Originally published on Youthradio.org, the premier source for youth generated news throughout the globe.
By Noah Nelson
The Internet: where everybody knows your name and no one ever forgets that one time you fell down the stairs at band camp and landed on Tommy Meekner's flute. Conventional wisdom holds that the 'net is becoming "safer" every day by becoming less anonymous. Yet the question is: safe for whom?
Not for anyone who has ever made the mistake of posting a party picture online without thinking of the consequences. Ask Stacy Snyder or Michael Phelps. If we're lucky society may just wind up redefining its sense of shame, but if we're not, we're going to need a place where everyone doesn't know your name more than ever.
Places like 4Chan [So NSFW it's not even funny. Okay. It's a little funny].
Described by the TED website as the "last major enclave of the untamed Internet," the site is the creation of Christopher "Moot" Poole, one of the speakers at this year's TED conference. Poole spoke about the freewheeling nature of his site, a series of image-based discussion boards whose topics range from anime to the paranormal; memes to porn.
And then there's /b/.
Known to some as the "asshole of the internet," the subculture of /b/ manages to embrace both meanings of the word. To best understand /b/, recall the words of Obi-Wan Keobi: "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villany." Add the libidos of emotionally disturbed 14-year-olds with a deep scatological fixation, and you will start to get the picture.
Yet as Poole illustrates in his TED talk, there is heroism as well as horror out there on teh internetz crossroads of 4Chan. The anonymous users of the site famously brought a cat abuser to justice using clues discovered in the video said tormentor posted online.
Poole makes the case for the place of anonymity on the web in his TED talk.
The experience at TED might have been a trip down memory lane for some of the older web-heads in attendance. There was a time when the online community looked a hell of a lot like 4Chan: a creative anarchy that often pushed the boundaries of taste in the pursuit of humor. It was the era of the Internet's adolescence. That spirit of adolescence, however, is under assault by the rise of a persistent online identity.
Poole spoke to this effect with the New York Times back in March:
Someone I recently met at the TED conference told me "part of the magic of youth is that people are able to forgive and forget." As kids, we say stupid things, and because there's not a record of it, nobody is going to give you a hard time at 30 years old about something you said or did when you were 8 years old. Online, you have all these social networks that are moving to a state of persistent identity, and in turn, we're sacrificing the ability to be youthful. In 10 years, everything you say and do will be visible online, and I think it's really unfortunate.
While 4Chan-- with its capacity for discovering the most eye-burning pornographic images ever conceived by man-- might be the last website you'd ever think of as a "safe place," the shield of anonymity becomes just that.
Part of growing up is playing with different identities, and the big change that social networks are imposing on us is a kind of institutionalized continuity. Which is great when you're trying to hold politicians accountable, but has the potential for being a paranoiac nightmare when prospective employers can see just how much of a jerk you were at 16.
Now maybe the end of privacy is the end of shame, but until we evolve past our obsessions with scandal and slip-ups, we need places like 4Chan.
With no login requirement and no long term memory-- 4Chan threads are not archived, they stay around as long as there is interest in the topic and then disappear into the ether-- 4Chan acts as a temporary autonomous zone. It is the ideological opposite of Facebook in nearly every way.
PRIVACY WARS: FINAL FIGHT
Looking back on the earlier parts of the series, it might be unfair to compare Warcraft and Facebook's privacy struggles with the anonymity of 4Chan. After all, Activision/Blizzard and Facebook are major companies, 4Chan doesn't even make enough for Christopher Poole to take a paycheck.
The big guys quite literally can't afford to take the kinds of risks that Poole does by letting his users run wild. Nor would the half-billion Facebook users be likely to take kindly to new neighbors wearing Guy Fawkes masks and all answering to the name Anonymous.
What we don't see coming out of Facebook is the same kind of creative energy that emerges from 4Chan and the unfiltered form of Warcraft. What we need from our social networks is an acknowledgement that identity is not black and white. That we don't actually live in a world that is either completely open or completely anonymous.
The social network that gets this is the one that will stand the test of time.
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