September 29th, 2014 / 10:00 am

In Defence of 4chan

There’s a message being conveyed by mainstream journalists and clickbait sites alike that 4chan hates women. This is true to the extent that 4chan hates everybody. 4chan hates 9GAG and Reddit, which are in many ways its direct descendants. It hates My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic culture, even though it has an entire “containment board” dedicated to it. 4chan will most likely hate me for writing this post. 4chan, as one local Fox News station stated, is “an Internet hate machine.” And you’re just going to have to deal with that.

I started visiting 4chan after reading Parmy Olson’s excellent book We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency. At first I didn’t know what to make of it. User friendliness and design function were not priorities for founder Christopher Poole when he created the site as a 15 year old. Nor are 4channers welcoming of newcomers. When there’s an influx of new users, which happens every summer, or after a big media event like the fappening, the /b/ros get busy posting beheadings, coprophagiac gifs, and all manner of hair-raising content.

While there are many similar Chan sites (7Chan, 420Chan, etc.) 4chan is the grand-daddy of them all. Poole’s English-language answer to an anime image board called 2Chan spawned the hacker group Anonymous, generates many of the memes you (eventually) enjoy on Facebook, and is peerless in its ability to rustle jimmies. From a literary perspective, I’d argue the average greentext story (personal stories told in point form) is more engaging than 90% of what I see from aspiring writers. Tao Lin references it in his work, and is believed to post on the /lit/ board.

In the past, 4chan users have acted as white knights in their fight against Scientology. They arranged a birthday party for a lonely old man. They invented the bikini bridge out of thin air and then laughed when it became a real thing reported on by The Daily Mail. They have cheerily ruined the lives of people who made the mistake of posting their real names or trying to use the /b/ random board as their “personal army.” They have sent a frog tied to balloons into space.

Outside of /b/ and the wildly-offensive /pol/, the rest of 4chan is pretty mundane. The denizens of /co/ like comic books and cartoons. /out/ discusses outdoor activities. /mlp/ is for My Little Pony worship. Okay, that last one is kind of abnormal.

It would be kind to say that media outlets struggle to report on 4chan. A Bill O’Reilly segment once called it a “far left website disseminating child pornography to Internet pedophiles.” A CNN tech analyst recently thought 4chan was one person. I’ve worked in newsrooms, and I can just imagine some poor hack being assigned a story on the Chan, dipping his or her toe into its murky depths, baffled by the interface, trying in vain to make sense of it, and then eventually just regurgitating something vaguely incorrect written about the site five years ago.

In the wake of the fappening, I saw coverage so inaccurate I’d have torn up my journalism degree if I’d ever bothered to collect it. So first let’s clarify 4chan’s role in it. It’s been falsely reported time and again that “4chan hackers,” or worse, “A hacker known as 4chan,” released the nude celebrity photos and videos. A more accurate sentence would be: An individual chose 4chan as his venue for disseminating these photos. He wanted cash. Someone browsing /b/ at the time ponied up. This was the ideal place for the transaction due to poster anonymity and a user base comfortable with crypto-currencies like Bitcoin. 4chan, which is nothing but code written by Christopher Poole, didn’t release a single photo. 4chan is not an autonomous entity. An unknown individual released the photos to 4chan. The same photos were on Reddit moments later, yet that site has received relatively little criticism.

Then the “Emma You Are Next” website popped up, threatening, in the name of 4chan, to release Emma Watson nudes in response to a feminist speech she gave at the UN. This was intriguing on a couple of level. 4chan has fetishized Watson for years, long before it was appropriate to do so. And many self-styled /pol/iticians, bitter enemies of what they consider “Tumblr-tard misandry,” considered Watson’s message a moderate, bridge-building one that that they didn’t take issue with.

