“for the lolz”: 4chan is hacking the attention economy

(Newbie note: If you have never heard of 4chan, start with the Wikipedia entry and not the website itself. The site tends to offend many adults’ sensibilities. As one of my friends put it, loving LOLcats or rickrolling as outputs is like loving a tasty hamburger; visiting 4chan is like visiting the meat factory. At some point, it’d probably help to visit the meat factory, but that might make you go vegetarian.)

Over the last year, 4chan emerged from complete obscurity to being recognized by mainstream media as something of significance. Perhaps it was moot’s appearance at the top of the TIME 100 list. More likely, it was moot’s TED talk on anonymity that tipped it all over. At TED, moot – otherwise known as Chris Poole – revealed a more “legitimate” side of an underground site typically known to outsiders as the cesspool of the internet. And in doing so, he marked himself as one of the more articulate, thoughtful, and entertaining community leaders on the web. In short, he was someone that adults could embrace, even if his site scared the shit out of them.

Amidst all of this, 4chan has “popped.” Journalists and academics are clamoring to discuss and analyze 4chan. At first, it was all about discussing whether or not this community of 9.5 million mostly young mostly male internet people was evil or brilliant. Lately, the obsession focuses on anonymity, signaling that Chris’ TED talk set the frame for public discourse about 4chan. Both of these are certainly interesting topics. 4chan has created some of the most lovable memes on the internet but /b/tards have also been some of the most nefarious trolls and griefers on the web. And anonymity is a really complex topic that can’t be boiled down to a question of accountability in light of whether or not the anonymous commentator is seen as evil or brilliant. And while I could write a long essay on how the anonymity that people seek on the web counters the ways in which identifiability on the web far exceeds any identifiability that ever existed offline, that’s not the point of this post. Instead, what I want to claim is that 4chan is next-gen hacker culture. And that it should be appreciated (and vilified) on those terms.

I grew up in a community of hackers at the tale end of the security hacking days. Many of my friends in high school prided themselves on their phreaking skills or in their ability to break into high-end security systems. While some were truly gifted technical geniuses, few were true crackers bent on destroying systems with malicious intentions. Most of my friends simply wanted to see what they could do. And mostly, the hacking that was taking place was really mundane, leveraging people’s stupidity in using “admin/admin” as their username/password combo to leave little love notes and easter eggs. Of course, there were consequences. One of my friends was forbidden from using the internet throughout high school while another ended up doing time in the Navy’s security system in lieu of the alternatives. I was not connected to the 31337 hackers that were central to the security hacking era, but I grew up on the margins in ways that allowed me to appreciate their technical prowess (and to want to be Angelina Jolie a few years later).

Depending on where you sit, security hackers are vilified or adored, recognized for the havoc that they wreaked and for really challenging systems to be much more secure. As a community, they were the underground of the 80s and 90s. Yet, today, former hackers are some of the most powerful people in the tech industry. Some hackers had truly malicious intentions while others were engaged in a series of acts that can best be understood through a popular 4chan phrase: “for the lolz.” It was entertaining to see what one could do. And while most of those who were in it for the lolz had no political agenda, the resultant acts of the security hackers ended up being deeply political, ended up really shaping the development of technological systems.

I would argue that 4chan is ground zero of a new generation of hackers – those who are bent on hacking the attention economy. While the security hackers were attacking the security economy at the center of power and authority in the pre-web days, these attention hackers are highlighting how manipulatable information flows are. They are showing that Top 100 lists can be gamed and that entertaining content can reach mass popularity without having any commercial intentions (regardless of whether or not someone decided to commercialize it on the other side). Their antics force people to think about status and power and they encourage folks to laugh at anything that takes itself too seriously. The mindset is deeply familiar to me and it doesn’t surprise me when I learn that old hacker types get a warm fuzzy feeling thinking about 4chan even if trolls and griefers annoy the hell out of them. In a mediated environment where marketers are taking over, there’s something subversively entertaining about betting on the anarchist subculture. Cuz, really, at the end of the day, many old skool hackers weren’t entirely thrilled to realize that mainstreamification of net culture meant that mainstream culture would dominate net culture. For us geeks, freaks, and queers who embraced the internet as a savior, mainstreamification has meant a new form of disempowerment.

As with security hackers, the attention hackers that are popping up today are a mixed bag. It’s easy to love the cultural ethos and despise some of the individuals or the individual acts. In recognizing the cultural power of the community represented by 4chan, I don’t mean to justify some of the truly hateful things that some individuals have done. But I am willing to laugh off some of the stupidity and find humor in the antics while also rejecting certain acts. I’m willing to lament the fact that it’s been 20 years and underground hacking culture is still mostly white and mostly male while also being stoked to see a new underground subculture emerge. Of course, it doesn’t look like it’ll be underground for long… And I can’t say that I’m too thrilled for every mom and pop and average teen to know about 4chan (which is precisely why I haven’t blogged about it before). But I do think that there’s something important about those invested in hacking the attention economy. And I do hope that we always have people around us reminding us to never take the internets too seriously.

