User investment and behavior policing on 4chan
First Monday

User investment and behavior policing on 4chan by Matthew Trammell

In this paper I explore the posting habits of anonymous users of the “Sports” (/sp/) board of the American imageboard 4chan. Through qualitative analysis of the content of various posts, I argue that, contrary to the purported ideology and discourse of anonymity associated with controversial, anonymous online spaces like 4chan, users of the site are in fact highly invested in delimiting and policing the borders of what counts as “acceptable” posting behavior within the community, and are also eager to defend themselves from accusations of unfamiliarity with the mores of the community’s subcultural practices. These findings are remarkable given that anonymous users gain no consistent reputation among their fellow users by taking part in these practices and have nothing to risk in terms of community prestige. I conclude that member registration and expression of a virtual embodied identity are not required for inspiring investment of user energy in preserving and enforcing the boundaries and culture of a virtual community, and that anonymous spaces like 4chan actually have more in common with communities that depend on persistent user identity than they care to admit.


4chan and /sp/ background
Suggestions for future study




In any group, moderation in the form of the expression of attitudes demarcating the boundaries of group–accepted behavior is vital to the community’s longevity and sense of identity (Messner, 2010; Maratea and Kavanaugh, 2012; Ren, et al., 2012). While boundaries may change over time, the act of “policing” others’ behaviors, particularly within online communities that present themselves as largely open spaces of free expression, can aid in increasing both individual user attachment to the virtual space itself as well as solidarity among members by promoting user involvement in shaping community culture. Of course, aside from its positive effects on community building, behavior policing in the larger social context acts as a mechanism by which “submission to the rules of the established order” is reproduced [1]. Though a community may establish itself against mainstream, culturally dominant forms of behavior, it runs the risk of replicating the same ideological mechanisms utilized by the dominant culture in order to ensure its continued existence as an oppositionary community.

In this study, via a qualitative analysis of the discursive practices of the “Sports” (/sp/) board of the online forum 4chan, I claim that anonymous virtual communities, while appearing to resist many of the policing behaviors associated with other, registration–dependent Web sites, actually replicate many of those same practices. These practices include users’ claims to authenticity, accusations toward others of unfamiliarity with site or board culture, in–jokes, and esoteric references that attempt to identify fellow posters as either enculturated long–term users of the site or new users that are unfamiliar with the mores of the community. In making claims about the discursive features and functions of /sp/, I examine replies between users who engage in combative exchanges of both accusations of newness on the part of other users, as well as self–defensive claims for their own places in the community. Through this analysis I argue against the notion that member registration and expression of a virtual embodied identity (via choice of avatar, username, etc.) are required for user investment within an online community, an argument that has gone largely unmade in a field of study dominated by analysis of communities that are heavily dependent on persistent user identity, as the recent spate of criticism dealing with forms of user expression on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites shows. My findings in fact reveal a large investment of user energy in delimiting and policing the borders of what qualifies as acceptable posting behaviors on the largely anonymous /sp/. I argue that these moderating practices result from a desire on the part of users to express and leverage as currency knowledge of site and board–specific practices and mores, even though, as anonymous posters, they can gain no consistent reputation among other site users by doing so.

The communities analyzed within the majority of recent virtual community and forum research generally feature some sort of registration process (Anahita, 2006; Casale, et al., 2013; Davis, et al., 2008; Ko, et al., 2012; Grabill and Pigg, 2012). Even sites with the most minimal of registration demands require some form of user–identifying practice, whether in the form of avatar, picture, screen name, profile, or some combination of these factors. The virtual identities — whether reflective of real identity or entirely fictional — that community members express through these various factors, posting habits, and general reputation around the site are important for the longevity of the community [2]. Since the majority of visitors to most communities never return after their first visit (Ren, et al., 2012), cultivating continued interest in the community’s welfare through retention of a core user base is mandatory to the community’s continued existence. In addition, enculturated and long–term users of a site whose virtual identities are bound to the community aid in enforcing the boundaries and rules of the forum: “strongly attached members ... help enforce norms of appropriate behavior ... police the community and sanction deviant behaviors ... and perform behind the scenes work to help maintain the community” [3]. R.J. Maratea and Philip Kavanaugh (2012) have also discussed the social psychology behind user attachment to a community, arguing that, “the frequency of an individual’s participation in the community ... communicates their level of attachment, symbolizes commitment and loyalty, and may influence social status and role(s) within the group, which can be contested and change over time” [4]. In contrast to the large body of research involving communities that depend on the expression of a registered user identity, comparatively little scholarship has analyzed forums and communities that employ an anonymous identity model, in large part because the very notion of anonymity and suppression of user–referential identity seems, to many, antithetical to the creation of a sustained virtual community. 4chan, an American imageboard [5] founded in 2003, has been highly successful in terms of an online presence in spite of, but also largely because of, its anonymous nature [6].