It wasn’t long before 4chan users identified EYAN as a false flag. The website’s suspicious use of the 4chan logo left little doubt. The “news” site FoxWeekly was the first to report on the threat to Hermione. Some 4chan sleuths found proof that both FoxWeekly and the EYAN site were operated by Rantic media, and Redditors amplified the message. On Wednesday, the jig was up, and Rantic claimed they were hired by celebrity publicists to censor 4chan, even posting a letter to Obama on their website. Soon after, Rantic Media was itself exposed as a hoax perpetrated by a group of Internet trolls calling themselves Social Vevo. Rantic Media is an anagram for “incite drama.”

It’s sad how many media outlets, respected and otherwise, regurgitated the dubious FoxWeekly story on Tuesday without asking any of the obvious questions. As one 4chan poster put it after the smoke had cleared on Wednesday night, “It’s funny how random browsers on 4chan are better investigators than those whose job it is to do investigative reporting.”

Give credit to Jezebel (whose parent-site Gawker was one of the few to report on the 4chan-Tumblr war of summer 2014) for clearing 4chan of blame once the case against Rantic/Social Vevo became apparent. Do not give credit for the final paragraph of this article however, which is a triumph of clumsy phrasing, and makes a last ditch effort to implicate 4chan on shaky grounds.

So, at the end of the day, it turns out that 4chan was framed by a person pretending to threaten to do what 4chan has in the past followed through on threatening to do. The wolf who cried boy.

But the message was out: 4chan users hate women, and they really hate feminism. If your social media feeds look like mine, you saw #ShutDown4chan statuses calling for hacker castration and what would amount to the suppression of opposing viewpoints. These people feel justified because some 4chan posts are offensive to their sensibilities. Yet 4chan is anything but one unified set of beliefs. The primary characteristic of its every board is internal discord. 4chan is nothing but the diverse group of weirdos who use it, and I am one of those weirdos, so unthinking requests for its censorship offend my sensibilities.

As a writer, 4chan keeps me in touch with zany neologisms, alerts me to weird shit I’d never hear of otherwise, and gives me insight into the dark thought processes of those on the fringes of society. But I won’t use research as a shield. I browse /lit/ and /x/ because they are effective aggregators of the literary and the paranormal. It’s a falsehood that 4chan is made up entirely of hate-filled troglodytes. On any given day you can find informed discussions about Tesla or Proust. I browse ‘feels’ threads in which kissless virgins give each other the virtual equivalent of consolatory hugs. I check /b/ to see what the hive mind will come up with next. And indeed, I’m quite often offended, alarmed or depressed by what I see.

Right now, for example, there’s a popular meme of a cute anime Ebola-Chan goddess that members of /pol/ pretend to worship with the phrase, “Good luck Ebola-Chan!” These fellows have formed an Ebola-centric death cult and root for Ebola. It’s unquestionably vile, and could never gain traction outside of a completely anonymous medium. Sometimes while browsing a thread of innocent, comical pictures I’ll see a gif of a dog being killed. I prefer animals to most people, and this upsets me. If something upsets you, dear Facebook friend, to the extent that you never look at the site again, then that’s good, you’re a healthier person than me, I bet. But that doesn’t mean you can sanctimoniously call for 4chan’s eradication, which is the equivalent of saying, “People shouldn’t be allowed to post anonymously on the Internet because they might say something I don’t like.”

The last time I checked, the right to offend whoever the hell you want (within legal bounds) is one of the basic tenets of living in a free and open society. In the 80s, porn impresario Larry Flynt took this fight all the way to the United States Supreme Court. His opponents were Reverend Jerry Falwell and the religious right. Now, it seems 4chan and its basement-dwelling trolls must wage the same battle to be as gross as they please, except without access to money or lawyers or anything but their “hacking abilities.” They face different enemies: the progressive left and the so-called social justice warrior movement.

In the D.A. Pennebaker film Town Bloody Hall, Norman Mailer, a lion of left-wing rhetoric, said, “A left totalitarianism—I think there’s something in the human spirit that can somehow bare the notion of a fascist or right-wing totalitarianism because it offers us at least the romantic dream that we can all form into underground cadres and have an adventurous life at the end where all of us men and women are equal and comrades. But if we get a left-wing totalitarianism, that means the end of all of us because we’ll have nothing but scrambled minds trying to overcome the incredible shock that the destruction of human liberty came from the left and not the right.”

