We are all part of the hive

Imagine there was an extra-governmental force on the internet that could track you down within 24 hours, regardless of where you were on the globe, and deploy an army of anonymous foot soldiers to harass and intimidate you with prank phone calls, email threats and vandalism.

That force does exist, and it springs from the unlikeliest of venues—an image sharing bulletin board (or “imageboard”) called 4chan.org. The site’s “random” section—better known by its directory listing of /b/—has become notorious for internet vigilantism.

Sometimes /b/ is a force for good. In late August a middle aged woman walking down a road in Coventry decided, bizarrely, to dump a wandering cat into a municipal dustbin.
Unfortunately for her, this cruel act was caught on CCTV camera and soon made it on to YouTube.

Within 24 hours of the clip hitting 4chan, the woman had been identified as Mary Bale and personal details like her address and her employer’s phone number were being publicly circulated. As the tide of threats and harassment swelled the local police felt compelled to place her under protection.

Pretty scary stuff. And yet there’s something atavistically satisfying about this kind of mob justice. We may not like /b/‘s methods, but many people feel Ms Bale got what was coming to her.

But what about when the denizens of 4chan decide to pick on someone who is merely annoying? What about when their target is a foul-mouthed, precocious 11-year-old girl whose attention-seeking behaviour happens to raise their hackles?

I’m talking about Jessica Leonhardt AKA Jessi Slaughter. In the throes of an online tiff with users of the Stickam video streaming site, Jessica posted an ill-advised video reply to her online critics. The video was picked up by 4channers and within days she was inundated with abuse, prank phone calls and threats.

Yet, despite its capacity for savagery, 4chan has also given birth to some of the web’s most beloved internet memes. Millions of people have enjoyed LOLcats without even being in on the original 4chan joke, and millions more have been rickrolled.

The buzz word “crowdsourcing” has been in vogue for the last couple of years. It boils down to the idea that ordinary people can help achieve enormous and complex tasks in their spare time (what Clay Shirky calls “cognitive surplus”) if there are enough of them working on a project. All that’s required is the right technology and some kind of rallying cry to generate the necessary public will.

But this is exactly what 4chan has been doing for nearly a decade, with no fancy technology and no appeals to public good. 4chan is essentially anonymous anarchy at both its best and its worst. With over 10-million visitors a month, the site is swimming in cognitive surplus. Whether that surplus is used for good or evil is entirely random.

There are many that would shut sites like 4chan down. They view them as dangerous, malignant forces. But these critics mistake the symptom for the cause. The internet transforms us into a hive mind—one that is capable of creativity as well as cruelty. We cannot have one without the other.

Alistair Fairweather

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