4chan and /sp/ background

4chan is perhaps the example par excellence of a contemporary anonymous online community due to its enormous size, web presence, and prime role in the creation and propagation of much of Internet culture. However, many features of 4chan present particular challenges to a sustained study of users’ posting habits. For one, the site maintains a rather infamous reputation in popular media, largely due to its association with various hacking groups, such as Anonymous and LulzSec, (Phillips, 2013; Coleman, 2012) and for the posting of child pornography on the site’s “Random” or ”/b/” board (which is not allowed but is difficult to moderate). In addition to 4chan’s vilification by Fox News and other popular media outlets (Phillips, 2013), the in–joke and esoteric nature of much posted content contributes to a subcultural nature that is often inaccessible to and hostile toward outsiders. The anonymous nature of 4chan makes it difficult to extrapolate demographic information about the site’s and various boards’ user bases: “Anons [anonymous users of 4chan] who identify as male could actually be female; anons who identify as female could actually be transgender; teenaged anons could say they are thirty–five and twenty–somethings could claim to be underage” [7]. 4chan also contains no built–in archival system; threads on the busiest boards may disappear forever within minutes of being posted if they are not heavily “bumped” by other users. Various external archival sites, such as, save certain threads through a process that involves multiple users visiting the archival site and voting for a thread to be preserved. This process is generally only successful for very large and noteworthy threads that receive hundreds of responses; hence, less than a fraction of one percent of all threads is archived [8].

4chan currently consists of 63 separate boards divided among the broad categories of “Japanese Culture;” “Interests” such as video games, film and television, and sports; “Creative;” “Adult;” “Other;” and “Miscellaneous.” In order to examine the discursive practices of a virtual community whose longevity apparently depends more on and is organized around shared interests than the expression of identity, I undertook a qualitative study of the “Sports” or /sp/ board. /sp/ is a medium–traffic board, meaning it is easier to document and analyze during site peak traffic hours but that it still receives enough traffic for popular threads to be responded to quickly and to be “bumped” several times per minute [9]. /sp/ is also well–known around 4chan for its prizing of “banter” or verbal sparring among posters. The recognition of the humorous and purportedly non–offensive intention of another user’s post is paramount to identifying enculturated users of the site, for a user who misrecognizes the original poster’s intent is often lambasted by other users and accused of being unfamiliar with the board or site’s culture. These posting habits therefore function as boundary–marking and policing practices that demarcate the cultural boundaries of the board and Web site.

As an anonymous forum with very few enforced posting rules, 4chan is known for its users’ unfettered usage of extremely offensive language, including racial, homophobic, and sexist slurs. While there is of course no divorcing such terms from their offensive usage and associations, it’s worth noting that on 4chan, the term “fag,” at least, is used so often and in such a cavalier manner so as to seem less of a homophobic slur and more of a generally offensive suffix to refer to users of varying interests, hobbies, professions, etc. Gabriella Coleman (2012), who has written extensively about 4chan and the hacking collective Anonymous, has confirmed this usage: “It is common on 4chan to use ‘-fag’ as a derisive, if not actually homophobic, suffix” [10]. Similarly, Whitney Phillips (2013) has claimed that, “[on 4chan,] depending on the context, ‘-fag’ can function as a homophobic slur, term of endearment, or neutral mode of self–identification” [11]. Hence, on 4chan, a user who posts original artwork is considered an “artfag,” whereas a “newfag” is a new user not yet familiar with the culture of the site or a specific board [12]. The co–opting of “fag” and the insistence on its non–offensive nature fits with 4chan’s general ethos of hostility toward any practice seen by its users as even remotely gesturing toward sensitivity or political correctness.

