Don’t Feed the Trolls

On: September 27, 2010
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About Laurent Hubeek
Laurent Hubeek is currently participating in the UvA New Media Master’s program. He has also spent time studying at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam where he received a Master’s degree in information sciences. Before making the switch to the UvA, Laurent worked at Accenture, a large multi national IT consulting company, and participated in a variety of projects focusing on HR systems automation. Activities ranged from functional design and requirements elicitation to offshore team coordination and system configuration. Having left behind the world of business IT, Laurent is now exploring his interests in Web culture, social media phenomenon, the security and privacy aspects of IT use, cloud computing and (online) gaming and its design principles. Having an appreciation for old media (and old curiosities in general), he is also developing his skills as a writer on Masters of Media, Xi and his own blog.

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http://lhubeek.blogspot.com/    

Back in 2006 when Ze Frank was still running The Show, he asked his viewers to help him find the creator of a funny audio clip that had been floating around on the Web. Frank’s community, his Sportsracers as he likes to call them, had been playing around with the song for months already and had produced many remixes, videos and album covers based on the original clip. Frank’s plan was to present the mysterious singer known only as Ray with their finished works. But how do you find someone if all you know is a first name and the sound of their voice? Apparently, it’s not that hard. Frank’s community managed to find and identify Ray within two days, which, Frank admits, is kind of creepy. In this case, Frank’s mobilization of his community was based on good intentions and fun was had by all, including Ray. But what happens if things turn a little more serious?

With this in mind, I’d like to discuss the 4chan community. The 4chan website is a collection of image boards that is as famous as it is infamous. The site houses boards on a variety of topics including the notorious Random board, also known as /b/. The boards are well known for their particular brand of humour and are the source of many of the Web’s memes. Though memes can be funny by themselves – the famous lolcats or rickrolling, for example – the 4chan community overall is often seen as abusive and at the same time very tight knit. One very peculiar aspect of the boards is that they allow anonymous posting. No user names are required, which leads to long meandering threads populated by apparently only one, slightly unhinged poster named Anonymous. As you can imagine, the anonymity is where a lot of the abuse comes from.

Though 4chan is the home of all things NSFW and the natural habitat of the troll, elements of the community sometimes band together in order to crusade against perceived injustices. For example, the /b/tards of the Random board recently lashed out against the perpetrator of a videotaped piece of animal cruelty. They almost instantly found out everything they could about the woman in the video – including her address, phone number, work place and Facebook profile – and proceeded to bombard her with threats and insults, which eventually led to the local police placing the woman under their protection. All it took to unleash all this hate was a single video of a cat. As whimsical as it may sound, /b/ loves cats (and even deifies them). Another recent example is the DDoS attack on the MPAA website instigated by the anonymous masses of 4chan in response to anti-piracy measures undertaken by the organization. The most well known example of 4chan-crusading is probably the case of Anonymous vs. Scientology, also known as Project Chanology. This crusade kicked off with a video message to the Church of Scientology after they had taken steps to remove from the Web a leaked, non-public propaganda video featuring Tom Cruise. What is fascinating about Project Chanology is that it was not just a Web phenomenon; it also manifested itself in the physical world in the form of world wide protests outside of Scientology offices and as pranks with an attitude typical of the 4chan troll.

The 4chan community as whole and the regulars on /b/ in particular fit the profile of the insular community with its own peculiar customs as described by Sunstein quite nicely (Sunstein, 2001). Also, the examples of 4chan vigilantism mentioned earlier seem to match with Sunstein’s theories on group polarization on the Web. Despite their seemingly impenetrable nature, the 4chan community seems to be highly integrated into the fabric of the Web. Even though Barabási describes the fragmentation of the Web’s communities into continents and islands as an inevitability of its directed link nature (Barabási, 2002), the highly diverse backgrounds of the 4chan members and their general Web savvy seemingly allow them to get their tendrils into all of the Web’s divided continents. Nothing seems to escape their watchful eyes. Though Web enabled social activism can be considered a good thing, the particular brand of activism served by 4chan’s members seems to be fickle and in some cases downright harmful.

4chan’s ad hoc distributed approach to retribution also ties in nicely to Haggerty & Ericson’s concept of the surveillant assemblage (Haggerty & Ericson, 2000). According to Haggerty & Ericson, surveillance is no longer the domain of the panopticon guard once described by Foucault, but is now distributed throughout society. Not only is everyone observing everyone else, but it also allows individuals to band together and focus their gaze on the once privileged institutions. The difficulty with 4chan however is that it is next to impossible to predict what will draw their wrath, as well as how extreme their reaction is going to be. The vigilante-detective antics of 4chan therefore make an excellent case study on online activism as well as the workings of the surveillant assemblage in practice.

Though the unpredictable behaviour of the Anonymous legion is of course extreme, it does illustrate how easy it can be for a dedicated party to gather Web based information on individuals as well as organizations. And with a community as capricious as 4chan looming at the event horizon of the Web, it seems to make all the more sense to keep a watchful eye on one’s private information. With the tendency of 4chan’s crusades to spill over into the physical world, they are also a reminder of how the Web is not an isolated dimension separate from our own. In this case a particular piece of Web wisdom seems appropriate: Don’t feed the trolls. I know it can be difficult to not have a Web presence nowadays, but that doesn’t mean you have to make it easy for the trolls.

Sources:

Barabási, Albert-László. 2002. Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means. Cambridge, MA: Perseus, 123-142; 161-178.

Haggerty, Kevin and Richard Ericson. ‘The Surveillant Assemblage.’ British Journal of Sociology, 51(4), 2000: p. 605-622.

Sunstein, Cass. 2001. Republic.com. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 51-88.

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