4chan has been embedded into my psyche since I was around 11 years old. Bullied, isolated and powerless, 4chan to me seemed like a lawless haven and a reprieve from a life I did not want.
I was a struggling uncleanly Asperger’s preteen and 4chan was like catnip. Autism is very much related to the therapeutic power of imageboards on my psyche.
How is autism related to my former awestruck devotion to 4chan? Would you suppose that it was anything to do with anime, video games and bizarre fetishes? In actual fact, it was not; in this time period, many social media sites had similar fare for the Weeb, the Pervert and the Gamer, including early Reddit, which was far more unhinged than it is today¹.
Unlike imageboards however, the medium of Reddit is and was not particularly comforting to me. Reddit is the virtual equivalent to a hollow, dissatisfying get-together in which one converses with people one does not know and does not care to know; one simply attempts to be heard and recognised in a meaningless popularity contest. Users have a clear identity, a name — and yet this identity is irrelevant, often in essence just a tag to accompany upvotes. The psychological experience of Reddit for me was that of feeling both entirely culpable for my comment history, and yet paradoxically feeling as if I had little to no meaningful agency.
But 4chan has aged well for me. The appeal of hobbies, memes and links therein is wholly secondary — they will all be filtered downward to some other part of the internet, anyhow. The most effective component of the Asperger’s unction that lies within imageboard culture is its masklessness.
To a young autist, neurotypicals can appear to be compulsive liars, lying constantly, both to others and themselves. I despised this. My parents did not want to have me diagnosed, so until the age of 19 or so I was convinced that I was either a ghoulish psychopath or The Sole Compassionate Being, depending on the day. I was incapable of holding a simple conversation, and every faux-pas and abject failure made me long for a simpler world to be a part of.
And if one sorely wishes to exit the neurotypicals’ impenetrable web of unspoken promises, compromises and justifications, then imageboards can be your haven. This is not to say that 4chan, and imageboards in general, enforce no social norms; to the contrary 4chan often has, to the outside, an apparent conformity of conduct and speech. Rather, it is the anonymous structure of 4chan which renders its social norms rather alien and frightening to many “well-adjusted individuals”. Importantly, I claim that these norms are also far more comprehensible to the mind-blind neuroatypical person.
As hinted in the introductory screencap, I view interactions on 4chan as the most “posthuman” of any experience I have ever had; AR and VR do not affect me much emotionally, because these technologies ultimately replicate the incentive structures of the exterior, western world in a virtual environment.
The various interrelated anonymity cultures of 00s imageboards did not arise in an attempt to imitate or surpass the real world; ironically, one could even say that these cultures appeared completely organically.
The incentive structure of capitalism means that humans exclusively design and shape virtual reality experiences to fit the culture and norms of consumers. On the other hand, by way of the inherent limitations of threads, anonymity, text and images over that of speech, body language and identity, I claim that imageboards themselves design and shape the culture of humans to fit their own structure.
No real world culture will ever mimic the assorted net cultures arising from the constraints, the liberating constraints, of disembodied anonymity — for obvious, flesh-based reasons. And while I believe that the majority of online cultures are to a degree posthuman, anonymity is the central force which gives rise to the most alien, inhuman and indeed posthuman internet spaces.
Social Norms for the Asocials
What social norms did 00s 4chan possess?
Social norms are intrinsically non-autistic, but the internet of 2005 had levelled the playing field substantially; anything a neurotypical may have wished to express through body language or tone of voice would be devoured by the keys they had pressed. Furthermore, the internet was not yet widely utilised, and so a selection bias favored The Odd Individuals; a superset of the autistic.
Early 4chan went even further than a simple abnormal majority; its anonymity removed even the prospect of social exclusion. This created a world in which explicit alienation was impossible — a utopia for my traumatised preteen self. I would even argue that in spite of various ableisms and so on, the culture of 4chan itself was and is often in practice far more accommodating to those who fail or do not wish to follow the social norms of the contemporary english-speaking West.
Some have claimed that the morality of 4chan is downright psychopathic. This is not exactly an unfair characterisation, given that I used to believe this myself. However, I’ve since come to the conclusion that this is far from the truth.
From the biased memories of my undeveloped brain, I recall that in those days, /b/ was above all else against what was deemed “moralfaggotry”: the judgement of ideas and actions as “evil”. Yet these admonitions against “moralfags” did not decry acts of charity, vigilante justice, or the appreciation of cute animals. It was not that empathy or compassion were absent, it was that “right” and “wrong” corresponded only to ephemeral, temporal emotions and desires. To pronounce a moral obligation was the only act that one was morally obliged not to do.
There is a strong sense in which this can be viewed as “unconsciously Stirnerist”, as the following passage illustrates:
I love men too — not merely individuals, but every one. But I love them with the consciousness of egoism; I love them because love makes me happy, I love because loving is natural to me, because it pleases me. I know no “commandment of love.” I have a fellow-feeling with every feeling being, and their torment torments, their refreshment refreshes me too. [..] Where the world comes in my way — and it comes in my way everywhere — I consume it to quiet the hunger of my egoism. For me you are nothing but — my food, even as I too am fed upon and turned to use by you. We have only one relation to each other, that of usableness, of utility, of use. We owe each other nothing, for what I seem to owe you I owe at most to myself. If I show you a cheery air in order to cheer you likewise, then your cheeriness is of consequence to me, and my air serves my wish; to a thousand others, whom I do not aim to cheer, I do not show it.
— Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own
The key fact to note here is that there is not necessarily a lack of empathy, compassion or love involved with the “/b/goist” mindset. Psychopaths may have browsed 4chan (as they may visit your coffee shop, and so on), but 4chan users largely were not psychopathic — their sadism was as easily aroused as their compassion, they simply lack a moralistic framework to censor and police these emotions.
As an aside, I note that another chief norm at play was that of shared culture. Knowledge of a particular board’s history and especially its memes signified status. Originally this was tongue-in-cheek, but there is a real sense in which it became sincere — genuinely enraged replies would often cry “newfag!” (among other slurs) at those lacking this context.
Hypomaniac Preteen Sees the Divine
I would like to go mad on one condition, namely, that I would become a happy madman, lively and always in a good mood, without any troubles and obsessions, laughing senselessly from morning to night.
— E.M Cioran, On the Heights of Despair, “The Premonition of Madness”
The bulk of 4chan’s deep-rooted psychological importance to me seems nigh impossible to express in words; irrational, bizarre and quasi-religious sentiments swirl around in my brain in remembrance of how I once felt.
Have you ever experienced a feeling of pure, blissful freedom juxtaposed with a melting of one’s ego into a wider, imagined community? These seemingly contradictory concepts constituted the the peak of my youthful 4chan excursions. I would hungrily scour boards for memes, porn and interesting media to pirate, doing exactly as I pleased and yet feeling supported by a “community” — in spite of very rarely posting replies. In fact, I was often too reverent to reply, I often felt I would be disrespecting the community by not “lurking moar” since I was “underageb&”².
The bottomless spiritual fixation I felt for this much maligned website likely came about in the following ways:
- The emotional splendour of youth and the novelty of masturbation played a large part in the ecstasy I felt from imageboard browsing.
- My isolation from the dreaded リア充 at school meant that the only social contact I was receiving was via the internet.
- Bipolar disorder had begun to bestow hypomanic episodes upon me during this time period.
- 4chan gave me much catharsis from the pain of bullying and social exclusion.
Reason 4 is particularly important in my self-narrative of events to follow. In despising my being at school, the other beings there, and my being itself, the free, inhuman simplicity of 4chan was always set in contrast to the prison-and-zoo school system constructed by neurotypicals for neurotypical children. At home as opposed to in school, in lieu of fantasies of death, I instead lived a fantasy of 2-dimensional life.
Although I long for luminous ecstasies, I wouldn’t ask for any, because I know they are followed by great depressions.
— E.M Cioran, On the Heights of Despair, “The Premonition of Madness”
Around the age of 13 I abandoned 4chan out of growing paranoia about my “future” with respect to employment. I also expected that the government and its corporate owners would soon reign in the cybernetic Wild West.
Ironically, while the internet as a whole is more sanitised and normalised these days³, this resulted from mass immigration of Normals, and not from any real government crackdown (at least in the United Kingdom). Not only was I mistaken in these concerns, but I had also miscalculated my employability in the first place; 4 years later an aborted suicide attempt purged from my mind all hopes of one day becoming a contented drone.
While this process had started way back when I was around 8 years old — reciting the childish acronym “IWIWD — I wish I would die” under my breath — at around age 13 I had started to become disillusioned with all methods of escape I had hitherto relied on merely to continue existing. Catharsis was beginning to become more and more difficult to come by, and I was losing all ability to engage with hobbies and media.
Prior to my fear that I had best cease all piracy, imageboard trolling, chatroom raiding and so on, I had /b/egun to /b/ecome /b/ored of 4chan itself. While I had tried 7chan and 420chan⁴ at points, it was becoming clear that the “imageboard hit” I required was not arriving. I was browsing and behaving in exactly the same ways, and yet now my haven looked to me like a meaningless, chaotic blob of text and images. Severe anhedonia and derealisation had begun to rule over almost every waking moment.
The Prodigal NEET
Hence there were a number of years in which I did not visit 4chan — which I somewhat regret, given that I missed out on what was essentially the golden age of /r9k/ (with respect to guro-esque “poo poo pee pee” memes, NEET worship, “NORMIES” etc.).
I came back to it much later after meeting my ex-girlfriend. While the magic never really returned, medication had somewhat restored my ability to concentrate and feel, allowing me to enjoy occasionally browsing through niche boards for an intriguingly moronic thread.
The 4chan of today is still in many ways similar to the 4chan of the 00s, albeit better moderated, and /b/ is mostly porn. However, my experience visiting it is often one of distant comfort and slight wistful pain, as if it is but a reminder of a loved one who has passed away. It is not, however, 4chan which has died, but rather the petrified and idealised concept of my childhood self.
¹Early Reddit was highly in support of piracy and featured many fringe political persuasions and borderline illegal activities. This is almost entirely reversed now.
²In a twist of fate I find hilarious, moot was himself around only 17 when I had begun browsing 4chan in earnest. Likewise I have heard that many of the posters at the time were similarly in the young teenage demographic. Rock and roll, satanic panics, violent video games were all demonised by Concerned Christian Mothers and yet the anonymous porn and gore collective never appeared on heir technologically illiterate radar.
³See my old article “The Sanitisation of the Internet”. Unsure if I entirely agree with all of it still, however.
⁴ I didn’t stay long, as it felt hard to fit in with a drug culture — a culture that requires friends or a lack of fear, neither of which I had at the time.