Well, a quick post today, but one that I hope is thought provoking.
In researching 4chan, it's difficult not to come back to the recurring theme of anonymity. The concept is at the core of what the site and its community (known as Anonymous) represent, and the thousands of unidentifiable users cloaked in a shroud of namelessness are what make 4chan simultaneously one of the most creative and vibrant places on the internet and also one of the most disturbing.
Regardless of your view on the pros and cons of anonymity, I'd like to suggest that the term is somewhat misused. Type it into a dictionary and you'll usually get two definitions: something along the lines of "lacking attribution," as in an anonymous author, but also something akin to "lacking individuality, unique character, or distinction."
The former definition is how we typically conceive of online anonymity, typified by the angry commenter on newspaper websites starting flamewars while hiding behind a username. And for the most part, this is how anonymity functions on the internet.
However, that's not really anonymity. It's really more like pseudonymity, which tech journalist Julian Dibbell defines as the ability to divorce an online identity from a real-life one. Even though we may not know who "ConcernedTaxPAYER" is IRL, that user still has a persistent and consistent identity. If you frequent the same forums as them for long enough, you'll be able to get a sense of their views, you'll be able to go back into the archives and see what else they've commented on, you'll be able to glean a little bit about who they are and why they post, and ultimately, you'll be able to decide the extent to which you value their commentary. It's possible for them to have a reputation in a given forum and for them to forge relationships with other users. In short, they still exist as an individual.
As well, such a situation allows for identity play. Users can perform opinions, genders or socioeconomic circumstances that they do not possess IRL and thus flesh out and experiment with alternate identities.
In a place like 4chan, none of the above is really possible. The site embodies the latter definition of anonymity, in that it does away with any pretense of difference or individuality. Ninety per cent of all posts to the site are made using the same "Anonymous" user name. It's impossible to tell who you're interacting with from one moment to the next and even if you're one of the 10 per cent of users who choose to enter something into the name field, there's nothing stopping another user from stealing your identity. There's no friends, no points, no followers, no celebrities, no archive, no reputations -- just a teeming mass of undifferentiated users.
The presence, or lack, of consistent identities has a profound affect on the nature of discourse within an online community. Suffice to say that posting on 4chan is an entirely different experience than commenting on a New York Times web story. Spend enough time in a radically anonymous forum and you'll realize that pseudonymity and anonymity are worlds apart.
So far apart, in fact, that we might want to reconsider lumping them together under the same term.
Photo courtesy of jasonr611.