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Published by Fabrice Epelboin

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Published by: Fabrice Epelboin on Sep 11, 2012
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4chan and /b/:An Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community
Michael S. Bernstein
, Andr´es Monroy-Hern´andez
, Drew Harry
,Paul Andr´e
, Katrina Panovich
and Greg Vargas
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
University of SouthamptonCambridge, MA 02139 SO17 1BJ, United Kingdom
msbernst, amonroy, dharry, kp, gvargas
@mit.edu pa2@ecs.soton.ac.u
We present two studies of online ephemerality andanonymity based on the popular discussion board /b/ at 4chan.org: a website with over 7 million users thatplays an influential role in Internet culture. Although re-searchers and practitioners often assume that user iden-tity and data permanence are central tools in the designof online communities, we explore how /b/ succeeds de-spite being almost entirely anonymous and extremelyephemeral. We begin by describing /b/ and performinga content analysis that suggests the community is dom-inated by playful exchanges of images and links. Ourfirst study uses a large dataset of more than five millionposts to quantify ephemerality in /b/. We find that mostthreads spend just five seconds on the first page and lessthan five minutes on the site before expiring. Our sec-ond study is an analysis of identity signals on 4chan,finding that over 90% of posts are made by fully anony-mous users, with other identity signals adopted and dis-carded at will. We describe alternative mechanisms that /b/ participants use to establish status and frame theirinteractions.
Identity representation and archiving strategies are centralfeatures to the design of online communities. However, ourcurrent understanding of them focuses mainly on strongidentity and permanent archival. Researchers and practition-ers argue that real names and pseudonyms can help “pro-motetrust,cooperation,andaccountability”(MillenandPat-terson 2003), whereas anonymity may make communica-tion impersonal and undermine credibility (Hiltz, Johnson,and Turoff 1986; Rains 2007). Influential industry playerslike Facebook argue that pseudonyms and multiple iden-tities show “a lack of integrity” (Kirkpatrick 2010). Simi-larly, data permanence is also the norm: search engines willresurface content years after it is created (Rosen 2010), so-cial network sites allow friends to browse updates and pho-tos from years ago, and online communities will often ex-pect newcomers to read their archives (Millen 2000). Somescholars have questioned these design approaches, suggest-ing that anonymous contributions and ephemeral partici-pation online can be desirable (Lampe and Resnick 2004;
2011, Association for the Advancement of ArtificialIntelligence (www.aaai.org). All rights reserved.
Ren, Kraut, and Kiesler forthcoming; Grudin 2002). How-ever, we have a limited understanding of how an anonymousand ephemeral community design might actually play out —especially at large scale.In this paper we analyze one such large-scale, anony-mous, and ephemeral community: the imageboard website4chan. We focus on 4chan’s first and most popular board,the “random” board known as /b/. Our goal is to use /b/ as a lens to understand the concepts of 
online. /b/ implements these concepts in moreextreme ways than most other online communities. First,posts are fully anonymous by default and very rarely containpseudonyms or other identity signals. This lack of identitymakes traditional reputation systems unworkable. Second,instead of archiving conversations, /b/ deletes them whennewer content arrives — often within minutes — whichleads to a chaotic, fast-paced experience. By making com-plete anonymity and content deletion the norm, /b/ lets usstudy these concepts
in situ
at a larger scale than before.This work quantifies the outcomes of 4chan’s design de-cisions, and starts a discussion on how those decisions af-fect the community and its culture. Although /b/’s imple-mentation of anonymity and ephemerality are extreme andunusual, the concepts themselves are not unique. Sites likeTwitter, for instance, feel ephemeral because of their con-tinuous content stream, while others like Formspring useanonymity as a core feature. By studying the impact of dif-ferent pointson theidentity and archival continuums, wecanbroaden our understanding of community design strategies.Readers may know of 4chan and /b/ (Figure 1) from theirinfluence on Internet culture and media coverage of theiroff-site activities. The site boasts over seven million users(Poole 2010) and is a prolific meme factory: it originatedpopular memes like LOLcats (Rutkoff 2007) and rickrolling(Leckart 2009). Additionally, some 4chan and /b/ membershave been known to participate in highly visible off-site ac-tivities. These activities include manipulating a Time Mag-azine poll to elect 4chan’s creator the “World’s Most Influ-ential Person” and participating in hacktivist group ‘Anony-mous’. Anonymous has executed highly visible protests of the Church of Scientology (Coleman 2011) and DDoS at-tacks against Mastercard and Paypal in support of Wik-ileaks (Mackey 2010). Reactions are diverse: while memeshave brought the site positive media attention (Brophy-
Figure 1:
A “rageguy (FFFFUUUU) comic” themed thread on /b/. Source: 4chanarchive.org, where /b/ members save memorablethreads.