Update: Yes, I know the more commonly accepted spelling of lolz is lulz. (The full phrase should also be: “I did it for the lulz.”) I can’t explain why I prefer lolz but I always have and there are others out there who use this variant as well. Lulz highlights the negativity (since it’s loling at someone else’s expense) while lolz focus on generalized laughter, not always hurtful laughter. I prefer to think of things in this frame. YMMV.

(Translated into Russian by Mikhail Karpov)

Mikhail Karpov

Mikhail Karpov

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21 thoughts on ““for the lolz”: 4chan is hacking the attention economy

  1. Alan Wilensky

    Damn Danah Boyd; “Hacking the Attention Economy”, that is smartest damn bite-sized analysis I have heard in 20 years. You, Madam, are worth ten times what Microsoft is paying you. Can I be yo’ boyfrien’? I have a cat and en electric motorcycle. I live in Salem, MA and have a heart as big as Montana….

    You smart guys and glas of this latter generation are going to save the tech world from its unbridled self. Now, if Zuck would get someone like yourself to be a hands-on behavioral /sociological technologist in residence, and listen to you – not bloody likely – but I say…..good on you, gal.

    Best Kosher Chinese dinner in town, you name the time, there’s only one place. Yeeha.

  2. John

    I like godlikeproductions better, no porn, no antisemitism, individual thought, no crazy.

  3. Nathan

    I disagree that 4chan is a community of hackers for one simple reason: to me a hacker is someone who gets things done. 4chan and other sites that focus on memes are attention diverters, full of people who jump from one lol to the next.

    In contrast a hacker is someone who is willing to focus time and attention on one thing until he excels in it. The 4chan mindset is not a long term, viable one, because the lulz distract from any real good that can be done. Sure you can pick through the porn, rubbish, and hate in 4chan and come up with examples of great things being done, but if you look at real hackers, such as the internet entrepreneurs that are creating web startups at YCombinator you see many great things being created with little rubbsih, not a few great things mixed into volumes of lulz.

    I don’t look to 4chan to create long term internet change. They are great for creating laughs, but the next Facebook, the next Twitter, the next great internet technology will not arise from them. It will arise from true hackers who still hack in the traditional sense, by writing code and coming up with innovative technological ideas.

  4. jp

    You don’t have the right to speak about 4chan, you just don’t get it. Stay on oldernet please, kthxbye

  5. Stew

    Hey, you are doing it wrong. It never be ‘Lolz’. Whether you are new to this, or you are just being a troll to increase attention to your boring blog.

  6. Anne Collier

    Think it was 4chan’s embedding porn in “G-rated” YouTube videos that got some of the 1st mainstream attention. RE your update, imagine some parents would recognize “lolz” more readily, because kids will text “lol lol lol,” they’ll say it out loud on Xbox Live in a sarcastic way (at least my kid does). I haven’t heard “lul lul lul.”

  7. Justin Bacon

    This is my first time on your blog and I have to say I really love this post. Your turn of phrase “hacking the attention economy” is quite delightful. At the end of last year I wrote a post (one of a few) where I briefly touched on the notion that the “attention economy” is shifting to that of a “conversation economy” – your post here got me to thinking about this in whole new way all over again. Perhaps I was a bit too idealistic or perhaps Att’nEcon Hackers just have more work to do. In any case, thanks for a thought provoking bit of “connecting the dots”. Here’s a link to my post for reference. Should you care take a minute, just the last couple paragraphs are all that are really relevant: http://blog.justinbacon.net/tag/conversationeconomy

  8. Alec Couros

    I don’t know if you’re following the latest 4chan vs. Oprah deal, but it’s quite interesting. It’s around ‘Zach’s Oprah Audition’ http://www.youtube.com/user/ZachAnner#p/u/3/T_35KKa3b1c and accusations of Oprah & team cheating on the vote count. It seems as though 4chan may have now Google Bombed “Oprah hates the handicapped”.


    At least, these are events as derived from popular posts on Reddit & Digg – not sure what has actually happened.

  9. @netwurker

    “…Information becomes pliable in ways that challenge the perceived authority of institutions. The concept of narrative deforms as:

    * lifestreaming transmogrifies entertainment
    * game platforms employ transmedia, simulation and agency.

    Narrative progression repositions the representational towards the freeform [think: paidia as opposed to ludic]. An instance of this information deformation in action is troll play [or uncontrolled play]. A social example of troll play is found in the wiki Encyclopedia Dramatica which:

    ‘…satirizes both encyclopedic topics and current events, especially those related to or relevant to internet culture. The wiki has been the subject of media attention given its focus on trolling and use of shock value, as well as its criticism of other Internet communities. It is also associated with the Internet subculture Anonymous.’

