Anonymous image boards are a continuous froth of simultaneously earnest and ironic hostility. What the anonymous denizens of these boards consider polite discourse is indistinguishable from open attack. This works in their own subculture, but when exported elsewhere, their hostility and antipathy for personal identity creates problems. This clash of anonymous imageboard culture with the parts of social media where people live and work created the divide underlying GamerGate, making it difficult for outsiders to understand.
The flagship English-language anonymous imageboard is 4chan, founded by Christopher "moot" Poole in 2003. Most of the imitator or successor boards have names that play on 4chan's name, like 420chan or infinitechan (also known as 8chan); such forums, collectively, are often called "chan" boards. On these boards, all or nearly all posters simply post as "Anonymous", and the oldest posts are deleted as quickly as new posts are made. On most boards, posters can append a name to their posts, with or without a unique hash identifier known as a tripcode, but most posters don't. (Posters who do are affectionately/derisively known as "tripfriends", or more often a homophobic slur in place of "-friend.") This stands in stark contrast with most internet forums, where posters are expected to stick to permanent pseudonyms, giving them an identity, history, and reputation.
These anonymous imageboards have their own idiosyncratic culture, despite the lack of permanent identity. Posters call themselves anons, or occasionally channers. While anonymity is a core part of this identity, merely being anonymous does not make you an anon. Rather, it's about identifying as a larger whole. Capital-A Anonymous, such as the Project Chanology protestors and the hacking/activist groups like @youranonnews, are anons, but most anons don't think of themselves as part of Anonymous.
Without identity, every anon is whoever they want to be at the moment. It's freeing! Anons exalt these imageboards as the only place people can truly be themselves, without being burdened by their identity or consequences. This includes genuinely awful or hateful opinions. Anons have a broad, often absolutist view of free speech, sometimes extending that so far as to include threats of violence or extreme pornography. Anons are extremely protective of their culture and this very broad view of free speech, because of both great faith in their ability to self-police argument and an unconscious, internal reliance on irony.
The atmosphere is that of a paradoxically jovial angry mob. Almost everyone sees their own point of view as the consensus, assuming that most people most people agree with them. Any possibly contentious statement is presumed to be ironic, told as a joke or to rile up people who disagree. Since everyone assumes that anyone who disagrees is arguing in bad faith and doesn't mean what they're saying, anyone who disagrees is a fair target for apparently hateful mockery. This basic assumption of bad faith applies even when arguments are long-lasting and well-known: for example, the console war arguments in /v/, 4chan's video games sub-board. However, this mockery is defanged by anonymity and irony.
Everyone's anonymous, so a poster can just join the winning side of an argument, cheerfully mocking their own older posts. One poster can even play both sides from the start. Every anon can choose whatever opinion they want to have on a post-by-post basis, so everything flows smoothly even as people hatefully attack each other for having the wrong opinion. Anons believe in this free marketplace of ideas: good ones survive the firestorm, while bad ones burn to ash as everyone dogpiles on mocking them.
Anon culture is a decentralized echo chamber, but one that can produce interesting things through the work of many hands. Anons hold that whatever consensus emerges is the right one as an article of faith, even if that consensus becomes more and more toxic over time. One example of how hate can concentrate is 4chan's /pol/ sub-board. Ostensibly for discussing politics and current events, it is now dominated by white supremacists. This toxicity isn't necessarily contained to one board: usually-ironic, sometimes-not homophobia, racism, and antisemitism are common to almost all anonymous imageboards.
One toxic belief common to many anon imageboards is a love/hate relationship with so-called tripfriends. Anons love anyone who identifiably supports the consensus; similarly, GamerGate's supporters pile adulation on the "e-celeb" thought leaders of GamerGate. However, anons hate people who identifiably disagree with them, because they can't presume those people's opinions are ironic trolling. Those people are fair game to be shut up by any means necessary, because that's how the game is played.
In particular, being identifiable is counter to the anon creed. "Doxxing", or releasing personal information about someone in a defamatory or intimidating way, is one of the worst things you can do to an anon, because it pierces their anonymity. However, it is an acceptable method of punishment for someone who attempts to aggrandize themselves: they brought this on themselves for not being anonymous. Encyclopedia Dramatica, a wiki devoted to archiving anon culture, is one of the main hosts for "dropping doxx" on people to shut them up or embarrass them.
GamerGate inherited these tenets of anon culture. It began on anonymous imageboards — 4chan at first, and later 8chan after moot effectively banned it from his board — and spilled into the rest of the internet, places where people live and work under their own names. Outside of the anonymous imageboards, people weren't prepared for anons' animosity, personal attacks, and essential assumption of bad faith. The open hostility and silencing behavior of anon culture immediately turned septic, when it was turned on people who don't have the shield of anonymity to protect them.