Warren 2008), harassment and activism have often beenbeen negatively and sensationally covered. For example, aFox News affiliate called 4chan the “internet hate machine”(Shuman 2007). However, some media outlets have pro-filed the site in more nuanced ways (Dibbell 2009; 2010;Poole 2010). Much of this coverage is a response to /b/’sdistinctive culture – a culture that merits critical analysis be-yond the scope of this paper. Here, we focus on the board’sdesignchoicesofanonymityandephemerality,andhowtheymay support or influence its culture.In this paper, we perform a content analysis and two data-driven studies of /b/, focusing on anonymity and ephemer-ality. To begin, we survey related work. We then introduce4chan, its design, and the /b/ board. To ground our discus-sion of the site, we perform a content analysis on a sample of  /b/ threads. We then turn to our two studies: 1) ephemerality,tracking the site’s tempo and content deletion dynamics; 2)anonymity, examining participant practices around identity.A note before proceeding: large portions of the 4chan site,and /b/ in particular, are offensive or obscene. We warn thatquotes and vocabulary in this paper may offend.
Related Work
Our work builds on prior literature on anonymity andephemerality. 4chan and /b/ can contribute insights into howthis literature plays out in the wild at large scale.Online communities choose points on the spectrum of anonymity — from completely unattributed to real names.For example, while Facebook embraces real names (Face-book 2010), Myspace does not (Dwyer, Hiltz, and Passerini2007), and some Usenet boards allow posting from anony-mous e-mail addresses (Donath 1999). Slashdot decided toenable anonymous commenting so users could feel morefree to speak their minds, then controlled behavior withuser moderation of comments (Lampe and Resnick 2004).However, while they may allow fully anonymous posting,anonymity is much less common in these communities thanon /b/. G´omez et al (2008) found that fully anonymousposts made up only 18.6% of Slashdot comments. Instead,pseudonymity tends to become the norm as usernames al-low members to build a reputation. Our work extends thisresearch by studying the dynamics of a more thoroughlyanonymous community.Evidence is mixed on how anonymity may affect an on-linecommunity. In many scenarios, researchersarguefor theimportance of identity-based reputation systems in promot-ing pro-social behavior (Millen and Patterson 2003). How-ever, anonymity may foster stronger communal identity, asopposed to bond-based attachment with individuals (Ren,Kraut, and Kiesler forthcoming). Anonymity may impactparticipation: it increases equity in classrooms (Collins andBerge 1995), but results in more ‘flaming’ on e-mail lists(Thompsen and Ahn 1992). 4chan and /b/ play out theseconcepts on a larger stage than has been previously studied.Computer-mediated communication has studiedanonymity in small groups, and our work reconsiderstheir results in larger online communities. Removingtraditional social cues can make communication impersonal(Short, Williams, and Christie 1976) and cold (Hiltz, John-son, and Turoff 1986), and choosing to remain anonymouswill undermine credibility (Rains 2007). However, wewill argue that /b/’s community has developed alternativecredibility mechanisms — via language and images — thatstill function effectively. Anonymity can also have positiveoutcomes: groups working anonymously and with criticalconfederates produce more ideas (Jessup, Connolly, andGalegher 1990); non-anonymous groups feel more personal,but have less overall cohesion (Tanis and Postmes 2007).Ephemerality is rare in a large-scale online community,and to our knowledge, we are the first to study it di-rectly
in situ
. Most communities that have been studiedrely heavily on archives. For example, Millen (2000) reportsthat community members often expect each other to searchgroup archives before asking new questions. Ephemeral-ity may have community-wide downsides – a lack of his-tory tends to decrease cooperation in social dilemma games(Fehr and G¨achter 2000). However, instituting permanencein previously-unarchived chat rooms has elicited strong neg-ative reactions (Hudson and Bruckman 2004).Through our investigation of /b/, we hope to contributeto scholarly conversations about data permanence. For ex-ample, Grudin (2002) suggests that we evolved to live inan ephemeral world, yet our technology takes us from the“here and now” to the “everywhere and forever.” Similarly,Mayer-Schonberger (2009) emphasizes the value of “soci-etal forgetting,” where “the limits of human memory ensurethat people’s sins are eventually forgotten.” Blanchette andJohnson (2002) pointed to the recognition of social forget-fulness in three areas of social policy (bankruptcy law, ju-venile crime records and credit reports), arguing that “dataretention and disposal should be addressed as a fundamentalcharacteristic of information.These topics are not just of academic interest, but haveclear practical implications for online social environments.Practitioners face similar challenges. For example, onlinegameretailer Blizzard recently reversed a decision to requirethe use of out-of-game identities in its online forums (M.G.2010),Formspringfoundbothpopularityandcontroversybyallowing teens to ask anonymous questions of their friends(boyd 2010a), and AOL angered its users when a hacker de-anonymized old search logs (Barbaro and Jr. 2006).
