4chan, Ethics and Digital Methodology

On: September 13, 2011
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About Liam Voice
My name is Liam and I'm from Nottingham in the UK. I am currently enrolled in the MA New Media course at the University of Amsterdam. Previously, I attended the University of Leicester, UK. I obtained a first-class honours degree in Communications, Media and Society BSc. I am interested in online communities and social relationships.


How much are you willing to disclose online? Do you post your phone number? Do you have embarrassing pictures on Facebook? Do you Tweet your current location? I think it’s fair to say most people have boundaries when it comes to posting personal information online. However, this blog post explores the infamous /b/ forum on the image board 4chan where users are not so concerned with these personal boundaries. The post also explores the ethics of conducting research in this kind of online environment.

To quickly summarise, /b/ is an internet forum on the 4chan that has gained notoriety for its apparent lawlessness when it comes to posting. The conditions on the site have allowed it to become a fertile breeding ground for memes i.e. ideas, phrases, and images that spread virally. Many of the memes that have spread into the public consciousness have originated as ‘in-jokes’ on this forum, for example LOLcats and the classic bait-and-switch meme of Rickrolling. The forum is also rife with ‘extreme’ content such as pornography (including incest, bestiality, etc.), racism, sexism, gore, and extremely dark humour. A fascinating phenomenon on the site relates to the practice of users posting nude images of themselves and others in exchange for ratings, information, and in some cases, porn collections. What could motivate users to do such a thing?

In ‘Ethos in Chaos?: Reaction to Video Files Depicting Socially Harmful Images in the Channel 2 Japanese Internet Forum’, Kaigo and Watanabe (2007) illustrate the idea of net-benkei, which is a circumstance where a person is a ‘lion’ online but a ‘mouse’ in real life. The characteristics of online communication can make a timid person more active and social when placed in an online setting. This has high validity to me both on a personal level and also on a theoretical one. It is believed that anonymity (or pseudo-anonymity, granted by the use of usernames/monikers) is the primary reason for this behaviour, at least in the context of 4chan. Anonymous users experience a sense of disinhibition, this is not to say their inhibitions, which prevent them from saying and doing provocative things, are lowered, but rather they seem to be removed entirely. In relation to the posting of nude images, when one does not have to deal with the physical consequences of ones actions, it is much easier to rationalise the decision.

Shouldn’t this freedom to say what you want provide an atmosphere with the potential for being a true public sphere in accordance with Jürgen Habermas’ theories?  In an ideal, and some would say naïvely optimistic, society this should be the case. Having said that, my own experience of 4chan shows that, amongst the madness, critical debate can exist. Is it a case then of achieving a happy medium between the “consequences of free expression” (Reid, 1999, p.107) and critical debate.

The practice posting nude images is obviously situated at the extreme end of the spectrum but it does pose several broader questions on the posting of personal information. How often does the average user think about exactly who can view their online content? How does it affect their willingness to post information about themselves? These questions, in turn, create various ethical quandaries regarding data collection in said research sites. Specifically, there is significant debate as to whether information is public or private.

Computer mediated communication (CMC) dwells within a somewhat schizophrenic state; between public and private. Sheizaf Rafaeli makes the distinction between public, private and personal. He states:

“Such study is more akin to the study of tombstone epitaphs, graffiti, or letters to the editor. Personal? – Yes. Private? – No.”
(Sheizaf Rafaeli quoted in Rutter and Smith, 2005 in Hine, 2005, p.89)

This caveat of personal information in the debate seems valid. We often hear of new media ‘horror stories’ about someone who believes their online profiles – to borrow a term from Erving Goffman – to be “soundproof regions” (1963, p.9). The classic example is the worker who posted a horrible Facebook status about their boss without realising their boss could see it, and subsequently got sacked. It is worth noting, there are also more positive instances of digital media entwined with personal information (e.g. marriage proposals).

While researching this topic, it quickly became apparent that ethics regarding the methodology of data collection, specifically the harvesting of what can be considered personal information, is a difficult subject to manoeuvre. It is something akin to walking on egg shells; the researcher must tread carefully. The ethics of digital methodology are still being forged. What we must also bear in mind is that we do not exist in a vacuum, free from political, social, and economical influences. As such, no methodology can be developed in a completely value-neutral state. Regardless, new media pioneers have the responsibility to illuminate the murky realm that is digital methodology.


Goffman, E. (1963) Behavior in Public Places: Notes of the Social Organization of Gatherings. New York: The Free Press of Glencoe

Kaigo, M. & Watanabe, I. (2007) Ethos In Chaos? Reaction To Video Files Depicting Socially Harmful Images in the Channel 2 Internet Forum. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 12 pp.1248-1268

Reid, E. (1999) “Hierarchy and Power: Social Control in Cyberspace” in Smith, M. & Kollock, P. (ed.) (1999). Communities in Cyberspace. London. Routledge. pp. 107-133.

Rutter, J. & Smith, G.W.H. (2005) ‘Ethnographic Presence in a Nebulus Setting’ in Hine, C. (Ed.) (2005) Virtual Methods: Issues in Social Research on the Internet. Berg: Oxford. pp. 81-92

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