Any page of It Came From Something Awful would be the most shocking page of most books. Reading Dale Beran’s chronicle of 4chan, the anonymous imageboard where some of the internet’s worst scandals have been fomented, feels like scrolling through the forum itself. Each page turn sucks you ever deeper into chan culture, from emoticon cats telling you to “Please die” to harassment campaigns levied at adolescent girls to a man describing how he murdered his girlfriend. “Turns out it’s way harder to strangle someone to death than it looks in the movies,” that man said, alongside images of the woman’s dead body. Eventually, in Beran’s aggrandizing telling, 4chan’s crescendo of furious nihilism delivers President Trump to America.
In 2017, Beran, a writer and cartoonist, published a Medium post titled “4chan: The Skeleton Key to the Rise of Trump,” which explained how a website started by a 15-year-old who was “bored and in need of porn” ended up churning out pro-Trump propaganda. The piece was unusual for its deep familiarity with and empathy for the desires of 4chan’s anonymous users. Beran used to be one of them. He was once young, aimless, broke, and interested in webcomics, which, during the late 1990s and 2000s, before 4chan was consumed by fascism and white supremacy, were the primary prerequisites to participation. Still, he felt “a little too old,” he writes in Awful, a book-length enlargement of the Medium piece, and seems to have been more sympathetic voyeur than active participant. He attended Anonymous’ anti-Scientology protest in Time Square in 2008—perhaps the first time 4chan came together offline en masse—but as a wannabe reporter rather than as a Guy Fawkes–masked agitator.
His voyeurism means he knew the right questions to ask, then and now. When a masked anon told him the protest was “serious business,” he saw layers most would miss. “‘The internet is serious business’ was a meme, a joke on 4chan,” he writes. “One that weev [a notorious neo-Nazi-aligned hacker] claimed he had invented. And so it went down the line: Anonymous protesters, all following Rule 1, trying to conceal 4chan from me, and obscure the source of the joke, just like a raid into a chat room, each hiding their motivations behind a mirrored chamber of repeated memes.” The amount of lurking required to see through this funhouse of references is prodigious—and rare among those who have not fallen through the looking glass themselves.
Naturally, Beran explores the psychology of young, disenfranchised masculinity that 4chan represents and the sociopolitical context that molded its minds, which is the book’s greatest strength. As Beran explains, many Gen Xers and millennials, raised to expect boomer-era prosperity, instead found themselves scuttled by the Great Recession: jobless or doomed to 1099-R subcontracting gigs, drowning in debt, unable to make real-world romantic attachments, slowly realizing that the future they’d been promised was canceled. At first, they escaped into the internet, into ’80s and ’90s references. The nostalgia drifted further back, becoming more twisted. Anons yearned for the 1950s, not just for its unionized jobs and for the “greatness of America” but also for the ability to call the cops on a black man and “watch as they beat him into a coma while sipping a Gimlet” and to “fuck my wife in the missionary position with no concern for her pleasure.” Prosperity and fascism, understood as one. The rise of the so-called alt-right in America, explained. It’s a more satisfying and complete answer than many others.
Beran understands the grotesqueries of 4chan as a kind of modern monument to disconsolate male heartbreak. Other eras have gotten yearning sonnets or the Taj Mahal; our time has given us misogynistic meme culture and boxes of My Little Pony figurines covered in lonely teenagers’ ejaculate. The joke with that latter example is that prospects are so grim that fictional characters are likelier romantic partners. The trouble, Beran argues, is that it’s not a joke anyone else gets. Or even a joke at all. “There’s no word for a farce of a farce. The story of anime to anime Nazi. Internet utopia to dystopia. Reality TV to reality. America to Trump,” Beran writes. “Time to pick up the pieces. I hope you laugh too.”