Like the rest of 4chan, the users of /sp/ prize anonymity. moot (Christopher Poole), 4chan’s founder, identified in a recent news post the perceived positive ethos that an anonymous identity model lends to the site: “4chan’s gift of anonymity offers us something not often found on today’s Web — the opportunity to speak our mind [sic] and share ideas and be judged for the content of what we write rather than who we are” (n.p). In terms of fostering a community, remaining anonymous does come with several benefits; for instance, it greatly obviates the risk of community ostracization: “namelessness makes failure cheap- nearly costless, reputation–wise” [13]. If a new user of a registration–dependent community gains a reputation for posting unfunny original content or expressing unpopular opinions within their first few days of activity, they may find it difficult to ever transcend their notoriety; “the fixed identities in other online communities can stifle creativity: where usernames are required (whether real or pseudonymous), a new user who posts a few failed attempts at humor will soon find other users associating that name with failure” [14]. In spite of the general preference for anonymity, it is possible to claim a stable identity on 4chan through a process known as “tripping,” a method that utilizes both a name and a “tripcode,” a unique alphanumeric code visible to other users that identifies a specific poster. Since any user can type any name (even that of another user) into the name field at any time, a tripcode is vital for establishing a stable identity on the site. Users who do choose to trip (commonly referred to as “tripfags”) [15] are often attacked by other users who accuse these posters of craving attention and possessing an undue sense of self-importance. The propagation of anonymity is thereby bolstered by this suppression of behaviors signifying fixed or stable user identity. For a community such as Reddit that requires user registration and utilizes a “karma” reputation system, a user associated with a specific persistent identity can achieve high or low prestige within the community based on their karma score. On 4chan, a community that encourages opportunities for expression supported by anonymity, tripfags are often ridiculed and generally do not receive deferential treatment from their fellow users, except in rare cases where a tripfag has proven over time to be highly knowledgeable about a given subject.

Users who choose to trip on 4chan align themselves with a model of online identity that conforms more closely to pseudonymity than the complete anonymity that the default Anonymous users choose to claim. This pseudonymous display of Internet identity is closer to the model employed by Reddit; a site in which user registration and a user name are required to post content or contribute to site discussion. However, on Reddit the user is free to choose a user name that bears no resemblance to their actual identity in any way. In further contrast, a site dedicated to social media over forum–type discussion, like Facebook, employs an identity model predicated upon (assumed) transparency; that is, persistent identity that is intended to share a 1:1 relationship to a user’s off–line identity, complete with the user’s real name and photos. As a spectrum of online identity, then, Facebook and the completely anonymous boards and users of 4chan occupy separate poles; Reddit users and 4chan tripfags fall somewhere in the middle. Even so, users who trip on 4chan can choose to post as Anonymous at any time, whereas a Reddit user must log in with their registered name every time they post.

Of course, on a site like Reddit, most users still retain a level of anonymity by not utilizing their off–line identity in the creation of an online persona and username (though a user may choose, for instance, to use the “firstname_lastname” model for their site username). However, since Reddit utilizes a karma/reputation system, users generally consider it to be in their best interest to be amenable to other users of the site by, for instance, not making offensive blanket statements regarding race, religion, gender, and sexual preference as is so common on 4chan. 4chan may have tripfags, but because the site doesn’t utilize a karma system, site or board reputation (often infamy) more directly depends on the quality of a tripfag’s posts as interpreted by the members of the community. These same members often vocally align themselves against a site like Reddit, which, because of its pseudonymous model and karma system, is vilified as a politically correct, censorious online space against which 4chan rebels. On Reddit, a user’s karma score can function as a direct index to their level of attachment to the community. A user with a very high karma score is therefore seen by other users as consistently contributing high quality and/or non–offensive material to the community. 4chan intentionally lacks such a mechanism by which user attachment can be judged; “anons” (users who post as the default Anonymous) are only capable of expressing their attachment to the community through claims about their experience with the site, as well as through policing behaviors designed to expose other users as possessing less familiarity with site or board culture than the said anon claims for themself. It is unclear from my limited amount of data whether tripfags possess a higher level of community attachment than the typical anon, and it would be difficult to envision a project by which such attachment could be measured empirically. It is interesting to note, however, that whereas the pseudonymized users of Reddit must utilize a username to post, 4chan’s tripfags choose to do so. It is unclear, however, whether this signifies increased interest in the longevity of the community or simply a desire for attention and individuation.

In addition to the tripfag phenomenon, /sp/, though it retains a user base that largely self–identifies as the default “Anonymous” in accordance with the majority of 4chan’s other boards, is one of the few boards that identifies posters with a small national flag icon next to the Name field of a post, the designation of which is based on the poster’s IP address. When you hover your cursor over this flag icon, the name of the nation associated with said flag appears on screen. This national identification feature constrains to a degree the completely unfiltered nature of the truly anonymous boards by modifying how one user may respond to another given national biases and stereotypes. However, as users themselves often point out, it is possible to use a proxy server or “Tor” (The Onion Router — a system that aids in concealing identity via an Internet traffic relay) to obscure your IP address, thereby adding doubt to a poster’s actual location and making it nearly impossible for a third party (such as a site moderator or the NSA) to identify a user’s physical address via tracking of their IP address [16].