    _Encyclopedia Dramatica_ – and the affiliated imageboard/meme propagation site 4chan – showcase the challenge faced by narrative frameworks. Platforms like _Encyclopedia Dramatica_ encourage troll-based comedic intent. Users remix absurd, and sometimes taboo, content. In particular, invasion boards like _4chan_ utilize shock networking*: where social content attempts to subvert social codas through deliberate agitation. In comparison with established narrative conventions, platforms like _Encyclopedia Dramatica_ offer an experimental system which bypasses strict censorship and ethical constraints. These platforms cater for unfiltered interactions that operate via immediacy-of-response. They are highly idiosyncratic in execution and linguistic formation: censorship and moderation may be limited or non-existent. The output is propagative, with contributors encouraged to riff and rip-off, replace, and even delete content. Narrative is deformed beyond a sequential structure whereby the climax or pay-off event becomes the spectacle:

    An example of such modification is Copypasta, which consists of repeatedly copying and pasting blocks of text designed to evoke a heightened emotional response:

    ‘A time-tested classic. This ending usually comes into play at the climax of a very troubling or exciting situation. Rather than resolve the story, one of the characters will abruptly say something to the effect of “I had Reese’s for breakfast.” At this point, the other character will completely forget about his/her worries and jump into the corresponding commercial dialogue, enamored by the peanut butter and chocolaty goodness that is Reese’s Puffs cereal. “It’s Reese’s… for breakfast!”‘

    _Copypasta_ derails notions of story or plot progression, resolution or dénouement. It embodies context-counteraction* and meme perpetuation. Dramatic intent shifts to reiterative moments containing affectivity spiking which ignores the rigors of institutionalized framing [think: morality, hierarchy or ownership]…”

  10. Eddie VIII

    – the majority of responses offer little to the conversation, i will fix that

    (1) 4chan/b/ has developed into a HUMOR and ENTERTAINMENT site inspired by hacker culture. i am not a hacker, but i like technology, blackhumor, and netculture, so i like 4chan.

    (2) there will always be at least two aspects to any culture – the ARTISTIC AWESOMENESS 4 LULZ/ENTERTAINMENT side and the TECHNICAL HARDWORK side. let me illustrate:

    SKATEBOARDING culture – Making a sk8 video (ARTISTIC AWESOMENESS 4 LULZ/ENTERTAINMENT) vs. skinning knees learning new trick with friends (TECHNICAL HARDWORK)

    MUSICAL culture – Putting on a great stage show (ARTISTIC AWESOMENESS 4 LULZ/ENTERTAINMENT) vs. practicing chord changes (TECHNICAL HARDWORK)

    ARTISTIC culture – Gallery showing (ARTISTIC AWESOMENESS 4 LULZ/ENTERTAINMENT) vs. dozens of sketches planning a painting (TECHNICAL HARDWORK)

    HACKER culture – 4chan (ARTISTIC AWESOMENESS 4 LULZ/ENTERTAINMENT) vs. writing real codes / cracks (TECHNICAL HARDWORK)

    (3) Attention economy = mainstreaming and there’s nothing wrong with it. It is difficult to see powerful ideas generated in underground communities (that really feel like they
    are owned by their “inside” group of creators) are becoming
    popularized – and it seems strange and almost a bit hurtful to the
    creating crew.

    Exhibit A:
    My wife and I were in high school in the early and mid 90s. We
    were ostracized and teased by students there – we were nerdy and
    talented, we dressed “funny” and listened to “strange” music. We
    literally experienced Nirvana’s transition from underground fave to
    mainstream culture. It was really weird when the frat boys started
    going to Lollapalooza. A few years later we experienced the Green Day
    punk-era mainstreaming. We were like “Hot Topic WTF? Dying your hair
    is popular WTF? Everyone wears Doc Martens now WTF?”

    Exhibit B:
    My friends and I made zines in jr high / high school. Private presses
    like that were nowhere to be found but in our bedrooms and midnight
    runs to Kinkos – and we had to trade them through the mail with other
    zinesters. Today, it is almost a required expression of individuality
    to have a public blog or vlog.

    Exhibit C:
    There are tons of other cultural – fashion, language, art, music – trends that have
    exploded from the underground (see blue jeans, beat writers, art
    nouveau, hip hop, and HACKER CULTURE).

    Great ideas are memetic. And that’s OK. 4chan’s creativity will feed
    cheezburger/netculture. And that’s OK. urbandictionary will be used in courts of
    law. And that’s OK. References to videos on Rutter’s list have ended
    up on Tosh.O. And that’s OK (i think the show is hilarious).

    Go ahead and let the adult capitalists earn $ from the awesome ideas
    of youth. It happens all the time and it’s nothing new. I think it’s
    pretty apparent anyway that monetary and intellectual economies are
    shifting with the rise of DIY’s power (Creative Commons, wikis,
    zazzle, etc). Attention economy will shift as well. Hacker culture will mainstream (unless in your opinion it already has).


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