“Connection Without Constraint”: Anonymity on 4chan vs. YouTube

Prior to the great push to monetize YouTube, the site had the trappings of a seemingly “anonymous” community — at least according to Michael Wesch. Anonymity extended to the fact that users’ “real” identities were unknown, and, therefore, they could share their personal videos or make offensive comments without real-world repercussions. Perhaps a more interesting view of what characterized YouTube’s anonymity is that no one cared enough about your real-world identity to make you suffer those repercussions. This was because of the social norms that users created/abided by, which characterized its users as seeking “connection without constraint” (according to Wesch). When speaking about the phenomenon of “mean comments” on Youtube, Wesch sets out an equation, of sorts, that characterizes users’ participation in the community:

there is this anonymity, plus this physical distance, plus a rare and ephemeral dialogue [which] enable the possibility for this type of hatred. But there’s something else: that same anonymity, physical distance and rare and ephemeral dialogue allow people to feel sort of, really relaxed and have this freedom to experience humanity without fear of or social anxiety…

While this may have been true in 2008 when Wesch gave his talk, the above comment becomes hugely ironic when we consider the current state of internet anonymity (or Anonymity, really). Kenny Glenn‘s takedown is a case in point, where his posting an “anonymous” video that attempted to mask (literally) his identity actually led to his identification by Anonymous. With the popularization and coverage of such heroic exploits by 4chan’s /b/board, we see that there has been a huge shift in the ways in which we should conceive of anonymity online as well as its community-making power. While YouTube sought “connection without constraint”, it inevitably reinforced the individual identity as being distinguishable from the collective, in the very literal sense of being discrete videos from discrete users.

4chan’s model of anonymous use provides an environment for both ad-hoc mobilization, as well as a relentless and unapologetic rejection of a capitalist world order (which, of course, are mutually inclusive ideas). Chris “moot” Poole, the creator of 4chan, said in his TEDTalk:

The commercial picture is that there really isn’t much of one, I guess.  […] The site has adult content on it – I mean obviously it’s got some very offensive, obscene content on it just in terms of language alone – and when you’ve got that you’ve pretty much sacrificed any hope of making lots of money.

By its transgressive nature, 4chan lies outside of the tendency and the imagined inevitability of capitalistic norms and culture. While YouTube seemed fated to adopt ads, it arguably did not have to be. 4chan exemplifies the idea of connection without constraint because it is impermanent, infinitely re-combinable and unencumbered by the terms of “professionalized production”. The content, therefore, cannot be flattened for profit. It’s anonymity reflects its open-source value system, where you labor not for capital, but for the lulz.

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