Between Facebook and 4chan: Flights From and Toward Anonymous Online Spaces

Interview with Daniel de Zeeuw by Monica Lungeanu

Monica Lungeanu: If nature is often portrayed as a beautiful woman, technology’s visual interpretation is that of a rather grotesque, deformed body. What are your thoughts about this? How is technology represented?

Daniel de Zeeuw: We tend to think of media technology as disembodied and immaterial, but as digital media become more and more part of our everyday life they mingle with our material lives and thus the metaphor of disembodied media loses its sense (although, interestingly, material reality in turn is increasingly understood in “immaterial” terms, as information).

I would like to point out an image I didn’t show in my presentation; also posted by Anonymous. This image featured a giant, green monster with the caption: “Co-existence created a fucking monster”. I think this is a rather crude but quite direct and effective way of communicating a certain sense of immersion in today’s global mediascapes, of drawing the rough contours of a certain experience of traversing and inhabiting digital networks. One could wonder why Anonymous has such diverse self-representations.

It is quite tough trying to find a way into these anonymous online cultures like 4chan, where the idea of Anonymous as an online swarm was first formed. Most studies approach it from the activist phase of Anonymous, which was about freedom of information, privacy and social justice. But when your return to what Anonymous signified before that, it does not really match with the representation of global human co-existence as “monstrous” in the above image.

Maybe one way to interpret this image and phrase is to say “co-existence” on this enormous global scale of circulation of information between people is, indeed, kind of grotesque and monstrously opaque; something which, ironically, defies idealistic accounts of the Internet as a democratic public sphere, as a free and open knowledge repository or agora. So what is meant by monstrous here is, I believe, a certain immeasurability, an overflowing, uncategorizable and obscene, even conspiratorial element inherent to digital media networks that is also part of the naked obese “man behind the computer” meme that I showed during my presentation.

So for me these images speak to how the internet is developing now: the power of disinformation, fake news, trolling, and so on. It then becomes clear how those people who were active on imageboards ten years ago, were already experimenting with the direction in which things are going nowadays. They were Baudrillardians not in theory but in practice, without knowing it!

ML: Can we trust individuals’ self-representations on the internet?

DdZ: This constant exchange of information can quickly transform into paranoia because you can’t really know who you are dealing with. I think that in many cases we have to suspend our disbelief and we can only act if we pretend that we have some way of knowing the other person. The fear of not knowing is also something that social media companies like Facebook are really trying to accommodate. They distance themselves from anonymous forms of online sociality and culture; they want to function as a form of authentication or passport service that offers people a personal safespace. But the toll paid for this is the jobs of thousands of precarious, often traumatized content-moderators who have to make sure no beheadings or child pornography floods our timelines and those of our “friends”.

Anonymous especially satirizes those social networks, and laughing at the moral panic around the stranger, the unknown and the uncertain propagated by conservative media channels like Fox News. Instead, I think that anonymous users also find ways to enjoy the danger of interacting with unknown others, and the freedom that can give. Following Foucault’s thoughts, individuals need to escape from time to time from the personal gaze which makes them responsible about how they act, and anonymous sites provide one way to do so.

ML: During your talk, you mentioned concepts such as privacy and paranoia regarding social media. Can you comment more on them?

DdZ: Paranoia is quite a logical response to media interaction sometimes. Privacy is not the right term to describe those anonymous interactions because privacy refers to the autonomy of a person to choose the degree of information they will disclose about themselves. Instead, on anonymous imageboards like 4chan, it does not really matter that you disclose something about yourself, because in that moment you could be anyone, you’re invited to operate in an “im-personal” mode.

Privacy is speaking in your own name but towards people that you select (safe personal relations). Anonymity is more about not knowing who you interact with, so you can speak freely; but it is also risky because some other unknown user could respond in an uncontrolled way that is harm- or painful. It is therefore a much riskier relationship because you do not know how the response will affect you, or how yours will affect them, for that matter.

An anonymous space is risky because it brings you outside of the bubble of like-minded individuals that social media put you in, so you might have to confront something or someone very different than yourself.

This can lead to paranoia, but can also be liberating because you do not have to be true to yourself anymore; you can become someone or something else, play a role, put on a different mask. Unfortunately, this is disappearing with social media, or appears only in a subdued, restrained form. This was one of the utopian dreams of the early internet culture, but is rapidly vanishing. Social media play into the petty desire of having a safe, personal, known and controlled environment.

ML: Do you think that we stand to lose from this accelerated growth of social media to the detriment of anonymous spaces?

DdZ: It’s hard to say. I understand where the desire for personal relationships comes from, but I think that it is a very narrow and limited way of exploring what the collective body of the Internet is capable of (Spinozist pun intended). For kids that are now entering the internet, social media platforms are the default setting they encounter, without realizing that this is only one possible configuration.

On social media, you engage in social production but you do it as an individual person, as the owner of a certain activity which has to compete with others and has to exploit oneself in order to establish a reputation. Social media companies have an interest in those individualized, personalized profiles (just as governments have). Only from that original delimitation can users become “social” and interact with others. Sharing and collective production are encouraged, of course, but only in this specific way, tied an individual, entrepreneurial self.

That other forms of digital life are possible is also shown by the recent April Fool’s joke by Reddit called “r/Place”, which offered a huge empty canvas where users could collaboratively construct images, adding one pixel at a time.

Besides, there is still a desire to interact anonymously and people find ways to do it even within those social media platforms that are premised on its exclusion. Most people will probably have both a social media account and a more anonymous identity.

Social media thus implement a very specific media circulation model, in comparison to anonymous sites like 4chan. With memes, for instance, the question of intellectual property or authorship – like privacy – never comes up. They circulate in a completely different way. Anonymous imageboard culture proposes a model of social and cultural production that goes beyond the established political-economic models and social paradigms of communicative capitalism by accelerating certain immanent tendencies inherent to new forms of media prosumption that lay bare and unravel the contradictory character of platform capitalism.

Tags: , , , ,