N.b., in keeping with the spirit of 4chan, all potentially identifying information below and throughout this paper has been obscured so as to maintain, and even slightly exceed, the level of anonymity that /sp/’s users enjoy.


Post by a user choosing to retain the default name of Anonymous
Figure 1: Post by a user choosing to retain the default name of “Anonymous.”


In Figure 1, note the name field (Anonymous), national flag, date, time, and post number fields. The Subject field is only visible on the OP (which refers to both “original post” and “original poster”, i.e., the post that begins the thread as well as the thread creator). This user has elected not to provide an e–mail address, so the empty e–mail field is not displayed to other users. The first post number listed after “Replies” identifies which post(s) are in response to this post; the post number after the second pair of “>” is the post that this post is responding to. In a live thread, these post numbers function as links to the actual posts that they signify.


 Post by a tripfag
Figure 2: Post by a “tripfag;” note the name (JohnDoe) and unique tripcode (123456#$!). Again, the Subject and e–mail fields are not visible.



Example of a national flag icon
Figure 3: Example of a national flag icon that appears directly after a /sp/ poster’s Name and tripcode fields, identified by [flag icon] in the fully anonymized posts above.





Like the majority of other boards on 4chan, /sp/’s virtual presentation consists of ten pages, each of which contains 15 threads at any one time. When a new thread is created, which occupies the first position on the first page until another thread is “bumped” or created, the thread that is in the fifteenth position on the tenth page disappears forever or “404s,” [17] external archival notwithstanding. /sp/ is a medium–traffic board — popular threads regularly receive several hundred replies within the span of a few hours, and during peak traffic hours, a thread that receives no replies may 404 in less than an hour. For this project, data were collected in the form of 15 threads over a five–day period at various times of day, resulting in a total of nearly 1,000 documented posts. In order to document variability in user representation and posting habits, as well as to ensure more opportunities for the exchange of verbal sparring (“banter”) and virtual boundary–policing activities, only threads that had received over 50 total responses and that were popular enough to be on the front page at the time of collection were documented. Only actual live threads from /sp/ were documented, none were collected from archival sites. Since archival sites only present a sampling of the “best of” threads archived from a specific board, I deemed collecting from actual live threads to be more representative, and of course current, of actual user posting habits on /sp/. All posts featured in the Discussion below were taken from exchanges in which one poster’s inflammatory post directed toward another user was directly responded to, either by the original poster or another user (the determining of which is often impossible unless a user is utilizing a tripcode).




My findings indicate that, although the 4chan community claims to prize the opportunities for free expression afforded by anonymity, users in fact utilize many of the same behaviors expressed in persistent–identity communities, such as the policing of user behavior, attempts to expose another user as a “newfag” [18] or unenculturated user of the site, and performative displays of currency within the culture of the board. These displays utilize memes, references, and in–jokes, the understanding of which may require a user to have “lurked” the board for quite some time, perhaps even years. Users are able, then, to demarcate the boundaries of their virtual community by employing the performance of a virtual identity that is highly skilled both at using /sp/–specific cultural references and at outing others who fail to employ this identity.

Exhibition of these boundary-policing behaviors is quite common on /sp/, especially in threads that are created solely for the intention of propagating or displaying currently popular board and site memes and in–jokes. Several threads of this type were observed during my time spent on /sp/. The purpose of these types of threads, which appear to be specific to /sp/ judging from my limited observation of other boards, is to invite other users to respond to the original poster’s generally innocuous post with hyperbolic expressions of amusement and agreement; users then go on to post humorous images, stories, and other memes that are currently in circulation around both /sp/ and 4chan in general. For instance, in one particular thread, the OP posted a distorted version of the popular “troll face” image along with the text “lel”– troll face is usually posted by a user to indicate that they have been successful in baiting another into angrily responding to an intentionally obtuse or irrational statement, a practice commonly known as “trolling” in Internet culture, and “lel” is a corruption of “lol” or laughing out loud [19]. This post was followed by a string of generally positive and hyperbolic responses, implying great amusement on the part of their posters; including, “HOW DOES HE DO IT” (page 34 in the data), “My sides [indicating sore stomach muscles from intense laughing] [/] 10/10 Amerifriend” [The OP was identified with an American flag] (p. 35), “LEL [/] MY SIDES [/] ARCHIVE THIS [/] 10/10” (p. 35), and “OP HAS DONE IT AGAIN” (p. 36).

