Sometime around 2007, from the childhood bedroom of my parents’ house in quiet suburban London, I texted a woman I didn’t know to call her a “fucking whore.”
Another anonymous user in 4chan’s “Random” board (aka /b/) had posted that she’d broken up with him for a taller, more athletic man. I was among the dozens of people who responded by threatening her. In the dead of night — my desktop computer monitor setting my room aglow — I giggled as my Nokia 3210 beeped to tell me that the text had gone through.
“Sent,” I wrote on the forum, adding a trollface image. “Trolololololol.”
My parents slept in the room next door. I kept browsing.
In the wake of the recent mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the “chan” sites (i.e., 4chan and its counterpart 8chan) have been in the news a lot, largely associated with the shameless promotion of white nationalism and white extremism. In particular, before killing at least 22 people, the 21-year-old El Paso shooter uploaded his manifesto to 8chan. It was laced with white supremacist rhetoric around population replacement and derogatory language about Hispanics. It was the third such attack associated with the chan sites. “8chan isn’t only a place where people find community in their hate, but it’s where they go when they want to announce mass murder to an online army that can help spread their message,” wrote April Glaser in Slate. “8chan is a normal part of mass shootings now.”
Overall, with every new shooting, the media paints 4chan as the place to “brainwash” reasonable people. Even digital culture reporters, who are aware of the nuances of the internet and who grew up with the chan sites, have begun to wonder how what started as an anime forum became such a hotbed of mass radicalization.
I’ve asked myself this question, too. Moreover, I’ve questioned my own culpability in contributing to the toxic culture there as well as my complicity in the violence chan culture seems to inculcate. Because the reality is that I spent most of my teen years on 4chan. Back then, in the mid-2000s — a time when the internet was largely associated with doing homework, playing low-resolution video games and looking at bikini photos of Jenifer Lopez on Google Images — 4chan and its spin-offs (8chan, 12chan, etc.) were pretty obscure. You probably only knew about them if you were an anime nerd (like me). Though, admittedly, that wasn’t the only thing happening there: Gawker once described /b/, the message board I spent the most time on, as “the asshole of the internet” and “a place where people try to shock, entertain and coax free porn from each other.”
For what it’s worth, having grown up in a strict religious family where gender boundaries were tightly restricted, where religious and cultural adherence were paramount above all else and where aspects of life associated with coming-of-age (sex, drugs and so on) were largely inaccessible, I found the chaos and “anything goes” nature of /b/ to be invigorating. That isn’t to say it wasn’t problematic — to Gawker’s point, racist, homophobic and sexist language was common, and images of gore and violence (mostly from banned horror movies or video rips of beheadings and bombings from the Iraq War) often functioned as the punchlines to the darkest of jokes. It’s just that there also was an appeal in those extremes, especially because /b/ was so obscure.
“/b/ was the cool place to go — or at least I considered it to be cool because no one else really knew about it,” says Dan Woodcock, a friend of mine and the person who first introduced me to 4chan. The 28-year-old Woodcock now works in accounting and has a wife and 6-month-old son, which is probably why he too found himself thinking about his time on chan sites when he heard about the El Paso shooting. “I did my fair share of online bullying,” he admits, with a slight laugh and then a sigh. “You know when you’re piling onto someone? I did do that when someone would post a picture of their ex-girlfriend and invite people to make fun of how they look, or say pretty derogatory things about them.”
Also like me, Woodcock participated in prank “revenge” calls. “I was a lonely, geeky kid,” he says when I ask him for the reason why. “I wasn’t on the rugby team. I didn’t play soccer. I didn’t even like sports. I didn’t like going out to crappy night clubs either. I was just into sci-fi movies and anime on Cartoon Network. I felt like an outcast, but I got a sense that there were a lot of people on 4chan who were like me and who understood what I was feeling.” Woodcock adds that he believes his saving grace — or the thing that stopped him from potentially inhabiting his most toxic flaws — was that his parents only allowed him a couple of hours a day on his home computer. “It meant that I couldn’t get too deeply involved in anything,” he laughs. “Maybe if I were a teenager now it’d be different — and probably worse. I don’t think I’d be a violent person, but honestly, I don’t know.”
4chan certainly became an obsession for 25-year-old Eric, who discovered the site as a teenager when he lived in Louisiana (he now works in advertising in New York City). “It became the only site I went on,” he confides (he did, though, ask that I use a pseudonym). “I found the rest of the internet boring, and I always knew that if I went on 4chan, I’d either get horrified or be able to horrify someone else.”