So Godspeed 4chan. You Mein Kampf-quoters of /pol/, politically incorrect. You neck-bearded masturbators of /b/, random. You paper crane folders of /po/, papercrafts and origami. You I.T. geeks of /g/, technology. You well-armed mercenaries of /k/, weapons. You tulpa conjurers of /x/, paranormal. You literal shit-eaters, of, again, /b/, random. Godspeed.


Mike Sauve has written non-fiction for The National Post, Variety, and Exclaim! Magazine.  His online fiction has appeared in Pif Magazine, Monkeybicycle, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and university journals of moderate renown.  Stories have appeared in print in M-Brane, Feathertale, Filling Station, and elsewhere.


  1. jeremy

      oh my goodness this is excellent, thank you.

  2. Loch Ness

      Nice to understand 4chan a bit better. Cheers.

  3. Andrew Sargus Klein

      Good media critique here, always helpful to add some nuance to something as shady and hard-to-define as 4chan. Where you lose me a bit is the graf that that starts with: “The last time I checked, the right to offend whoever the hell you want (within legal bounds) is one of the basic tenets of living in a free and open society.” And my problem relates to what you wrote earlier: “An individual chose 4chan as his venue for disseminating these photos.”
      The unavoidable baseline for judging 4chan here is that the hacking and dissemination of those photos was a crime, and paricularly invasive and horrible one at that, wherein once again, women are exploited sexually. The blowback 4chan gets is pretty similar to Reddit, and their defenses are similar: well someone is just using our platform to disseminate illegally obtained photos, not our problem! It’s the internet!
      That’s not good enough. It’s passing the buck and actively being complicit in a crime (though of course the legal issues surrounding disseminating hacked photos of a sexual nature isn’t clear cut at all). So, as far as I can see, the offense isn’t that the offended people; the offense is being an active tool for the fucked up, entitled, predatory, misognyist internet culture.

      The “Emma You Are Next” campaign, fake as it was, highlighted the very real and omnipresent entitlement and savage fuckery that underlies the internet as a whole, and it’s the sort of entitlement and savage fuckery that pops up on 4chan and Reddit. There’s a reason why it was so easily believed to be the work of 4chan because 4chan hacked Treyvon Martin’s email account, got #cuttingfirbiefer to trend, and any number of destuctive and fucked up troll jobs that extend beyond simply offending people.

  4. ekb

      uh i have to question the space and motivation involved in a post like this– obviously 4chan writers have the legal right to post whatever they want, but that’s not the first thing i’d jump to defend when women are receiving rape threats. you can’t really tell people what they have to “deal with” when you’re not the one feeling afraid and exploited. & it’s one thing to defend ones legal license to speak freely but it’s really another to say: “So Godspeed 4chan. You Mein Kampf-quoters of /pol/, politically incorrect. You neck-bearded masturbators of /b/, random. You paper crane folders of /po/, papercrafts and origami. You I.T. geeks of /g/, technology. You well-armed mercenaries of /k/, weapons. You tulpa conjurers of /x/, paranormal. You literal shit-eaters, of, again, /b/, random.” i think you’re confusing the principle with the shitty people who are invoking that principle.

  5. Dip Noodle

      bad people are bad when they are bad

  6. mimi

      fascinating, to someone (me) wanting to know but hesitant to look

  7. shaun gannon


      must not have stopped by /d/ yet

      Also, the message that got out wasn’t too far from accurate: while not all 4chan users hate women, a LOT of 4chan users hate women.

  8. ĴɎĦ

      Never read Mormon Nailer, been to 4chan, been to Africa, read a ‘Hustler’

      lots of things unread and places unbeen.

  9. Mike Sauve

      Just checked out /D/ now, confirmed for not mundane.

