology is separate from humanity in Blume’s view, an outside force that disrupts the social systems that it is introduced to.

More generally, some writers warn that modern technology is simply progressing too rapidly for people to handle, and there will be severe consequences if we do not slow down and limit the change to which we expose ourselves. Alvin Toffler presents the idea in his 1970 book Future Shock that change in people’s lives inevitably causes stress, and we can only adapt to a limited amount. Toffler claims that modern technology has reached a critical threshold of change, causing “future shock” when people cannot cope with the rate at which technology transforms the world. Toffler sees technology as disruptive, causing change that leaves people behind and causes stress and confusion. It has no place in his definition of humanity except as a hardship to be endured.

On the other hand, many writers see technology as an integral part of humanity, extending and improving human abilities. In their 1998 article “The Extended Mind,” cognitive scientists Andy Clark and David Chalmers argue that elements of our environment, especially technological elements, become part of the mind. A person consists of an “extended mind” that includes more than just their physical body. To them, technology is fundamentally part of who we are, so it cannot be disruptive. Any change technology brings is just a further development of humanity, rather than something imposed by an outside force.

Katherine Hayles presents a sort of a Constructivist point of view in her 1999 book How We Became Posthuman. She discusses how technology enables the removal of embodiment in communication, which allows a very different sort of interaction. She concludes that “thought is a much broader cognitive function depending for its specificities on the embodied form enacting it” (xiv). Thus, technology extends the sorts of thoughts we can communicate by changing the way we are embodied. This idea is especially important in interpreting 4chan’s culture, since most of its differences from other cultures come from its total lack of embodiment.

David Silver’s 2000 article “Introducing Cyberculture” points out that early reactions to cyberculture, and to some extent modern writing, are characterized by a strong dualism. Writing on cyberculture “often took the form of dystopian rants or utopian raves,” depending on whether the author thinks technology is a part of humanity. I will focus on the benefits of incorporating technology into humanity, as cyberculture and the community of 4chan exemplify this potential. Clark and Chalmers wrote primarily about the use of technology as a tool in normal life, focusing on the individual person’s cognitive system. However, their concept of “active externalism,” using external technology as a part of the self, extends well to the use of technology for communication and relationships with others. They argue that, when a technological tool is used to augment or replace part of a thought process, that tool should be considered a part of the person’s mind.

These ideas tie in nicely with Hayles’ writing on embodiment. The prologue to her book analyzes the paper in which the Turing test is proposed, emphasizing not the test to determine if a computer can pretend to be human, but an example from earlier in the paper involving only humans. In this test, a person is to determine the gender of another person communicating via a computer terminal. This situation is clearly analogous to 4chan’s anonymous text-based communication. She makes the distinction between “enacted” and “represented” bodies – the identifying characteristics of the physical person versus the characteristics represented by their communication. With the addition of technology into the cognitive process, “the overlay between the enacted and represented bodies is no longer a natural inevitability but a contingent production, mediated by a technology” (xiii). In other words, technology removes the necessary connection between one’s physical body and one’s communication, allowing a very different dynamic in which physical identities are effectively removed from the equation.

The opposing views provide a potential counterpoint on the “dystopian rant” side; that society simply cannot handle the change that cyberculture brings to interactions, and existing social structures will suffer. Blume’s essay about cochlear implants highlights the general sentiment that rearranging parts of humanity, such as making the deaf hear, can only be detrimental to existing relationships. Similarly, Toffler claims that “we are doomed to a massive adaptational breakdown” if we do not avoid changing too much in our society (10). Ultimately, these perspectives are common reactions to any sort of change, and are important to consider before jumping to a conclusion that the change is only positive.

In an essay titled “4chan and /b/: An Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community,” Michael S. Bernstein et al. present some useful data about communication on 4chan’s /b/ board, which will help shed light on the nature of the culture. Communication on the board is organized by threads, started by users, and posts to those threads by other users. Threads are displayed with the most recently started or posted to first. As of the article’s publication in 2011, /b/ saw about 35,000 threads posted per day, and the number has likely increased since then. Of these threads, the most common type is “themed” threads, in which users post messages and images related to some standard idea, often drawn from ideas in previous threads. Here we see the collective nature of ideas on 4chan: most threads start as requests for contribution, and generate content and ideas through the collection of everyone’s contributions. Over 90% of users keep the default “Anonymous” name, allowing no indication the author of their posts. Since threads are created so rapidly, the average thread remains on the first page of the site for only five seconds, and soon becomes inactive after falling to the later pages. As such, information is extremely ephemeral, only visible for a brief time and living on only through repetition in newer threads. Posts happen at the greatest rate between 5pm and 7pm EST, which indicates that the majority of users live in North America and are active after work or school. Reading through posts on /b/, much of the material is incomprehensible to outsiders, and there is even a significant amount of active hostility toward newcomers. The pictured example of “triforcing,” making a shape out of text symbols that can only be properly formed with some special symbols that cannot be copied and pasted, is one such method of identifying and alienating newcomers. Though simply mean on the surface, this type of behavior ensures that people who join the community must first learn the culture, which ensures that ideas are preserved long after their original threads disappear and their creators leave the site. Beyond these general impressions and categorizations, the culture of 4chan and the particular ideas that are discussed change far too rapidly and cover too broad a scope to explain in detail, which is itself an important aspect of the culture.

