It seemed an ordinary day at Google’s offices in Tel Aviv, Israel. Until an alarming discrepancy glued eyes to computer screens. Google Hot Trends is a feature intended to give “a snapshot of what’s on the public’s collective mind,” the Internet giant says, by displaying the fastest-rising search terms on the Web. Top of the list was not Batman, iPhone or sex. It was not a word at all. It was a swastika.
Somehow the icon appropriated by Nazi Germany, not readily found on computer keyboards, had caught all-powerful Google napping. The company was forced to issue an apology over the failure of its automated system to “identify and remove inappropriate or offensive material,” leaving its engineers to manually take down the symbol after two hours.
How did the swastika get there? Why did so many people search for it at the same time? It was a demonstration of how peculiar fads, jokes or videos can come out of nowhere and run riot across the Web. Such phenomena are known as “memes” — cultural fragments that catch someone’s eye, get forwarded to friends and spread like a virus.
ALL THAT IS WEIRD
The invisible hand behind many memes, apparently including the googled swastika, is a Web site called 4chan. From semi-literate cats to the “ironic” comeback of singer Rick Astley, this online community is building a reputation as a nursery of all that is weird and wacky and likely to be landing in your inbox tomorrow.
Suddenly 4chan’s elusive creator found himself the subject of articles in two heavyweight US publications: Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal, which named him as Christopher Poole, a New Yorker who was only 15 when, with the help of his mother’s credit card, he launched 4chan from his bedroom five years ago. Time hailed him as the “Master Of Memes” and described 4chan as “the wellspring from which a lot of Internet culture, and hence popular culture, bubbles.”
But how does it work? 4chan began as a simple message board with pictures and text. Anyone could contribute on any subject, posting a photograph of their pet, sounding off about a politician, debating the merits of a player. Sometimes other users will reply and begin a strand of conversation. The images and comments now appear under 44 topic headings ranging from fashion, sports and video games to weapons, the para-normal and “sexy beautiful women.” The most popular by a long way is “Random.” Inspired by a forum in Japan, the site has an unpolished retro look, as rough and ready as a scrapbook. It is an online community at its purest and rawest, the antithesis of polished networks such as Facebook: 4chan is like a brick wall where people can daub graffiti without fear of a comeback.
THE WEB’S WILD WEST
Child pornography is banned, but otherwise there are few rules. Some posts are gloriously childish and nonsensical. Others can be racist, homophobic and misogynistic and peppered with four-letter words. Unlike most social networks, no one has to register a name or sign in. Consequently the community has been described as a lawless Wild West of the Web, a place of uninhibited bawdiness and verbal violence.
A teenager in Texas posted a photograph of hoax pipe bombs and a threat to blow up his school on the anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, but another user contacted police and the teenager was arrested.