  10. deadgod

      Very similar to recent HTML Giant arguments (that emerged around Strickland, Sherl-related, and Janey Smith blogicles): those who advocate open platforms for speech almost regardless of content versus those who attack platforms in order to snuff speech they don’t ‘like’.

      In my view, making an argument against 4chan because many of its users say “vile” things is not rational – at least, for someone who wants that argument to be heard on rational grounds (rather than those of confirmed bias).

      Mailer was far too opportunistic an operator to have been a left-wing lion (compared to, say, King or Friedan), but, despite his shaky use of the term “left-wing totalitarianism”, he’s right: as dismaying as right-wing identity conformism can be, not wanting anybody to hear what some people think is worse when it comes from presumptively progressive citizens.

  11. blah

      4Chan is being attacked because unlike Google, Youtube, PirateBay––all of which quietly facilitate and monetize exploitation––4Chan has an identity, and a deeply ugly one at that. I don’t visit 4Chan––and the above reference to a dying dog guarantees I never will––but I also recognize that if 4Chan were to disappear, the underlying pathogen would be undamaged: it will scurry into a new host; the only thing changed will be the web address everyone’s mad at. So this is irrelevant given the only real alternative, which would be the establishing of Internet content arbiters so to oversee every 0 and 1. Assuming that’s even possible, it’s maybe an attractive proposition to the religious right and the radical left (who resemble each other more and more with each passing day), but who collectively represent a tiny, if strident, minority. To venture into Yogi Berra-ish territory: the alternative to an open internet is a closed internet. And if you think that would be an improvement, I don’t really know what to tell you.

      Also this use of “entitlement” is confusing to me. One probably shouldn’t say something appalling on the internet, but shouldn’t one feel sufficiently “entitled” to be able to say something appalling on the internet? Like the opposite condition would be feeling circumscribed, and I don’t think that a culture of people who feel they don’t have the option to speak freely represents progress. I guess it’s OK to hope in vain that one day no one has a diseased outlook, but I don’t really see the appeal in fighting to ensure that no one who has a diseased outlook is able and/or willing to express it. And on “entitlement,” it seems to me that the most radical form of “entitlement” appears in the expression of those who ostensibly feel “entitled” to a version of culture that excises the difficulty of encountering a plurality of positions, while privileging a single viewpoint as the standard that all public expression must comport with and conform to.

  12. Andrew Sargus Klein

      I think you’re slightly missing my point here. I never suggest that a closed internet is preferable to the status quo. And I agree that were 4chan to cease existing, nothing would fundamentally change. But I don’t see that as any reason to condemn places like 4chan for perpetuating the worst tenets of internet culture. My argument is based around an illegal act: the hacking and dissemination of personal property. I’m not “fighting to ensure that no one who has a diseased outlook.” There’s a difference between saying fucked up shit, and actually DOING something fucked up. Websites like 4chan do both, and I am specifically comdemning the latter, not the former. It isn’t about free speech; it’s about taking into account harm and actual crimes perpetuated against people through no fault of their own.

      So, should 4chan and Reddit disappear and XYZ started disseminating illegally obtained photos (ie, the pathogen finds another host), then I’d condemn XYZ, the new host. I know that decrying a thief or a murderer won’t change the underlying fact that people will always steal and kill, but that doesn’t mean those who do those things are less worthy of being decried. The very act of pointing at 4chan’s actions and saying that’s fucked up and immoral is important. No one is trying to take away their subreddits.

      I use entitlment in the sense that internet culture, from Napster onward to hacked celebrity nudes, exerts a sense of entitlement over information. In the case of the nudes, that entitlement is over women’s bodies (and that situation is where I based my response; again, it seems you have misread my comment). People are killed in gruesome ways and crime scene photos are leaked everywhere because people feel entitled to look at awful stuff, no matter what the grieving family thinks (recent New Yorker article about this very thing). Women write about sexism in video games and receieve death and rape threats because men feel entitled to video game culture and its discussion. Teenagers are bullied until they kill themselves because people feel entitled to do whatever they want behind a wall anonymity.I’m not describing anything new here, but that’s where I’m coming from when I talk about entitlement. Head over the Alt Lit Gossip facebook group and, as women talk about their heartbreaking experiences with rape and abuse, you’ll still find guys trying to undermine the discussion, because men often feel entitled to shape discussions about gender.