From Clark and Chalmers’ work, if the tools that one uses are part of the self, then anonymous posts on 4chan’s boards must be considered to be part of a person’s identity. The communication technology becomes part of the thought process, so the community becomes part of the self. As Clark and Chalmers hint in their conclusion, with all these posts referencing each other and based on previous ideas from the community, this “social activity might be reconceived as less akin to communication and action, and as more akin to thought” (18). With this interpretation, the thousands of people reading and contributing to 4chan at a given time are participating in a sort of group thought, each person a part of the others’ cognitive processes. This is just as true of offline social interactions, but with 4chan’s anonymous, text-based, and short-lived communication, there is really nothing else to the culture besides this active externalist group thought. The collective contributions to “themed” threads demonstrate this sort of thought. Since threads on 4chan are so short-lived, the dynamics of the site itself are a core part of the thought process, determining what information people see and how they respond. The posts people do see heavily influence their own ideas and contributions, evidenced by the constant repetition of themes and concepts that “themed” threads encourage. In this way, the workings of the website form a very noticeable part of the social interaction, rather than simply being a medium through which to interact.

Since a vast number of people from around the world can communicate simultaneously on 4chan, this sort of interaction occurs on a much larger scale than any offline social situation. Due to the anonymity, a person’s identity is not even preserved from post to post, which magnifies the effects of the lack of embodiment. This means that communication on 4chan is fundamentally different from anything that occurs offline, since offline communication is generally tied to physical bodies and limited to a few people at a time.

Of course, some would argue this fundamental difference may not be all positive. Blume’s ideas warn of the potential alienation of those who are not part of or are new to cyberculture. Silver writes about the “growing gap between information haves and have-nots” known as the “digital divide,” which has formed along boundaries of race, class, and region, of course bolstered by 4chan’s hostility toward outsiders. Toffler’s warning is more direct – that people simply will not be able to handle the stress of adapting to a new internet-based culture. This may lead to people withdrawing into cyberculture and neglecting their offline lives, unable to adapt to virtual life while maintaining their real one. However, these warnings are not sufficient to condemn 4chan’s culture. Alienation of outsiders is easily overcome and serves to protect the culture, as we have seen, and the unity of this new culture balances any disruption to old cultures.

The type of culture that 4chan allows has some distinct advantages as well. Because users are anonymous, there is no sense of accountability in the discussion. If someone makes a mistake or voices an unpopular opinion, they start over without any of that weighing on them in their next post. As such, communication can be much more free and open, unencumbered by any societal norms or barriers. While this may open up a greater possibility for verbal abuse, most users of 4chan quickly learn that insults are handed out freely and carry little weight, and the anonymity ensure that abuse is not too personal. With this open communication, many ideas can be brought into the open that would be hidden in any offline culture today. Additionally, 4chan allows vast numbers of people from around the world to communicate simultaneously, which gives a great deal more breadth to any discussion or idea than can be achieved by a smaller, more localized culture. Combined with the fact that there can be no authority or social hierarchy, the resulting community is an impressive feat – tens of thousands of people per day from around the world, without structure, communicating ideas and maintaining a cohesive culture.

As we have seen, the online community that has formed on 4chan provides a new form of culture, significantly different from traditional cultures. People communicate without any individual identity and messages are extremely short-lived, yet users have still created a rich culture with its own ideas, jargon, and rules of etiquette. Communicating through the internet means that the mechanics of the website become a part of one’s thought process, and the anonymity and lack of embodiment ensures that other users function as an extension of one’s mind. In this way, 4chan allows a departure from the kinds of interaction possible before the internet. In this way, 4chan can be seen as an early example of and a model for future societies that will emerge from the integration of the internet into culture. As the first generation to be born into this culture is still developing, it remains to be seen what effects it may have on the world. It is certainly changing the way people perceive communication, and it is even changing what it means to be a member of society. As such, the very definition of humanity is on the line. Technology is part of being human to an ever greater degree, and we must consider the implications on how we think of ourselves.

Original Source:  “Respect the Tech,” Project from Cyborgs and Humanity class at Carnegie Mellon University