9/7/2012: Updated with feedback from moot
4chan, the Internet's long-time dumping ground and butt of many a joke, is getting serious about software by making their biggest public-facing code change in nearly a decade, introducing an API and a bunch of new functionality.
Given its reputation, many commentators have already written this off with a shrug and a laugh. But 4chan is also one of the web's most popular and influential communities. It's the source of so many Internet-age cultural trends that even your grandma may be dimly aware that the clever picture she posted on her Facebook was trawled a thousand copies ago from the dark depths of /mlp/. Given that there's big money in all this, the API offers businesses a direct line to the heart of the machine.
As a professional software developer and long time 4chan user, I think this is a pretty interesting development. I talked yesterday afternoon to some of those who worked on 4chan's code over the years and know a little about why this is such an important development.
On Ars Technica, Tom Connor does a great job producing a taxonomy and history of rage-faces, showing how they evolved from a set of proscribed, orthodox uses on 4chan to a wider set of uses and meanings in several online communities.
Rage faces slowly migrated from 4chan into other communities. There, they gained popularity and expanded their numbers as artists introduced new faces, and particularly humorous comics went viral in their communities. Though the faces were no longer exclusive to any single forum, they stayed true to the originals in style.
More people got involved, the cartoons mutated and evolved, and like any successful species, they adapted to fit into a wide variety of habitats. "You can trace back the origins to 4chan so you can say [the faces are 4chan's] baby, but it's evolved on such a wide scale that it's gone beyond anyone's single ownership," Swanson said. "Mostly the original faces are from 4chan, but a lot of the newer faces have come out of F7U12, or other places like FunnyJunk."
Fffuuuuuuuu: The Internet anthropologist's field guide to "rage faces"
Biella Coleman and Michael Ralph write a long, nuanced rebuttal of Joseph Menn's recent FT article on Anonymous. Coleman, an academic who has done some fabulous work studying hackers, Anonymous and other 21st century anthropological phenomena, is the person I trust most to produce clear accounts of Anon, 4chan, and related subjects.
These hacks may also, as Menn notes, have unintended and far reaching consequences for all of us. As Menn notes, "Even some supporters worry that if the group continues on its current path, it could trigger a legislative backlash that would bring heightened monitoring at the expense of the privacy that Anonymous prizes." Still, it is crucial that we consider the broader historical perspective. This sort of "legislative backlash" has been in the works at least since 2001, with the Patriot Act, spurred by the terrorist attacks against the Twin Towers. And since that time, there have been many attempts to legislate acts that curtail privacy in the stipulated attempt to make the nation more secure. These legal developments have clearly not simply been instituted in the last year in response to hacks. No doubt, the hacking actions of Anonymous can be used to move legislative proposals into law more rapidly, but portrayals of nefarious hacker criminals also inflames fears about privacy that are long on emotion and short on substance.
Anon hackers are "criminals" in so far as any hacker has inevitably broken a host of laws; some individuals involved may also have a criminal history. And yet most hackers either implicitly or explicitly have critiques of the laws they are willing to transgress. Thus, the analyst must provide some account of the way that a given law can be conceived as either fulfilling or failing to fulfill the dual investment in freedom and security that defines life in the US polity at any given juncture and why hackers seek to trouble this distinction.
To make matters even more complicated, the work of some of the hackers in Anonymous includes modes of duplicity that some Anons self-consciously deploy; in transgressive hacker circles, these tactics include social engineering: the practice of duping humans for the purposes of gaining information or for spreading misinformation. Used by Anons, to various degrees, offensively and defensively, these forms of subterfuge raise a host of important questions about how to research, represent, and grapple with the significance of the politics of hacking, especially where a clandestine operation like Anonymous is concerned.
(Image: Anonymous Declaration of IndepenDance. Wallpaper (3923x4656), a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from thinkanonymous's photostream)