Responses followed this pattern of implied hilarity until one user replied, “>autism: the thread” [20] (p. 36). In the 15 threads collected, the word “autism” as well as forms such as “autist” and “autistic” were used toward other users and posting habits a total of seven times; it therefore appears to be a fairly common insult on /sp/. Moreover, these terms appeared often in undocumented threads on /sp/ and other boards as well. Casually referring to another user as “autistic,” then, is another case of a highly offensive practice being co–opted by 4chan users; it is often used to denigrate any type of post or behavior that a user deems to be obsessive, overly analytical, or lacking in broader social awareness. This user’s reply was ignored by most others, only garnering a total of two direct responses. However, one reply consisted of: “newfag: the post,” signifying that this user was directly accusing the replied to poster of being unfamiliar with the board and therefore uninformed and culturally unaware of the significance and function of the current thread in which both were participating (p. 37). A reply to this “newfag: the post” post that came much later in the thread claimed: “been here since ’04 chump [/] try again,” thereby attempting to refute the claim of being a “newfag” (p. 54). Interestingly, the posts in this exchange were all made by users identifying as “Anonymous.” Even though there was no way for the first poster’s identity to be discovered and they risked no loss of reputation in the community by choosing to ignore the accusation of “newfag,” this poster was still compelled to defend theirself by claiming to have between eight and nine years of personal experience with 4chan’s practices. Alternately, this post could have been created by a third user, not necessarily the one who originally posted the “>autism: the thread” comment, as an attempt to humorously mock the common practice of defending oneself by claiming to have been a user of the site for many years. Regardless, the humor behind this type of response depends for its effect on the assumption that this type of defense is so common as to have become a cliché.

Explicit accusations of newness and “autistic” behavior, as well as various attempts to defend one’s reputation on the site also frequently occurred in several other threads, including one in which the game “RZA (Red Zone Action)” was discussed. In this thread, the OP chose to trip rather than to identify as the default “Anonymous.” RZA is a text–based game that simulates the management responsibilities of a football team, and is located at football/. The content of the original post consisted of a description of actions that occurred within RZA that day, as well as an invitation to other posters to join the RZA community and a link to its Web site: “>Revis to Bucs pending physical [/] that’s about all that’s happened today [/] Join RZA for based textegg [21] action, we’re bringing it back [/] football/” (p. 104). The first three responders to the thread topic were positive about the prospect of engaging in RZA play, until the fifth response, in which the user, commenting on the thread title as expressed in the Subject field of the OP (“NFL General: /txg/ is BACK edition)” stated, “5th for generals are the cancer that is killing /sp/” (p. 104). When a user refers to something as cancer on 4chan, they are scapegoating a certain post, user, meme, or behavior as responsible for the decline in quality of a specific board or the site in general. The Internet culture encyclopedia Know Your Meme ( notes that the term is “used to describe the perceived or actual misuse of internet memes by someone who is unfamiliar with internet culture.” The concept behind the use of “cancer” on /sp/ is closely related to that of “newfag” described earlier. “Newfags” are often seen as the cause of “the cancer that is killing X” board, topic, or behavior. The very next reply to the thread was: “>RZA [/] 2autist4me,” followed by another reply several posts later along the same lines, “>being autistic enough to enjoy RZA” (pp. 104, 105). These posts presented other users as not only engaging in behaviors that were ridiculed and disparagingly termed “autistic” in nature, but that were deemed to be actually damaging to the practices of the anonymous community itself, denoted through the labeling of an unwanted behavior as harmful “cancer” and the concept’s close association to users deemed “newfags.”

The responses to the accusations of “autism” and “cancer” in this thread attempted to turn the implication of unfamiliarity and damage to the community back on the original poster of the claim. In response to the comment “5th for generals are the cancer that is killing /sp/,” an anonymous user, not the OP, replied, utilizing greentext in order to give the impression that they were directly quoting the post to whom they were responding, “>I’m a shitposting casual who can’t handle actual discussion of sports” (p. 105). This poster didn’t merely attempt to defend against the accusations of “autism” and “cancer,” but rather leveraged the behavior labeled as such into currency on the board by claiming that this posting behavior was instead representative of “actual discussion of sports” and that users who did not recognize this fact were “shitposting casuals,” [22] an insult which, like “autism,” “cancer,” and “newfag,” implies cluelessness of site and board culture, potential damage to the community by discouraging actual discussion of sports, and lack of currency within topical board culture. The response to this claim then backpedaled by attempting to clarify the original claim of cancer: “There is no fucking football discussion in this thread beyond oh look at the schedule, here is a bunch of pictures no one gives a shit about, and seahawks strong. [/] What if I want to talk about strategy or formations? None of you want to fucking do that in the general and any thread made outside a general dies” (p. 107). Here, an anonymous user who had their commitment to the board’s well–being and familiarity with board culture called into question again sought to reclaim their identity as an enculturated, contributing member of the board by claiming that the same poster who accused them of being a “shitposting casual” was actually guilty of not engaging in legitimate discussion. In addition, behaviors that said user found to be damaging to actual discussion were vilified: “here is a bunch of pictures no one gives a shit about.”