GamerGaters insist that they have no leaders, and resist any attempt from inside or out to impose structure. Unsuccessful attempts have been made: MMORPG game developers Damion Schubert and Raph Koster proposed that GamerGate back a formal advocacy group called GAMR, and anti-feminist YouTube video blogger MundaneMatt and others proposed an informal "council" of GamerGate core personalities. All of these efforts were rejected, in part because they relied on elevating individuals above the whole.
Vivian James, the GamerGate mascot created for a game development contest, is the perfect exemplar of these attitudes. In GamerGate's many propaganda images and infographics, she completely submits to the gamer identity. In one often-shared image, she demands that everyone similarly submit, yelling at GamerGate's opponents to "Get off your high horse!" She isn't interested in anything but playing games and you shutting up so she can play them. In one image, she shows what GamerGate values: not just playing games, but uncritically submitting to gamer culture as it currently exists.
One example of how the anon underpinnings of GamerGate can turn toxic is from early in GamerGate's life. GamerGate discussion was banned from many sites because GamerGaters were spreading personal information, nude photos, and defamatory accusations against game developer Zoe Quinn. In anon thinking, banning them for this was a betrayal. "Why can't we talk about Zoe Quinn's supposed misdeeds and let our own consensus emerge naturally?" The damage being done to her reputation and the threats being enabled by spreading this information were all moot; what matters is the unfettered emergence of consensus. Moderation is an unnatural intervention.
This hostility to moderation reaches all the way down to the personal level, particularly on Twitter. Stating a contentious opinion on an anonymous imageboard is an invitation to argue. GamerGaters challenge people they don't know to arguments, and feel snubbed when they're blocked or told to get lost. To their minds, why would you post in the #gamergate hashtag on Twitter if you didn't want to defend your arguments — and yourself — from attack? GamerGaters who intrude into conversations to argue are offended to be mocked as "sea lions", after a Wondermark comic.
This tension in anon culture, that every single person is empowered by the whole of the group and thus merits treatment as a peer, turns these individual hostile challenges into a storm of entitled demands for attention. Anons see themselves as peers to everyone, empowered by the support of the group, and thus entitled to participate in any conversation they aren't forcibly prevented from entering. Even if, for example, cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian didn't have to deal with harassers and bad faith people, she couldn't possibly argue with every comer over every point of disagreement. However, not doing so is seen as a sign of the weakness of her arguments, in anon thinking.
This makes anons perfect cover for harassers. Not being willing to accept bad faith arguments on their own terms and debate them as if they merited a response is seen as proof of the weakness of your arguments. Therefore, it's very easy for actual bad-faith arguers to barrage people with nonsense and demand to waste the time of people they want to harass, using the potential ire of a swarm of anons as leverage. This has long been one of the main tactics of the anon harassers targeting Anita Sarkeesian. She invited argument then didn't defend her position! It must be worthless.
This thinking also makes anons very susceptible to the "professional victim" narrative popular among anti-feminist and misogynist writers. The "Literally Who" women targeted by GamerGate, Quinn, Sarkeesian, game developer Brianna Wu, and software developer Randi Harper, are smeared by saying they want to aggrandize themselves somehow. Why else would they protest against the various abuses they've endured? If hostility is a natural consequence of having contentious opinions, then the only reason anyone would protest any hostility is to somehow garner undeserved sympathy. That hostility is just part of the internet, in anon thinking.
Anonymous imageboards breed continuously frothing angry mobs with their hostility turned ever inward. This hostility is defanged by irony and anonymity, so it can sustain itself without doing lasting harm to the participants as long as it remains within its own bubble. However, because this culture evolved in that bubble and relies on silencing tactics to police itself, it does not blend well with the rest of the internet.
Title image: Yotsuba&! Vol 7, by Kiyohiko Azuma
- "GamerGate, 'chan Culture and Identity", a rebuttal by @mechapoetic to my original version of this essay on Storify.
- "GamerGate, Sexism, and Tribalism". Some of my early observations on the dynamics of GamerGate.
- "Limiting the Damage from Cultures in Collision", by Anders Sandberg in Practical Ethics. Considers the consequences and possible solutions to culture clashes.
- 4chan and /b/: An Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community [PDF link], by Michael S. Bernstein, Andres Monroy-Hernandez, et al. A 2011 study of how /b/'s structure influences its community.
- "Anonymity as Culture", by David Auerbach in Triple Canopy. A study of anon culture.
- "Why Sea Lioning Is Bad", by James Murff. How bad-faith argument undermines discussion.