Please Feed the Trolls: 4chan and Vernacular Media Policy

Curator's Note

Remember the 1910s tropes about "little boys in short pants" pranking the nation via wireless? These brats supposedly redirected ship traffic, sent rude messages, and generally turned the new medium into a dangerously immature schoolyard. They became an easy target of early radio policy; federal licensing is, in the first instance, about making wireless operators knowable (and thus accountable) to authorities.  Step One in official media regulation, at all times and in all places:  reduce anonymity.

What does that have to do with today's clip?  In the eternal recurrence familiar to media historians, today's little boys in short pants are the "cyberbullies" of 4chan /b/ (NSFW). In "good trickster" mode, 4chan sent Justin Bieber to North Korea, took on the Scientologists, and gave us LOLCats.  But in "bad trickster" mode, they occasionally unleash the full Loki on harmless individuals.  This clip comments on the Jessi Slaughter case, in which 4chan rained ever-escalating torment on a puckish 11-year-old girl (who seems to have enough problems without bearing the vast meanness of the internet as well; back story here). [Author's edit 9/29/10:  I just came across a talk by Gabriella Coleman and Finn Brunton, available here, in which Coleman explores the idea of 4chan as tricksters.  I'm sorry I hadn't known of this earlier, since her take is so much better informed and thought-out than mine here!]

What interests me is 4chan as both "vernacular" policymakers and targets of official policy. The person in this clip might not participate on 4chan, but he articulates clear policy stances about the legitimacy of anonymous online speech and the proper role of parental vs. governmental authority in monitoring children's internet usage—policies that 4chan enacts and enforces every day. 4channers police the internet far more vigorously than the FCC, using their authority to regulate the behavior of millions (often regardless of law or justice).

In this sense, 4chan is close in spirit—and effect—to the shakedown trolls of the RIAA and the moralists in Congress forever passing limits on speech.  What if the only real difference between the rough justice meted out by 4chan and that pursued by, say, corporate copyright-holders is that one is dignified and protected with the word "policy" while the other is legislated against as "cyberbullying"?

4channers also shape regulation dialectically, by symbolizing problems for top-down policy to solve. Their antics are the background noise of the Lori Drew case, the excuse for corporate control of social spaces, part of the context for why Facebook—led by another ruthless young punk—lacks substantial clout on policy issues.

In understanding media policy, then, the bottom-up regulatory practices of online brats are at least as important as official, top-down regulation.  If we end up, say, losing anonymous online speech, it will be because we refused to appreciate policymakers like 4chan, mostly because they make little kids cry. In other words, to preserve a free and open internet, we need to be more gracious with 4chan than they would ever be with us.


Terrific post, Bill!

While I've never been a 4channer myself (I lack the necessary creativity), I appreciate your positioning of them as safeguards of the Internet. While I'm sure 4channers would agree with that, they're consistently seen as nuisances in the media. They do often take things too far, but in their boundary pushing, I think we may find exactly what we expect the Internet to be, and how to protect ourselves on it.

All that said, I feel like I should engage in some creative vulgarities, just to keep the theme of the post going (we have few, if any, trolls here on IMR), but like I said, I lack the necessary creativity. ;)


Thanks for getting this week off to such a fun start.  I am sure I cannot be alone in my delight at descending into the spiral of web-trickery with each link I clicked. 

I recently read an editorial advising against formal industry regulation of the web (we'll see more about network neutrality in the coming days here on IMR), but your post does something important, I think. 

When we talk media regulation, we often think in terms of two parties--the FCC as an arm of the government and the corporations that provide the media servies we as consumers want/need.  Your example illustrates another powerful force in the consumer him/herself.  Unruly as they are, these tricksters are indeed policing the web.  Your link to historical precendent is spot on.  What other examples might we find of this bottom-up regulation, and how might these examples open up the usual dead-end conversation of inefficient government versus monopolistic corporation?

