Sunday, November 6, 2011

Epic Win for Anonymous

I recently read Cole Stryker's Epic Win for Anonymous: How 4chan's army conquered the web. Well, that's somewhat over-stating the accomplishment: I skimmed it; I waltzed through it; I breezed over it.

This is the sort of book that takes you about 2 solid hours to read, if you try hard. And I'm not exactly sure why you would try hard, because it isn't really a book that rewards that. It is a very transparent book: it sets a simple goal, and it achieves it, completely:

If you've ever wondered, while browsing the web, "Why is this weird thing popular? Who cares about this stuff? How does this thing have so many views? Why do people waste their time with this? Where did it come from and where is it all going?" then read on.

Stryker's book succeeds: it helps you understand the concept of Internet memes; it shines a little light into the odd, strange corners of the Internet; it gives you some context for approaching some of the aspects of Internet life that probably seemed, if not downright horrifying, at least hard to comprehend:

  • What are memes?
  • Why is anonymity such a big deal on the Internet?
  • What are griefers, trolls, noobs?

If you've never heard of Anonymous, 4chan, lolcats, Rule 34, Star Wars Boy, or Encyclopedia Dramatica, then you should probably just pass this book by; its subject matter is of no interest.

But if you've heard of those topics, yet been slightly intimidated, and slightly unsure of how to proceed, then you might find this book helpful: it de-mystifies much of those lesser-known areas of the Internet, sets them out in plain terms and simple descriptions, and gives you at least enough knowledge to decide for yourself whether you want to know more.

As I reflected on the book, and tried to understand what I had learned, and how to summarize it, I found myself drawn to a particular passage. Stryker is describing an old (1986) computer game called Habitat, which was an early investigation of human-versus-human gaming:

One contentious game play element in Habitat was "Player vs. Player" or "PvP" killing. Experienced players were able to handily murder noobs, which made the game less fun for everyone but those who'd been there the longest. In addition, the very concept of virtual murder was controversial. It didn't take long for trolls to start randomly killing other players as they wandered around the virtual town. But if the engineers were to disallow PvP killing entirely, they would rob players of the thrill of danger and the joys of conquest. The moderators held a pool, asking if killing should be allowed in Habitat. The results were split 50/50. So they compromised. Killing would be disallowed inside the carefully manicured urban areas, but the moment you left town and headed out into the frontier, you were announcing to other players that you were down to scrap, if need be. This clever solution pleased most players, and continues to be the standard for many massively multiplayer games.

So will the Internet continue to look. Those who value safety over freedom will hang out on Facebook and other proprietary communities and mobile apps walled off with identity authentication. And those willing to brave the jungles of the open Internet will continue to spend time in anonymous IRC channels and message boards like 4chan.

It's an interesting metaphor, and I think it's insightful. In a new world, it's important to have a discussion about rules. And to have that discussion, there has to be a certain amount of discussion about where (and when) the rules apply. As Stryker notes:

/b/ is significant because it's the only board on 4chan that has no rules (the only thing prohibited is committing or plotting actual crimes, the same rules that apply to any public forum on or offline).
Actually, as it turns out, there are more rules than these, but to a certain extent in order to understand the rules, you have to be a member of the community.

The Internet is still young, and we are still learning how we want to behave in this new cyberspace. Places like 4chan, although almost certainly not your cup of tea, are still worth understanding and thinking about, and Stryker's book is a step toward opening the discussion and having those debates.

No comments:

Post a Comment