When AT&T recently blocked access to a hugely popular hackers' Web site, 4chan.org, many of us Internet old-timers froze in place. It was like one of those bad Westerns, when an arrogant newcomer sits down in the saloon, and then insults the baddest, most trigger-happy gunslinger in the county. People move to the side of the room, climb under tables, and wait for the shots to fly.
The 4Chan community—a diehard, if ever-changing assortment of the Net's most-desperate, most-anonymous, and most-wanted, well, punks—smelled censorship, top-down control, and an evil corporation trying to keep down the world's last squat for hackers. They went batshit. The site's founder posted a note telling his minion's to write and complain to AT&T, and the dog whistle having been heard, a posse called "Project AT&T," quickly formed, dedicated to revenge.
As I perused the porn, I got the overwhelming sense that I had landed in the Internet's equivalent of the parking lot behind a 7-Eleven.
It turns out AT&T was really just trying to protect the site, and its own servers, from a typical "denial of service" attack. (Hackers create a feedback loop of pings and requests that overloads the target Web site.) AT&T’s solution—to move 4Chan to a new IP address—was crude but ultimately effective. Project AT&T called a temporary truce, the bar piano started playing again, and the world went back to normal.
But the whole episode reminded me that, in spite of the Web's seemingly secure and consumer-friendly facade, there is still some Wild West left out there. And 4Chan is the OK Corral. So like a middle-aged Australian businessman going on walkabout, I decided to spend a couple of weeks embedded in this famously depraved, raucously fertile community.
On the surface, 4Chan is an online bulletin board for people to post images and make comments. There are different channels for different interests, from anime and automobiles to papercraft and, of course, porn. Launched in 2003 by a then-15-year-old kid called "moot," 4Chan was meant as an American answer to popular image and message boards for anime fans in Japan. A lack of a registration system gave its 4Chan users the anonymity they needed to post whatever they wanted, with impunity. That's at least part of the reason why 4Chan grew to be the 684th most popular site on the Web (this quarter), and has made it to the top 100 during peaks. The other reason, like the back room at a gay bar, is the "random" board, otherwise known as “/b/”.
Back in the day—like, last year and before—the 4Chan’s “/b/rothers”, as they call themselves, got famous for their hacking, and also inventing and spreading some of the Net's most loved and hated visual memes, including Lolcats (those pictures of cats engaging in human activities with clever captions) and Rickrolling (a user clicks on a link they hope is bringing them to some controversial footage, like Michelle Obama saying "whitey," but actually goes to a music video for 1987 Rick Astley song "Never Gonna Give You Up"). Project Chanology was a full frontal assault on Scientology, after the church successfully removed a Tom Cruise video from YouTube. Users of 4Chan successfully disseminated the video throughout the Internet, while attacking and shutting down Scientology's servers. And 4Chan users can take credit for hacking Sarah Palin's Yahoo Mail account during the presidential election, and posting some of the contents.
In the three weeks I've trolled the site, I didn’t witness anything quite so dramatic—though I suppose the potential is there at any moment. It feels a bit like walking through a bad neighborhood—one where if you break some custom you're unaware of, you could get hurt. As I perused the porn, the 30-word manifestos against American hegemony (filled with misspellings), the flame wars between gamers about the superiority of one console over the other, I got the overwhelming sense that I had landed in the Internet's equivalent of the parking lot behind a 7-Eleven. Gamers, geeks, and losers who had nothing better to do than post stills from videogames with obnoxious or occasionally witty inside jokes.
But all along, as I took my notes, and considered asking some pointed questions, I actually started to wonder what might happen to the security of my own email account and Web site if I said the wrong thing, insulted the wrong /b/rother, or inflamed the wrong posse. And in that sense it felt like the old Internet again—the unpredictable, interactive, and highly anonymous medium through which anyone from anywhere could wage an attack. Here, the Justice Squad of Net vigilantes sits between battles, awaiting the next affront to digital anarchy. I decided to touch nothing, in the hope that nothing would touch me.
Then, just yesterday, I scrolled by something I had never seen in all my 20-some-odd years online: genuine child porn. Someone had posted the unmistakably clear image of two pubescent boys engaged in oral sex. Not fake Russian teenagers or young-looking models, but kids. It hit me harder and deeper than I thought it would. Not just the image, which set off its own chain of emotions in me as a parent, but the fact that this contraband was now in my cache, on my hard drive somewhere. I had visions of Pete Townsend getting carted off by the cops for "researching" child porn.
So I was infected, after all. Not just by an indecent, illegal image, but by indecency and illegality itself.
And, on a certain level, except for that disgusting child porn, it was a relief. Most of these posts are intended to prove something: that the Internet is still incapable of being completely controlled. It was as crude as AT&T simply unplugging 4Chan for messing up its servers, but almost equally powerful—at least to me, scrolling a Web site from the safety of my home at two in the morning.
There is still an "element" online willing to take the time, energy, and risk to piss on the virtual street, spray paint on a virtual building, or gang up on a real person or institute they consider a threat. You may not want to engage with this element directly, or even indirectly. But no matter how far from the Internet's wild, anarchic origins we get—no matter how much the Web starts to look and act like a copy-protecting iTunes nightmare—they're still out there. Waiting.
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.