Another quick note about language since you reference the vernacular of these "policymakers".  I have used the term "consumer" to reference your 4chan pranksters.  More optimistic scholars of media frequently use the term "citizen" to draw attention to the role we all play in creating a public sphere of ideas and culture.  In highlighting the example of these less-than-proper acts of Internet policing, might we also break down this troubling binary of consumer/citizen, as if the two concepts are mutually exclusive?



I’d been reading about informal, extralegal systems of property regulation, and so I’m really interested in your much more pluralist account of content and/or “behavioral” (!) regulation than we get in Krattenmaker and Powe.

I thought it was especially neat first for how your concern for vernacular regulation makes such a good fit with contemporary problems in interactive / participatory content and behavior (as Karen underlines, those problems aren’t historically unprecedented, but I wonder if you could speak to whether or how far the notion of vernacular policy depends on some dimension of “interactivity,” or what it would look like without that dimension).

And then I also think your post was especially neat in tracing out some of the perverse relations among plural levels of regulation (4Chan, NetNanny, the state, parents; law, policy, ethics); it seems like you’re on to something more complicated and interesting than the relations between fan norms of appropriation and state copyright law!

What a great essay, Bill--I have thought a lot about 4chan lately, but not about their role as ad hoc policy makers (and on the Internet, the more ad hoc you are, the more authority you can have).  I like the idea that they're the "cyberpolice" in a way, but because they're unable to direct or control, this this them less than ideal policemen, even if they're a promising place to look for activists who will take it to the mat (or mouspad?) to preserve our rights to free speech.  For in preserving their own rights, they're preserving ours.  The Internet has its roots in such anarchy; I see 4chan as a nostalgic and retro social formation at base,

btw, have you heard from 4chan yet?  I guess if you find yourself the victim of the "Full Loki" (great phrase, btw--do you have Viking roots?) you will know why.   Though there is probably no reason to worry.  I have heard from at least one other 4chan researcher that if you are smart and write something smart about 4chan, even if it is critical, you are pretty much safe. 

Thanks to everyone for the great comments so far.  I'll try to respond briefly to keep the conversation going.

Noel:  I agree about the kind of creativity that makes the web great—I wish I had more of it. (Ze Frank always makes me feel that way too.)  And your point about the media perceiving their "boundary-pushing" as a "nuisance" is central to the discursive constructions that delegitimizes not just 4chan but all of as policymakers.  To call something "policy" is to grant it some legitimacy; specifics policies aside, the very term "policy" is itself a prize to be struggled over.

Example: the RIAA called last week for better internet filtering to stop copyright infringement. Here are a bunch of bullies making a nuisance of themselves by pushing legal and technological boundaries for their own selfish purposes, thereby making the internet a less free and pleasant place for all of us.  Sounds familiar.  Yet we honor this nonsense (or Googlezon's even more pernicious power grab) by calling it a "policy proposal."  How can we play the language game of policymaking more effectively?

This gets at Karen's excellent point about nomenclature, and I agree that the citizen/consumer binary is long overdue for retirement.  But I would go further: just as "consumer" positions us as passive, even feminized, "citizen" positions us as dangerously outside of real authority. Citizens are allowed to write their congressperson, comment on FCC proposals, organize in the street, etc., but by definition they lack power to make policy.  So my terminology here (4chan as "policymakers") is part of an effort to think about who really has what kind(s) of policymaking power.

Media regulation is everywhere (my favorite shorthand is that the parent's rule "No TV until your homework is done" is media regulation too). So to respond to Josh's question, I don't think interactivity is crucial to how I'm thinking of vernacular policy, though I suppose some notion of a dialogic relationship between official and vernacular policy is.  So I am indeed trying to map out the "perverse relations among plural levels of regulation" (in your brilliant phrase, which I'm going to steal), but I'm still figuring out how to begin to theorize those relations.