Type % Description Example
Themed 28% Setting theme, often with an exemplar im-age.
 ITT [“In this thread”] we only post stuff we havelaughed at so hard we had tears
Sharing content 19% Offering content for the community to en- joy or critique.
This guy is a hero. :) http://www.youtube.com/[xxxxx]
Question, adviceand recommenda-tion10% Asking for suggestions or, often quite in-timate, life advice.
Soup /b/ Recently I’ve been hanging out with a girl alot, we’re both in college. I spend the night at her placeall the time and we kiss and whatnot. Problem is, she just broke up with her ex [...] and I know she’s not over him. I really like her but I dunno what to do, so what do /b/?
Sharing PersonalInformation9% Sharing or requesting content with per-sonal information.
U JELLY? [“You jealous?”] This is me suiting up at my formal looking fucking brilliant, then there is you fagssitting back and watching.
Discussion 8% Calling for discussion, debate or someback-and-forth over a topic.
 Hi Anonymous! So ive started this game called Leagueof Legends a few days ago. [...] Is there anyone herewho also plays it? Lets talk about it!
Request for item 8% Requesting information about previously-seen images, or other valuable informa-tion such as credentials for pay sites.
anyone has a pic of that star wars battle tank with thegerman insignia shooped [“photoshopped”] on it? inreturn tits [a misogynous but common mechanism for “paying back” a favor with pornographic images]
Requestforaction 7% Intending to agitate for real-life action,like harassing another website
 Make a group saying [name] is awesome on face book. DO IT FAGGOTS 
Meta 5% Discussing /b/ itself or playing with thesite’s mechanics (e.g., post numbers)
 Heidi Ho there /b/ I’m a Newfag and now that i’ve beenhere all Summer I was wondering if i need a letter of recommendation From a Registered OldFag?
Other 6% Unable to categorize.
excuse all the blood Table 1:
Content typology of threads on /b/: appearance frequency and an exemplar (some quotes are paraphrased). (
= 598
4chan and /b/ 
4chan was created in 2004 by Christopher Poole as an onlinediscussion board focused on Japanese anime (Sorgatz 2009).It has grown from its anime roots to encompass sixty boardson topics ranging from politics to fashion, science and “sexybeautiful women.” Poole, better known by his pseudonym
, created 4chan by copying the format of Futaba Chan-nel, a popular Japanese discussion forum.
4chan’s aestheticis simple, though it can appear confusing and cluttered: theWall Street Journal describes it as “archaic [...] a quaintthrowback to the earliest webpages” (Brophy-Warren 2008).4chan is composed of boards, threads and posts. Eachboard is themed (e.g., /v/ is “Video Games”). Like most dis-cussion boards, 4chan groups posts into threads (Figure 2).Postsstarting athread arerequired to includean imagewhileimages on replies are optional. Threads are organized intopages, where each page previews fifteen threads with theiroriginal post and a small sample of replies — users can click through to read the entire thread.In this paper, we focus on the 4chan “random” board,known as /b/.
We focus on /b/ not only because it is 4chan’sfirst and most active board — it claims 30% of all 4chan traf-fic — but also because, in the words of its creator, it is the“life force of the website”, and the place where “rowdinessand lawlessness” happen (Sorgatz 2009).Content ephemerality on 4chan is enforced by thread ex-piration and a large volume of incoming content. Threadsbegin on page one and are pushed down as new threads are
Figure 2:
Structure of a 4chan board.
added. If a user replies to a thread, it is
back tothe top of the first page. If the thread reaches the bottomof the fifteenth page, the thread is removed permanently andits URL returns a ‘Page Not Found’ error. This entire pro-cess can take place over a matter of minutes, as Study 1 willdemonstrate.4chan’s anonymity plays out through its posting mecha-nisms and defaults. Unlike other sites, where being anony-mous usually means not using your “real” name or identity,most posts on /b/ are disconnected from
identity. Thereare no accounts; all information is entered on a per-post ba-sis. If the user does not change the default empty name field,4chan assigns the name
. Even if a user claimsa pseudonym, any other user can claim it themselves inany subsequent post. 4chan does have a cryptographically-

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