      Sure, people can say whatever they want. I’m not here to stop that. And words have consequences. And a website’s actions have consequences. The internet allows people to split their words and their consequences in such a way that is pervasively awful and demeaning and violent. That’s not going to change for the forseeable future, if ever. So if we can’t condemn individuals, we can at the least (and it’s small comfort, no doubt) condem the websites that enable them.

  13. blah

      OK. Good post. Hard to disagree with any of that, save for maybe “men often feel entitled to shape discussions about gender”––as men clearly do not do that with any more frequency than women but whatever thanks for the thoughtful reply.

  14. deadgod

      No, websites neither say fucked-up shit nor do fucked-up things. Shutting down a platform like a newspaper or a website actually is “about free speech”.

      Threatening rape is both violent and illegal – the threat itself. The defense of 4chan isn’t an absolutist free-speech argument, but rather, a protection of venue, not content. 4chan neither hacks personal data nor threatens rape.

      (Why do you think you can’t “condemn individuals”, and so must shut down websites??)

      In saying that 4chan takes the actions that it seems to enable by existing, you’re saying that the existence of a wall not only enables offensive graffiti, but writes it. That is not rational.

      Sure, criminalize and penalize some dissemination: threats of violence, stealing personal data, and so on. And sure, entitle yourself to guy-talk-free spaces: pre-moderate, ban IPs, whatever way of not listening works for you and your community.

      But, while denying it, you are in fact arguing for pre-moderation of the internet.

  15. Andrew Sargus Klein

      I guess websites don’t “do fucked up things” in the sense that a website is so many lines of code, just as guns don’t do fucked up things since they’re simply metal and gunpowder (scientist I am not).

      I never said shut down anything. I reread my comments several times now, and I’m just not seeing how you came to that conclusion; you seem to want to argue a point I have not made to further an argument that I am not a part of.

      I condemn places like 4chan as I condem the KKK. I find their practices and philosophies abhorrent. They enable the worst in a lot of people (but hey, at least 4chan does in fact do some randomly philanthropic stuff from time to time; maybe the KKK does, too). Everyone (in the US at least) has got their freedom of association, but they certainly don’t have the freedom to avoid condemnation for association.

      The comparison from 4chan to a wall of graffiti is compelling in the abstract, but, to me, falls apart in the realm of the actual. Websites can and do scrub illegal content all the time. They’re free to leave the offensive stuff. You seem to be confusing offensive with illegal, as I am criticizing 4chan for the latter, not the former.

      I think I could have made my comments a bit more clear in that shuttering websites rarely does anyone any good. I could have made a distinction between “4chan does x” and “4chan enables x”, because, yes, there is an important difference there. I think in not directly disagreeing with a “shut down 4chan” sentiment, I left room for you and the previous poster to make the assumptions you did. I’ll cop to that.

      “You are in fact arguing for pre-moderation of the internet.” Um, no. That’s the sort of knee-jerk absolutism that is equal parts stifling as it is unhelpful. I am arguing for the condemnation of entities that enable and disseminate illegal and fucked up stuff. Where you got “pre-moderation” from, I have no idea.

  16. Adam

      “they certainly don’t have the freedom to avoid condemnation for association”

      I think that’s the problem — as in, do you condemn me because I like 4chan? If not, then how can you condemn 4chan in general? Not that I have much of a problem with your post, sounds basically reasonable.

      Also, 4chan does get rid of illegal content — like child porn — it has to. It’s probably not very diligent about it, idk. Photos like this and “ex girlfriend” leaks aren’t covered by any laws, only the actual theft of them can be prosecuted. It would be nice to have a law that covers distribution in the abstract, but I can’t imagine how you would draft the language, what reasonable penalties would be, how it would be enforced, etc. — lot of work to be done there.

