01.10.10

The Internet Mob's Porn Bomb

The anarchists of 4chan just unleashed an old weapon—hardcore porn—on a new target: YouTube. But, as Douglas Rushkoff reports, they may simply be confirming their enemy's dominance.

Members of 4chan's notorious "random" board, known as /b/, were swarming like hornets again last week. And rather than stinging Scientology, Sarah Palin, or any of the other targets they've focused on in the past, they decided to go after perhaps the biggest player on the Internet itself: Google-owned YouTube.

For those unfamiliar with its history, 4chan is a massive online bulletin board, believed to be the second-largest in the world, created in 2003 by a then-15-year-old named Christopher Poole who goes by the screen name “moot.” Its original purpose was to allow users to post graphics easily, instead of just text—much in the fashion of similar sites in Japan dedicated to manga and anime. But the ability for users to post anonymously has also made the site an enormous gathering place for those who wish to exploit this facelessness, turning the Internet into a tool for exacting mob justice on people and institutions they consider enemies. This could mean anything from crashing your Web site to filling your inbox with eternal spam, publishing your identity and phone number to hacking your bank records.

The question becomes whether YouTube's removal of the videos merely served as an excuse for a virtual rampage. Eight-year-old LukeyWes1234 was just this week’s Rodney King.

Last week’s attack against YouTube had typically mundane roots. In retaliation for the video-sharing site’s decision to remove the contributions of an 8-year-old user called “LukeyWes1234,” some 4chan users declared Friday "YouTube Porn Day." They then proceeded to post hundreds—perhaps thousands—of videos containing porn but deceptively labeled as frequently searched YouTube content, such as movie trailers or the Jonas Brothers. To make the files harder for censors to detect—as well as a bigger surprise to viewers—sometimes they even embedded a hardcore sex scene inside a run-of-the-mill music video.

YouTube pretty much shrugged it all off. With upwards of 20 hours of video uploaded every minute, the site depends on community flagging to remove objectionable video. Given how much of this stuff is already on there, and the fact that thousands of people already upload camouflaged porn to YouTube every day, a few thousand more doesn't register more than a blip. Only rarely does something get big enough to attract the attention of the site's human editors—which is what happened with LukeyWes1234 in the first place.

Richard Abowitz: Top 5 Reasons Porn-for-Profit Is DyingDespite reports to the contrary, LukeyWes's videos were not particularly vulgar and certainly not pornographic. Some were apparently shot by the boy's own grandmother, and the short pieces chronicled Luke's fascination with media iconography such as Mario, Luigi, and Star Wars. After some users at 4chan took notice of the videos and encouraged others to subscribe to Luke's YouTube channel, however, he became a minor sensation. By the time 13,000 people had subscribed to Luke's channel, YouTube's standards cops took notice. Because he didn't meet the site's age requirement of 13, his video channel was removed. Luke's 4chan fans were outraged. They took revenge in their characteristically disruptive fashion.

The 4chan users I spoke with who supported the effort consider the subsequent porn storm a valid form of civil disobedience, forcing a standard of openness on the world's most powerful corporation. Google’s defenders in the blogosphere counter that the corporation understood that the attention being bestowed on the 8-year-old was growing too big, too fast, and that he would inevitably become a casualty of the 'Net. The company was intelligently stepping in and yanking the plug for his own good.

My problem with both perspectives is the tendency to ascribe human motivations to non-human entities. Neither YouTube nor Google's executives are sitting in conference rooms discussing the videos of one 8-year-old. More likely, someone in a cubicle charged with reviewing flagged content simply found out an 8-year-old was running a channel when the rules require creators to be at least 13, and then yanked it.

More critically, 4chan is not a committee that issues decrees for its minions to enact. There is no one in charge, and as many ideas of what to do and how to do it as there are members. Someone simply gets an idea and if some other number of people decide it's a good one—no matter how bad it might be—it happens. There’s no stopping it.

The question becomes whether YouTube's removal of Luke's videos merely served as an excuse for a virtual rampage—the way a blackout "cues" people to loot stores, more than creating any new real reason to loot. Increasingly, that is how the Internet works. Eight-year-old LukeyWes1234 was just this week’s Rodney King.

And even if it's utterly well-intentioned, the attack on YouTube for its “crimes” against Luke betrays a misunderstanding of how the Internet works. Google is not the national government, however much it may seem that way to kids growing up in a world where brands like YouTube and Gmail have achieved the status of facts of nature. Just because a video can't be run on YouTube doesn't mean it can't be run.

The easy, networked approach to censorship is not to call upon a private company to run videos that go against its policies; it is to run those videos somewhere else. Over time, if the best stuff is happening somewhere other than YouTube, then YouTube loses its popularity. To call such a scenario preposterous is to call the Internet preposterous for having already achieved that and more.

But that's not how mobs think, and this, of course, has been the danger of mobs all along. They tend to act out of anger, rather than toward positive results. Restoring Luke's videos was likely less important than having a cue and reason to attack YouTube. And this attack only underscored the company's pre-eminence.

4chan's power—the way its members use the Internet to swarm and amplify the fury of the mob—makes it a force of nature on the digital landscape. As any journalist who has poked at this hornet's nest can tell you, myself included, the wrath of the 4chan hive is no picnic. One's identity becomes his liability, as the power and anonymity of a community like 4chan’s /b/ are leveraged to wreak personal havoc through the most impersonal means.

Interestingly, at next month’s TED Conference, 4chan's queune met, Christopher "moot" Poole will make a public presentation, one of several recent steps that increase his profile. It will be interesting to see if becoming a public persona influences his thoughts at all on his creation, which now feels empowered to knock down such people and institutions.

Douglas Rushkoff, a professor of media studies at The New School University and producer and correspondent for the PBS Frontline Digital Nation project, is the author of numerous books, including Cyberia, ScreenAgers, Media Virus, and, most recently, Life Inc., released this month by Random House.