And thanks to Lisa for pointing out the similarities between 4chan and the cyber-utopians (who would certainly disown them). I hadn't thought of that angle:  retro and nostalgic, indeed.  And I haven't heard from 4chan yet, but my email has been acting up a bit today, so maybe my own Jessi Slaughter moment has begun. If so, they will learn soon enough that they dun goofed!


Sorry to be chiming in so late, but I do want to echo the comments so far -- this is a great post, Bill, and I love how you reconstitute what counts as "policy" and who gets included under the label of "policymaker." "Top-down" media policy debates almost always have involved struggles over definition--is broadband an information service or a telecommunications service, does the Fairness Doctrine advance or violate the First Amendment, is the public interest consonant with the public's interest, etc--so I especially appreciate how you interrogate and open the very definition of policy itself to be inclusive of these "bottom-up" approaches, as well as the benefits that could accrue from legitimating non-state actors as policymakers.

In light of your distinction between citizen, consumer, and policymaker, I am curious who the "we" is of your final paragraph. How do "we" sanction certain forms of regulation, in a way that is meaningful for official/non-vernacular policymaking practice, which is perhaps another way of asking how you understand the relationship between these two forms of policymaking, especially given that the policy decisions of the latter (top-down) can trump the regulatory behaviors of the former (bottom-up).



 for the excellent post, Bill. This is a really thoughtful avenue for expanding the discussion beyond content/structure or law and politics into discursive practice and, as Alison notes, bottom-up initiatives in the creation of media policy. I really appreciated the historical connection, too - linking the policy dynamics of these two "wireless" eras is always a great way to get undergrads a little more engaged with radio. 

Thanks to Erika for that link.  4chan's ability to regulate off-line behavior definitely adds a new wrinkle to my focus on media policy and highlights the ability of collective action online to supplant traditional police work (I also like the relatively uplifting story of how Metafilter saved two Russian teens from forced prostitution). Here comes everybody, indeed!  

Since I wrote this piece back in August, 4chan and Anonymous have become central players in the Wikileaks story.  Under pressure from people like Senator Joseph Lieberman, several corporations sought to punish Wikileaks for their disclosures by blocking their accounts, removing Wikileaks from their servers, etc.; in response, Anonymous began launching DDOS attacks against those companies; targets included Visa, Mastercard, Paypal, and the DNS company that pulled Wikileaks.

It has been interesting to watch people trying to make sense of these actions, a situation complicated by the fact that both Anonymous and Joe Lieberman are trying to block speech and attack core values of openness and liberty on the net.  The tech and academic communities, after much dithering about whether Wikileaks had gone too far, seems to be solidifying a position around the proposition that Anonymous is doing necessary if distasteful work in protecting the internet from the likes of Newt Gingrich.  As one person phrased it, “I don’t know if I’m pro-Wikileaks, but I know I’m anti-anti-Wikileaks.”

I would like for the IMR piece above to help us think beyond the good trickster/bad trickster, pro/anti, good/bad dichotomies to see how media policy itself is changing.  If Wikileaks, as I heard it put, represents the Napsterization of government, then Anonymous’s response to Paypal et al. represents the Napsterization of media policy.  Powerful politicians want to use official media policy to shut down Wikileaks, but Anonymous is implementing their own vernacular media policy to keep it open.  What we’re witnessing is not civil disobedience; it’s a policy dispute and we should respect it as such.  

Jay Rosen has argued, “The state has a monopoly on the legal use of force. But it can have no monopoly on the legitimate use of digital ‘force.’”  If true, then the state has no monopoly on the legitimate implementation of policy—hegemony, yes, but monopoly, no; official policy, yes, but legitimate policy, no. We are all potentially policymakers now, and we all have potential policymaking power.  Anonymous is leading the way, negotiating in the interests of a free and open web.  They have gone (at least for now) from making little girls cry to making Joe Lieberman cry, and for those who are anti-anti-Wikileaks, that has to be a good thing.

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