Beyond the issues with claims to unfamiliarity and “casualness” associated with the RZA topic under discussion, this thread was also of interest because of a faux pas committed by a specific user who self–identified as being unfamiliar with the technical features of common Internet image file formats. The OP’s post, in addition to its text describing RZA, also included a screenshot of the program. On 4chan, the name of the image file that a user posts, as well as its format, are visible to other users. This particular screenshot was saved as a .gif, a file extension that is commonly, but not exclusively, used for animated images and short video clips. A user early in the thread enquired, “How is that a gif,” and was immediately lambasted by other users for not realizing that static images can also be saved in the .gif format (p. 105). This post received five direct replies, three of which were negative in tone: “>being this new” posted by a user who was tripping, and “>this is my first time on this website” and “>1st day on the internet” by anonymous posters (pp. 104–105). The OP, notably accused of posting “cancer” as discussed above, responded with a similar professed confusion, noting that, “It’s just how it got saved on my computer I guess, I’ll change it. Weird.” (p. 105). Only one response attempted to answer the first poster’s question, though it too marked the association of said question with unfamiliarity with 4chan by framing the response as condescending expert advice: “Pro tip: [/] Gif files are just a picture file format. They dont need to be moving” (emphasis added, p. 106). After this post, an exchange took place between several users during which defensive claims were made regarding the “How is that a gif” poster’s lack of technical knowledge by posters who claimed that /sp/ is one of the more mainstream boards on 4chan and therefore attracts people who may not be familiar with Internet and computer culture to the extent that users of other boards are. However, this claim was not allowed to pass unchallenged, as another user responded, “I’m not good at computers but I’m not completely fucking retarded,” which prompted the reply, “>not being a complete and total fucking cunt” (pp. 109, 112). This post was then replied to thus: “>not being able to handle the banter” (p. 113). This response, which, on the surface, appeared as another challenge accusing the targeted user of being unfamiliar with and unable to “handle” the banter culture of /sp/, served to de–escalate the tension involved in the ratcheting up of accusations of newness and lack of technical intelligence; its only response at the time of collection was by a user who posted: “I’ll bash ye fookin ead in i sware on me mum” (p. 114), a commonly posted response to hostility that mimics a hyperbolic retort to a taunt by a stereotypical working class British youth (“I Swear On Me Mum,” KnowYourMeme). This meme, which appeared in several collected threads, functions as another marker of familiarity with board culture, and is a practice often used as a joking response to another user’s challenge, thereby ironically defusing violent rhetoric and belittling the original poster of said content through the appropriation of an offensive, violent expression.




Analysis of the 15 total collected threads revealed a large investment of user energy in delimiting and policing the borders of what qualifies as acceptable posting behaviors on /sp/. Ultimately, banter and the board–specific culture of verbal sparring are utilized more to express currency and expose “newfags” and unwanted behavior on the board than to increase solidarity among members who act as boundary keepers. Users of 4chan often portray the site as a space within which users are free to express themselves in ways deemed inappropriate and highly offensive in other social, particularly off–line, contexts. Reproducing political correctness, that is, the imperative to submit to culturally approved notions of polite behavior coupled with a persistent, stable identity, is therefore seen by 4chan users as a form of “subjection to the ruling ideology” [23]. Against this dominant model of accepted cultural behavior propagated through the reproduction of internalized ideological apparatuses, 4chan users see themselves as being able to practice subversion by partaking in behaviors such as trolling and the appropriation of offensive language as markers of site familiarity. Ironically though, as my data suggests, while being free to use language and take part in online practices not allowed on other sites and in other social situations, users in fact reproduced similar motivations and mechanisms of behavior policing and ideological reproduction that their antisocial behaviors sought to subvert in the first place.