I did not laugh (or cry). Maybe that’s because 4chan can’t shock me anymore. I, like Beran, lurked there years before the website became weekly headline fodder. As a young teenager, I logged in because I wasn’t supposed to. I stayed to confirm my suspicions that there was something off about the way the world reacted to me—the old 4chan slogan, “tits or GTFO,” directed at any female person on the platform, cleared things up fast. I didn’t credit 4chan with inventing sexism then, just as I don’t agree with Deran’s multilayered title now (“it” refers to both 4chan itself—whose ethos originated with the predecessor site Something Awful—and Trump). 4chan didn’t meme Donald Trump into office. Its angry anons, like everyone else, are surfing the same economic and emotional tide that brought everyone to this moment. They’re just unsubtle and evangelist with it, and their sentiments are (somewhat) searchable. They’re as much a symptom as overweening progressive outrage culture is, rather than cause.
Still, while I think Beran gives 4chan a bit too much credit as world-shapers, I likely gave the site too little. When you’ve finished It Came From Something Awful, it’s hard to hold it all in your head. As the book pings from rickrolling to pedophilia, Milo Yiannopoulos to Tumblr, Berkeley brawls to Japanese internet forums, it leaves you with a more or less singular impression: 4chan’s tentacles encircle the world, undulating above and below public consciousness, electrifying culture whenever they break the surface. Not because they’re driving it, but because all they do is sit there, twitchily watching.
If Beran is a 4chan voyeur, he’s made me see 4chan as something like Voyeurs Anonymous. They feel isolated and powerless because they are. There’s a reason its most fervent users are teenagers, NEETS (that’s “Not in Education, Employment, or Training”), or both. In some cases, that distance has driven them to extremism, but it's also made them uniquely able to reflect the world back at the rest of us. It’s just the part of the world that, for a long time, everyone was pretending not to see, creating that vague Wrongness that drove me to 4chan in the first place. We’re franker about the state of the world now, and 4chan’s “lol nothing matters” spoofing is partly responsible.
To me, the most interesting idea in the book is one Beran only touches on: why some people could pull up from the smug, furious, post-truth hate that consumed 4chan in the last decade while others could not. Beran credits his narrow miss to his father’s experience with Nazis during World War II. (I’m not sure why I avoided the fate of women like the user Loli-Chan, who was groomed by trolls from a young age to trade sexual images for virtual currency. If middle school locker-room chat is to be believed, girls around me courted a similar fate.) In that question Beran and I are asking—why not me?—might be a solution, a way to snatch vulnerable people away from communities that will contribute to their radicalization. As it stands, all we have is 4chan, and books like It Came From Something Awful: grainy upchucks of memes and scandals and news items spattered across the internet, leaving stains of so many different partially digested ideas. We may never know which ones made us sick.
‘The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online’ by Whitney Phillips and Ryan Miltner
If you’re still looking for more web weirdness, Phillips and Miltner explore strange internet artifacts—from #YesAllWomen to Boaty McBoatface to Donald Trump’s Twitter account—to understand the ways internet culture can both create community or destroy order.
‘The Revolution That Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives’ by Jen Schradie
Maybe hashtag activism, for all its flashiness and vaunted successes (the Arab Spring, #MeToo), doesn’t actually work. Schradie considers how conservative digital activism has achieved greater success IRL.
‘Troll Hunting: Inside the World of Online Hate and Its Human Fallout’ by Ginger Gorman
If you’re still not sure about the difference between lols and lulz or online harassment and Russian meddling, Gorman will enlighten you in this deeply sourced, deeply personal account of digital aggression.
‘Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age’ by Alice Marwick
In the time between the dot–com boom and the App Store, Silicon Valley was coding the bones of the social media platforms that now shape our lives. Marwick explores why the democratic revolution many techno-utopians expected has yet to arrive.
‘(Not) Getting Paid to Do What You Love: Gender, Social Media and Aspirational Work’ by Brooke Erin Duffy
You know you’re a woman in the gig economy when you’re expected to cheerfully work for free. Duffy’s research into the world of fashion designers, bloggers, and designers illuminates the gendered stakes of the collapsing creative economy.
Next Month …
Senior correspondent Peter Rubin will review Yoko Ogawa's The Memory Police, out in translation August 13.
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