The Importance of Being Anonymous
By Ricardo Bilton '10, Staff Writer
When Time Magazine asked readers to vote in their “Most Influential People of 2009” poll, it was doubtful that the publication expected the results that ensued. The reader-created portion, a corollary to the Time-created list populated by world figures like Barack Obama and the Dalai Llama, predominantly features celebrities and movie stars. In 2009, moot, the creator of Internet meme machine 4chan, was voted the most influential person in the world. Naturally, then, the results were considered suspect. In the land of the Internet, where polls can be hacked or flooded with precision and alacrity, it’s usually the reasonable thing to assume they have been. Indeed, it became obvious fairly rapidly that the Time poll had been hacked by the members of moot’s community, especially after it was discovered that the hackers had gone so far as to make the names of the 21 influential figures spell out an acrostic for “Marblecake, also the game.” Perhaps, Time readers were forced to wonder, moot wasn’t as influential as his votes (over 9,000 of them, certainly) might have lead us to believe.

Or perhaps he was. Moot’s most recent perplexing appearance was at this year’s Technology Entertainment Design Conference (TED), an annual shindig attended by over a thousand of the brightest and most gifted thinkers working today. It might, then, have come as a surprise to those brilliant minds when it was revealed that moot himself would be making an appearance. 4chan, and certainly moot himself, has become something of a pariah in the Internet world —something that shouldn’t be touched but rather admired from afar, while holding a firearm or two. Moot came to TED not to troll the hapless geniuses in the audience but instead to bring his grounded views to a topic that has become increasingly important in recent years — Internet anonymity. Moot’s central point was this: 4chan may be home to much of the Internet’s absurdity and filth, but the site represents something larger than itself. “Sites like 4chan are going the way of the dinosaur right now,” moot said. “They’re endangered because we are moving towards social networking, towards persistent identities; we’re moving towards a lack of privacy, really.” 4chan is the one-eyed man in a kingdom of the blind, the last holdout in a country selling out to the enemy, the occupier, the faceless eavesdropper.

There are a lot of things you can say about 4chan, but most of them are irrelevant. The image-board is the source of much of what has become popular on (and off) the Internet today — lolcats, Rick Astley, etc. — but is also known for its laissez-faire method of moderation: visitors are not mandated to create an online handle to use the site, and most do not struggle against that lack of control, opting instead to go by the default “Anonymous.” What results is a cacophonous discord of millions of anonymous posters monologuing in tandem, responding to each other with profanity and, often times, an image from the 4chan not-so-modest trove of memes. It is simultaneously beautiful and horrifying. Venturing into 4chan’s most populated board, /b/, is like entering its beating heart. Discussions and threads flow like blood, expunging the poisonous and the dated. It’s an ecosystem that has somehow managed to survive amid countless attempts at its destruction, from law-enforcement officials and members of rival communities alike.

But 4chan’s greatest good, according to moot, is its ability to give users the vessel, the platform, to yell at each other anonymously. It is here that we wonder if 4chan’s greatest good is really all that good in the first place. By allowing, and indeed encouraging, people to post anonymously, 4chan strips them of all accountability. This in turn leads to all sorts of unfortunate and certainly illegal things, making 4chan’s greatest asset its greatest weakness. But anonymity isn’t all bad. Consider Wikileaks, which is a website created in 2006 for use by whistle-blowers seeking a vessel for their big scoops. Wikileaks functions by allowing visitors to anonymously submit sensitive documents. These documents are usually fairly damaging to the parties they implicate, forcing Wikileaks to go to great extents to prevent the identities of their users from being discovered. The site, for example, is known for leaking a copy of Standard Operating Procedures for Camp Delta, which detailed the protocol used at the Guantanamo Bay detention center. Similarly, the site has released countless internal documents from the United Nations, various banks and the Church of Scientology.

But Wikileaks and 4chan operate on very different platforms — saving the world and making fun of it, respectively. Both still have their places, however. Wikileaks represents the future of journalism; anonymous posting in the mode of 4chan represents the past, present and future of Internet commenting. Both sites appeal to a very human desire to save face, to hide behind the wall of distance and privacy that the Internet provides us. This desire pre-dates the Internet, of course. Many writers, activists and lovers alike have operated under the pseudonym of Anonymous in an attempt to stave off harm and achieve their goals. Perhaps 4chan is only the most recent (and unsavory) iteration in the line.

Issue 15, Submitted 2010-02-17 01:27:55