As opposed to the other two models of online identity previously outlined — Reddit’s pseudonymity and Facebook’s transparency — 4chan does facilitate an atmosphere open to the expression of opinions generally deemed socially unpopular outside of 4chan [24]. However, though it can serve a liberating function in the context of a politically correct mainstream culture, the highly offensive language used so flippantly by users on 4chan also serves as a primary method by which posting habits are policed; a user who goes against the grain by objecting to or declining to engage in these offensive behaviors is usually denigrated as a “newfag” or told by other users that they are too sensitive for 4chan. Part of the explanation for this phenomenon is that the novelty of the shocking nature of 4chan wears off rather quickly, as I personally experienced while researching the site and performing data collection. In an environment where just about anything goes and being shockingly offensive and subversive is the norm, the political and critical value of the practice becomes cheapened within a very short period of time. Affectively, users’ offensive posting behaviors and content stops functioning as a way of subverting dominant, politically correct cultural expectations, and rather becomes an expected quality of site behavior. In addition, when a user is anonymous and isn’t worried about a karma score (as one would be on Reddit), self–expression indeed becomes easier; but so does inculcating a mob mentality and banding together against perceived aberrant posting behaviors.

These results largely align with findings, noted above, regarding the policing behaviors of registered users within a virtual community, a surprising finding given the anonymous nature of 4chan as well as the rhetoric parroted within most studies of the site, which portray it as a sort of orgiastic space for the expression of unpopular opinions. For moot, 4chan’s founder, the site’s anonymity is of paramount importance in a society that increasingly seeks to erase the boundary between off–line and online identities; he has claimed that, “people deserve a place to be wrong” [25]. Aside from any political exigency or ideological validity to this claim, it may be true that 4chan allows users a place to express opinions that are unpopular according to the standards of a politically correct mainstream culture; but as my findings suggest, being “wrong” in terms of the accepted posting practices of the site, or at least /sp/, is strongly discouraged by the habits of those who are enculturated, long–term users of the site (or who are at least claiming to be).



Suggestions for future study

This study focused on a single board. Hence, claims made about the mechanisms by which virtual identity and community borders are expressed and policed on 4chan as a whole should be taken for what they are — assumptions based on the observed communicative practices of /sp/ alone. Also, because the collection period for this study only encompassed a five–day period, many of the collected threads were heavily colored by specific recent global events. More representative future studies should seek to examine the ways that memes, references, and other board– and site–specific cultural practices and behaviors evolve over a weekly or even monthly basis, as well as how these evolving features both bolster and challenge current site and board culture. Because of the highly ephemeral nature of most threads, large–scale quantitative analysis of any board is problematic. In any case, qualitative analyses that encompass a larger number of total threads should be conducted to test the claims set forth in this paper. As well, studies that utilize these claims and methodology should not confine themselves to /sp/, as 4chan contains 62 other boards, each of which possesses its own unique cultural practices, memes, and community–policed forms of posting behavior. End of article


About the author

Matt Trammell is a first–year doctoral student in the English department of Case Western Reserve University.
E–mail: mst45 [at] case [dot] edu



I am indebted to Professor Kim Emmons for her guidance throughout the completion of this project.



1. Althusser, 1971, p. 6.

2. Web sites such as the news aggregator and humor site Reddit have developed virtual community reputation into a kind of user–generated currency. Users on Reddit are free to “upvote” or “downvote” another user’s post; a post that receives enough downvotes is eventually hidden, requiring a user to scroll to the bottom of a thread or list of replies and click a button to unhide the comment. A heavily upvoted post is moved to the top of the list of replies. Downvotes and upvotes are leveraged as currency for individual users in the form of a “karma score,” which directly translates into prestige or lack thereof within the community.

3. Ren, et al., 2012, p. 842.

4. Maratea and Kavanaugh, 2012, p. 107.

5. An imageboard allows users to post both text and image–based replies. A reply can be either text, image, a combination of both, and often, an image with text superimposed over it. On 4chan, an image is always required for the original post (OP) when creating a thread.

6. Julian Dibbell (2010) has reported that, as of 2010, 4chan received nearly 11 million monthly visits and that 90 percent of the site’s user base chose to identify themselves as “Anonymous” (p. 82, 84). By 2011, the number of average monthly hits had risen to 12 million (Stryker, 2011, p. 40). In a 18 September 2013 News post, 4chan’s founder moot stated that, “last month [August 2013], 4chan was accessed by 22.5 million unique visitors” (n.p.).

7. Phillips, 2013, p. 4.

Julian Dibbell (2010) maintains that 4chan is “visited mostly by young men in their late teens and early 20s” (p. 82). However, critics such as Gabriella Coleman (2012) have pointed out that, as I affirm above, “since conversations are not archived and users post anonymously, it is impossible to glean demographic data. (4chan is thus unique in an Internet ecosystem largely characterized by the surveillance of users and the mining of their consumer preferences by and for advertisers” (n.p., footnote 1).

