In his classic genre analysis Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western, Will Wright describes the way in which masculinity in western films has reflected contemporary social and institutional contexts. While charting the evolution of the genre, Wright identifies a consistent relationship between masculinity, group activities and social meaning. In essence he argues that stories of the Wild West are pivotal spaces in which masculine values are expressed through the activities and behaviors of fraternal groups.
During the end of the last millennium the culture of the internet was often described as a modern Wild West. Just as stories of the Wild West feature rough and tumble men exploring the possibilities of the new frontier, stories of the early internet were primarily stories of men (as entrepreneurs and users) and masculine groups engaging in highly coded activities (pornography, fantasy sports, video games, sci-fi/fantasy/comic book fandom).
The Wild West of Wright’s analysis and the Wild West of the internet share a common trajectory. Both have undergone major changes in the name of social progress and civilization and yet certain masculine characteristics and activities have persisted. Wright describes the way in which masculine western violence helped to frame American foreign policy. Similarly, Andrew Ross has argued that the culture of masculine prankster hackers has influenced social interactions on the web, particularly in the realm of practical jokes and absurdist humor.
One such practice that seems to have become conventionalized within internet culture is the “link prank.” Made famous by the internet meme known as “Rick Rolling”, “link pranks” are practical jokes in which a link is sent via email or instant message and is labeled as one thing but is actually something unexpected and absurd. Often these pranks take on a taboo nature that would be right at home in a frat house. There is even vocabulary established around this activity particularly in the case of the workplace where “link pranks” are labeled as “NAFW” (Not Appropriate for Work).
Recently, Sam Anderson of New York Magazine wrote a piece about the website ChatRoulette.com, a web camera chat service which connects random strangers for impromptu exchanges. Part of the allure of the website is the possibility of finding something shocking. Anderson asserts in the piece that the site is reflective of the excitement of a previous era of internet culture that was more masculine, violent and sexual.
Anderson sees ChatRoulette as cultural reaction to the more organized web culture of social networking. I would argue that the site is not an isolated example of the legacy of internet masculinity but rather an extreme case along a spectrum. The attached reaction video of ChatRoulette participants demonstrates that the larger cultural significance of the site is its value as a prankster game. Just as the John Wayne persona impacted American masculinity, link pranking will continue to be an important trope of masculine internet interactions.