  17. Andrew Sargus Klein

      I’m not sure how that’s a problem. I think it’s pretty easy to negatively about a large thing (4chan, the NFL, Facebook, guns) while not feeling the same way about the supporters of said large thing. I can say, “4chan represents a lot of terrible things and a vocal part of its community has no qualms with fomenting violent and shitty things. But hey, I know you, I know you aren’t shitty and violent, you just really dig their brony subreddit. Peace be upon you.”
      And yeah, there is an absurd amount of work to be done in finding some sort of legal framework that addresses the dissemtination of illegally obtained content while preserving the freedom of speach, expression, and association. That’s far above my paygrade. In the meantime, absent legal recourse, what is there if not umbrage and condemenation? Point fingers at institutions as well as individuals. Public shame can be just powerful as the law itself.

  18. Adam

      As a lily-livered lefty male feminist (reading Gender Trouble ok? that’s my proof) and on-and-off 4channer, I’m sad to see leftists and /b/tards alienate each other — especially since one knows relatively nothing about the other. In my mind, they go hand in hand — if I envision a truly free, progressive, Internet-having society, 4chan is there or something like it, some space for radically-open and offensive speech; and without a freedom-loving, liberal-valued polis, 4chan would be eradicated legislatively.

      They should be natural allies (like Anonymous & OWS), but then we let the internet rage machine take over our thinking, the left attacks before trying to understand and /b/tards counter-attack, because they’re trolls, and we reinforce any latent animism and misogyny.

      4chan and progressive politics: like peanut butter and jelly that loathe each other.

  19. Adam

      Yeah, I like that answer basically — I was speaking out of a place where I just want people to come together and try to understand each other, and those things are not mutually exclusive.

  20. deadgod

      Here are some things you said in the two comments I was responding to (bold mine):

      unavoidable baseline for judging 4chan here is that the hacking and dissemination of those photos was a crime

      [using our platform to disseminate i]s not good enough

      the offense is being an active tool

      4chan hacked

      I am specifically condemning [4chan for DOING something fucked up] {which you now retract}

      act of pointing at 4chan’s actions and saying that’s fucked up

      a website’s actions have consequences

      You do discern between “perpetuat[ion]” and commission, “host” and “pathogen”, and, now, “enables” and “does”. And the distinction between material and efficient causes is tricky: at what point does a passive enablement become something responsible?

      But your analogizing discloses the argument that these prophylactic allowances, in my view, fail to mitigate (namely, that 4chan itself is responsible for its users’ content): 4chan is platform, where the KKK is organized to achieve its own ends. The KKK is reasonably identified with those ends, which you’ve explicitly said also of 4chan and, say, threats of rape.

      Indeed, in your ‘host/pathogen’ paragraph, you assimilate “4chan’s actions” to “thie[very]” and “murder”.

      In short, directly and by analogy, you call 4chan a criminal enterprise. That’s cool! –make that argument.

      But saying that you’re being misread if you can’t argue both that 4chan is a neutral venue (“host”) and a criminal agent (“4chan’s actions”) is not rational, in my reading.

  21. jereme_dean

      As someone who was active in the ‘h/p/v/a/c’ community in ’93-’97, I can verify that the only attributes unique about 4chan is its magnitude and exposure.

      The same shit was going down on bbs systems and irc channels before its existence and the same shit will go down after its eventual retirement.

      I concur about the merits of fringe society. There’s always going to be the horrifying, bad and immoral mixed in with the truly interesting, unique and awe inspiring. I mean, that’s why it’s the fucking fringe and not the froyo lifestyle everybody is used to.

      Do think ‘hacking’ is very much a boys club. I could theorize as to why but seems like too much time would be needed to fully realize how I feel.

      As far as the ‘hating’ women aspect, I think there’s some truth to it, but not universally.

      All dudes have mommy issues, some more extreme than most.