Please Feed the Trolls: 4chan and Vernacular Media Policy
by Bill Kirkpatrick — Denison University
August 23, 2010 – 00:01
Remember the 1910s tropes about "little boys in short pants" pranking the nation via wireless? These brats supposedly redirected ship traffic, sent rude messages, and generally turned the new medium into a dangerously immature schoolyard. They became an easy target of early radio policy; federal licensing is, in the first instance, about making wireless operators knowable (and thus accountable) to authorities. Step One in official media regulation, at all times and in all places: reduce anonymity.
What does that have to do with today’s clip? In the eternal recurrence familiar to media historians, today’s little boys in short pants are the "cyberbullies" of 4chan /b/ (NSFW). In "good trickster" mode, 4chan sent Justin Bieber to North Korea, took on the Scientologists, and gave us LOLCats. But in "bad trickster" mode, they occasionally unleash the full Loki on harmless individuals. This clip comments on the Jessi Slaughter case, in which 4chan rained ever-escalating torment on a puckish 11-year-old girl (who seems to have enough problems without bearing the vast meanness of the internet as well; back story here). [Author’s edit 9/29/10: I just came across a talk by Gabriella Coleman and Finn Brunton, available here, in which Coleman explores the idea of 4chan as tricksters. I’m sorry I hadn’t known of this earlier, since her take is so much better informed and thought-out than mine here!]
What interests me is 4chan as both "vernacular" policymakers and targets of official policy. The person in this clip might not participate on 4chan, but he articulates clear policy stances about the legitimacy of anonymous online speech and the proper role of parental vs. governmental authority in monitoring children’s internet usage—policies that 4chan enacts and enforces every day. 4channers police the internet far more vigorously than the FCC, using their authority to regulate the behavior of millions (often regardless of law or justice).
In this sense, 4chan is close in spirit—and effect—to the shakedown trolls of the RIAA and the moralists in Congress forever passing limits on speech. What if the only real difference between the rough justice meted out by 4chan and that pursued by, say, corporate copyright-holders is that one is dignified and protected with the word "policy" while the other is legislated against as "cyberbullying"?
4channers also shape regulation dialectically, by symbolizing problems for top-down policy to solve. Their antics are the background noise of the Lori Drew case, the excuse for corporate control of social spaces, part of the context for why Facebook—led by another ruthless young punk—lacks substantial clout on policy issues.
In understanding media policy, then, the bottom-up regulatory practices of online brats are at least as important as official, top-down regulation. If we end up, say, losing anonymous online speech, it will be because we refused to appreciate policymakers like 4chan, mostly because they make little kids cry. In other words, to preserve a free and open internet, we need to be more gracious with 4chan than they would ever be with us.