8. As of this writing, the front page of states that 17,922 threads have been archived from 4chan since 2006; during which time billions of posts and millions of threads have been created (Dibbell, p. 82; Stryker, p. 40).

9. When a user responds to a thread, they may either “bump” the thread to the first position on the first page by responding (the default), or “sage” the thread by typing the word “sage” into the e–mail field. Saging allows a user to post in a thread without bumping it, which has led to a conception among some users that sage functions as a “downvote” of sorts. moot, 4chan’s founder, insists this is not the case, and recently changed the functionality of sage to reflect this: “sage is now invisible. sage is not a downvote, and this misconception has persisted for far too long” (n.p.). While it is true that 4chan has no downvote/upvote system like Reddit or similar sites, from my own experiences on /sp/, I observed users often saging a thread as a way of publicly expressing contempt for the topic under discussion. Further, while the text “sage” is no longer displayed in the e–mail field, it can still be typed into the name and subject fields of a user’s post, thereby fulfilling the same condemnatory function.

10. Coleman, 2012, footnote 2.

11. Phillips, 2013, p. 5.

12. For further discussion of how “fag” is used on 4chan, see Phillips (2013) and Auerbach (2012). Auerbach’s article also includes a fantastic glossary of 4chan’s subcultural language and memes.

13. Dibbell, 2010, p. 85.

14. Ibid.

15. As opposed to other questionable uses on 4chan of the term “fag” as a suffix, in this context it is unquestionably negative, as users who choose to trip are largely mocked and denigrated throughout the community.

16. Messner, 2010, pp. 117–118.

17. A thread may also 404 if it reaches a “bump limit,” which means that it has hit the designated amount of allowed total bumps (unknown), after which point new replies posted to the thread will not bump the thread but will in fact function the same way as a “sage” described above. Eventually, as new threads are created, the thread will fall to the last page and disappear. This ensures that popular threads don’t remain indefinitely on the first page of the board, but also ensures that popular topics of discussion are endlessly recycled on a weekly or even daily basis rather than having a designated area for discussion on the board.

18. “Newfag” is similar to “noob,” a term often used in Internet gaming to refer to an unskilled player. On 4chan, however, the term possesses a more derogatory connotation as “newfags” are often depicted as scapegoats upon which the declining quality or other problems of a board are heaped.

19. Throughout this section, the symbol [/] is used to indicate line breaks within a user’s post.

20. On 4chan, the “>” symbol has several different functions. It is generally used to quote a portion of another user’s post within a reply to said user, and is often used in the telling of stories to begin new lines. It can also be used to show contempt for another user or users, and is often used with statements beginning with the word “implying” and with various images posted as reactions to others’ posts. In a live thread, a line of text beginning with > appears as green text, as opposed to the default black. Using > is therefore often referred to as “greentexting.”

21. “Based” is a term often used on /sp/ as an analogue for “cool” or “awesome.” The term originally derives from “Based God,” a pseudonym for and expression often used by hip–hop artist Lil B. The “egg” in “textegg” is a reference to the term “handegg.” This term is often used on /sp/ to differentiate American football from soccer, which is of course referred to as football by the majority of non–American posters.

22. “Shitposting” refers to off–topic posting that doesn’t contribute to the current discussion.

23. Althusser, 1971, p. 7.

24. Of course the extent as to just how offensive, off–topic, or possibly illegal a poster’s content is allowed to be varies greatly from board to board. /sp/’s proclivity for off–topic posting and generally moderation–light environment (at the time of this writing) allowed for the posting of content that aligned fairly closely with the liberal standards of 4chan’s more infamous boards, such as /b/.

25. In Dibbell, 2010, p. 84.



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“Cancer,” KnowYourMeme, at, accessed 5 October 2013.

“I Swear On Me Mum,” KnowYourMeme, at, accessed 29 October 2013.

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Sine Anahita, 2006. “Blogging the borders: Virtual skinheads, hypermasculinity, and heteronormativity,” Journal of Political and Military Sociology, volume 34, number 1, pp. 143–164.

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Editorial history

Received 2 August 2013; revised 29 October 2013; accepted 25 November 2013.

Copyright © 2014, First Monday.
Copyright © 2014, Matthew Trammell. All Rights Reserved.

User investment and behavior policing on 4chan
by Matthew Trammell.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 2 - 3 February 2014

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