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.
However, the free-for-all has also been liberating, turning 4chan into an ideas laboratory and unleashing a ferocious creative force. Though most of what appears soon vanishes and is forgotten, the stuff that survives can easily jump to the wider Web community and “go viral,” passing from person to person across the world. It is an ability envied by advertising agencies, which have long sought to drum up publicity by word of mouth or now through viral videos of their own, relying on users to do the work for them. But 4chan just does it for fun with the help of a big army of users: 8.5 million page views a day and 3.3 million visitors a month.
The swastika was one such stunt. It appears that a post on 4chan instructed people to Google “卐.” When thousands did, they discovered that it was a piece of code that, when processed by a Web browser, translates into a swastika. Their collective curiosity unwittingly sent the symbol soaring to the top of Google’s Hot Trends.
One of 4chan’s biggest hits is a prank known as “bait-and-switch.” You receive a link to an “amazing Web site.” But when you click, it is in fact a link to a music video for Rick Astley’s 1987 hit single Never Gonna Give You Up. It is estimated that more than 10 million people have been “rickrolled.” The first such joke on 4chan was “duckrolling,” in which a link to a popular celebrity or news item would instead lead to a photomontage of a duck with wheels.
In another parade of silliness, 4chan users began a Saturday ritual of posting pictures of cats, for no particular reason except that they could. This soon became known as “Caturday,” with humorous phrases posted beside the so-called “LOLcats” — now the subject of LOLcat T-shirts, buttons and fridge magnets. When a plump gray cat appeared with the caption “I can has cheezburger?” it caught the imagination of a man in Hawaii and became the subject of his blog, icanhascheezburger.com. The blog was sold for about US$2m.
Last week 4chan was at it again. The site rallied users to search for “Scientology is a cult” and, written upside down, the words “fuck you Google.” Again, both leapt to the top of Google Hot Trends before being removed. 4chan users were also accused of attacking Habbo, a virtual world for children, by flooding it with avatars made to look like black men wearing Armani suits. In a previous raid, they lined up avatars to form the shape of a swastika.
Poole had never revealed his identity until Time and the Wall Street Journal came calling. When contacted by this reporter through e-mail, he replied: “I am extremely busy this week and will not have time to conduct a phone interview.”
He suggested questions by e-mail but did not respond to them. His message was signed “moot,” a code name he uses on 4chan for reasons no one has yet fathomed.
“My personal private life is very separate from my Internet life,” he told Time. “There’s a firewall in between.”
Poole set up 4chan because he wanted to share his passion for Japanese comics and TV rather than as a moneyspinner, which is just as well. Although the site is popular, its scurrilous reputation makes it difficult to sell advertising space.
Poole said: “That’s been an uphill battle for me personally. My biggest time spent has been convincing companies in marketing potential in 4chan but no one sees eye to eye.”
For now he will have to be content with shaping Western culture as the most influential Web entrepreneur you’ve never heard of.
“Coarse as it is, 4chan has no rival as a hothouse for memes; they’re bred and refined, and then they can escape and run amuck through the culture at large,” Time enthused. “For better or for worse, this is what the counterculture looks like today: raw, sarcastic, bare of any social or political agenda but frequently funny as hell.”