4chan: A primordial soup for virtual organic art

This post was written by a student in the Stanford’s Winter 2011 Networked Rhetoric class; it was designed to focus in on a particular source or research experience related to his project on social media and digital culture .  See a more detailed overview of this assignment.

In this research project, I am exploring a new artform that has coevolved with Web 2.0: the internet meme phenomenon. According to Richard Dawkins, British ethologist and evolutionary biologist, “[A meme] conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission.” These are small pieces of culture that are can be then transmitted through oral communication, writing, or in our case, the Internet.  These include image macros with superimposed text, usually for humorous effect. Also included are viral videos and catchphrases. Right now, I am focusing on one of memes’ two organic properties: mutability (ability to arise, develop, morph and change).

For some primary research, I participated and examined the imageboard site, 4chan.org. The basic principle of the site is to allow users to post images and reply to posts. While 4chan is divided into many single topic boards such as anime and gaming, the real hotspot and lifeforce lies in the dedicated ‘random’ topic board, lovingly called “/b/” Here, rules that usually govern conduct and behavior on other sections are not enforced. It is in this board that I conducted my observations

While exploring 4chan.org, my overall impression was that of utter chaos. Aside from the general mechanism of being able to post images and then reply to them, there was no order. Hordes of users under the default “Anonymous” name making countless (mostly inane images of animals, gore, less-than-clothed women, or other randomness) contributions. No methods of searching for posts and no archives exist on this site. As soon as posts grow stale and collect in the far reaches of page 76+, they’re deleted. Every time the page is refreshed, new posts have pushed the older ones off in to history. There is a sense that there is no permanence. Everything is constantly changing, shifting, bumping against each other.

Here, I find users utilizing  the armor of anonymity, bolstering up their courage and making them willing to upload, download, and modify images with no consequence. If they’re told to GTFO (get the f*** out) on one post, their next post could be gold, constantly reposted, and replied to, and no one would know they were the same person. This dynamic of the interplay between anonymity and constant flux of the /b/ section of 4chan contributes the the production of viral memes.

In fact, what it reminds me of is Stanley Miller’s experiment of abiogenesis – the creation of life from non-organic materials. What the experiment proved is that life could be created if the right materials bumped into each other with just the right conditions. This  experiment is where the term of “primordial soup” arose. Here we have images and ideas being tossed around and colliding with each other on this /b/, colliding and modifying themselves. Yet, for most of these posts, they’ll end up disappearing into history and forgotten. But eventually, the conditions of a /b/ post(whether it was timing, artistic merit, or comedic gold) /b/ will produce that ONE image or meme that will achieve immense virality. This internet meme takes a life of its own — reposted, reblogged, modified, and mutated until eventually, it escapes 4chan as a living, breathing organic, viral piece of art.

It seems crazy to regard memes as organism-like, but it is exciting and bold to do so. I’m quite interested to develop this notion further with my future research into memes’ mobility.

This entry was posted in CCR exchange: Student Research, Networked Rhetoric: Section 2, Stanford Networked Rhetorics class. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to 4chan: A primordial soup for virtual organic art

  1. cedawson says:

    Cool topic! I like how you’ve obviously done your research. Using 4chan as a research source is certainly something I thought I’d never see. I’m still not quite drawing the connection between memes and art unless you’re calling the formation of memes as art, but it doesn’t sound like it because you describe it as “chaotic”. The comparison to Miller’s abiogenesis theory is certainly appropriate. Is there another theory on the internet’s ability to not only convey culture, but to create it? If there isn’t, I’m sure you could coin your own and become the expert on that subject. Anyway, nice work– I really enjoyed your post.

  2. sampwr says:

    The idea that anonymity encourages risk-taking and idea “collision” is really interesting. Instead of creation happening despite the conditions on /b/, you posit the theory that it is because of the conditions /b/ which certaintly ringes true to me. You should check out canv.as, moot’s new startup where he’s trying to have the same affect without the nastiness of /b/.

    I’ve been on 4chan a bit, but it was interesting to read about how some of the dynamics actually play out: the refreshing for new images, old ones scrolling off, the willingness of flamed users to try something new. All of this makes an interesting parallel to biological adaption. You should consider reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, which talks about some of these issues.

  3. flinkbeder says:

    An important aspect of 4chan that you mention is the anonymity that it provides. While it allows a user to freely post many times without punishment, does it also give them less “ownership” of the art it creates? I am therefore wondering if this art is purely in the public domain; it does not have a single author or artist anymore. This guess is further supported by the fact that the success of art is perhaps determined by how long it survives on the board, due to life-saving bumps of other users. I think that this topic is very interesting, and the creation of memes, and the argument that they are forms of art is something that I want to hear more about. 4chan seems like the perfect medium to investigate this emerging art form. And the constant changing and morphing nature that results is definitely something new to the art world. I am excited to hear more.


  4. Jun Yang says:

    It’s very interesting that you research indicates that memes evolve from an environment of chaos almost by accident because i always had this notion that memes were created by fairly deliberate intentions. The fact that the success of viral memes might in large part be by chance might pose a problem for your research efforts, but also makes any reliable findings or trends that you discover all the more significant. Good luck finding a formula for the virality of memes.

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