The Making of a Meme
If anonymity, fluidity, ephemerality, and collectivity are the ingredients, 4chan is the oven in the meme bakery.
Memes require three actions: replication, mutation, and transmission. The Internet is uniquely suited to these actions. It allows for replication and transmission with virtually no cost, allowing for more open and rapid communication. Successful memes are shared virally, which means that each share in turn leads to multiple additional shares, producing an exponential growth in popularity. However – not all social media is created equal.
Many have called controversial image board 4chan.org the antithesis of Facebook. The former is a simple forum or image board where users can post or comment on images and text. The latter is a social networking website where people have profiles with which they can share content with their Facebook “friends”. While both are wildly popular, Facebook’s reach is far more extensive, claiming 160 million unique page visits to 4chan’s 8 million (Rao, 2011; Bilton, 2010). Likewise, Facebook represents a multibillion-dollar enterprise, while 4chan makes just enough through ads to break even (Reisinger, 2011; Bilton, 2010). So if Facebook clearly has the advantage in terms of visitors, users, and resources, why is it that 4chan is considered a “meme factory” while virtually no memes have originated from Facebook? The key differences are anonymity, fluidity, ephemerality, and collectivity. These four components are what allow websites like 4chan or social news aggregator Reddit.com to be a hotbed for new, viral memes.
Anonymity, once characteristic of the Internet, is becoming a relic. Any major social networking site, such as Google+, Facebook, or LinkedIn, requires that users use their real names. They operate under the assumption that an online profile mirrors a true offline identity. Meanwhile, 4chan doesn’t even have an option for user registration. Users are given the option of using a name or handle, but are encouraged to post anonymously (and most do). This anonymity encourages a community in which any ideas, from the absolutely repugnant to the brilliantly sublime, can and do get posted.
Fluidity of content also plays an important role in the production of memes. 4chan’s most popular board is Random, more commonly referred to as /b/. Of the site’s 48 different boards, /b/ claims roughly 30% of the site’s traffic. The rich variety of the content found on this board is owed in large part to the fact that the site has no rules, aside from some general guidelines, which, for the most part, are disobeyed. This contrasts starkly from sites like Facebook which are rigidly structured. Facebook, for instance, has an app specifically built for status updates, notes, groups, events, etc.
Thirdly, content needs to be ephemeral. Facebook has recently launched a feature called “timeline”, which aggregates the entirety of a person’s actions on the site, which can then be viewed as a consolidated, chronological list. On other message boards too, threads are often archived, and can be revived with a new post after years of inactivity – a practice called “necrobumping”. Conversely, 4chan has virtually no memory capacity; usernames, threads, and posts are simply deleted after inactivity. Only 100 threads can be active at any given time on /b/. With 800,000 new posts every day, this means that any thread’s longevity depends on the popularity of its content. Indeed, most threads on /b/ last for mere hours before they are replaced (Bilton, 2010).
This ephemerality allows for two things. First, it ensures that content is always new or interesting. In essence, the best topics and threads are retained through continual engagement. Thus, popular threads and ideas are democratically sourced. Secondly, ephemerality, in conjunction with anonymity, eliminates the social cost of failure. Unsuccessful posts cannot be traced back to a handle or profile, and any record of it is lost to history. Therefore, each new post begins with a new slate and is judged on quality rather than reputation.
Lastly, the discussion on 4chan is a collective action. Many have described it as a “hive mind”. It is, in a very real sense, a community like any other. The forums have their own culture, inside jokes, linguistic idiosyncrasies. Contrary to intuition, anonymity only strengthens the sense of community. Since the success of the website relies on interaction and engagement, anonymity prevents exclusion based on anything other than quality of content, and encourages the freedom of expression by any and all. And as a community, 4chan’s “/b/tards”, as they call themselves, have accomplished some pretty astounding feats, from manipulating Google search results and Time Magazine online polls to identifying and reporting animal abusers (Cha, 2010).
These examples demonstrate the power of anonymity en masse. Corporations invest millions in viral marketing, and salivate at the idea of being able to rig Google’s top search terms, exponentially increase web traffic, or spread their brand name virally. But the members of 4chan, and /b/ specifically, do it for free, without coercion or guidance, simply because they care about the issue. Joshua Shachter, founder of social bookmarklet Delicious, explains, “The community self-organizes, decides on goals and achieves them in an ad hoc, undirected manner” (Cha, 2010).
What, then, does this portend for social change? Can this energy and strength in numbers be channeled to affect real changes in the culture and, therefore, the society? The short answer is yes. Memes spawn from a rebellious tendency, as well as a pure pursuit of comedy – the highest pursuit of “lulz”, as it is referred to on the internet. Moreover, their form, even more so than their content, has proven a powerful tool for subversion, if applied correctly. By going viral and holding the attentions of millions of people, even if only for a brief time, memes are able to bring important issues into focus and inject valuable and subversive ideas into the collective social consciousness.