It’s also where he made friends. They’d exchange emails and chat via MSN messenger, mostly talking about video games and sharing articles about conspiracy theories from Infowars and Project Truth. “I felt older and more adult than I was,” Eric explains. “Like I was talking about these big issues to do with politics, how the government is lying to us, about the church being run by child abusers, etc. — things that none of the actual adults in my family wanted to talk about or recognize. My parents were Bush supporters who supported the war, and they hated Obama. I just saw them as brainwashed, and the chan sites were always up for talking about those theories.”
The tone proved enticing as well. That is, Eric says, “There was always something funny and so obscure that only you could get it. That was a big part of the appeal. It was like this club that you were part of; even trying to explain it to someone outside of that club was impossible.”
Not that such social alienation was a good thing. “I wanted to date, but I didn’t know how to. Looking back, I internalized a lot of what I’d read on the chan sites, including how to speak to women. Like, I remember there was a girl I was speaking to on Facebook, and I used to say things like “tits of GTFO.” I thought it was funny at the time, but she really wasn’t into it. I ended up blaming her and calling her stuck up when she didn’t want to go out.”
All of which naturally leads to another notorious 4chan board — /pol/, or “politically incorrect.” “In a lot of ways, /pol/ is worse than /b/,” 23-year-old Nick, a longtime /pol/ lurker who requested anonymity in case of doxxing, tells me via Skype. “/b/ is a place that, for all its flaws, is supposed to be crazy. It’s the ‘asshole of the internet’ so people live up to that. The thing with /pol/ is that they’ve replicated that ethos at a toxic political moment. And when you mix shitposting with serious, harmful politics, you end up with people who will say directly that they’re going to commit violence or use language that’s an incitement to violence. The rest of the people there, however, will see it as an ironic joke and nothing serious.”
“There’s this feeling that if someone calls out all the toxic shit happening on /pol/, it will ruin the fun,” Nick continues. “And so many people on /pol/ only care about their fun that they’ll go after anyone they think is trying to ruin it.”
Nick admits that when he started lurking on 4chan in 2014, he, too, was entertained by it. “I went there to see how much awful stuff I could take,” he tells me. “It was a place where words that I’d never use in real life, against anyone, were just openly used. For a stupid teenage guy, you’re amazed by it and you don’t think about the consequences of them, or the kind of language you use.”
He adds that this cycle of shock and amazement would happen, more often than not, after extreme events like terrorist attacks, mass shootings or when people killed themselves after being cyber-bullied. “I used to find things like an-hero (a reference to suicide) and “kill yourself” funny in a dark way,” Nick explains. “Like you were horrified, but it was this feeling of ‘if everyone is making the same comment, then maybe it’s okay? Maybe it’s actually a joke, and I should find it funny?”
As with others who have discussed their time growing up in the darker reaches of the web, Nick does believe that the chan sites have de-sensitized him. “There are times when I wonder if I’m immune to feeling things when I see a traumatic news story,” he says. Case in point: “I was on Twitter the other day, and I saw this video of starving Yemeni children. I knew it was horrific, but I couldn’t feel it. It felt like a continuation of the really grotesque stuff I used to seek out. So when I saw what happened in El Paso and who the shooter was, I did think it made sense as to why he’d do something like that, and why that kind of attack would feel normal to him.”
On the flip side, El Paso was enough of a tipping point for Cloudflare, the security service for 8chan, that it announced it would terminate all its work with the site. Meanwhile, there have been other calls to shut down (and criminalize) the chan sites entirely.
But while this might provide some level of protection, Avi Klein, a psychotherapist in New York City and co-host of the Hey, Man podcast, says it only begins to scratch the surface when it comes to engaging with vulnerable young men. “If you look at the common factors, what you find is that the men attracted to these forums all have low self-esteem,” he explains. “We talk about that in an abstract way sometimes, but it’s a dark way to move through the real world if you think of yourself as a worthless person who isn’t good enough or lovable.”
In the end, that’s the real pull of the chan sites — acceptance (as Woodcock more or less admitted earlier). “They offer a place where you feel safer — partly because you’re anonymous, but also because you’re in a place of like-minded guys who can make you feel safer,” Klein continues. “So many of these guys turn to places that aren’t good for them because they’re seeking comfort and they can distract themselves from that profound sense of loneliness in the real world.”
Of course, all of this ignores the victims of such lonely rage. For instance, that woman I texted “fucking whore” to more than a decade ago. Over the last week, I’ve tried to reach out to her — both to apologize and to viscerally understand the human toll of my stupid fucking actions (which she probably interpreted as anything but dumbass teen trolling). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find her number in my old email. Nor was I able to locate the thread in 4chan’s archives. But what I do know is that the effects of trolling have always been long term, including serious mental-health issues like anxiety, depression and PTSD.
I truly believe that I’d never become someone who would carry out a mass shooting or commit violent acts in a way that others associated with the chans have. But it’s definitely time to admit that I contributed to the culture that’s allowed this to become the new normal.